Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Making Up Pho Lost Time: Pho 79

So I finally saw Star Wars, Episode 3: Revenge of the Sith this weekend. And it left me, well, hungry, amongst other things.

Unfortunately, all of the digital projection shows at the Arclight were sold out for the Memorial Day weekend and I despise the crowds at The Grove, so we decided to go to an 11am show at the Edwards Stadium Cinemas in Alhambra to see how Anakin turns to the Dark Side. Now I won't leave any spoilers for all you kiddies who haven't seen it yet, but I was a little disappointed. Don't get me wrong...I loved the story 'cause it tied everything up really well. I am, as you can probably already tell, somewhat of an old school Star Wars geek at heart. But other than that, horrible acting, cheesy love scenes, and the theatre we went to had terrible sound. Worst of all, I was STARVING by the time the movie let out at 1:30.

We were right in the heart of downtown Alhambra so there definitely wasn't a lack of places to eat. Not in the mood to be experimental, we chose to stroll down Garfield Ave. to our usual Alhambra pho joint, Pho 79. Walking into its geometrically 80's decorated dining space, we discovered that there was a short wait (there usually is a short wait during peak hours and weekends--this place is popular!) but we stayed and were seated within 5 minutes. Fortunately I've learned that tables at pho restaurants usually turn pretty fast.

No time to mess around--we were hungry, dammit--so we ordered with out really looking at the menu. Two bowls of Pho Dac Biet and an order of Imperial Rolls to start.

Like I said before, pho people are fast--our Imperial Rolls were out in a jiffy and our growling stomachs thanked the hunger gods. More widely known as Cha Gio or deep fried spring rolls, Pho 79's Imperial Rolls are delicious. The wrapper actually seems to be composed of a couple of really, really thin wrappers, contributing to its perfect crispiness: not too dough-y and not too delicate. Its minced pork filling was seasoned well with fish sauce and pepper and the vermicelli noodles, wood ear fungus, and mushrooms added a soft crunch. My favorite part of eating Vietnamese spring rolls, though, is wrapping each roll in the lettuce and seasonal herbs they provide and dipping the little pouch I made into the nuoc cham, a salty, tangy fish sauce-based dipping sauce with slivers of carrot.

The Empire didn't make these Imperial Rolls, Pho 79 did.

We weren't even done with our last few pieces of Imperial Roll when our bowls of Pho Dac Biet came out. You can usually order your pho with any combination of beef and beef parts--rare beef, rare and well cooked beef, tendon, well cooked beef and tendon, well cooked beef, tendon, and brisket. That's always too much for me to think about, so I just say *fuck it* and order the Pho Dac Biet time and time again, a special combination pho with rare and well cooked beef, brisket, tendon, and tripe--kind of a "pho with everything on it." Pho 79 makes a pretty good bowl of pho. The broth is dense with beef, ginger and anise flavor, not watered down at all. They give you a good proportion of meat and perfectly cooked rice noodles. The condiments--basil leaves, lime, jalapenos and bean sprouts--are always fresh and plentiful. Today, however, the meat to noodle ratio was a little off; there was a ton of meat in both our bowls and not enough noodles. Must've been a surplus in cows. Oh well, everyone is entitled to an off day.

Pho Shizzle: Pho Dac Biet

Well, with the exception to our really beefy bowls of pho, this meal more than made up for the 2 hrs and 20 minutes I spent watching the rise of Darth Vader. But like Pho 79, everyone deserves an off day once in awhile, and I will certainly forgive George Lucas for this so-so film for which I had higher expectations. Yes, my friends, the force is still with me.

Pho 79
29 S. Garfield Ave.
Alhambra, CA 91803
(626) 289-0239

Sunday, May 29, 2005

Girls Just Wanna have Fun: Border Grill Santa Monica

I am grateful to my college years at UCLA for exposing me to many things. I was exposed to the agony of pulling all-nighters before finals. I was exposed to beer kegs and Goldschlager shots and the harsh discovery that the two don't mix well. I was exposed to many different cultures (and foods!) through the friends I made. And finally, I was exposed to many different ideals and the people that believed strongly in them. It was the first time I realized people got mad at others for simply being content with the way life is. It was the first time I had really been introduced to the concept of political correctness and why it was important to be sensitive to others that are different than me. And it was the first time I had ever been exposed to staunch-feminism.

I recall a day when I was studying with my then-boyfriend and a group of our dorm-mates at Kerkhoff Hall. I got up to buy a cup of coffee for myself, so instinctively I asked my then-boyfriend what he wanted. Before he could answer, one of our dorm-mates, a self-proclaimed feminist, rudely interrupted, "How can you let yourself serve him like that? No woman should serve a man! Don't you have any self-respect?" For some reason, we just got up and left. Today, I would have kicked her ass.

I'd also heard stories from my male friends that some women had actually gotten mad when they'd hold the door open for them. My college girlfriends and I once invited a bunch of people over for a potluck dinner party. When we asked this one girl if she'd like to cook something for the party, she told us that she doesn't cook because the kitchen is no place for a woman anymore.

The kitchen is no place for a woman anymore??? Come on! Yeah, we're not in 1950's America anymore where a woman is expected to stay home all day and have dinner on the table by the time her husband comes home, but what's wrong with a woman who actually chooses to cook or take care of a home? Maybe I've got some traditional sentiments, perhaps it was the way I was raised, but to me, a powerful woman isn't necesarily just an independent, successful woman. A powerful woman is, rather, a woman who can hold her own, be successful at whatever career or passions she pursues AND who can also run a kitchen and a home like no one else can. That, my friends, is the power of a woman--have a woman go up against a man in that category and she'll mostlikely kick his ass by a longshot.

Saturday night, I had an opportunity to check out just how awesome women in the kitchen can be, thanks to
Sarah from The Delicious Life's monthly flogger event, Dine and Dish: Queen of Cuisine. I had thought of going to one of Suzanne Goin's creations, but I had already been to A.O.C. last month and I thought I'd diversify. I thumbed through my Zagat to search for restaurants manned by, owned by, or created by a woman. But then it came to me. Flashbacks of old-school Food Network days when I'd sit and watch as two quirky women--one brunette who's shorter and spunkier, and the other, the blonde, who's taller and a little more mellow-- prepare their twists on Latin cuisine. You know who I'm talking about yet?

Susan Fenniger and Mary Sue Miliken, or the "Too Hot Tamales," as they're better known, are classically-trained chefs, TV and radio personalities, and the owner-operators of popular Nuevo Latino restaurants, Border Grill in Santa Monica and Las Vegas and Ciudad in Downtown L.A. I sure as hell couldn't make it to Vegas and I wanted to get out of downtown (plus I've been to Ciudad before and wanted to try something new), so I opted for Border Grill in Santa Monica.

Woo-hoo, par-tay! we thought, as we entered the festive dining space, buzzing with conversation, laughter, and hip Latin beats. Brightly painted murals, reminiscent of
Joan Miro, Picasso, and Keith Haring surrounded us. We walked past a giant square table in the bar area that seated a group of about 20 people, all with margaritas or mojitos in hand, celebrating something, maybe even nothing, but just celebrating.

It's like a fiesta in here!

Once seated, our server, looking a little like
Gunther from Friends, explained the day's specials and a few of the more popular regular menu items with more gusto than I'd ever seen a server do in my life. He stooped down to do his little spiel, (a server's trick, I've heard, to bring themselves to the customer's level instead of looking down on them) which was a little too close for comfort, in my opinion, as he was a bit of a "close-talker." But at least he was trying to make us feel at home. After he took our order (and after we took a deep breath after wondering if he was going to start making out with us), tortilla chips and three different salsas were brought to our table for us to graze on as we waited for our food. The chips were a wee bit stale, but they didn't stop us from continuously dipping into the little pools of green, orange and red. The tomatillo salsa was sharp and zesty, with a subtle cilantro flavor. I skipped over that one as soon as I tasted the cilantro (don't forget, the shit makes me gag), but Isaac thought it was decent. I enjoyed the other two choices more, a chipotle salsa, mild and smoky, and a roasted tomato salsa, sweet and spicy.

