Wednesday, June 29, 2005

We Bid You Adieu...

It saddens me to inform you that "Sum Ditz" no longer works with me. For those of you who just joined us, Sum Ditz was the nickname coined by a fellow food blogger for this sun-tanned, bubbly, fitness crazed, 24-year old Valley Girl at the office who hardly ate anything. They say she left for professional reasons, but I'd like to think that it was eating her up inside to have to practice all that self-restraint in watching the rest of us gobble, slurp, and chomp. And so one day she went home and ate the TV and then blew up.

Bye bye, Sum Ditz! You'll be missed!

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

TJ's Taste Test, Part 6 of Many: Dolmas In Olive Oil

I think it was the jar that first attracted me to these stuffed grape leaves at
Trader Joe's the other day. It's very attractive--low and hexagonal, donning a sage green label with a small illustration of two grape leaves. I picked it up off the shelf in the canned and jarred foods section and inspected it a bit. Through the back of the jar, I could see the stubby little dolmas standing up neatly in a row, packed in glossy olive oil and sitting on top of a pretty little lemon slice. I had to have it. It was only $2.49 and if they weren't good, I could at least turn the jar into a ghetto votive holder.

Surprisingly, they were quite good for having been from a jar! The dark brownish-green grape leaves were tender and not at all fibrous, but were strong enough to ensure the thing didn't break apart with each bite. Lemony olive oil enhanced the flavor of the soft and grainy rice and onion filling. Because I almost ate half the jar one night as I was cooking, these dolmas have now joined the ranks of "My Favorite Stuff To Snack On While Making Dinner," alongslide chips, cheese, crackers, pickles, and wine. They're also great as an accompaniment to a Greek salad or grilled pita and hummus for a simple Mediterranean- inspired meal.

And as I always seem to find
creative uses for Trader Joe's containers, I am now the proud owner of a couple of brand new ghetto votive holders!

Sunday, June 26, 2005

How To Handle Sunday Morning Dog Food Cravings

Picture this: You live downtown and it's early Sunday morning. You're starving and craving an "American" breakfast with eggs, toast, potatoes & stuff. Your kitchen is devoid of anything you can cook for this breakfast, and you don't feel like driving out of downtown to the nearest grocery store just to have to come back and cook. You start thinking of the few places downtown that serve the kind of breakfast you're looking for and are actually open on a Sunday...The Pantry, Phillipes, Denny's, IHOP. You think, "Nah." Then you realize you're also craving... food.

What do you do?

Well, you drive to House of Pies in Los Feliz, silly! And then you order the corned beef hash and eggs breakfast where they serve the hash straight outta the can. Yup, no distracting chunks of onions or bell peppers or stuff like that mixed up with dry stringy corned beef and potatoes. Just nice, processed corned beef mixed with the tiniest, most uniformly cubed potatoes grilled to a perfect crisp at the edges and left kinda mushy on the inside. And then you eat your human Kal-Kan with your buttered toast, eggs, shredded hashbrowns and a few dashes of ketchup.

And then you go back downtown happy, but ready to crawl back into bed again.

House of Pies (where they serve the canned stuff!)
1869 N. Vermont Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90027

Saturday, June 25, 2005

More Fun (But More Confusing) Than Shoe Shopping: Izakaya Haru Ulala

I love variety. It's so much more fun having lotsa kindsa things to choose, earrings, fobby stationery, colored pens, FOOD! On the food tip, I think I got the must-have-different-kinds-of-foods-to-eat syndrome from growing up in a Chinese family where every meal consisted of not just one, but several different dishes. Don't get me wrong, I do think alot of one-pot meals are mmm-mmm-good, but I'll take a bunch of different, smaller plates over that any day. That's why small plates restaurants and I get along so well. Tapas, dim sum, izakaya...anything where I can afford to try a little of this and a little of that usually floats my boat. My latest small plates find is of the izakaya, or Japanese bar food, type--one that I've patronized twice, yes twice, in the last week. Read on.

Izakaya Haru Ulala, named after a famous Japanese race horse, sits in the former space of the Little Tokyo branch of
Furaibo, which is coincidentally, a chain of izakaya joints that introduced me to the concept of Japanese pub food in the first place. Now it's not that I'm not a fun and spontaneous gal (although I am definitely less fun and spontaneous than when I was still in my 20's!), but I do like to do a little planning ahead before I go to any restaurant for the first time. I do my web-tective work, searching Chowhound for any applicable posts, and looking for any websites or blogs that may be able to tell me what to order, what's good, what's not so good, what it'll set me back, etc. If there's no info out there in cyberspace, I'll often call the restaurant and ask them to fax me the menu. Yes, I am that much of a dork. This time I was lucky...Izakaya Haru Ulala has their own site and a page on Japanese Restaurant Info, and there were several recent posts on Chowhound with menu recommendations! I studied my options and felt ready to go.

But you know those times when no matter how mentally prepared you are, you still end up in one big ball of confusion? Sometimes the variety, the wealth of options actually backfires on you. Like when you go shoe shopping determined to find a pair of black peep-toe stilettos and are faced with a sea of other options that just throws your brain into turmoil. First of all, you can't find the black peep-toe stilettos that you came for, and "Oooh look! There are pink peep-toe stilettos!" You keep walking around and you see stuff on sale and next thing you know, you're asking the salesperson to get you the gold slingbacks and white kitten heels. Needless to say, my first trip to Izakaya Haru Ulala was a little like my shoe shopping example.

I walked in with a couple of specific dishes in mind--grilled okra, braised short rib with daikon, and grilled chicken skin skewers. We got our menus, which, funny enough, looked like fobby stationery--they're handwritten and handdrawn with a combination of felt tip pen, pencil and crayon and there are cutesy little drawings of vegetables with smiley faces and stuff. OK, I see the grilled okra...but where are the chicken skin and the short ribs??? I asked our server, a cute, bubbly Japanese girl whose English was less than perfect, if they had these items and she looked at me puzzled. After a few seconds, she got the chicken skin part..."Aah yes, we have." But the short ribs with daikon she didn't seem to get. I got the daikon part across, because she pointed to the grilled yellowtail with daikon on the menu, to which I then said, "Yes, daikon, but with beef?" No luck. I wished that I had brought my research hardcopies with me.

Pics of their cute menu...Haru U-RARA???

We'd put our order in for the okra, the chicken skin, and some sushi, but dammit, I needed more food...and variety! We kept a menu at the table, but we noticed that there were handwritten and handdrawn signs advertising not-on-the-menu specials all over the restaurant, plus a dry-erase menu board on an easel outside. I told Isaac "I'll be right back." So off I went, first outside to look at the dry-erase menu. "Oooh, they have fried soft shell crab!" Then as I went back inside, I did a full-on inspection of the perimeter, studying all the posted specials. I hovered over people already having dinner, some looking at me like I was crazy. "Oooh, they have grilled oysters!" Finally, I spotted another dry-erase board behind the counter with more daily specials, and there it was--the short ribs with daikon! I called our server over to order the rest of our food but she still gave me a somewhat puzzled look so I brought her to each of the signs and pointed to them. Hey, whatever works.

Surprisingly, the braised short ribs with daikon came out first, and was so tender that it broke apart with the slight touch of a fork. The salty pungency of the hockey puck shaped slice of braised daikon complimented the soy-infused soft chunks of beef perfectly. Thinly sliced scallions were sprinkled on top to add a subtle edge and a tiny chunk of hot yellow mustard flanked the side of the small bowl to add some heat. An excellent dish which I'm glad I was finally able to find!

Braised Short Rib with Daikon

Our grilled oysters were plump and fresh, with that chewy and creamy funkiness that only oyster fans know and love. A few squeezes of lemon and a couple sprinklings of sea salt made them even better, and I'm not sure how many of you do this, but drinking the oyster juice out of the shell is a must for me. Lemony seawater is the only way I can describe it, but it's wonderful. And don't forget your beer! (Izakaya Haru Ulala's got Kirin on tap, by the way.)

