Monday, December 11, 2006

Chinese Comfort Food For The Nostalgic (And Homesick) Soul

As I was growing up, school holidays meant watching cartoons and children's TV all morning, playing outside with the neighborhood kids all afternoon, and being allowed to stay up later than usual, perhaps to play video games on our Atari 2600 or watch television dramas like Dynasty even though I wasn't old enough to understand half of the grown-up themes on those shows. Staying home from school also meant home-cooked lunches by Mom, a nice break from sandwiches and school cafeteria food.

We were very lucky children, my brother and I, in that we had the best of both cooking worlds.
My Dad liked to be a little more extravagant with his cooking as he cooked with bolder, richer flavors and ingredients and whipped up multiple dishes for each meal--two meats, a vegetable and a soup were the norm for dinner at our family's house. My Mom, however, is more of a simple cook who takes pride in her comforting, usually one-dish meals.

One of my favorite Mom foods to eat both growing up and in the present is something we call wui fahn in Cantonese, basically a stir fry of simple ingredients served over rice. Maybe it's homesickness, maybe it's stress, but I've been cooking alot of wui fahn lately--it's hearty, comforting, and incredibly simple to make.

The options of wui fahn toppings are wide open--you can pretty much use any type of meat and vegetable--the key is to make the stir fry a little more saucy than your average stir fry so that the gravy mixes with the rice. For this post, I'll show you how I make wui fahn with boy choy and chicken. Some other fave combos of mine include beef with Chinese long bean, pork with napa cabbage, and creamed corn (yes, creamed corn!) with chicken.

Check it out:

First make a pot of rice (long grain recommended).

Take some chicken thigh and cut it into thin pieces. Marinate with soy sauce, sesame oil, shaoxing cooking wine, sugar and a little cornstarch. Don't ask me how much because I couldn't tell ya--it's all trial and error.

Then prepare your vegetables. I like to cut the bok choy into thinner pieces, almost like a chiffonade but a little wider. It's really all personal preference however. Smash, but do not chop, one clove of garlic.

Make a mixture of a little water (half a cup, maybe?) and a teeny bit of cornstarch and set aside.

Heat a wok and add oil. When the oil is hot, add the chicken and the garlic clove. Stir fry the chicken in the wok until the chicken is cooked. Remove chicken from wok and set aside.

Add bok choy into wok and cook until tender. Scoot all of the bok choy onto the sides of the wok, forming a little well in the middle and add the water and cornstarch mixture. Stir to get some of those tasty browned bits into the liquid. When the liquid starts to simmer & thicken, add the chicken back into the wok, stirring together with the bok choy and cooking for just a couple more minutes until the bok choy, chicken and sauce have all had a chance to mingle. Spoon mixture over rice and dig in.

Because I would give anything to be on school holiday again, I like to eat my wui fahn in original old school kid style--with a spoon. There's just something about eating warm, tasty rice with a spoon that makes you feel like life is simple again.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Beer Goggle Cuisine: Hodori, Koreatown

There are some types of restaurants that leave more of a stink factor on your clothing than others, Korean restaurants being one of them. It made sense, therefore, that because we were going with our friend to the Russell Peters show at the Wiltern in Koreatown, we would try our best to avoid restaurants having too much smoky cooking odor in the air. Not that we were sitting close enough to the comedian, best known for his hilarious imitations of various ethnic groups, to be called out for letting off too much stank, but we'd still have our reputations to uphold with hundreds of other audience members sitting around us.

I remembered that whenever we'd gone to Hodori, a popular late night Korean "fast-food" restaurant, with friends after hitting the bars, we never came out too smoky since everything's cooked in the back. And it was quick and cheap. So to the minimall on the corner of Vermont and Olympic it was.

It was weird to pre-party at Hodori, as I'm used to seeing the place bustling with tables of dressed-to-the-nines clubgoers in search of some cheap nourishment to soak up the over-inebriation in their bloodstreams. Instead, the place was only about an eighth full and pretty quiet when we arrived at 6pm, most of the customers being older Korean couples.