Chips And Three Salsas

Our appetizer, the Border Classics, a selection of their three most popular starters, arrived shortly. I started out with a green corn tamale, an adorable little corn-husked wrapped bundle filled with sweet corn and masa. Although it tasted a little unlike most tamales I've eaten, the filling was good. The extremely moist masa was a little less salty than I'm used to but the corn kernels made up for that with their sweetness. I moved on to the purple dumplings on the plate next, the plantain empanadas. Here, roasted plantains were stuffed with black beans, poblano chiles and a bit of salty cotija cheese, a combination that couldn't have worked better as with each little bite, I could taste each ingredient working both indpendently and in unison. I'm still a little confused as to why they were purple, though. Last up on our appetizer sampler plate were a couple of chicken panuchos, which were basically chicken tostadas with black beans, guacamole, and pickled onions. These were good but I thought they were nothing special, that is, until I had a bite of its pickled red onion garnish. They were cool, crisp, and both sweet and tart-- a little reminiscent of some of the pickled vegetables that I'm more used to in Chinese dishes. But I'd never had pickled vegetables on a tostada before, so I gobbled the whole thing up!

Border Classics appetizer plate

As suggested by our "close-talker" waiter, we ordered the cochinita pibil and the gaucho steak as our entrees. Now, I've never had cochinita pibil before, so I don't really have anything to compare it to. As Border Grill specializes in upscale, modern Latin dining, I doubt that what I had could be called authentic Yucatan, but it was, nevertheless, pretty tasty. The slow roasted tender pork pulled apart easily and sat in a complex achiote-based sauce that had hints of citrus peel and cinnamon. As extras, black beans with a few specks of cotija cheese for saltiness, roasted plantains, guacamole, white rice (which was my least favorite thing on the plate as it was a little Minute Rice-ish), and yay--more pickled red onions!

Cochinita Pibil

The gaucho steak is Border Grill's obligatory steak-on-the-menu...every "modern ethnic" food establishment has one. As long as its good quality beef and cooked right, a steak is a steak is a steak, but at places like these, it's interesting to see what twists they put on the hunk o' red meat to make it their own. Border Grill adds some pretty tasty but more on the mushy side red chilaquiles (shredded tortillas fried in enchilada sauce), watercress salad, and marinated roasted garlic and serrano chiles to theirs. The watercress salad seemed a little out of place--perhaps it was there to lend some coolness to an otherwise dish full of heat? Another vegetable might have worked better. We cut up the marinated roasted garlic and serranos up into smaller pieces and had each tender bite of our medium rare steak with these spicy condiments. Now that combination worked extremely well. Allright, I guess Border Grill gets an A- for twist on obligatory steak dish.

Gaucho steak

OK, so overall I liked, not loved the food at Border Grill. I'm not usually a fan of fancy, pricey Latin American foods, because frankly, I'd rather go to a taco stand or something of that nature. Way more authentic, tastier food, and tons (and I mean TONS) cheaper. But regardless, I had a great time at Border Grill Saturday night! It was like attending a fiesta-themed dinner party thrown by two of your best girlfriends. (A party also attended by
Helen Hunt and baby-daddy producer Matt Carnahan, by the way...they were dining at an adjacent table) It's just a mere hypothesis on my part, but I truly believe that because women have a natural maternal and homing instinct, women restauranteurs will go out of their way to create a warm and pleasant atmosphere for their diners, as did Mary Sue and Susan. Leave it to a woman to make you feel right at home.

And speaking of powerful women, Mary Sue and Susan are prime examples. These two can cook AND run their own cooking TV and radio programs, have their own line of prepared foods at Whole Foods Market, author
five cookbooks, be actively involved with several charities involved in fighting hunger, poverty, and disease, and be the founding members of Women Chefs and Restauranteurs (WCR), a group dedicated to promoting women's rights and advancement within the food service industry. Don't believe me? Check out their website, www.marysueandsusan.com.

So see? Sometimes a woman's place is in the kitchen. And she'll outcook you and outsmart you at everything else, too.

Border Grill
1445 4th St.
Santa Monica, CA 90401
(310) 451-1655

Saturday, May 28, 2005

Gnats Are Not Fly

Bought a bunch o' bananas from Costco not more than two days ago. Found a shitload of gnats buzzing around in the banana bag today. Threw the bananas out, but now there are gnats all over my house. Fucking gnats. I hate them.

Friday, May 27, 2005

Where Are They Now?

If you ever want to see washed up celebrities, go to California Pizza Kitchen in Studio City.

Today, I noshed on my CPK Club Salad right behind Erik Estrada! I once spotted David Hasselhoff having lunch with his wife and kids at an adjacent table. I have also seen Gabrielle Carteris (Andrea from Beverly Hills, 90210) coming out of their ladies room. My coworkers witnessed pre-adulthood Olsen twins enjoying pizza and salad a few years ago.

I wanted to turn around and tell Erik how much I enjoy him as the voice of Marco on
Sealab 2021, but I chickened out.

California Pizza Kitchen
12265 Ventura Blvd.
Studio City, CA 91604
(818) 505-6437

Thursday, May 26, 2005

L.A. Story: Ca' Del Sole

I like L.A. I really do.

In fact, I chose to settle down in L.A. over my native Bay Area. I love the weather and the fact that I'm able to wear tank tops and flip flops at least 8 months out of the year. I love that I live in a big city with big city stuff to do but where its also convenient to hop in my car to go grocery shopping. (It's a myth that L.A. has the worst traffic. Try driving the Highway 80 Maze going into San Francisco any day...at least we have streets like Sepulveda or Washington to get around freeway traffic)

But there are certain things I hate about L.A., too. I hate the smog. I hate the too-tabloidy news programs. But most of all, I hate the pretentiousness of many of the people that live here. Today, when I had lunch at Ca' Del Sole, a Northern Italian in Toluca Lake, I was reminded of why I don't always necessarily like Los Angeles.

I ended up at this reminiscent-of-a-Tuscan-country-inn-restaurant to celebrate a wedding shower for a coworker/friend. Seated in their outdoor patio, complete with fountains, shady trees and terra-cotta potted geraniums and other flowers I don't know the names of, it felt like something straight out of L.A. Story. Studio people having their power lunches and faaaaabulous women with (unecessarily) turned up noses were everywhere. I kept waiting for the giant earthquake to come so that I could see everyone unaffectedly continue talking about how wonderful their new pilates instructor is or about when so-and-so's screenplay will be done, as wine and water with twists of this-and-that were being shaken up and spilled everywhere.

Well, the earthquake never happened, so I switched gears and focused back on the food. Though tempting, I opted to skip ordering antipasti or insalate for myself because I'm too self-conscious about ordering "extra" stuff when dining with a group of people who aren't close friends and who are going to end up splitting the bill. People end up talking shit behind your back, saying that because of you, they ended up paying 20 bucks for an 8 dollar hamburger. I'll see if any of the others order something to start with and I'll just ask to take a bite, I decided. Ooh, score! I got to sample my VP's carciofini salad, a salad of arugula, sliced baby artichokes, index-card sized slices of parmesan cheese, and lemon vinaigrette. Perhaps it's because I have somewhat of an arugula fetish, but I enjoyed the little bit that I had. It wasn't the most unique creation, as arugula salads always seem to get served up this way--with parmesan and lemon, but this particular combination of pepperiness, nuttiness, and tartness worked really well. I was hoping that somebody would order the carpaccio (thinly sliced raw beef fillet) or moscardini (warm baby octopus appetizer) so that I could do some subtle mooching, but no luck there. Oh well.