Yummy Grilled Oysters

I was a bit disappointed with the fried soft shell crab which looked like a big fried smooshed spider. I like my soft shell crab with more of a bitter taste from the innards; this one seemed to have no taste at all besides that of the batter and the citrusy ponzu dipping sauce that came with it. The grilled okra, however, was delicious. They were grilled to crisp-tender perfection, the outer hull and the inside pods popping in your mouth with every bite. They were brushed with oil and charred a bit to add some nice smokiness, and a small pile of bonito flakes sat on top to make the dish even more tasty.

Fried soft shell spider, I mean, crab

Grilled Okra

I had ordered three chicken skin skewers but our server brought out only one. "Sorry, we can only make one," she said smiling. I guess they ran out of chicken skin? Whatever. I wasn't about to ask. This wasn't nearly as good as the chicken skin skewers I'm used to a few doors down at Kokkekoko, but still passed. It needed to be a little thinner, more crispy. But nevertheless, it had a nice fatty chewiness with a little charring along the edges; the sweet gingery sauce it was brushed with was also quite tasty.

ONE chicken skin skewer

We also went for some sushi options--albacore nigiri and a shrimp tempura roll. The albacore was fresh and buttery soft, sprinkled with scallions and a small dot of grated radish for some kick. The rice, however, was a tad too vinegary. Our tempura roll looked more like sliced hockey pucks; they were huge and fell apart really easily. A real pain in the ass to eat, especially with the goopy sweet teriyaki-like sauce squirted on top.

Albacore nigiri

GIANT, soggy tempura roll

Now as it was only two of us, I didn't get to try a whole lot. We couldn't have possibly ordered any more than we did, and I don't think izakaya tastes as good out of a doggie bag. So still intrigued by all the other options in which I didn't get to partake, instead of doing the whole "Where do you wanna go? I dunno, where do you wanna go?" thing Friday night with Isaac, I immediately said, "Let's go back to Haru Ulala!" No objections from my other half.

There was one suggestion from my web-tective research that I had in mind for this time. According to one Chowhound, the buta kakuni, pork slow cooked with soy and ginger, was a must-try. Again, it wasn't a regular menu item, so I asked our server, this time an ultra hip Japanese rock star looking guy, if they had it and he looked at me with confusion. I quickly looked around at the many specials postings, but wasn't able to see it, so I finally asked to borrow his pen and wrote it on the back of my chopstick sleeve. "Oh, buta kakuni!" he said. OK, maybe it's just me. At least they had it.

Or so I thought. Rock star waiter guy came back a couple minutes later, laughing. I knew this wasn't a good sign. "So sorry, but we do not have buta kakuni today." Aww man. Oh well, wasn't meant to be. He suggested the short rib with daikon; I said I had that last time, so then he suggested the grilled short rib. OK fine. It wasn't the greatest suggestion, however. The beef was very tender and tasty--marinated with a sweet glaze--but the plate was only about six microscopic slices. Not worth it.

Almost nonexistent grilled short ribs

The grilled enoki mushrooms were delicious. Brushed with a thick but not sticky soy based sauce, the crunchy bunches of our thin fungi friends had the perfect combination of texture and taste.

Grilled enoki mushrooms

I loved their deep fried camembert cheese, which looked like a deep fried popsicle. Breaded in crispy panko flakes, the French cheese was a prime example of salty and creamy goodness. We wanted to eat it like a popsicle, holding it by the stick, but the ooey-gooeyness of the cheese made that a little impossible, so we had to forgo the fun and finally eat it with a fork. We also went for their deep fried oysters, also breaded in panko for some extra crunch and texture, and very plump and fresh just like the grilled ones we'd had just a few days prior.

Deep fried camembert cheese-sicle

Phat phried oysters

We ordered some nigiri again, this time tuna, salmon and yellowtail, and like last time was fresh but had the a tad too on the vinegary side rice. Why we didn't just go for sashimi I don't know, but oh well, the rice fills you up at least. For some odd reason, Isaac loves tempura rolls. I think he wanted to challenge himself, because he wanted to see if he could possibly get the tempura roll made smaller and without the sauce. I was a little embarrased when he asked rock star waiter guy because I didn't want these guys to think we were trying to tell them how to make their food. But rock star waiter guy simply laughed and agreed to see what he could do. A few (hopefully nice) words were exchanged with the pleasant mom-looking lady behind the counter and she looked at us, laughing and nodded. "OK, I will do," she said, agreeably. Fortunately, I think she was a genuinely nice lady for one, and secondly, we could also see her preparing the food, so there were no opportunities for surprises in our sushi roll, if ya know what I mean. This roll was more like Isaac's cup of tea. Small, tightly rolled, no sticky sauce. These guys were definitely getting a good tip.

A "that's more like it" tempura roll

I needed something to soak up all the beer I drank, so I added on the soba salad that I had eyed on the next table. The soba noodles were an interesting shade of avocado green and were perfectly chewy. Tossed with mixed greens, shredded nori and a lip smacking ginger soy dressing, it was a refreshing way to end our meal.

Soba Salad

Sushi-making mom lady couldn't have been too mad at us; as we were leaving, she called us over and apologized for the fact that they were out of buta kakuni. "We have next week, come back next week," she urged us. OK, we will! Then I'll get to try the sake steamed clams, and kurobuta tonkatsu, and grilled shishito peppers, and grilled onigiri, and...

Ooooh, I just loooove variety!

Izakaya Haru Ulala
368 E. 2nd St.
Los Angeles, CA 90012
(213) 620-0977

Friday, June 24, 2005

Las Palmas, Take Two

We as living creatures make instinctual decisions based on past experiences. Electro-shock me a couple times when I try to open Door #1 and mostlikely, I'll choose Door #2. After noticing that there's always a long line at the microwave come noontime, I've learned to heat up my lunch at 11:45. So it shouldn't be a surprise that since Las Palmas, a Cuban and Spanish restaurant in the neighborhood, was closed the last time we tried to go, it was in my instinct to call first. I sure as hell didn't want to be roaming up and down Victory Blvd again.

It was open today. Good.

Las Palmas is located in your typically un-refined North Hollywood neighborhood surrounded by gas stations, a U-haul center with a crowd of labor-for-hire outside, and seedy nightclubs. But once inside this teeny tiny eatery, it's bright and pleasant. There is definitely a Caribbean feel to this place; the walls and tablecloths are a bright shade of peach and there are island-y knick knacks adorning the walls. In fact, the menu's printed on peach paper. "Aaah, I wish I could be at the beach now..." was the general consensus, but this was probably the best we could do while stuck in North Hollywood for the rest of the day.

And the leisurely atmosphere couldn't have been any less perfect. The limited-English service was friendly but laid back and slow. Apparently, the kitchen finished our plantains before anything else, so those came to the table first, and we were starving so we dug in. They weren't as caramelized as I usually like my plantains, but their texture was perfect--firm and golden brown on the outside and moist and tender on the inside. They were also good on the ripeness scale: sweet with a tinge of greenness.

First came this...

It was very tempting to finish all of our plantains but the rest of our food hadn't arrived yet and we wanted to save some of the sweet starchy treats to go along with our meal. A few minutes passed and our rice and beans arrived on festive plates. After putting a few spoonfuls of the black beans on our cylindrical mound of rice, we were in rice and bean heaven. They were phenomenal--the white rice was fluffy and had a subtle oiliness and saltiness to it. Our beans were tender and bathed in a velvety liquid that had nice hints of salt and garlic. Again, we were tempted to finish the whole thing but our meat had not yet arrived even after a few minutes of waiting, so we had to exude some serious willpower and stop dead in our tracks.

...then this...