As excited as we were for our panchan to come to the table, we couldn't help but turn all of our attention to the "Stress Reduction Kit: Bang Head Here" sign (an image all of us have received in many an email forward) printed on the back of our waitress's t-shirt. But the bizarre mental images of people actually doing slamming their heads on the waitresses' backs soon turned into full attention towards the little plates of Korean amuse-bouches in front of us. The panchan--an on-the-limp side baechu (napa cabbage) kimchi, a decent kkak-duki (radish kimchi), refreshing bean sprouts, that bland-but-surprisingly addicting plain gelatin with soy sauce dish I've never known the name of, and a hearty Korean-style potato salad--was not anywhere near as plentiful as what we're used to in other Korean restaurants and not excellent, but nevertheless welcomed as we were starving. All of this was washed down with ice cold water served in steel bowls, the cool metal making the drink seem that much more refreshing.

when you can count the panchan on one hand, it's not enough

the widest "cup" i've ever seen

I ordered their kalbi dot sot bibim bap, a dish of rice, egg, vegetables such as marinated daikon, squash, carrots and bean sprouts, and pieces of kalbi short ribs sizzling in a stone pot. No matter where you go, any bibim bap order will come with gochujang, or Korean red pepper paste, inside a red squeeze bottle of what people not in the Korean know would mistake for ketchup. After squeezing a bajillion concentric circles of the deep red-colored sauce into the bowl and mixing all the ingredients together with my spoon, I was ready to dig in. Hodori's version was just allright, with a good amount of beef and vegetables, but lacked the right amount of smoky crispiness I love in a dol sot bibim bap. Somehow, I remember this dish, with its heat from temperature as well as from the gochujang, tasting alot better after a night of drinking.

kalbi dol sot bibim bap, aka alcohol sponge

The same was thought of the bulgogi, Korean BBQ'd beef, and the dak bulgogi, BBQ'd chicken, that Isaac and our friend ordered. The meats, usually full of smoky garlicky flavor when grilled tableside, arrived on sizzling plates looking and tasting quite bland. Another couple of dishes that usually taste a thousand times better post-bar or club.

no stanky clothes=bland korean bbq

beer goggles would make this bulgogi better

Outstanding Korean cuisine is not Hodori's strongpoint, that's for sure. But it's not like they don't have a niche in the Koreatown restaurant market as a late night attraction for those with a blood alcohol level at least a tenth or even to those still giddy with excitement from dancing, a fun night out with friends, or a laugh out loud comedy show in our case. The Happy Horomones are already there--good food is just secondary at that point, right? With its round-the-clock hours and healthy portions, Hodori is just a great place for them to settle down before going home. And you'll stink more of alcohol and cigarette smoke than you will of cooking fumes.

Hodori Restaurant
1001 S Vermont Ave
Los Angeles, CA 90006
(213) 383-3554

For dessert, I'm throwing this clip in to give you an idea of the comedy that gave us our Happy Horomones that night. Take a peek:

Friday, December 01, 2006

Getting It Done: Tacos Baja Ensenada, East L.A.

Being as much of a scatterbrain multitasker as I am, I pretty much rely on the To-Do List to organize everything that's going on in my life, both professionally and personally. For example, my pre-weekend planning routine always consists of a list, jotted down in the little notebook that I always keep in my purse, that somehow never deviates much from the following:

1. Go to Trader Joes
2. Go to 99 Ranch
3. Go to California Market
4. Go to Target
5. Go to Costco
6. Clean
7. Do laundry
8. Figure out what to eat

And then within each of those tasks lies a sublist of things I need to get or do. You get the picture. Pretty boring, huh?

So it comes as no surprise then, that when I recently gave notice with my
old employer, I made a list of things I had to get done before never again setting foot in that cubicle rat maze located smack dab in the middle of the industrial wasteland better known as Commerce.


1. Clean out desk
2. Check for and delete any personal files on hard drive
3. Get contact info for people that I actually care to keep in contact with
4. Review final paycheck and be sure they did not short change me on any vacation payout
5. Make any final purchases using employee discount
6. Leave folder full of blank
TPS reports in drawer as a surprise for my replacement, whoever he/she is
7. Go to Tacos Baja Ensenada

There haven't been all that many eateries that were on my Absolutely-Need-To-Try-While- Working-In-Commerce list; in fact,
most of them were in Monterey Park, an area which, albeit close to Commerce, is an area I go to often and is not considered a city that I wouldn't really have reason to visit except to go to the Le Creuset outlet at the Citadel. Tacos Baja Ensenada in nearby East L.A., however, was an obvious exception. With only five days to go, I made it a point to cross this task off my Exit To-Do list no matter what it took. I checked Outlook to pick a day in which I had no torturously close-to-lunchtime meetings scheduled, hopped in the car by myself (yes, I'm an old pro at that now) with a Google Maps printout in hand, and went towards Whittier Blvd. in search of what are considered the best Baja-style tacos in L.A.