My pasta dish was a different story. I decided on the bigoli: Venetian-style spaghetti tossed with clams, shrimp, crab, white wine and tomato sauce. Certain aspects of my pasta were redeemable: the tomato sauce was slightly sweet and not overly tart; they were generous with the shrimp and clams; a few leaves of sauteed basil lent some spiciness. But the pasta was slightly overcooked and felt too starchy, perhaps from sitting under a heat lamp waiting to be brought out. That's not the worst of it, though. Sitting on top of the heap of seafood pasta was a monster crab claw. And admittedly, I was a little excited at first to see the big crustacean hand. I was even kinda thrilled about the nut/shell cracker they provided me. But the honeymoon ended when, after fumbling with the thing endlessly, spraying crab juice and shell pieces on my coworkers, I was rewarded with nothing but dry, un-meaty crab. I was anticipating something like the scene in Pretty Woman where Julia Roberts squeezes her escargot tongs too hard and accidentally flings the snail across the table. Luckily for me, that never happened, but I did end up with a bunch of crab shrapnel in my starchy pasta which I had to carefully pick out to avoid mutilating my mouth. What's more, my hands still smell like crab even after washing several times, which makes me fear that my crappy crab claw was very old, and that people will start thinking that I've secretly been engaging in some nasty, nasty activities. (Sorry, didn't mean to be gross, but this smell on my hands is fucking disgusting)

Bigoli Shmigoli

Stinky Crab Claw

The others in my group ordered everything from penne pasta with wild broccoli, chicken sausage and garlic to osso buco to lobster and crab ravioli in a lobster and taragon sauce. I expended so much energy eating my bigoli pasta that I did not try anyone else's entrees. All expressed that their dishes were good, though nothing got raving reviews.

What the penne looks like, in case you're wondering

What the osso buco looks like, in case you're wondering

Our desert, a warm chocolate and almond cake, was, well, your typical warm chocolate cake. The two bites I had were enough to satisfy my chocolate craving for the entire month, and its texture seemed to be just right, not too much dry crust and not too much oozing chocolate. But still nothing extraordinary.

I'm glad I got to try Ca' Del Sole after hearing all the hype. After all, it was a wonderful setting for this wedding shower, and it was nice to be outside on a beautiful L.A. day with my coworkers. Despite the snooty atmosphere, our server was very friendly. But now I never need to go back. Something just didn't work with me here. Or maybe, something just didn't work here. At first, I thought it was just me. I felt a little out of my element...not "L.A." enough. Maybe it's because I am not a "lady-who-lunches" nor a part of "the industry," I thought. But then my mind turned to the crab claw and I realized that it wasn't me. Ca' Del Sole does not have a pretentious atmosphere; it tries to have a pretentious atmosphere, which is in my opinion, almost worse. It's a wannabe snob full of wannabe snobs. Well ya know what? If you wannabe a snob, at least have decent crab claws.

Ca' Del Sole
4100 Cahuenga Blvd.
Toluca Lake, CA 91602
(818) 985-4669

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

TJ's Taste Test, Part Four Of Many: Bambino Pizza Greco

Awwww, cute little bambinos!

That's what attracted me to these miniature spinach, feta cheese, and sun dried tomato pizzas. It was like finding a cute little abandoned baby, wrapped in swaddling cloths and all--you just haaaave to take it home! The clever guys at Trader Joes even drew a little cherub on the packaging to seal the deal.

But ya know what? This kid kinda sucks. It's not really a good kid, not very sweet. And there's no excitement, not even any kicking and screaming. All it is is kinda sour. Damn sun-dried tomatoes on these are way too tart and overpower the whole itty-bitty pizza. The spinach, cheese and crust were bland--way boring.

Looks Can Be Deceiving: Bambino From Hell

Usually, you're lucky if you can get the kid to sleep, but in this case, I tried adding salt and grated parmesan to my bambino to try and wake it up. OK, a little better, but not enough to convince me to adopt another one of these little tykes from Trader Joe's.

For the 4 bucks or so that you'll spend, you're stuck with 4 of these little pipsqueaks, not just one. Oh, and another thing? Please don't take any parenting advice from me.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Ain't No Friend Of Mine

There is a new girl at work who I don't get. We asked her to come with us to lunch one day and she hardly touched her chicken kababs (which were good, trust me). When asked if she didn't like her lunch, she answered in her best Valley Girl voice, "I dunno, I've just never liked food that much!"

She has never heard of curry or hummus either.

She is no fun, and I don't want to ever go out to lunch with her again.

Monday, May 23, 2005

Chain of Fools: Panera Bread

I can tell that life is sucking ass right now 'cause all of a sudden food is there more as sustanance than as pleasure. The gluttony hasn't been quite as "daily" lately, and I apologize. I even have a confession to make: I ate lunch at a chain restaurant recently. And it was my idea.

OK, before I go any further, let me put a disclaimer out there. There is a difference between dining at a chain restaurant, like say, P.F. Chang's China Bistro, for convenience, and dining there for a gourmet experience. If you chose such an establishment because it's near the office and it's easier to please a group of people that varying degrees of food pickiness, then it's OK. If you chose such an establishment because it's Saturday night and you're going out to a "nice" dinner with your boyfriend or whatever, well then, I'm sorry. I mean really, really sorry.

I could have taken my coworkers elsewhere, but somehow Panera Bread seemed like the safest, most convenient option. Maybe no one would looooove it, but certainly no one would hate it either. (Unlike the times I've suggested stuff like Pho or Lebanese food to people outside of my normal lunch crowd--That's why they're not my true friends.)

I opted for the "You Pick Two" special--your choice of any two half sandwich, soup or salad for $7.95--with the Bacon Turkey Bravo sandwich and a Caesar Salad. Mediocre at best, my lunch tasted like all the other lunches I've had here. At Panera Bread, smoked turkey, smoked gouda cheese, lettuce, and tomato, on tomato basil bread tastes awfully similar to roast beef, smoked cheddar, lettuce, tomatoes, red onions and horseradish sauce on asiago cheese bread which also tastes surprisingly similar to pepper-mustard chicken, pesto aioli, field greens, tomatoes and red onions on rosemary and onion foccacia . Catch my drift?


...tastes like this!

Panera's menu is full of culinary catchphrases that lure the unknowing diner into thinking that this place is up to date on the very latest food trends. It's a place where Joe and Jane Average can feel like they've stepped outside of their meat and potatoes box to become a little bit more worldly. Armed with new culinary vocabulary like "foccacia," "ciabatta bread," "aioli," "caramelized onions," "smoked cheddar," "field greens" and "vine ripened tomatoes," Joe and Jane can then brag to their next door neighbors, Bob and Susie Simple, that they have become fine gourmet diners. And gee, how funny--somehow all these "unique" ingredients manage to taste the same when put together by Panera's people. I don't know what these chain guys do to achieve such uniformity; it's scary sometimes.

For about 8 bucks, my hunger was subsided, I didn't have to hear anyone's bitching, and I went right back to tackling the day's stresses. So yeah, I got what I came for. But man, I've gotta get back on track. Today, I actually went with some of my Stepford-esque coworkers to the Olive Garden, and I feel fucking disgusted with myself. I for sure ain't writing anything about that experience. I'm too embarrased for having said anything at all.