So we chatted and laughed, checked out the autographed headshots of Latin celebrities on the wall, talked about the possibility of Snow White being a drag queen (long story), all while waiting for our meat to come out. Yes, this was like an island vacation but without the alcoholic tropical drinks. Finally our server came out of the kitchen with our meat and we rejoiced--a reason to eat the rest of our yummy rice and beans, woo-hoo! Two of us, including myself, ordered the Lechon Asado a.k.a. Cuban roast pork. Not the best roast pork I've had, as it was a tad on the dry side and also sat in a brownish-yellow tangy sauce, a preparation that I'm not necessarily used to. I like my roast pork sans sauce, but still fork-tender and moistened by its own fat and then browned to perfect crispiness and saltiness around the edges. Las Palmas' pork did have some redeeming qualities, though. The sauce, as much as I disagreed with its presence, was lip-smacking tasty, and the dark meat on the pork had a nice, salty, roasted flavor.

...and then this...

My other two friends ordered the Ropa Vieja, a shredded beef dish. And what a great name for a dish, because it literally looked like old ropes. Now that's not necessarily a bad thing 'cause shredded beef is, well, shredded beef. Nothing you can do. But here, it was kinda the same case as the roast pork. A little dry and fibery in some parts, but was bathed in a really tasty bright red tomato- based sauce with onions and peppers. Mixed with the wonderful rice and beans, though, the dryness of the meats started not to matter as much.

...and this!

It took another few minutes to get our check after we had asked for it. But we didn't mind all that much. Sometimes slow and leisurely is a nice change from the harried pace at the office. We're looking forward to trying some of their other dishes next time--grilled pork chops, fish with garlic and lemon sauce, chicken fricasee, breaded steak, amongst many others. Like it always is for me at lunchtime, it's a bummer to leave the little dining "world" that my friends and I had created for ourselves. Today, it was a little Caribbean island getaway. And once again, we had to crawl out of our hole and back into reality. Until the next time, right? Hopefully it'll be open.

Las Palmas
11671 Victory Blvd.
North Hollywood, CA 91606
(818) 985-5955

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Peas Porridge In The Pot, Dang I'm Old

Long life and humbleness on my dining table

So it was my birthday recently, and I have to admit, I've never really liked my birthday all that much. No particular reason, it's just never been the greatest day, that's all. I love other people's birthdays--I usually go all out so that I can celebrate my birthday vicariously through theirs. But on my "special day"? No way. Don't make a big stink about it. Don't get me anything. Don't sing Happy Birthday to me.

If I truly dislike my birthday, it would seem a little hypocritical of me to even talk about it on a blog. But there is one thing I always do for myself on my birthday--a little ritual every year--and since it has to do with food, I'll share.

My peeps are known for being superstitious. They consult an almanac before getting married to check what the "lucky" and "unlucky" days are. They don't get anything with the number four on it because the Chinese word for the number four sounds like the word for death. They DO, however, like to get things with the number eight on it because the word for the number eight sounds like the word for prosperity. I'm not that hardcore, but once in a while, there are certain precautions I take or things that I do just to remind myself of where I come from.

On my birthday, therefore, I follow Chinese tradition and eat noodles and rice porridge (congee). The noodles, because they are a somewhat long-shaped food, symbolize long life. Eating porridge, a simple, peasant-like food, pays homage to one's humble beginnings. So no matter what I have to do, I always make it a point to get my year's dose of longevity and humbleness. This year, I had to sorta squeeze it in. Mom and Dad weren't here to cook it for me. I wasn't able to pick any up or cook any the night before since I was hella tired. I couldn't get any at lunch since the only place I know of that sells Chinese rice porridge in th San Fernando Valley is Sam Woo BBQ in Van Nuys and I didn't have time to take a longer lunch. Isaac refused to take me to a restaurant that costs less than fifteen bucks for dinner on my birthday. That's why I had to make an after work pitstop at Chinatown's Sam Woo BBQ to order some longevity and humbleness to go.

At home, I scooped some of the beef chow fun and chicken porridge that I bought onto a plate and bowl. We shared just a couple slivers of the wide rice noodles (hmm, were these going to make me live long and make me fat too?) and a spoonful or two of the porridge as we still had regular dinner coming up; most of it became leftovers and would be breakfast, lunch and dinner for me the next day. But even with the small amount that we ate, performing my little annual ritual made me feel alot better. And hey, if it really makes me live a long, healthy, and humbler life then what the heck, I'm looking forward to doing it again next year. But just the noodles and porridge, nothing else.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Can't Win 'Em All

I am so excited because I just got my first negative comment! It's good to know that I have friends out there, but life's WAY more interesting when you've got some foes, too. I saw a Chowhound posting today asking about Ca' Del Sole, so based on a recent lunch, responded that it was just so-so food and naturally included a link to a post I had written. Here's what Anonymous had to say:

"So you'll be moving back to the bay area soon....we hope? Talk about pretentious. You should go back and reread what you just wrote."

Hmm, well here's what I have to say to Anonymous: Were you there with me that day??? OK then, my experience is my experience and I'm entitled to my opinion just as much as you are. You sound like you like to write and bitch too, so get your own damn blog. And um, no, I don't think I'll be moving back to the Bay Area anytime soon. L.A. needs more real people.

Monday, June 20, 2005

You Gotta Try This Place: The Third Dimension

I ate nothing interesting today. But I'll be damned if I didn't GO somewhere worth mentioning today. For lunch, we went into the Third Dimension. Ever try it?

Oh it's quite an experience when you go outside into the world and you think the flow of life is going to be moving smoothly but somehow something is just a little off. My friends and I were simply going to the mall to eat our home-brought lunches (something we do often to escape the workplace). Or so we thought.

It took us half an hour to drive about 4 miles because there were kids everywhere. At first I thought it must have been a short day at the local high school, but the amount of kids out on the street was abnormally high today. These were not regular high school kids, but rather mutant teenage zombies roaming the streets and looking to multiply. We feared our lives so we took a detour and thankfully we were able to escape without a bruise.

Then at a the mall we saw
Mario Van Peebles. (Self-explanatory)

Then when we were leaving the mall there were two mid- to late-twentysomething women practicing
Britney Spears-type dance moves in the parking lot. With a kid on the sidelines playing his Gameboy.

You gotta try this place. It'll be like no other experience you've ever had.

Third Dimension
No specific address, it'll find you.
Anywhere, USA 00000

Sunday, June 19, 2005

Why Juneteenth Was Special To Me This Year

Every year, June 19th is dubbed as Juneteenth by many Americans and celebrates a day in 1865 when the last slaves in America were freed. Because the Emancipation Proclamation, issued on September 22, 1862, stated that slaves in those states that did not cease their rebellion against the Union would be set free, the proclamation did not apply to the slave-holding states that did not rebel. Also, the proclamation was ignored by those states that seceded from the Union. So it wasn't until June 19, 1865, when General Gordon Granger rode into Galveston, Texas issuing General Order No. 3, that all slaves in America were freed. Juneteenth, therefore, is meaningful to African-Americans as well as many other Americans as a symbol of freedom and perserverance.

It's no coincidence, then, that Juneteenth is celebrated in over 200 cities in the United States. Texas and Oklahoma have even made it a legal holiday. Well unfortunately, there isn't a legal holiday in California to mark Juneteenth, so every year, a group of people at work throw a Juneteenth picnic at lunchtime to celebrate this important day. I've attended every year for five years now, and it's always a blast. People bring their kids, there's wiffle-softball, water gun fights, and a pinata. And for 10 bucks, you get to partake in some wonderful southern food. BBQ ribs and chicken, fried chicken, succotash, collard greens, black eyed peas, dirty rice, corn bread. Then there's another table with salads, fresh fruit, and delicious desserts like peach cobbler, sock-it-to-me-cake and sweet potato pie.