With its bright lime green exterior, Tacos Baja Ensenada is not hard to spot at all. Arriving before the lunch rush, I was lucky to not have to wait in line to order and snag one of the tiled tables in TBE's long, spare, but bright and clean interior. As I waited for my tacos, I helped myself to condiments at the restaurant's colorful condiment bar: lime wedges, sliced radishes, and a couple of peppers that drew me in with their cool color scheme of chartreuse speckled with reddish-orange. I watched as one of the restaurant's employees selected and scooped fresh seafood from a small counter bar to make freshly prepared ceviche and cocteles--apparently popular menu items at TBE--and made a mental note that I must try one of these the next time I come out this way.

skittles has nothing on these guys...just look at all those colors!

seems like it's always happy at this ceviche bar

This time, I stuck with what TBE is best known for...two Baja-style fish tacos and a shrimp taco were just fine for my lunchtime appetite that day. Upon first bite into a taco, I could already see why people love this place. In fact, let's go back to what I preach is my main criteria for judging a good taco. No, it's not that it just tastes good. It's that
a good taco has to be a team effort of all its parts, and TBE certainly trains its team members well. You've got the battered fried fish which is fried to the perfect golden brown and that somehow remains crispy, even when paired with the taco's wet ingredients: the perfect amount (meaning not so little that it's almost dry and not so much that it's dripping) of refreshing, slightly tangy crema, and juicy diced tomatoes. Shredded cabbage adds another angle of cool and crisp, and finally, a couple of warm fluffy corn tortillas wrap the whole thing up into a coherent package. The entire experience is a team effort of different flavors and textures--no fighting, no disagreement--now isn't that nice? The shrimp taco was a little different in that the fried popcorn-style shrimp added a bit more of a crunchy dimension to the taco, but was the same in that these taco parts also worked in perfect harmony with each other. The condiments that I'd picked up were also highly complimentary to the cause--a few squirts of lime juice are essential on any fish taco, sliced radishes add even more refreshing crunch, and eaten in moderation, the vinegary peppers were spicy enough to clear my sinuses, but not so much that they overpowered the meal. Too bad I had to go back to work, because a cold beer would have been the only other thing needed to make this meal perfect. Oh man.

there is no "i" in team, nor in TBE

DG picked a pack of pickled...

As I was inside TBE, a car happened to careen into a fire hydrant and cause quite a bit of a disruption and traffic getting out of the restaurant's parking lot and back onto the main street.

Normally, I would have started to stress out a little over getting back to the office late, but I would be leaving in just a couple days. I therefore added #8 to my Last-Days-At-The-Office To-Do List:

8. Saunter back into the office late without a care in the world...your days are numbered and your belly is happy and full, so who cares?

Tacos Baja Ensenada
5385 Whittier Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90022
(323) 887-1980

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Pinkberry, a.k.a. D.I.N.K.berry

melrose & la brea is pretty dink-y, wouldn't you say?

Having finally tried the goods at the overly-hyped frozen yogurt chain, I have to admit that I found the yogurt, having a more sorbet-like icy texture than a rich, creamy one, very refreshing. Paired with some diced strawberries and pineapple as well as some fruity pebbles for some color and crunch, it was the perfect cool-me-down snack on an unseasonably hot November afternoon.

i like how they covered up the "pink" with the $4.95 price sticker

But at an average of five bucks a pop per person for frozen yogurt (because trust me that I finished a medium with three toppings by myself), my husband and I would have to remain D.I.N.K.'s for the rest of our lives (that's Duel Income No Kids for those of you not in the know) if we were to continue fueling any sort of Pinkberry habit.

D.I.N.K.berry, indeed.

D.I.N.K.berry, I mean, Pinkberry
in a DINK-y neighborhood near you

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

What The Fuck Is A "Tuffet"?

(image courtesy of

Little Ms. Glutton
Wasn't doing nuthin'
But eating her curds and whey
Along came an offer
That came up beside her
And took Ms. Glutton away

Oh, but what does this all mean, DG???

It means that Daily Gluttony got a new job, silly. Why? Because quite frankly, curds and whey suck.

I apologize for the sluggish posting and for the fact that it's taken me months to tell you about a two week trip to Hawaii (and I'm still not done yet). Shame on me, but you have to understand that the commute from Downtown L.A. to Orange County is taking up alot of my time.

Orange County????

I'll leave you with that for now. See you soon with new posts.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Maui, Part 5, The Final Chapter: A Mixed Plate, A Mix Up, And Mixed Feelings--Aloha Mixed Plate

The first time we went to Lahaina's Aloha Mixed Plate was on purpose. Having heard that this restaurant, an offshoot of the
Old Lahaina Luau, was one of the best bangs for your buck in Maui, Isaac and I headed down the overly commercialized, Crazy Shirts- and ABC Stores-laden Front Street to have dinner.