Panera Bread
12131 Ventura Blvd.
Studio City, CA 91604
(818) 762-2226
Various locations throughout Southern California, but who cares?

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Which Came First, The Chicken Or The Egg?

For lunch today, I ate something I brought back to L.A. in my "Take Out" bag. There's no real English name for it; my parents write "Soy Sauce Chicken" on the take-out box they packed it in, which is the literal translation of its Cantonese name, "See Yao Gai." Consisting of chicken wings and hard boiled eggs that have been permeated by soy sauce, this dish is sort of an "Ode to Chicken" as it shows the chicken-life-cycle in all its glory. It's been dubbed "The Chicken Special" or "Chicken Dee-Lite" by coworkers and friends who, when I open my tupperware and start eating, can't help but chuckle at my pre- and post-conception chicken lunch.

I called my dad to ask how one makes "Chicken Dee-Lite"; here's what I found out:

*Mix equal parts Lee Kum Kee Chicken Marinade (or similar sauce) with water. Bring to a boil.

*Add one or two chunks of rock sugar.
*Add eggs and boil until hard-boiled.
*Remove eggs and add chicken wings; simmer until cooked through. (Do not overcook)
*Remove shells from eggs and add to chicken and sauce. Refrigerate for a day or two until sauce penetrates the eggs. (Sauce with become gelatinous and it will look like you've made yourself a soy sauce chicken terrine. Do not become alarmed...this is supposed to happen!)
*Reheat and serve.

Try it, you'll like it. After all, we should be paying tribute to the chicken--we all owe it to our feathered friends for providing us with many a great meal, right?

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Food Mysteries Unsolved: Asparagus Pee

In order to get my day's fill of folic acid, I decided to roast some asparagus for dinner. One of my favorite vegetable side dishes, roasted asparagus is extremely easy to prepare: drizzle with olive oil, sprinkle with kosher salt and fresh ground pepper, and roast at 400 degrees for about 15 minutes. What you get are some glossy, blistery stalks, tender on one end, and slightly crispy at the spear with a nice woodsy flavor.

And some really evil smelling pee.

I was curious, so I went here to get more info on the mysteries of asparagus pee. You can, too, if you're wondering.

Monday, May 16, 2005

May The Force Be With You

Today my coworker and I saw a woman with a mechanical hand as we were lunching at Baja Fresh. Well, I'm not sure if was a mechanical hand for sure, but she had some bandgaes and braces on it that had these coppery wirey things sticking out of the fingers and connecting back to the wrist part. I can't imagine what awful injury would cause that poor woman to have to wear a contraption like that. I really hope that her phalanges aren't in that much pain, so I'm gonna go with the possibility that she's wearing the mechanical hand as a tribute to the upcoming release of Star Wars: Episode III, Revenge of the Sith. Or maybe she is actually a Jedi who lost her forearm in a lightsaber duel.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

TJ's Taste Test, Part 3 of Many: Authentic French Cremes Brulees

I love perks. Those extra little things make such a difference--the free miniature sized products I get with my perfume or skin care purchases, the free dessert a restaurant throws in 'cause you're a regular, the free drinking water and coffee I get at the office (oh no wait, my company doesn't provide free water and coffee...scratch that). In life, we already spend way too much money and time on things we need and need to do, so why not get a little icing on the cake once in awhile?

Anyways, that's why I love the product I chose for my next installment of Trader Joe's Taste Test, their "Authentic French" Cremes Brulees. Not only are they good, but you get a little bonus too. OK, let me get to the actual food first. For being a frozen dessert, they fake the real thing pretty well. No tempering, pouring or mini blow torch needed at all: all you have to do is sprinkle each creme brulee with the included brown sugar packets, broil for 3 minutes and then cool for 10. The caramelization and cooling process creates a delicate and crisp golden brown crust that when tapped open with a spoon, reveals a smooth and creamy vanilla custard underneath. Now are you ready for the cool part--the perks, the bonus, the "French" benefits??? (I know, that's cheesy. Please forgive.) Each of these delicious desserts comes in its own cute-as-a-button glazed terra cotta ramekin that you can wash out after you're done indulging and keep in the cabinet for the next time those pesky houseguests show up unexpectedly! They're perfect for dipping sauces or condiments! Place a few on the table with candy or nuts! Or save them for when you want to actually make real cremes brulees! All this--two yummy desserts and free dishes--for under 5 bucks.

Desserts With Perks!

Sound too good to be true? Well it is true. So stop wasting your time reading blogs and get your ass down to Trader Joes. If not for the food, then at least for the free dishes.

Saturday, May 14, 2005

As Seen On TV

I am going to buy one of those ridiculous Betty Crocker Bake N'Fill cake pans just so I can fuck with people. Imagine bringing a lavishly decorated Bake N'Fill cake to the office. You could decorate it like an Easter hat, or a baseball, or a watermelon, just like on the commercial. All the overweight nosey office ladies and your faaaavorite company kiss-asses would be gathered around as you prepare to share your creation, saying in their most sickening sugary voices, "Oh, that's lovely! That looks just like the one on TV!" And then you would cut it only to reveal that you filled your wonderful epicurean masterpiece with...


Or ketchup.

Or gummi worms.

Or salmon mousse.

Or rice.

Oh just think of the possibilities!

Friday, May 13, 2005

Got Me A Part Time Lover: Daikokuya

Last night, I went to rekindle an old flame. I've been acting kind of stand-offish with my longtime favorite ramen restaurant, Daikokuya, lately. It's been too busy for me. It hasn't made time to fit me into its hectic schedule. So that's why I have been having a bit of a ramen affair: last week, I sought out some new love at Kyushu Ramen, and boy did it rock my ramen world. But then I asked myself, "Is it me?" Is it my own impatience that causes me to turn the other way and deny myself some of Daikokuya's ramen pleasures? What if I'm not being understanding enough? Well as you know, all good lovers keep you coming back for more, so last night I went running back to Daikokuya, but this time on my terms.

That's right, no more of that 8pm on a Friday night or 1pm on a Saturday stuff. I'm sick of dealing with the cattiness of other diners fawning over a table. Yup, from now on I'm going at 6pm on a regular weekday when people are just getting off of work and not thinking about dinner yet. That way, I get it all to myself. (Well, practically)

Hey whatdya know, it worked. We were reunited at about 6:15 last night when I walked through the door and was immediately embraced by available seats. Its limited seating, 6 booths and about 20 or so seats at the counter, is almost always filled up, and its waiting list is always about 5 groups of people deep. Not tonight. I got a booth right away. Hmm, what a nice change.

Greeting me with open arms: empty seats!

A little obligatory small talk at the beginning, a few glances at the menu to see if I'd want anything else (a donburi rice bowl, some gyoza, maybe?), but I was only there for one thing. All this time I'd been yearning inside for a bowl of Daikoku Ramen and for good reason. Hot, steamy, its tonkotsu broth, made by boiling pork bones for almost a full day, is seductive. Its deep, rich flavor and velvety texture pull you in and don't let you go until you slurp up every last bit of chewy ramen noodle, crisp bamboo shoot and bean sprout, and briny soy-sauce boiled egg. And you know I like a little meat on my men, so of course there's the pork--three hunks of melt-in-your-mouth kurobuta pork sporting a thin layer of luscious fat floating on top of my liquid love. When I was finally done with the big black ceramic bowl, it was utter ramen euphoria. Total satisfaction.

Ramen Euphoria

Oh, and whenever I'm down for a little more action, Daikokuya will do it harder. All you have to do is ask--they'll make your broth extra rich by adding an additional ladle of pork fat to your bowl.