This year's Juneteenth picnic was on Friday afternoon, and though it was a gloomy day, it was nevertheless a nice treat to be outside at the neighborhood park. I went through the serving line, my plate filling up fast with all the yummy southern treats. I finally sat down at our group's picnic table, mouth watering, and started tearing into my BBQ when all of a sudden...

...I looked to my left to see a buffet plate with nothing on it but a little mound of salad, three strawberries, a small cluster of grapes and one corn muffin. Yes, "
Sum Ditz" (thanks, Kirk of mmm-yoso!!! for helping me coin that nickname) was sitting next to me, picking at her rabbit food, and NOT EVEN FINISHING her practically non-exisitent lunch. My other coworker and I gave each other a look of disbelief, and the remainder of our lunch was a little uncomfortable, as the rest of us were gnawing at our BBQ ribs, and she had nothing to talk to us about except for her yoga or pilates or yogilates classes.

So no disrespect, but I'm going to give Juneteenth my own special meaning this year. Most importantly, Juneteenth symbolizes freedom from slavery in a historical sense, but what if it could symbolize freedom from your own personal slavery? Like the slavery of self image, for example. Nowadays, one of the greatest enslavements you can impose on yourself is to deny yourself the freedom to enjoy, to be happy, to live.

But maybe she just doesn't like food, in which case she's not really denying herself, she's just stupid. (See, I told you guys I wouldn't stop writing about her!)

Seriously, though, think about the importance of Juneteenth. Enjoy your life. Embrace your freedom.

Saturday, June 18, 2005

Finally De-Flowering My Pupusa Virginity: Atlacatl

Having driven by, around, and through Koreatown for years now, something always caught my attention in this cultural melting pot. Pupusas, pupusas, pupuseria, pupusas, pupuseria, pupusas...words that marked storefronts on practically every block. I knew that pupusas were a type of filled corn disc from El Salvador, thanks to Jonathan Gold from the LA Weekly, but how could I have gone by so long with the word "pupusa" screaming in my face without having actually tried one? I guess sometimes things just slip by. Tonight, therefore, I was determined to pop my pupusa cherry.

As I was a pupusa virgin, I needed some sage advice, so I turned once again to my trusty friend
Counter Intelligence (another kudos to Mr. Gold). He listed four Salvadoran places, three in the Koreatown vicinity and another in the USC area. I read all four descriptions, and because Jonathan Gold always has a way of making anything sound good, we took the easy way out and just chose the first one, Atlacatl, on Berendo St. in Koreatown. I loved the name, Atlacatl, because it's a crazy word and I couldn't pronounce it, and after many guesses and failed pronunciation attempts, it was more like, "Hey Isaac, wanna go to, that Salvadoran place?" I guessed that the name has Indian origins, and I think I may be right because I did a little web-tective work and found out that Atlacatl was an indigenous chief in El Salvador who resisted the Spanish forces in 1525. But I still had no clue as to how to pronounce it.

Atlacatl is definitely fancier than your typical Salvadoran restaurant. There are no neon-painted words on the outside saying they have pupusas inside. It looks like a little house with a lawn and shrubbery and paved walkway leading to the front door covered by a green canopy. In fact, according to Mr. Gold, the space that Atlacatl sits in has seen wilder days as a go-go bar called the Beverly Gardens. And, though looking a little like a grandma's house, it's very pleasant on the inside as well--there are random paintings on every wall and plush wall-to-wall forest green carpeting. A nice place for my first time? We'll find out...

Their menu is pretty simple, broken up into three main parts: pupusas, antojitos (Salvadoran snacks) and entrees. We thought that it was best to try something from each section, so we ordered two pupusas, a plate of fried yuca con chicharrones, and a carne asada entree. I couldn't wait--was it going to be everything that I thought it would be? I prepared myself mentally, and then finally, it was time. The waitress brought out two small plates, each one with what looked like a puffy grilled corn tortilla. "This one is the revuelta," she said, pointing to the more plain looking pork and cheese filled disc, "and this one is the revuelta con loroco," pointing to the other disc with the olive green speck on top, this one filled with pork, cheese, and loroco, a Salvadoran flower bud. She also plopped a big jar of pickled cabbage slaw, or curtido, on the table. I heaped on a few spoonfuls of the curtido and squeezed a few squirts of the salsa roja, a mild tomato sauce, on my disc o' masa. I paused to take a few snapshots, unable to avoid a few giggles from the kids at the next table, and then dug in. The pupusa itself was a little on the bland side, with a drier outer corn masa shell and its creamy pork, cheese and loroco filling tasting somewhat like an enchilada filling. I was expecting to be able to taste the loroco more, but really couldn't. But the dry-creamy blandness was OK, because somehow, its mellowness was a good yin for the pungent yang of the spicy and sour curtido and the tart salsa roja. It took a few bites to get the hang of it, but near the end of my first pupusa, I was really into it!

Pupusa with a heaping mound of curtido

Jar o' curtido...great stuff!

The fried yuca con chicharrones were interesting as well. The deep fried hunks of tuber were a heftier, saltier version of sweet potato tempura, it's mild, fluffy, starchy white interior going surprisingly well with the dry, salty, almost jerky like chunks of fried pork next to them. And what made it even tastier? More curtido of course!

Yuca Con Chicharrones

The carne asada in our entree was different than the Mexican style carne asada that I'm used to eating in my tacos, etc. Rather than being a drier, grilled steak, Atlacatl's carne asada was more stew-like. The roasted meat was fork tender and bathed in a rich, brown sauce and served alongside some fluffy vegetable-specked white rice and some velvety refried black beans. In a separate basket, two hockey puck like corn tortillas, also much different than the flatter, wider corn tortillas I'm used to, but these fluffy discs were perfect for picking up a little bit of the delicious beef and sauce.

A Carne Asada like I've never seen before

So yeah, my first time was good. I don't have anything to compare it to, obviously, but it was good enough to keep me wanting more. I'll definitely be back to Atlacatl, but as the girls always say, "You gotta shop around," and there are plenty of other pupusa-fish in the sea, especially in our part of town. No doubt you'll hear about those experiences in the future.

301 N. Berendo St.
Los Angeles, CA 90004
(323) 663-1404

Friday, June 17, 2005

Tag--You're It! Five Favorite Cookbooks Meme

The internet is scary. Somehow, the Five Favorite Cookbooks meme that's been traveling around our fast growing food blogosphere has reached lil' ol' me. I had the honor of being tagged by Sarah from
The Delicious Life and Jess of L.A. Ritz today, so now it's my turn to enlighten our little community here about my fave food literature. Technology is advancing way too rapidly, isn't it? Whatever happened to paper and postage stamps? Nah, this is much more fun!

1) Total number of (cook)books I've owned:

Hmm, let see, 50 maybe? About 30 at my house, and probably about 20 packed away at my parents' house. I love my cookbooks even though I don't always cook from them. They're nice to have (they are like my version of "coffee table" books!) and good to READ.
Alton Brown advises that one sits down and reads a recipe before using it, and I advise the same. If not to better prepare oneself for a better cooking experience, then at least for entertainment. Trust me, if you truly love food, then reading cookbooks/recipes is entertainment.

I am a little embarrassed to admit that I ended up owning more cookbooks than I should have because back in my college days, I joined one of those "cookbooks in the mail" clubs and because I kept forgetting to send back the card saying I didn't want the month's selection, I ended up with a bunch of books I never intended to buy. Oh well, I was an irresponsible kid I'm all grown up and I've got extra cookbooks!

2) Last cookbook(s) I bought:

Everyday Italian by Giada de Laurentis. If you've been reading my blog from the beginning, you'll know that
I picked this cookbook up as an impulse buy from Costco. I was going to return it because it contained the same recipes as the Food Network website and also had more photos of Little Ms. Big Head (LMBH) than of food. But I misplaced the receipt so now I get to look at LMBH all the time.

I also recently purchased French Women Don't Get Fat by Mireille Guiliano (another impulse buy from Costco). I don't know how much of it is BS, but everytime I go to Europe, I end up losing a ton of weight while enjoying some really great food, so something must work.