The restaurant is basically a huge wood deck facing the ocean in back of a small, shack-like house. Sit in the part of the deck right next to the water and you can eat your meal prohibition-style with no alcoholic beverages at all; sit in the back part of the deck closest to the shack and you can lush it up. We chose the part of the deck closest to the shack for obvious reasons, and though we weren't in that section where we were right up on the ocean's ass, the view and sound of the water were no less spectacular. We could also hear the music from the Old Lahaina Luau next door, which though somewhat overpowering at times, was nice in that we got a little entertainment without actually paying for entertainment.

sit right up here....

...and you can't have this

My Hawaiian Plate was basically just a kalua pig plate with the usual two scoop rice and mac salad plus some added acoutrements of poi and lomi lomi salmon. I don't know if you know this about me, but I have a thing for boiled/braised cabbage, so to be honest, I think the reason I liked the kalua pig so much that night wasn't so much because of the pork itself but more so because of the ample amounts of cabbage it was cooked with. Take that and the fact that I hadn't had much in the way of vegetables over the several days we'd stayed in Maui, so my withdrawals for greens were making me gobble that kalua pig up. As for the pork itself, there were tasty patches that had moist little slivers of nicely browned pork laced with luscious pork fat which I love on kalua pork; at the same time there were dry and bland patches which I made sure to eat with cabbage shreds to make them more palatable. The rice and mac salad served their purpose in making the whole thing stick to my ribs more and I hardly touched the little condiment cups filled with lomi lomi salmon and poi. I had a little taste of the lomi lomi salmon, and let's just say that it did not smell or taste fresh and as for the poi, well, I've always thought it was pointlessly tangy, so I left it alone.

had they had a plain cabbage plate, i'd have ordered that

what's the poi-pose?

Isaac's grilled mahi mahi was, as all the mahi mahi we'd eaten on the island, very nicely done. The piece of fish was moist, flaky and grilled so that it had a nice tasty charred exterior. There seemed to be two kinds of mahi plates available at Aloha Mixed Plate, one that is served in typical plate lunch format with two scoop rice and mac salad and another that is served in typical American grill format with fries and cole slaw. Though we'd pointed to the one in plate lunch format, there was a little mix up and the fish came out with the wrong starch & salad combo; the mistake was fixed right away however and Isaac was happy once again with rice in his belly.

not quite the mix up i'm referring to

That, however, is not the mix up that I'm refering to in my post's title. The second time we went to Aloha Mixed Plate was by accident, or more specifically, because we happened to get lost in Maui. Now you're probably wondering, "How the hell does one get lost in Maui??? Isn't it all just one road that goes all the way around the island?" OK, OK, so maybe we didn't get lost in the sense that we wouldn't have eventually found our way back, but rather we were lost in the sense that for about an hour, we didn't know where the fuck we were.

On our last night in Maui, we'd originally planned to have dinner at the Paia Fish Market, which according to some of our friends and some locals we'd talked to, had fish that was just as fresh if not fresher than that at
Mama's Fish House, but served in a not-so-tourist-attractiony-atmosphere and at a fraction of the price. Having left all of the good Maui maps and books at the hotel, the only map we had in the rental car was some simple line map inside a cheesy Maui tourist brochure we'd picked up either on the street or in our hotel lobby. And stupid tourists that we were, decided that it'd be a good idea to take the northwestern route from Ka'anapali past Kapalua to Paia since we had yet to see that side of Maui.

"Hmm, according to this here map in this here brochure, it looks like the same distance to Paia as our usual route"

So at about 5pm, we got into the Buick and drove north on Highway 30, instead of the usual drive south and back onto northbound Highway 380 route. It's true what they say about how no one part of Maui is the same--this northwestern part was a bit more rocky than other parts of Maui we'd been to and the unusual rock formations provided an interesting backdrop to the gorgeous ocean that surrounded us. For about an hour, we drove and drove on this windy mountain highway and at first, were awed by all the beautiful scenery until we realized that there were no signs telling us where we were in relation to our destination, that the sun was starting to set and that we only had a quarter tank of gas left.

"Hmm, I wonder when this windy road will end..."

"How much longer do you think?"

The stupid newlywed tourists (a.k.a. us) were optimistic though, and kept driving in hopes that they'd have to eventually get there, and kept driving until the two lane windy highway turned into a narrow one lane road.

"Uh, I don't think we should be on here."

"Do you think we should turn around?"

(Yeah, you think?)