This is going to work out, this going to Daikokuya on my terms. I have lots of faith in this relationship. But I don't think I'm gonna call it quits with my boyfriend in the Valley, Kyushu Ramen either. That one shows me a really good time too. Yeah, that's it. I'll just be a ramen player--got me one in the Valley and one Downtown.

As a woman (actually as a diner in this case), you gotta know what you want and know how to get it. No waiting games, no playing second. Yup, call your own shots and set your limits. Trust me, in the end, it'll all be worth it.

327 E. 1st St.
Los Angeles, CA 90012
(213) 626-1680

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Interesting Things On The Web Recently

I feel like shit today, so I'm not gonna write anything elaborate. Not that anything I write ever is. But anyways, here are some things that may or may not be of interest on and around the web...

Chowhound Modernist compiled quite an impressive list of his (I think it's a he) ultimate Los Angeles area restaurants. A good guide to print out and refer to for the next time you and your lover are like, "Where do you wanna go?" "I dunno, where do you wanna go?"

Who in their right mind likes to wait in line to use the bathroom? Especially when your enjoying your dinner. You have to excuse yourself, wait outside a usually single stall bathroom with a bunch of other "I'm-about-to-pee-in-my-pants-and-by-the-way-I'm-gonna-scratch-your-eyes-out-if-you-don't-stop-staring-at-my-shoes-Bitch" women. So apparantly, there's a solution to that in Taiwan. I hope they don't serve curry in one of those "toilet" bowls. Link courtesy of my friend Sam. Thanks Sam!

Feeling a little bloated after your dinner at Cafe Pinot and don't feel like going back in to the restaurant? Well forget about using the toilet stalls at the downtown public library. According to a post on LA.com, the doors on these suckers are only waist-high to discourage naughty behavior, uh, except maybe for voyeurism from passers-by??? Go figure.

Hopefully I'll feel better tomorrow and be able to eat (and write about) something decent.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Plan B: Lunch on Skankershim Blvd.

I am convinced that someone is out to get me. I had to go get a smog check today, so being that there is a Jonathan Gold-recommended restaurant half a block away from the service station, I decided that it would be a great opportunity to drop off the car and walk to Las Palmas Cuban and Spanish Restaurant to have lunch. Dropping off the car was no problem. The problem was the three of us office gals walking in our business attire and heels down Victory Blvd. only to find out that Las Palmas was closed. Completely dark. Not a sign of life. I drove by last night just to check the proximity of the restaurant to the service station. It was open. Jonathan Gold's book, Counter Intelligence, says that this place is open for LUNCH and dinner daily. The hours posted said open from 12-8 Wednesdays. There is a painted sign on the side of the building advertising LUNCH specials. So why the hell wasn't it open for lunch today, Wednesday 5/11, when I, Pam, planned to go? Why? We had to hobble back down Victory past the bus stop o' freaks. Fortunately, Roma Deli was around the corner on Lankershim Blvd. (a.k.a. Skankershim) and was open. But still, why? WHY?

At least I passed my smog check.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Had My Fill Of Phyllo: Baklava Factory

Tasting of charbroiled pork and fish sauce from the Vietnamese food I had for lunch, my mouth needed a sweet retreat. So I decided to check out the Baklava Factory, a baklava shop (duh) next door.

Baklava Trivia: It's believed that Baklava has its origins from Assyria around the 8th century B.C. Wow, Baklava's older than Jesus. That's amazing. The dessert was spread to other Middle Eastern and Mediterranean civilizations throughout time, and went through many evolutions as it went from culture to culture. As the Greeks got hold of it, the pastry used to make Baklava became thinner and the use of Phyllo (meaning "leaf" in Greek) came into play. Betcha didn't know all that, huh? Good, now go and try to impress all your friends.

I've had baklava a couple of times in my life, always a piece or two given to me by a friend, so I was utterly unaware that there were so many different kinds. That is, until I walked into this small but airy North Hollywood mini-mall storefront where I was greeted a counter full of various miniature phyllo-dough concoctions. Peering through the plexi-glass "sneeze-shields", I pondered the sea of varying golden brown and pistachio green patterns for a moment. Unsure which ones to pick, I figured that for $7.50 a pound, I could get quite a few combinations of phyllo and nuts.

I asked the Baklava Lady to guide me and point out their most popular goods. I walked out with a plastic takeout container filled with a variety of treats...Traditional Walnut and Pistachio Baklava: cubes of phyllo dough layered with ground walnuts or pistachios drizzled with sugar syrup, Baklava fingers: rolled phyllo dough stuffed with ground cashews drizzled with syrup, Birds Nests: little purses of phyllo filled with walnuts or pistachios drizzled with syrup, Ballourie: cubes of kataifi (shredded phyllo) layered with pistachios and drizzled with rosewater, Burma: a shredded phyllo wrapped around chopped pistachios made to look somewhat like a cut sushi roll, and Kataifi Baklava: a Kellogg's Shredded Mini Wheat looking thing made of baked kataifi wrapped around ground pistachios.

Traditional Baklava

Baklava Fingers and Balourie

Birds Nests

Kaitafi Baklava or Kellogg's Mini Wheats?

Honestly, all the baklava kinda tasted the same to me. All were plays on the same few ingredients, each formed a little differently to give slightly different textures. They were all crispy and flaky from the phyllo (I'm still picking the crumbs out of my lap), and really sticky sugary-sweet. Almost too sweet for my taste. Made my cavities hurt. Perhaps this is how dentistry got started too? The Balourie (Baklava drizzed with rosewater) was probably the most unique tasting baklava of the bunch from the addition of rosewater, but it almost tasted like you were eating a bottle of your grandma's perfume. Not for me. The Baklava Fingers were probably my favorite as they were the most delicate and the syrup wasn't as overpowering.

Note to self for next time: eat only one or two pieces and have with black coffee!

The Baklava Factory
12909 Sherman Way
North Hollywood, CA 91605
(818) 764-1011

Monday, May 09, 2005

I Didn't Fart! It's My Sandwich!

I love daikon, but it reeks. So naturally, when you're walking through the airport or sitting in a crowded airplane with a bahn mi sandwich in your carry-on, people are going to look at you funny. Well, I didn't fart! It's my sandwich!

Sunday, May 08, 2005

Culinary Life Lessons--Can't Learn This Stuff From A Cookbook

If you ever see a girl at the airport hauling 10 blocks of ice in a blue Bank of Canton tote bag, that's me.

You see, the blue bag is my "Take Out" bag, as my parents call it. Whenever I go home to Northern California to visit, my parents cook me my favorite homecooked foods, pack them in Chinese takeout cartons, and freeze them for me to take back to LA. Jokingly, they tell me that I treat their house like a hotel and a takeout restaurant. I come and stay for a few days then leave with food.

The "Take Out" Bag with "Guilt Food"

Well, the parental mind tricks were weighing heavily on me this weekend. I'd heard, "See, who else is going to do this for you after we die?" and "Do you know how much your mom and dad love you?" a few too many times , so I decided to take some action. I asked my mom to teach me how to cook some of my childhood favorites. She happily agreed.

I learned how to make three very traditional Southern Chinese dishes today, rice with ground pork and egg, steamed pork with pickled mustard greens, and steamed pork with preserved duck egg. These are the kinds of dishes you won't normally find in Chinese restaurants (even the really authentic ones); instead, you'll find these dishes cooked in homes by loving moms and dads and grandmas and grandpas like mine. These were my comfort foods growing up. I used to sit Indian-style as a little kid and eat these foods out of a small rice bowl with a spoon, scooping up every bit of steaming rice interlocked with tender pork and the salty bits of picked greens or salted egg. My icing on the cake was always the bright orange sphere of salted duck egg yolk that I'd mash into the rice, creating a perfect union of creaminess from the yolk and fluffiness from the rice.