Next cookbook purchase?
Anthony Bourdain's Les Halles Cookbook. A cookbook with profanity? Bring it on!

3) Last food book(s) I read:

Though it was several months ago: Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain. Intrigued by his now-off-the-air Food Network show A Cook's Tour and book of the same title, I picked this little gem up and couldn't put it down. I had a teeny-tiny crush on this bad boy chef when I first started watching A Cook's Tour a couple of years ago, but now after reading his books, I think he's fucking hot.

I am also constantly reading Jonathan Gold's Counter Intelligence for restaurant ideas. Plus, no matter how many times I've gone back to his book, I never get sick of reading it. His descriptions of the food and the locations are so beautifully detailed that it keeps me enlightened and makes me hungry everytime I open it.

4) Five (cook)books that mean alot to me:

-The Harrowsmith Country Life Baking Book: a collection of family baking recipes from the Harrowsmith Family Life magazine, this was the first cookbook I bought living away from my parents' house. I think I was about 20 and I needed a good recipe for banana bread so I picked this up at the ASUCLA bookstore. To this day, its recipe for Banana and Sour Cream Bread produces the best banana bread I've ever had.

-The Way To Cook by Julia Child: I think this woman has touched all of us in one way or another. She just loved to cook, eat, and live, and it showed in her own funny yet sophisticated way. This book is a must have for anyone...Julia would never steer you wrong.

-The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen by Grace Young: This is probably the closest I could get to actually
learning Cantonese cooking from my parents. It's full of recipes for Cantonese comfort foods--the stuff you'll pretty much only find at home and not at restaurants--like steamed egg custards, porridge, "healing" soups. More special to me, however, are the stories that Young tells about each type of dish and the significance and memories they hold for her and her family. It's uncanny how similar the stories are to the ones I've had with mine.

-How To Cook Everything by Mark Bittman: It's OK, Kirk of
mmm-yoso!!!, I own this one too! And yeah, it's a little generic, but what a good, no-nonsense, basic cookbook! It's great to have if you're just starting to get into cooking; it's also great for more creative types as a reference for "base recipes" to which you can add your own personal flair. I've made many a meal from this one.

and last but not least (two books, actually)...

-I'm Just Here For The Food/I'm Just Here For More Food by Alton Brown: The actual physical books are signed by Alton himself, so that alone makes them special. I went by myself to his January L.A. appearance at
The Cook's Library and had an amazing time talking food with all the other food geeks in line and then finally meeting the king of all food geeks. Alton is an extremely nice guy and very cute in a food-nerdy sort of way! I have to admit that I've picked these two books up to read more than I have to cook from because he makes the science of cooking so darned interesting. The recipes I have tried, though, have turned out wonderfully, so I'm making it a personal goal to keep cooking more recipes from them.

5. Which 5 people would you lost like to see fill this out in their blog?

I'll pass the torch on to these witty writers...

-Ganda from
Eat Drink One Woman
-Adam from
The Amateur Gourmet
-Elmomonster from
Monster Munching
-MEalCentric from (what else?)
-dwg from
A Blow To The Head

Tag, you're it!

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Ever Watch Any Gladiator Movies, Jimmy?

Check out this hilarious post from The Amateur Gourmet's blog to see everyone's favorite Aussie meathead attempt to make a banana cake. I couldn't stop laughing, especially because I think Russell Crowe is kinda creepy.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

I Don't Want To Get Fired, So I'll Make Sesame Green Beans Instead

According to a
news article I read on Yahoo news today, more and more employers are cracking down on blogging employees. People are getting fired for talking trash about their cheap companies, mutant-freak coworkers that don't like to eat, or being bored to death by lunchtime business talk. So today, for fear of being fired, I will not bag on any of the above items and instead, will tell you about the wonderful sesame green beans that I made for dinner!

It's somewhat like the Japanese side dish Saya Ingen Goma-Ae, green beans with sesame miso dressing. Unfortunately, I didn't have any miso paste at home so I had to do some ghetto-rigging using mayonnaise, sesame oil and soy sauce. Here's how:

*Boil green beans until crisp-tender, then shock with cold water
* Whisk together a dollop (half cup?) of mayonnaise (preferably
Kewpie, but if not Best Foods will do) with a tablespoon or so of soy sauce, a tablespoon or so of sesame oil, and a small dash of sugar. Adjust seasonings to your liking.
* Add with sesame seeds to green beans and toss well.
* Chill so the flavor sets a little.

I ate these crisp and creamy beans as an accompaniment to a bowl of cold zaru soba tonight. But the question remains: will it stop me from telling the whole world that I haven't had to hang out with any corporate-political affiliations because I've brought my lunch to work every day this week? Or will it make me stop complaining about the eating habits of coworkers once and for all?

I don't think so.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

TJ's Taste Test, Part 5 of Many: Punjab Spinach Simmer Sauce

OK, so this isn't really a taste test. I've actually had this before. But I had it for dinner tonight, and I like it alot so I thought I'd share.

As with all of
Trader Joe's simmer sauces, the Punjab Spinach Sauce is the most convenient thing in the world to use when you've just worked an 11 hour day and you have no time to put a roast in the oven. And it's delicious! It's a tangy, tomato based sauce full of chopped spinach and onions and flavored well with cumin, curry and ginger. Tonight, I decided to go vegetarian and simmer my simmer sauce with some cubed firm tofu.

All you have to do is put your meat/tofu in the pan, dump the jar o' sauce in the pan, cover, and let it *what else* simmer for about 15 minutes, or until the meat/tofu is cooked through and some of the flavor from the sauce has seeped in. The instructions say to dilute the sauce with 1 cup of water, but I've always left it alone--it gives it more flavor and makes for a chunkier sauce that way.

Trader Joe's was out of their Tandoori Garlic Naan on my last trip, so I served up my Punjab Spinach Tofu with some steamed basmati rice--a simple but tasty meal (and enough for leftovers...yum!). Oh, my only other tip is that is does need a dash ot two of salt. So try it, you'll like it. I hope.

Sunday, June 12, 2005

Menu Psychology

Having decided to spend a weekend night in to save money and to catch up on some much needed veging out, we decided to order in from our usual Thai delivery place, Authentic Thai. Now we've ordered from these guys several times before, and we always order the usual, pad thai, chili garlic fried rice and some curry dish, so needless to say, I've never really loooooked at the menu. But tonight I felt that maybe it was time to diversify, try something new, and explore the unknown territory of Authentic Thai. So I went into my stuffed to the max menu drawer and dug theirs out.

OK,, too much food. Salad...just had some for Then we came to the next section: "Excellent Curries." Allright, so these people are obviously proud of their food to be boasting that it's excellent. I've tried a few of these, and they're not bad. They're not excellent, but they're not bad. But I'll give it to them for effort; they're just trying to lure people in.

Still wanting to try something different, I read on to the next section, only to find this...

So let me get this straight. They have "excellent" curries, but only "reasonable" house specials. I wondered if they were speaking relatively--that the house specials were just OK, not quite as good as their curries. But that would be culinary suicide, so perhaps they meant something else. Maybe they meant "reasonable," as opposed to "unreasonable." Yeah, that's it. These house specials must possess sound judgement and won't make rash decisions or start arguing with you at the drop of a hat.

Which is why we ended up ordering the usual pad thai, rice, and excellent curry. 'Cause we're unreasonable.

Friday, June 10, 2005

Where Everybody Knows Your Name: Oyster House Saloon

My coworkers and I have been eyeing this place for a little while now, an inconspicuous neighborhood joint on Studio City's Moorpark St. with a blue awning. Its name "
Oyster House Saloon" is painted on the side of the small building in blue and white to match its awning; under its name, in smaller letters, a small claim to fame: "Voted Best Seafood in Los Angeles." By whom, we don't know, but we wouldn't have noticed it otherwise. There's never anyone outside, there are no windows you can look into (there is only one small one-way glass window out front), and it doesn't really advertise anywhere.