Fortunately, there was a fruit stand on the side of the road that was still open and I got out and asked the very bored looking teenage girl where we were and how much longer to Paia. Not even looking up at me, she said that we were in a town called
Kahakuloa and that it was at least another hour and a half drive to get to Paia.

Ah, fuck.

We had to drive further down in order to find a place to turn the Buick around, and after we finally turned the car around, drove about one mile per hour in silence, shitting bricks and praying that no one would be coming the other way on this narrow, windy one lane road that by the way, is located on the side of a mountain. Don't forget that it was getting dark very fast.

And just as we thought we had cleared death when the highway turned into a two-lane road again, things started to get really eerie as what we like to call the "Maui Hick"--a man who we could tell was missing teeth even at the speed he was driving--came speeding towards us in some kind of golf cart looking vehicle and chasing after him, a pack of rotweilers. It doesn't end there because a little further up, we encountered a pack of donkeys that had taken the liberty to just chill on the road. The combination of our headlights, the twilight lighting, and the somewhat evil stare of donkeys made the entire experience feel like something out of The Omen. Imagine the joy we felt when we finally saw the lights of Kapalua from a distance. Yeah, yeah, I know you're probably thinking "Where is your sense of adventure, DG?" I'll tell you where it was--we left it L.A.

After that surreal experience (and no I was not exagerrating any part of that) we didn't have it in us to go around searching for a place to eat so back to Aloha Mixed Plate it was. This time around, I ordered the kalbi plate which wasn't very good as the sauce on the kalbi ribs was way to sweet as well as way too sticky and abundant. Isaac ordered the shoyu chicken (sorry, no picture) which was good but nothing special--just teriyaki chicken, basically. The lackluster food didn't stop us from being happy that night though; sometimes there is comfort in the safe and familiar.

far from k-town kalbi

All in all, I had mixed feelings about Aloha Mixed Plate. On the downside, the food was mediocre to decent at best; on the upside, you really can't beat the price (about $25 for two entrees and two cocktails--cheap by Maui standards) and the prime location right on the water. It was also there for us in a time of distress, which is always allright by us.

Aloha Mixed Plate
1285 Front Street
Lahaina, HI 96761
(808) 661-3322

To see Kirk of
mmm-yoso!!!'s review, click here.

Well boys and girls, that concludes my recap of our Maui trip--it's about fuckin' time, don't ya think? Don't forget that I still have Oahu to write about (yeah, you thought you were off the hook, didn't you?), but at the rate I'm going, it'll be July before I finish my Hawaii series. Because I'm nice, I'll give all y'all a short break from the Hawaii posts and do a couple of LA-based posts in the interim. Have a great Thanksgiving everyone!

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Maui, Part 4, Section C: Don't Forget The Little Guy, A Tale Of Two Islands--Mama Ding's Pasteles

Despite being in the middle of a completely different ocean, just the mere fact of being on a land mass surrounded entirely by water was making my hubby Isaac a wee bit homesick for Puerto Rico. Of course it didn't help the poor guy that the muggy climate was making our clothes stick to us, that we were driving on narrow two lane roads amidst hills covered in lush vegetation, and that the facades of local buildings had blackened over years of basking in humidity...just like in his native island.

I could tell that my better half had been missing home from the moment we got off the plane what with
all the comments about how things he'd been observing on Maui struck a striking resemblance to people, places and things in Puerto Rico. Or was it perhaps that he could feel the presence of his peeps? According to something our wedding photographer told us, maybe there was a droplet of validation to why he'd been yearning so much...apparently, Puerto Rican communities, however small, have sprung up through the decades to work in Maui's sugar industry. He also told us that there was indeed a Puerto Rican restaurant called Mama Ding's Pasteles right over in Kahului.

You can bet that once we got back to the hotel, we made a beeline for the Yellow Pages. We called the restaurant to check their hours and got a recording that the restaurant had been closed for a few weeks but that it would reopen the day before Isaac and I were scheduled to leave the island. Lucky us.

With their address scrawled on a slip of hotel stationery, we drove past warehouses, carpet showrooms, and trucking facilities in a very industrial section of Kahului looking for Mama Ding's when suddenly, we saw its small pink facade sanwiched in between a couple of much larger warehouses. The words "Puerto Rican Special" were painted on the window and when we walked in, a huge Puerto Rican flag mounted to the restaurant's wall greeted us...we knew we were in the right place.