I was a little freaked out cooking the rice with ground pork and egg in a clay pot sice I never cook rice with out a rice cooker. I was sure I'd burn the stuff. But my mom assured me that it wouldn't burn if I kept watch over it and kept stirring it. I watched her as she seasoned the pork without any exact measurements. A little bit of soy sauce, a dash of cooking wine, a few sprinkles of white pepper, a pinch of sugar, a couple squirts of sesame oil, a smidgen of cornstarch. I only hope that I'm able to get all that right.

The seasoned pork was poured over the half cooked rice and my mom told me to let it sit for a few more minutes as the pork steamed. Still freaked out that it was going to burn, I kept a sharp nose on the covered clay pot--I couldn't lift the cover for fear that the steam would escape so I kept getting whiffs of the steam to check for traces of any burning smells.

Please don't burn! Please don't burn!

Several minutes passed and I lifted the cover off the pot. The rice was nearly done so it was time to add the beaten eggs to the pot and put the cover back on for another several minutes. After some stirring the taste trial ensued, mom and I sprinkling the rice with salt to taste. I noticed a slight burnt smell and I started to worry that I had destroyed my first traditional Chinese cooking attempt, but my mom told me not to worry and taste it. The slight burnt smell actually translated to a wonderful smoky flavor on the rice given off by the clay pot. I guess mom's always right, huh? Well, almost always.

Wonderfully fluffy, subtly smoky rice

Next it was time to prepare the other two dishes, the steamed pork with pickled mustard greens and the steamed pork with preserved duck egg. These two dishes used pork as a base, the one with the pickled mustard greens using sliced pork and the one with the preserved duck egg using coarsely ground pork, seasoned with the same seasonings as the previous rice dish. (With the exception of soy sauce on the pork going into the preserved duck egg dish as those salted duck eggs are plenty salty!) No worries with any burnt rice here but the non-existent measurement system still applied--a dash here, a pinch there. I "measured" the best I could while mom lectured, "Just do it! How are you ever going to learn if you don't practice?" We combined the pork and the other ingredients into their respective steaming dishes and steamed them one after the other in the wok.

Beautiful as a sunset: preparing the pork with salted duck egg

Steaming the pork and pickled mustard greens

"See how easy these are to cook?," my mom asked. OK, then why is it that she used to ask if we appreciated all the hard work she put into making this stuff? A-ha! Parental mind tricks at work again! Seriously though, I was amazed at how unbelievably easy these dishes were to make.

Aside from just getting a cooking lesson today, I also got an important life lesson. Yeah, I bitch and poke fun at my parents' quirks, but truth is, they do what they do because they love me more than anything in the world. They'll hint that they're getting old and ask me if I'll have what it takes to take care of them later on. They'll make me feel guilty that I moved to LA instead of staying in the Bay Area. But they'll still prepare my "Take Out" bag to take back to LA with me so that I can remember home and how much they care. Sadly, the hotel and takeout restaurant won't be around forever, so I'm beyond grateful that I learned how to carry on some of my family's culinary heritage today. Then I can make my kid feel guilty over how much their mom sacrificed to make their food. And they can pass it on to their kid. And so on, and so on...

Saturday, May 07, 2005

Stronger Than A Jedi's: Parental Mind Tricks

I used to think that all parents were sent to Mind Trick School before they had their first kid. Well, at least I was convinced that mine were. I mean, where else to you learn to have conversations with your kids like this:

Them: (in Chinese) Do you want us to go buy you a sandwich?
Me: (in English) No, it's okay.
Them: No really, it's no problem. We can stop and buy you a sandwich.
Me: No, I'm fine. You don't have to.
Them: No, it's okay. We'll go get you a sandwich.
Me: Okay then, I'll take the sandwich.
Them: See how much your parents love you??? See how much they do for you???

Or this...

Them: (Yelling in Chinese from the other side of the house) Pam!
Me: What?
Them: PAM!!!
Me: WHAT???
Them: Come get some fruit.
Me: I don't want any. I'm full.
Me: (Going to the family room to get the fruit) Okay, fine...
Them: God, you'd think we were trying to force you or something...

Or how about this one...

Them: How come you're not drinking anything with your breakfast?
Me: I'm not thirsty.
Them: You should have something to drink.
Me: OK, I'll have something to drink.
Them: What do you want, milk or orange juice?
Me: Um, orange juice.
Them: Why? What's wrong with milk?

OK finally...

Them: (Having just heard about the Mad Cow Disease outbreak in the U.S.) Did you hear about Mad Cow?
Me: Yeah.
Them: Well are you eating any beef?
Me: No.
Them: Are you sure???
Me: Yeah, I'm sure.
Them: Make sure you don't eat any beef okay?
Me: I know. (Pause) Wait, I still have some ground beef that I bought from Costco a few weeks ago in the freezer.
Them: Well, maybe you can finish it. Just don't eat any beef after that.

Well I just came home from a weekend with the Chinese Costanzas (you remember George's parents from Seinfeld right?) and had a harsh reality check. My parents never got sent to any Parental Mind Trick School. They were taught all their little nuances with food from the very start from their parents--years and years of mental conditioning by my grandparents showing their love primarily with food, using food as guilt, and teaching them to never, ever, waste food. So that only means one thing...that I am being conditioned as we speak.

But me? Become like my parents? Never!

Yeah right.

Remember those arguments you used to have with your parents back in your rebellious teenager days? You'd be like, "I am soooooo not going to grow up to be like them." Back in the eighties, I used to storm out of the room and into my bedroom, adorned both with Laura Ashley Cabbage Rose bed linens AND Siouxsie and the Banshees posters. I'd plop myself down on the flowery bedspread sobbing, lay my asymetrical-coiffed head down in my black fingernail-polished hands, and promise myself that growing up to be like my parents was NOT an option.

Well let me tell you, sweetheart, that it's inevitable. You soooooo will grow up to be just like your parents. I did. Granted, I don't have any children yet, so I haven't reached my full freakazoid potential, but I think I'm subconsciously practicing for parenthood on Isaac. He'll offer to cook dinner, but I'll insist that I do it instead, then ask him if he appreciates the fact that I just finished slaving over a hot stove after a hard day's work. Sometimes I'll have a craving for something and instead of saying, "Hey, let's eat this," I'll beat around the bush about it, asking him instead what he wants to eat, and try to turn it around to seem like my craving was his idea. I'll throw one little nugget of leftover food into a plastic container and even if it sits in the refrigerator rotting, by golly, I tried!

And sure, there are some differences between the folks and me, their spawn. Whereas they show their love mostly with food, I do the same, but also require a lot more physical love from my own relationships. I'm also a lot less frugal. A dinner that costs more than $20 per person on a non-special occasion would be unheard of for them. But nothing's concrete yet, right? Just wait 'til I get older and have children. I'll be cutting the rotten part off of a piece of fruit and forcing my kid to eat the good part telling them that its a sin to waste food 'cause their parents slaved away all day just to even get food on the table.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

TJ's Taste Test: Part Two Of Many: Pesto Tortellini Bowl

You know your life is getting hectic when you go grocery shopping and you tell yourself that you should stock up on a few frozen entrees just in case.

Well, work kicked my ass today. Spending the day with lunatics and people on power trips just makes you feel like you've been hit by a mack truck. So that's why I needed to go simple with dinner tonight and try one of the frozen entrees I bought from Trader Joe's a few days ago.