I'd even posted a question on
Chowhound asking if anyone had ever been to this place. Only one guy wrote back but with great things to say, both about the food and the atmosphere.
OK, we're there.

It's been a couple of months since we first started talking about this place, and since we had planned a Girls-Day-Out (me and my homegirls at work only, no bosses, political associations, or weirdo eaters) for today's lunch, we decided we finally had to do our debut visit. It was a warm, hazy but bright San Fernando Valley afternoon; we entered through the blue, nautical looking front door into a narrow, dark & divey room with 80's rock playing. On one side, a long bar. On the other, several round bar tables lined up along the wall. "Anywhere you'd like," said the eccentric-looking bartender, so we grabbed one of the bar tables along the wall. One of my friends, a Florida native, suddenly got sentimental: "Aww, this place reminds me of home." We loved this place already.

Eccentric bartender guy waited on the whole place, jumping back and forth from the bar to the tables to the kitchen with ease and still managing to engage in friendly, although odd conversations with all of his customers, including us. After looking over the plastic placemat menus and munching on a surprisingly good combination of bread and balsamic dressing, he asked if the ladies needed a few more minutes or if we were ready to rock. So we ordered (rocked) and afterwards were treated to his "Joke of The Day," a corny PG-13 joke about senior citizens. We looked around the room and saw that the other customers, older locals having lunch and a drink at the bar, were having just as good of a time with this kook as we were.

The ultimate dive: kooky waiter and all...

The Oyster House Saloon's menu is pretty simple. Seafood and pasta seem to rule, but there are also a handful of Italian chicken dishes, salads, and appetizers to choose from. Oysters, surprisingly, are not abundant on the menu, although the few oyster appetizers they do offer--oysters parmesan, oysters rockarthur, and oyster shooters sounded extremely appetizing. We opted not to do any oysters for lunch today (do we see an oyster happy hour in our future, perhaps?) but chose instead to get some of their other seafood dishes.

Their fried calamari was good, made with fresh squid that was both chewy and tender. Tentacles were included, which made me *happy* as eating the rings all by themselves is way too boring. The batter was crisp, with a hint of garlic flavor.

Battered tomato slices topped the crabcakes we ordered, which fooled us into thinking there were four crabcakes. A-ha! Tomato trickery! Sneaky fuckers were trying to disguise themselves with crabcake costumes! Well, they didn't fool us for long, but managed to convince us skeptics that it made for a surprisingly good combination. I've always thought crabcakes in general were a bit on the dry side, so even though the ones at this place were tasty--almost hushpuppy-like, the tomatoes added some much needed moisture and zing. A brown gravy-like lobster sauce was also drizzled over the whole thing, making it even more interesting.

The star of the seafood potion of the menu is "Our Famous Monte Carlo Bouillabaisse." Well, we had to try anything that is dubbed "our famous," is the first item in a list, and is in all caps, right? Admittedly, I've never tried this fish and seafood stew of Provencal origins before, so I have nothing to judge it by, but the Oyster House Saloon's is good. We oohed and aahed as the huge bowl of fresh seafood--mussels, clams, calamari, shrimp, and fish--bathed in a clear broth with carrots and celery was placed in front of us. I was expecting to taste more saffron, a key ingredient to bouillabaisse, in the broth, so needless to say, the liquid lacked flavor in my opinion. It was a pleasure, however, eating all the various jewels of the sea that were in it. A more flavorful broth was the one in which our steamed clams lay. This one was made with white wine, parsley, olive oil, and lots of garlic, and although a bit on the salty side, blew us away. Near the end of our meal, we still had a few clams and a bit of the bouillabaisse left, so being that we are four very creative girls, we decided to mix a little of the bouillabaise broth with some of the clam broth to finish up the leftovers. And it was perfect. The bouillabaisse broth mellowed out the saltiness of the clam broth, and the clam broth added some needed kick to the bouillabaisse. Our basket o'bread came very much in handy to mop up our delicious broth mixture.

Their Famous Monte Carlo Bouillabaisse

Steamed Clams

Looney waiter dude is also our new best friend. "Do you ladies drink?" he asked quickly, as he was clearing some of our plates, then walked away. "Huh???" we asked each other, laughing. When we were finally done with everything, he came over with four shot glasses and a bottle of something obviously alcoholic. "Hope you ladies like this. It's homemade peach vodka, on the house." Heavenly. We are sooooo coming back here.

We didn't want to leave, but we decided that if we ever wanted to live the good life like all of the retiree couples in there enjoying stiff drinks over lunch, we had to go back to work. It was soon time to surface from our dark, divey lunch playground. We opened the door to go outside and...bright light, bright light! Dive bar goin'-seafood eatin'-gals gone, disintegrated. Hard working, business oriented working girls back. But only on the outside, never on the inside. Like I said, we'll be back.

Oyster House Saloon
12446 Moorpark St.
Studio City, CA 91604
(818) 761-8686

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Plug One, Plug Two: Skaf's Lebanese Grill (Again)

When I quit or if I get fired from my current job, I will have very few reasons to visit North Hollywood. One, I'd go back to throw eggs at my office building ('cause I'm so mature). Second, I'd like to visit the Wat Thai Temple and its food stalls one of these weekends. And last but not least, I'd go back to eat at my favorite Lebanese restaurant, Skaf's Lebanese Grill.

Now you may have already heard me plugging Skaf's a couple of times before. When I first started writing this blog,
I wrote about the Combo Grill plate I took home one day. I also wrote about spotting the Bizarro alter-egos of coworkers here. Well, ya know what? I'm gonna write about Skaf's again. Because I love this place. I mean I loooove this place. That, and I've never really done a full writeup on them. So if you don't feel like listening to me plug Skaf's yet once more, then go home. Come back tomorrow or something.

Still here? Well allright then.

You wouldn't normally patronize Skaf's unless you heard about it from someone else. This place is tucked away in some typically seedy North Hollywood mini mall, next to a "we-insure-anyone" makeshift insurance agency and a 7-eleven. There is almost always some form of vagrancy outside, and it's not just your typical homeless guy asking politely for change, it'll be some drugged out craaaazy mumbling guy. Whatever the case, the world outside Skaf's ranks high on the sleaze-factor scale.

But once inside the small, modest, but clean family-owned eatery, you're greeted with warmth by the "Skafs." Mr. Skaf (I think that's his name, I've never been introduced to him formally but we'll just call him that for now) and his sons will seat you immediately and if there isn't a normal table available, they'll try to pull a Rubbermaid folding table out of the back room and out to the floor to accomodate you.

Every dish at Skaf's is preceeded by hummus & pita and their famous cabbage salad. The hummus is brought out in small, individual dishes for each diner and has a little indentation in it that shows off a tiny glistening pool of oil and sprinklings of paprika and parsley. Its taste, delicious with a perfect balance of tartness from the lemon juice and nuttiness from the tahini. Its texture, velvety smooth. Their cabbage salad, in my opinion, is heavenly. Crunchy chopped green and red cabbage and diced tomatoes are tossed in a lemony, garlicky, peppery dressing. It's addictive, trust me.

Heavenly hummus

Addictive cabbage salad

Skaf's tabouleh is also excellent; this refreshing salad, sharp and zesty from the chopped parsley, tomatoes and onion, mellowed out into textural submission by the grains of bulgar wheat, and tossed with mint, lemon juice and olive oil is great eaten alone or as an accompaniment to any of their grilled meats.