yep, this is the place

Service was extremely friendly from the moment we walked in, but at the same time, we could tell they were a little surprised that a couple of tourists had stopped in. Mama Ding's, a restaurant run by the Caravalho family since 1984, is far from your typical Maui tourist destination, and while Isaac and I aren't the stereotypical tourists donning loud aloha shirts and fanny packs, we don't look like your typical locals either. Nevertheless, the folks at Mama Ding's made us feel like we'd been customers for years. While Isaac was in the back using the restroom, I started shootin' the shit with the young woman behind the counter, part of which included me telling her how we just got married a few days ago and how Isaac was from Puerto Rico and how our photographer told us about this place. To which she responded not by answering to me but rather by excitedly announcing our story to the two gentlemen who were sitting at a nearby table: "Hey, guess what? These guys were just married here and their photographer told them about Mama Ding's! Her husband is from Puerto Rico!!!" To which they responded with "Oh yeah? Allright!" and "Congratulations!" and several questions to Isaac regarding whether or not he spoke Spanish, what part of Puerto Rico he came from and so on and so forth.

Like all other Hawaiian local joints, Mama Ding's serves local-style breakfasts--choices of meats such as Portuguese sausage, Vienna sausages or Spam served with eggs and rice--as well as various plate lunches, saimin, fried rice and sandwiches. What is a little more unusual for your typical Hawaiian eatery, however, is the addition of a few Puerto Rican specialties to the mix. There is a Puerto Rican Breakfast, which like the other breakfasts, gives you a choice of meat with two eggs any style, but is served instead with gandule rice and a pastel, which I'll get into later. There is also an Habichuela Plate, consisting of a Puerto Rican red bean stew served with rice and salad. We went right for the restaurant's most popular menu item and what we came here for--the Puerto Rican Plate.

One of the questions I am most frequently asked about Puerto Rico is "So what is Puerto Rican food like?" And everytime I'm asked, I don't really know how to answer. Living in L.A. where the Puerto Rican restaurant pickings are slim to none, and not having visited Puerto Rico yet, I haven't had much exposure to Puerto Rican food. (And no, Isaac doesn't really cook--or I don't let him, I should say--so I haven't tried Puerto Rican cuisine via that avenue either) I've pretty much only had real Puerto Rican food once when Isaac's grandmother came to visit and cooked for us, and delicious as it was, it was only one meal so I still couldn't come to a conclusion as to what the exact characteristics of Puerto Rican cooking are. Pre-blogging days, we found a place down in Cypress called Senor Big Ed's that serves both Puerto Rican and Mexican food, and both Isaac and I thought it was *eh* not just by Puerto Rican standards but by regular food standards, so that experience basically does not count. I know that there are alot of fried, roasted and stewed meats. I know that rice and beans are served with just about every meal. From what Isaac tells me, I know that Puerto Rican cuisine is spicy, not in a habanero chile kind of way, but rather in a heavily spiced and seasoned kind of way. Which is why on the rare occasions that Isaac cooks, he adds every spice and seasoning in the spice cabinet to the dish making it turn a deep shade of orangey-reddish brown every single time. So yeah, although Mama Ding's didn't have a full menu of Puerto Rican specialties, I was glad that I had yet another chance to sample Puerto Rican cuisine, even if only a couple of items.

I've had pasteles only once or twice before, but to me, they still seem like an old friend. We Chinese have something similar in our cuisine called "joong," in which sticky rice filled with savory meat and other fillings is wrapped in a bamboo leaf and boiled; I've been familiar with Mexican and Cuban tamales for a while now. Pasteles are made in a similar fashion to its cross cultural cousins in that tender pork and green olives are surrounded by a masa made with green bananas, wrapped in a banana leaf and boiled. It always amazes me that the people of our cultures, while being so distant and different from from one another, still manage to come up with similar food preparations. Just goes to show that we're not so different after all--we all have the same needs to survive and feed our families, and hence the need to develop ways in which to do so.

Now I don't have many benchmarks by which to judge Mama Ding's pasteles, but I can say that they were excellent and that they have become a new benchmark by which to judge future pasteles. Its masa of green banana was moist and supple and had a nice mellowness to it which both complimented and enveloped the savory pork filling just enough so that the whole thing formed one nice tight bundle. At the same time, it wasn't so tight and dense that you couldn't put a fork through the damn thing.

isaac's homesickness on a plate

I don't think there is really a difference between an empanadilla and an empanada, so you just have to naturally like empanadillas because really, who doesn't like empanadas? Any fried meat filled treat that you can pick up and eat with your hands is a friend of mine, and the ones at Mama Ding's are no exception. The shell of our empanandillas had the texture and taste of perfectly browned pie crust and contained a nicely spiced shredded pork filling. I will admit, however, that I could taste a faint hint of cilantro or culantro (a cousin of the
evil weed of death that is used frequently in Puerto Rican cooking or so I'm told) in a few bites, so I concentrated on those bites in which I couldn't detect any gag-inducing soapiness and all was good. All of this was served with a slice of chorizo sausage and arroz con gandules (rice with pigeon peas), a popular Puerto Rican rice preparation which I happen to really enjoy. It's one of those dishes that isn't so flavorful that it overpowers everything it's served with , but that tastes just slightly enough of achiote-infused oil that it makes you want more.