The Pesto Tortellini Bowl, made with Organic Pasta Virgin Olive Oil and Basil, caught my attention the other day. Sitting on the top shelf of its freezer case, it called out to me, "Eat me! Eat me!" It must have been lonely and needed a home, I thought, since there were only 2 left on the shelf. Well, in that case, it can't be that bad. Plus, I do really dig pesto. I called Isaac over to help me grab the box 'cause I couldn't reach that far back. I would soon be the proud owner of my very own box of frozen pesto tortellini!

Tonight, I nuked the thing for 5 minutes as the instructions said, almost burned myself from the steam escaping the plastic wrapper, stirred it up, and dug in. Let's just put it this way--it was OKAY. The tortellini was not bad. The pasta stayed pretty al dente (or as al dente as frozen pasta could ever be) and the parmesan, cheddar, and ricotta cheese filling tasted pretty good. The pesto sauce, however, wasn't all that. Very bland, in fact. If it wasn't for the cheese tortellini filling being salty enough, it would've been like eating a bowl of pencil erasers. Another negative: the serving size is meant more for a snack. I'm still hungry.

Would I get this item again? Um, maybe. If it calls out to me using its food trickery again the next time I'm strolling down the frozen aisle, I might feel sorry for it. I'm a sucker like that.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Adventures In the Kitchen With The Makeshift Chefs

Here's a memoir from the weekend:

When you get a craving for NYC's Magnolia Bakery's
Red Velvet Cake and can't get to New York in a pinch, you sometimes gotta make due with what you have. Such was the case with my friends G, J, and C who would give up sleep for this cake as they looooove it so much. My friend G was held a charity event this past weekend and asked J, who flew in from San Francisco to attend, to please bake a Red Velvet Cake using Magnolia Bakery's recipe for her dinner party.

Well, J was staying with G's sister C, and I was to go over to C's house in Gardena that afternoon to help J & C bake the cake. This was going to be a cinch, or so I thought.

You see, there was a bit of a communication breakdown between my girls. J thought C had a kitchen full of the best kitchen supplies. C thought J had thought about everything before attempting to bake the cake. It was, after all, her recipe. I for sure was not about to drive my ass back downtown to grab my cooking paraphenalia.

Portions were measured solely by estimation as C did not own any real measuring spoons. We used regular place-setting tea and tablespoons as a guide.

-Does this look right to you?
-Uh, I dunno. I guess.

C did not own a proper stand- or hand- mixer. Nor did she have any deep and sturdy mixing bowls. She did however, have some small to medium size mixing bowls and one of those Braun hand blenders. You know, the one that kind of looks like a vibrator? So there we were, mixing cake batter that looked like bloody murder in a too-small bowl with a Vons bag around it as a splashguard using a vibrator with a whisk attachment.

Flash forward to baking time. C did not own an oven thermometer either, so somehow the 350 degree oven temperature wasn't exactly 350 degrees. It was probably more like 400. Undoubtedly, the 3 cake layers came out a little charred around the edges and bottoms. Total Cajun style. To make matters worse, J burned her finger trying to get the pans out of the oven.

While the cake was cooling, we attempted to make the frosting, from a recipe J brought, also courtesy of the Magnolia Bakery cookbook. This was the most bullshit recipe for icing I have ever seen in my life. It took over an hour to make. Cook the flour and milk over medium low heat. Then let it sit for half hour to cool. Beat in the butter and sugar for 3 minutes then add the milk mixture and beat again for a total of 6 minutes. (It was more like 10 with the vibrator mixer) Then cover and refrigerate for (and I quote) "exactly 15 minutes, no more no less." What kind of fucking icing is this?

In the end, it all came together, our ghetto cake. We trimmed the layers of all the crusty burnt edges and frosted it, patching up all the uneven areas with icing.

Anyone Want Some Cake Crusts?

You know, it cost my friends almost 30 bucks to buy the ingredients (of course now they have leftover ingredients to make more) and it took us almost four hours to make this cake. Next time, I'm forcing them to just go and buy one. It'll be cheaper and faster. But we did have fun and some hella good laughs making it, and it actually got some good reviews at G's charity dinner (see Saturday's post
for a pic of the finished product!), so I guess it wasn't so bad. I guess you can ghetto-rig a cake and still have it come out pretty edible.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Liar Liar Pants On Fire: Today's Trip To Kyushu Ramen

I am a liar. I told the my management-level peers at work today that I wouldn't go out with them today because I "brought my lunch and had errands to run." *wink, wink* Well, I actually did bring my lunch, so I wasn't telling a total lie. I just felt like going out with my other friends who are way more fun to try out a ramen shop in Van Nuys. And I didn't want to feel obligated to invite them along because frankly, their taste in food sucks and I didn't want to hear anyone bitch if they didn't like it. So I lied, snuck out of the building like a teenager who's been grounded, and putt-putted off to Kyushu Ramen.

And let me tell you, the sins I'd committed today were so worth it. I am sooooo ecstatic to have found a good ramen shop in the San Fernando Valley.

Kyushu Ramen is a clean, no-frills space located in a mini mall in the heart of Van Nuys. I pretty much knew what I wanted before even seeing the menu. I was looking forward to some Kyushu-style ramen, the kind whose broth is made with pork bones and is thick and opaque. I perused the menu anyways, to see what else they had to offer. Several varieties of "regular" ramen, shoyu and miso as well as curry ramen, mabo tofu ramen. Three types of cold noodle dishes. Udon and soba. Your typical Japanese entrees like teriyaki and katsu, plus some other more exciting entrees like liver & chives and mackerel sauted in miso. A handful of appetizers like natto tofu and gyoza. But I was here for the house specialty, the Kyushu Ramen. And for good reasons.

These guys really know how to do tonkotsu broth. The milky opaque broth is hearty and rich with deep pork flavor. A thin glistening layer of pork fat lies on top, adding to its complexity. Each bite of the thick, chewy ramen noodles and oh-so tender roast pork slices is made even more interesting by the spinach, fish cake, seaweed, sesame seeds, boiled egg, bamboo shoots, and pickled ginger swimming in the luscious, salty liquid.

Kyushu Ramen's Kyushu Ramen

I got back to the office scott free. No one even knew. Yeah, maybe it'll catch up to me one day, right? I'll get caught. But if it's for a bowl of Kyushu Ramen, I won't care.

Kyushu Ramen
15355 Sherman Way
Van Nuys, CA 91408
(818) 786-6005

Monday, May 02, 2005

Sometimes Size Doesn't Matter: A.O.C.

Desperately Seeking Restaurant: Must have excellent food & good prices. Must be casual, have great service and lack attitude & pretension.

That's what I'd fill out if I went on a restaurant matchmaker service. Yup, I'm more of a hole-in-the-wall type of girl. Since I'm more about the food and less about the atmosphere, you won't typically find me in a trendy, chichi place. Give me Sam Woo over Spago any day.

So that's why I was a little wary of picking A.O.C., one of Los Angeles Magazine's Top 25 Los Angeles Restuarants, for girls night out. Not that I don't trust LA Magazine's taste in good eats, but alot of these places tend to become too hyped after making the magazine's cut--less about the food, more about the scene. I've also heard stories that one needs to reserve about 2 weeks in advance to get a table here on the weekends. *Oh my* Nevertheless, I love small plates, I thought I'd bring the girls out with me to try and meet Mr. Right. I called about a week ago to make reservations for this past weekend. No problem.

A.O.C., standing for Appelation d'Origine Controlee, the French laws applied to wines, eaux-de-vie, dairy, and farm products to ensure quality and regionality, is the second of Suzanne Goin's (of Lucques fame) and Carol Styne's endeavors. Specializing in small dishes with both California and Mediterranean flavors, the idea behind this wine and food bar is to allow the diners to try many new and different flavors and pair them with their favorite wines.