Yummy tabouleh salad

My "usual" at Skaf's is one of their grilled meat plates. The shish kebab plate comes with two skewers of tender beef steak and bell peppers. The shish tawook is the same concept, only with chicken breast, and this ain't no dry boring chicken breast. Skaf's marinates theirs well, so what you get is some tasty, juicy meat with a nicely grilled exterior. An added bonus to the shish tawook plate is the garlic sauce, a potent white paste that to me, rivals Zankou's. Kefta kebabs are tasty long strips of seasoned ground beef and are somehow exempt of the wooden skewers when they make it out on your plate. Undecisive? Order the combo grill which gives you one of each of the shish kebab, shish tawook and kefta kebab. All of Skaf's plates come with baby pepperoncinis, a couple slices of bright magenta pickled turnips and a side of fluffy white rice topped with a few sliced onions and a dusting of sumac, a purple spice with a lemony flavor. They've also got falafel, shawerma and shrimp kebab plates that I have yet to try.

Shish Tawook

Skaf's always offers a couple of daily specials, a few of which my friends and I have been fortunate enough to try. Last week we gave the beef and green bean stew a whirl. It was hearty--fork tender beef and green beans bathed in a rich, tomato based sauce--perfect for a June-gloom day.

Beef and green bean stew

The kebbeh balls, sold normally by the piece as an appetizer, is sometimes served as a main dish special of three balls with a side of cucumber yogurt sauce. My friend ordered this the other day. "May I please try one of your balls?" I asked her. (Don't worry, we're close like that) These were incredible. Each football shaped ball had a crispy outer shell of fried bulgar and was stuffed with a seasoned ground beef filling. They were spicy, with a faint cinnamony flavor, and went perfectly with the cool, creamy yogurt sauce.

Kebbeh Balls

Other specials I've seen but haven't yet had the pleasure of tasting are the ground beef and eggplant, lemon chicken with potatoes and a sort of Lebanese meatloaf. Trustworthy sources say they're all really tasty.

Ground beef and eggplant special

Lebanese "meatloaf" and potatoes special

You know, the world is full of assholes. So its really refreshing when you run in to genuinely nice people like those who run Skaf's. I am not jiving you when I say that these guys have given me the best customer service I have ever experienced at any restaurant. Ask about one of the specials, how it's prepared, etc. and Mr Skaf will most likely go behind the counter to scoop up a small dish of the stuff for you to sample. If for some reason, two of you decide to split a plate, they'll give each of you an order of hummus and cabbage salad even though the plate's technically supposed to come with just one. My friend didn't specify which kind of beef kebab she wanted one day and when they brought out the kefta kebab instead of the shish kebab, they said they'd make her a shish kebab right away and asked if we'd just like to eat the kefta kebab. These guys are awesome. You can tell they appreciate their customers and truly love what they do. Which keeps people like me and all their other obviously repeat customers coming back.

Lots of other things to try here--babaghannouj, pita wrapped sandwiches, Lebanese coffee. I'll get to them in time. After all I'm there weekly! Stay tuned for plug three, plug four.

Skaf's Lebanese Grill
6008 Laurel Canyon Blvd
North Hollywood, CA 91606
(818) 985-5701

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Kiss This

So we were minding our own business as we were eating dinner at Chinatown's Sam Woo BBQ (story on that later), when I was suddenly distracted by a couple sitting across the way--a couple sitting on the same side of the table. Uh huh, one of those couples. One would feed the other one a bite of food, then *smooch!* then another bite of food, then a sickening smile, then *smooch!* and so on and so on. They were holding hands and had to awkwardly turn towards each other to have any sort of conversation. Of which I guess there was none since they were busy kissing between bites most of the time.

Is it just me or is that fucking annoying?

*Eh* Why should I care anyways. Maybe they're happy and in love and I should be happy for them.


Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Learning to Speak French, The 818 Way: Cafe Bizou

The company actually paid for lunch today. My cheap-ass, non-provider-of-free-coffee-and-water-for-its-employees, cannot-order-you-supplies-because-it's not-in-the-budget-right-now, multi-BILLION dollar COMPANY paid for MY lunch.

When my coworker and I found out that we could expense, the food wheels started spinning. Oooh, maybe Asanebo??? We crossed our fingers, but our boss shot that down. Too expensive and she wasn't sure if our midwest-based visitors would go for something that exotic. (Sushi? Exotic??? Puh-leeeze!) See, some things are too good to be true. Back to the drawing board, I guess. Hmm, let's see, decent atmosphere, western food, moderate prices? We combed our
Zagat for Studio City/Sherman Oaks/Burbank locations and finally came up with Cafe Bizou, a casual French-Californian right over on the boulevard (Ventura, that is) in Sherman Oaks.

Cafe Bizou is your typical Ventura Boulevard eatery, with an enclosed patio outside, and an indoor dining room that you have to walk through some funky plexi-panels to get to. Inside, you have your actor wannabe servers and 818 snobbery. Fortunately for this place, despite all its 818-ness, the prices are fairly reasonable for what you get.

The food here is decent; not super fantastic, but decent; I've been here quite a few times for work lunches and I've never had a really bad meal. Today, I ordered the sesame coated salmon, a fillet of salmon with a sesame (duh) crust, served on top of potato pancakes and mushrooms with a burgundy wine sauce. The salmon was very plump and juicy and the pebbly sesame coating added a nice texture. It sat in a shallow pool of a bright magenta-colored sauce, a sweet but tangy red wine reduction which was perfect for mopping up with the potato pancake wedges. I was expecting these to be more like potato latkes, but these were, in fact, more floury, sort of a hybrid between jeon, korean pancakes, and grilled polenta. Whatever the case, they worked. And a good deal for $12.95.

Sesame Coated Salmon

Order anything that falls under the French-ish realm--meats and seafood with some kind of reduction sauce--and you'll most likely be okay. The sauteed sandabs, for example, are very good and also a pretty good value at $12.95. Its lemony, buttery caper sauce goes extremely well with the tender, flaky white bottom-feeder fillets, creamy mashed potatoes and crisp sugar snap peas, green beans and carrots. I've also had the pleasure of tasting the roast lamb sandwich here: juicy roast lamb in a rosemary sauce served on a warm, crusty baguette with crispy shoestring pommes frites on the side.

Sauteed Sandabs

Go outside of the French neighborhood and you'll be sorely disappointed. The pastas, for example, are sub-par, sounding much better on the menu than they actually taste, and are almost always slightly overcooked. The one time I ordered the shrimp and scallop pasta--shrimp, scallops, and mushrooms served on black tagallini with a lobster sauce--the lobster sauce and overcooked tagallini made for a black, slimy mess. Not impressed. Today, one of my coworkers made the mistake of ordering fish n'chips, which was fried 'til it was brown. The batter was thick and hard, not light and flaky like it should be, and my coworker confirmed that it tasted awful. Why on earth did you order fish n'chips from a French place, I asked her. She felt like trying something different, she said. Well, I guess that's what she got.

On a side note, weirdo new girl of "
um, I dunno, I guess I've never really liked food that much" fame, came with us today, the second time I've been to lunch with this cutesy, high-on-life, suntanned 24 year old since the introductory incident. "Um, I'll have the grilled chicken sandwich please. Okay, but I wanna make sure there's NOTHING on it, like no sauce on it at all. Yeah, I want it totally dry." (Say it to yourself in your most intense valley girl voice. Uh huh, now you get the picture) She SKIPPED THE BASIL MAYONNAISE! Then she picked out all the grilled onions and roasted peppers on it and only ate half of the sandwich. Skinny French waitress-girl asked her if she'd like to get the half sandwich and ALL of the salad she had left behind wrapped to go and she said "Oh, no thanks! I'm totally done!" I just don't get it.

Oh, Cafe Bizou does have a couple of perks, including the option to add the soup du jour or romaine salad to your entree for just a buck. That's perk no. 1. No. 2 is their $2 corkage fee. Pretty lenient for 818 French.