Our Puerto Rican Plates also came with a green salad, which would have otherwise been just your typical green salad had it not been for the addition of a little bacalao, or salted cod, and pineapple. Mama's Dings even throws in a canned peach half for dessert--something I've never been all too fond of, but that in this specific occasion, reminded me of stuff my own Grandmother might have done when cooking for us kids, and made me feel all warm and fuzzy inside because Mama Ding's is just that kind of place.

a little bacalao goes a long way

In the corner of the restaurant was a TV and VCR playing home videos of Puerto Rican vacations, and as we were finishing up our meals, one of the gentlemen who we'd spoken with earlier introduced himself to us. With eyes and ears on the TV watching and listening to the people and festive music, Frank Caravalho Jr., one of the family owners, and Isaac began reminiscing about the island they both love and miss. Frank Jr. even pulled a photo album of his family's last trip back to Puerto Rico from behind the counter for us to look at. I may not know much about Puerto Rican food yet, but one thing I do know for sure now is when there is so much pride and love for one's own culture, it will show in the food. I am sure, therefore, that as I get to try more and more of it, I won't be disappointed.

wait, i'm boriqua by association--do i count?

Sadly, Mama Ding's has since closed its doors. Frank Jr. continued to tell us that the restaurant would be closing in just a few weeks so that the Caravalho family could care for his father, Frank Sr., who had been suffering from a form of vascular dementia.
This article from The Maui News implies that it's not clear whether the restaurant will be closed permanently or not but either way, I'm glad I was able to experience the care Mama Ding's gave to its food and its customers. The Caravalho's made us feel like we were guests in their home--and if you think about it, Mama Ding's represents home in many different ways to many different people. A warm mahalo goes out to the Caravalho family for the wonderful meal and hospitality--you are all in my thoughts and I wish you all the best.

Mama Ding's Pasteles
(I know it's closed but here's the info anyway)
255 E. Alamaha St.
Kahului, HI 96732
(808) 877-5796

Monday, November 06, 2006

Maui, Part 4, Section B: Don't Forget The Little Guy--Hitting Up Maui's Local Grindz

(this is not my idea of good vacation food)

Allright, fuck
seared ahi.

sauteed onaga.

$40 hotel breakfasts and crappy island style tacos.

'Cause let's be honest here. You don't go to Hawaii for just that.

Before I start to sound like a
2Pac song about food, I'll just say it. You go to Hawaii for the local food, my favorite being the plate lunch--you know, the usually bad-for-you-in-one-way-or-another meats served most always with two scoop rice and mac salad. The stuff that doesn't quite fall into any certain ethnic category as far as Japanese, Korean, or Chinese, but that for sure falls into the "hearty," "comforting" and "filling" categories. Hey, get money, take money, whatever. You gotta hit 'em up.

The first local joint we hit up in Maui was Hanafuda Saimin, located in the Azeka (Long's Drugs) shopping center in Kihei. Starving after a five hour flight from L.A. in which the stupid airline did not serve any food but rather charged us $4 for a shitty "snack pack" and $5 for an Asian chicken salad, we ran into this place while cruising down Kihei Rd. Two things caught our eye as we walked into this small storefront located next to a cheese shop that is named, funny enough, Who Cut The Cheese? One, there were two very large local construction workers sitting at one of the tables slurping up bowls of saimin--a good sign if I ever saw one. Second, the walls are plastered with dollar bills decorated by who I'm assuming are customers. Also nice because it gave us something to look at while waiting for our food.

dolla dolla bill y'all

We looked at the menu for a couple minutes, trying to decide from a variety of plate lunches consisting of everything from kalbi ribs to katsu to curry but in the end we both decided that some fried saimin would hit the spot. Hanafuda lets you pretty much add anything to your saimin, so Isaac and I opted to add some fried Spam and kimchee into the mix to kick things up a notch.