My girls and I walked into A.O.C.'s lofty space via the heavy, austere-looking front door. We'd just come from a full day of shopping, so we were all tres casual--jeans, t-shirts and flip-flops to be more specific, but looking as un-LA chic as we were, we were still greeted with a smile and seated promptly at our dark leather banquette. Our minimalist section of the dining room was separated from the main bar area and featured soaring windows and mirrors that seemed to watch over us as we ate. Okay, so far so good for looks and smile.

Soaring To Lofty Heights

Now to the important stuff, let's cut to the food, shall we? To get straight to the point, everything we tried was simply amazing. We chose a little of everything from their three main menus: "cheese", "charcuterie" and "from the wood burning oven." As we waited for our orders, we grazed on the bread, black olives and harissa on the table. The harissa really caught our attention--really good we thought--but what does it remind us of? Finally, we concluded that this traditional Tunisian paste made of Ancho chiles and spices reminded us of gochujang, a spicy Korean pepper paste that we're more familiar with, and pictured the chefs going shopping at Hannam Chain Supermarket for jars of gochujang.

Bread, Olives and Harissa

But ANYWAYS, we started with a wonderful salad of cucumber, avocado and green goddess dressing. The green goddess dressing was rich and herby, with a unique asiany taste that we couldn't quite place our fingers on, and complemented the coolness of the cucumbers and avocado nicely.

Cucumbers, Avocado With Green Goddess Dressing

Next, our 3 cheese plate...il tronchetto dei guelfi (Lombardy, Italy): a cow's milk cheese with a mild, nutty flavor, reblochon (Savoie, France), a rich, softer-than-brie cow's milk cheese, and a roquefort gabriel coulet (Aveyron, France), a blue cheese that was, well, fucking strong but excellent eaten slowly to offset many of the other flavors on the table. Including the plate's red walnut and fig garnish and...

Three Cheese Plate

...the marinated olives. We couldn't get enough of the gratis olives on the table, so we decided to order more. This time, a combination of green and red olives that were of the perfect saltiness and bite. My friend made a likeness of Ike, Kyle's egg-headed baby brother from South Park, out of one of the olives. Immature for playing with our food, you say? So what? We know how to have fun, so fuck off. Hee hee, just kidding.

Assorted Marinated Olives


The roasted dates stuffed with parmesan and wrapped with bacon was one of my favorite dishes of the night. I mean, what an unusual flavor combination. But I looooved how the crispiness and saltiness of the bacon offset the tenderness and sweetness of the date which offset the saltiness and nuttiness of the parmesan. A really small bite of heaven. Sorry, I'm not posting a picture. I was so excited about the dates that the photo came out all blurry from my hands shaking so much.

I also loved the next dish, a kind of open faced sandwich made of a base of grilled brioche, and topped with proscuitto, gruyere cheese, frisee and a grilled egg. A nice harmony of textures going on here. The garlicky brioche and cool frisee were crisp while the egg, proscuitto and gruyere lended a richer substantiality. A really well done dish.

Brioche With Prosciutto, Gruyere and Egg

The flavor in the mussels with roasted tomato and morcilla was kick ass. I've never had morcilla (Spanish blood sausage) before, but I believe that it really added some depth to the sauce that the small but fresh mussels were bathed in. Sticking out of the bowl was a piece of grilled garlic bread that was perfect for mopping up the sauce.

Mussels With Roasted Tomato and Morcilla

The grilled skirt steak with green garlic aioli wasn't on my top things to order as I'm not a big fan of the more-on-the-tougher-side skirt steak, but this one was juicy and tender. The biggest praise I have for this dish though is the bed of arugula it lay on, whose mild peppery flavor went so well with the juicy steak and garlic aioli.

Grilled Skirt Steak With Green Garlic Aioli

Next were a couple of veggie dishes: english and sugar snap peas in butter and mint and cauliflower, curry and red vinegar. The peas weren't the best dish of the night for me as I'm not a big fan of mint but they did have a nice bite. The cauliflower was, however, really, really good. They reminded me of one of my favorite Indian dishes, aloo gobi, sans the potatoes and a little drier and smokier. Very tasty.

English and Sugar Snap Peas With Butter and Mint

Cauliflower, Curry, and Red Vinegar

My absolute favorite dish of the night though was the braised pork cheeks with horseradish gremolata. A few of the girls were iffy about this one when I ordered it--I mean, who wants to eat Porky Pig's face, right? But I'm telling you, these were melt-in-your-mouth tender with a nice, hearty, almost anise-y flavor. I couldn't really taste the horseradish, but the dish was so rich in flavor by itself that I didn't care.

Braised Pork Cheeks With Horseradish Gremolata

What's great about A.O.C. is that they have over 50 wines you can buy by the glass or carafe, so you can really afford to taste and experiment. We ordered 2 carafes to try: the first carafe was a California Central Coast Pinot Noir by Arcadian Vineyards. Year? I don't know. They swiped the wine list away before I could look at it to write stuff down. Yeah, whatever. Shut up. What I do know is that this was one of the best pinots I've ever had. It had me from the first sniff, where the hints of cherries and berries gave an idea of what was to come. The wine itself was very well balanced, smooth yet spicy. The next carafe was a Bordeaux from Chateau Reignac. Again, I'm a loser, I didn't get a chance to get more info in this one, including the year and blend. I can tell you that this was another winner: full bodied and dense, complex with oak-y and fruity flavors, in my opinion. Went really well with the pork cheeks and the roquefort cheese. So you can already tell that I'm not a wine expert by any means, right? But I do know good from bad. And these were great.

Our Almost Empty Carafe of Bordeaux

For dessert, we said what the heck, let's just try everything, so we ordered 5 out of 6 desserts on the dessert menu. My favorites were the Alain Blanc Manger with Cherry Compote, a light almond-y panna cotta sitting on top of a sugar cookie served with a sweet compote of black cherries on the side, and the spanish milk chocolate roulade with toasted almonds, a silky smooth roulade made of sponge cake and chocolate whipped cream covered in a glistening chocolate ganache. We also ordered a mixed berry galette and a berry gratin, which were good but kind of tasted of the same berry, crumbly, a-la-mode-y fashion, and the ice cream du jour, a caramel ice cream served with 2 pillowy chocolate cookies.

Alain Blanc Manger With Cherry Compote

Spanish Milk Chocolate Roulade With Toasted Almonds

*Whew!* That was a lot of food to describe huh? The price was a little more than I spend for dinner on a normal day--we ended up paying $40 per person after tax and tip--but for all that food, wine and dessert, I thought it was a pretty damn good bang for the buck. Well last but not least, the atmosphere and service at A.O.C. were, to me, the clincher. Our server, though looking like your typical actor wannabe, was very friendly and knowledgeable about the menu. He was honest--he wasn't one of those servers who tries to push more food on you when asked "Do you think that's enough for us?" He was attentive without being overbearing or rushing us. In fact, one of the things I enjoyed most about the evening was that the restaurant really creates a pleasant atmosphere for its customers. Like a well-oiled machine, everything seemed like it was paced perfectly: each dish was brought out one or two at a time instead of all at once like many small plates restaurants do, allowing us to savor the character of each dish. The six of us felt like we were part of a gourmet tasting panel, each putting our two cents in about the dish we had just tasted while also continuing with our normal conversations. Looking around the room, it seemed as if the other tables were having just as much fun enjoying good food, wine and each other's company.

So yeah, this one's got good taste, is friendly & fun, is sophisticated but not snobby, is about quality not quantity. I think it's a match made in heaven. Yeah, this one's a keeper for sure.

8022 W. 3rd St.
Los Angeles, CA 90048
(323) 653-6359