Cafe Bizou
14016 Ventura Blvd.
Sherman Oaks, CA 91423
(818) 788-3536

Sunday, June 05, 2005

Huevos Con Chorizo, Por Favor

In the middle of doing our usual Costco thang Sunday morning, that is, stopping to get gas at the Costco gas station then going into the warehouse afterwards, hunger pangs hit us. We had just finished pumped gas and decided to screw the bulk shopping (for now) and go get some breakfast.

We were craving Mexican breakfast, since we had just seen our neighbors come back with their usual breakfast takeout from their Sunday morning walk to the scary Mexican place on the corner. That, and I'm always on the hunt for good Mexican breakfast, especially huevos con chorizo. But we were in Burbank, off our turf, and we didn't know where to go. I started a mental scan of the area around Ikea-ville and couldn't come up with anything. But I had to think fast--we were hungry.

Suddenly, I remembered that there were a couple of Mexican places on a corner that I'd seen awhile ago on the way to the Burbank Trader Joes. So out of the Costco parking lot we went and back onto the 5 freeway we headed. And I was right...there are two restaurants right next to one another on the northeast corner of Alameda and San Fernando. One of them, I think called Tapatio, looked more like a taco stand, and while I have absolutely no problems with those (some of those have the best food!), we were in the mood to sit down indoors, so we opted for the other one, Don Diego's, the casual, tiny but cozy space next door.

Our server brought us menus but we hardly looked; we knew what we wanted, which was, of course, huevos con chorizo. Now I'm picky about my huevos con chorizo. They have to be more on the dry side, not too much oil or "sauciness." I also like them plain--just the huevos and chorizo--no diced onions or peppers or tomatoes or any other crap thrown in. The accompanying rice and beans have to be done right as well. Geez, I expect alot for under 5 bucks, huh?

I didn't have much time to worry over whether or not Don Diego's would live up to my huevos con chorizo standards, nor did I have much time to graze on the chips and (great, but hot!) salsas they gave us, because our piping hot plates came out within a few short minutes. First thing I noticed, no visible signs of distracting crap in my huevos con chorizo--cool. I ripped a piece of my tortilla off and tucked a chunk of huevos con chorizo with a bit of refried beans and rice into it. And it was good. My Mexican sausage and egg scramble was on the dry side as I like it, but still moist, and flavored with subtle saltiness and spiciness from the chorizo itself and chorizo oil. The salted-just-right rice and beans were also made very well, the rice also being on the drier side but still fluffy (I can't stand overly saucy Mexican rice) and the beans being velvety smooth but with substance. Maybe not the BEST huevos con chorizo I've had (the best have always been from my friends' mothers) but still pretty good. And a steal at four-and-a-quarter. Yeah, I'll be back to this place again, maybe to try their chilaquiles or some other goodies on the menu.

Our tummies were more than satisfied as we headed back on the 5 towards Costco. As you would probably have guessed, we had no room in our full stomachs for samples.

Don Diego's
207 E. Alameda St.
Burbank, CA 91502
(818) 841-0848

Saturday, June 04, 2005

Unfuhggedable: Frankie's On Melrose

OK, I admit it. I have watched too much TV in my lifetime. I also have an overactive imagination, thanks probably to all the TV watching. But there are some times when stuff you see on any given day looks just like you see it on TV. Well, sorta.

It all started on Friday night when a friend of ours asked us if we wanted to go have dinner with him. We, of course, accepted, and when we asked where we would be going, found out that we'd be going to an Italian restaurant on the Melrose strip called Frankie's. On Melrose? I thought, skeptically. You know, many times trendy location equals trendy restaurant equals so so food, but hey, I was basically going along for the ride, so what the heck.

We valeted, walked around its green-picket fenced exterior, then found the front door. Suddenly I felt I was transported to New York's Little Italy, or better yet, Vesuvio,
Artie Bucco's restaurant, on the Sopranos. Pictures of the Rat Pack flanked both sides of the entrance of the triangular dining room. Older, sharply dressed Italian-looking guys reminiscent of some of Tony Soprano's henchmen were everywhere, with some sort of lovely lady by their side. My mind was spinning with stories--the older lady-friends were the wives and the younger ones were the goomahs, the gangsters' mistresses. Some of the tables had larger gatherings of Capo-looking fellas with what looked like their families: wives, children, friends, etc. Then, interspersed amongst all the mob-ties were things I'm more used to seeing in my L.A.--rocker dudes, gay guys, hipster couples. We made our way back to the bar to have a drink while we waited for our table, and as I sipped on my stiff vodka tonic, our friend introduced us to Frankie, the man himself. It turns out that our friend is a friend of- a friend of- this friendly, portly, white haired restauranteur, formally known as Frank Competelli. Wow, I just met the boss.

Frankie made sure a table was quickly cleaned up for us, and shortly therafter, we were seated and made part of his dining family. Warm bread, crusty on the outside and fluffy on the inside, was brought out immediately; I quickly slathered some butter on a slice and chowed down as my vodka tonic (and the remnants of the martini I'd had at
happy hour earlier that evening) was starting to get to me (but in a good way...I have to pace myself, you know!) We all started with a Caesar salad which was nicely tart, and spicy with garlic and anchovies--a salad which did extremely well at wheting our appetites because when we were done, we were all starving for the main course. Perhaps the alcohol also helped intensify our hunger, but I was nonetheless impressed as I am usually full after an appetizer and can hardly touch the main course!

This Caesar Salad makes you wanna eat!

I learned a couple of things about Frankie on Friday night. It seems that Frankie has catered for his share of celebrity clientele such as
Don Rickles and the late Frank Sinatra (he even catered the after-funeral meal for the Ol' Blue Eyes' family) Apparently, Frankie used to be in the lobster business and has kept many of his connections, which is why lobster dishes (particularly the stuffed Maine lobster and lobster fra diavlo) remain popular at Frankie's. Because we were in the mood for mammal tonight and not crustacean, we decided to split the osso buco. Tender and falling off the bone, our veal shanks, braised in a sweet tomato and vegetable sauce and sitting on a bed of al dente linguine, were delicious. A few slivers of buttery soft fat were still attached, adding to the complexity of this wonderful, hearty dish.

Wonderful, tender osso buco

Our friends, seemingly, were in the mood for mammal as well, ordering veal parmigiana and grilled rack of lamb. This blog thing is always my excuse to sample others' dishes, so I was fortunate enough to try a little bit of both dishes. The three thinly pounded veal cutlets in the veal parmigiana had a delicate crispy breading on the outside and juicy meat on the inside, covered by a sweet but zesty tomato sauce and a nice gooey layer of mozzarella. On the side was a basic, but tasty linguine marinara. The grilled rack of lamb was incredible--beautiful as it was delicious. The rack of small chops were seared to form a golden crust on the outside, revealing succulent rare meat on the inside. The chops were also coated with a thin layer of a sauce of finely minced garlic, parsley,herbs and lemon juice. Obligatory grilled vegetables were served on the side--potatoes, yellow and zucchini squash, carrots--which was fine for this dish as not to detract from its beauty or taste.

Frankie knows how to make a mean veal parmigiana

Picture doesn't do it justice: succulent grilled rack of lamb

I looked around the room some more. Some of the old characters had left since we'd been seated. Perhaps they got a call from the boss telling them to go down to the dock and whack someone? As they left, other characters took their place, some other old guys with lovely ladies in tow, and even a younger character, reminiscent of Tony Soprano's nephew
Christopher, showing his date, a fabulously dressed young thing, a good time. OK, so maybe I have watched too much TV; what I saw tonight probably wasn't any sort of mob family thing. But for sure it was a Frankie family thing, as he treated all of his diners, whether they looked like Uncle Junior or not, like one of his own. He made his way to every single table tonight, making sure everyone's dining experience was top notch. We said goodbye after paying our bill, and he graciously thanked all of us for coming in, gave all the guys a handshake and me a kiss on the cheek. Oooh, a kiss from the boss--how exciting!

Frankie's On Melrose
7228 Melrose Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90046
(323) 937-2801