The huge plate was filled to the edge with noodles and came with a scoop of mac salad on the side. Their "noodles to ingredients ratio, " which seemed like a good 2:1, made sure that we didn't get too much noodles nor char siu, spam, kimchee and scallions with everybite. We also liked the nice chewy bite of the noodles. The one thing we didn't like, however, was that the dish was waaaaay too salty, but fortunately, the mellow creamyness of the mac salad and a few glasses of ice water helped to calm it down. We had to be careful to ration the mac salad so that we did not finish it before we finished the saimin, else we'd die of thirst. Despite the salty fried saimin, we thought Hanafuda Saimin was decent, and we'd give it another go the next time we're in South Maui; based on what we observed while we were in the restaurant, it seems as though the restaurant has a good local following since our waitress knew most of the customers by name. It also seemed as though the place makes a mean Korean Style Fried Chicken--a dish they had posted up on the dry-erase specials board--as we heard a couple of customers ask for it.

everything's better (but saltier!) with a little spam

Kihei Caffe (no, I am not tripping--they actually spell it with two "F"s) isn't really a traditional local plate lunch joint as much as it is a "regular" cafe that sells sandwiches, salads and burgers and a few local plate style breakfasts and lunches as well. We had Kihei Caffe's breakfast twice while we were in Maui actually; my brother had gone to pick breakfast up one morning and Isaac and I went on a separate occasion during our actual honeymoon. Sitting out on the huge lanai of our condo, my family members enjoyed a variety of Hawaiian style breakfasts such as Portuguese Sausage and Eggs, Loco Moco, Corned Beef Hash and Eggs, and Macadamia Nut Pancakes whilst enjoying the morning view of the Pacific. My Portuguese sausage and eggs breakfast hit the spot, with its slightly spicy sliced sausages, fluffy scrambled eggs, and perfectly browned fluffy biscuit. I was a little annoyed at my brother at first because I thought he'd had the good sense to get me rice instead of potatoes with my breakfast, but I later found out that only certain breakfasts come with rice (e.g. the corned beef hash) unless you ask for it. That, and the potatoes, done "homestyle," were delicious--soft on the inside but a little crispy on the outside, with some of the skins left on and a little onion to taste. I had a bite of my Mom's mac-nut pancakes which were nice and fluffy despite the fact that they'd gotten a little cold in transport. My brother's loco moco, however, despite a tasty gravy, was pretty disgusting with its rubbery hamburger patty. (Don't use the photo as a measure though--alot of it got smooshed in the car on the way back)

not so hawaiian, but still hit the spot

you'd have to be loco to like this loco moco

pillowy mac nut pancakes

This stereotypical "beach shack" eatery has a good following amongst locals and tourists alike as it was quite crowded with both before 9am on a weekday morning. The line was about 6 customers deep and almost going out the door, but service was efficient and friendly. After finding a table on their patio, our Spam & Eggs breakfast plates were soon brought out. I hate to say it, but I was really disappointed in this breakfast. The fried Spam was a little too undergrilled and the biscuit, which had been warm, fluffy and nicely browned on the cut side last time, was cold and crumbly this time around. Knowing that you have to ask to sub rice for potatoes, we asked for rice this time, but realized that we shouldn't have as it was just plain mushy. I hope that Kihei Caffe was just having an off day because I really liked their friendly neighborhood vibe--I mean, McDonald's Spam and Eggs Breakfast kicked this shit out of the water for heaven's sake--and judging from my very decent Portuguese Sausage breakfast a few days prior, it seemed like they were just having a bad day.

makes me wanna sing love shack & rock lobster

i wanted to like this spam-a-lot, but didn't

mc-better than mc-kihei caffe's that day

We'd been told by a couple of people to try this place for some good local grindz, so one afternoon before heading upcountry to the
Haleakela Crater, Isaac and I hit up Da Kitchen in Kihei.

located in da' rainbow mall

This little mini-mall restaurant has more of your typical Hawaiian plate lunch style grub--teri beef & chicken, katsu, kalua pork, lau lau, saimin, even a chow fun dish they call "Won Fat Guy's Chow Fun"--and everything sounded so good that we experienced a slight case of analysis paralysis while scanning the menu. After standing there like idiots, staring at the menu board with our mouths half open in way that people could see the imaginary cartoon bubble over our heads that said "duh," and after a few "go ahead--we don't know what we want yet's" to other customers walking in after us, we finally decided on at least one thing to order.

"Uh yeah, could we have a..."

(Pause as I kept scanning the menu board)

"uhhhhh...a loco moco?"

The girl behind the counter wrote it down while we kept staring at the menu then looked back at us to let us know she was ready to take down our next item.

"And we'll also have a uh...wait...umm..."

The girl behind the counter seemed to know that we needed to be taken out of our misery: "You know, the loco moco is ALOT of food. You two could probably share it and it'd be enough."

And you know? She was right. The styrofoam box containing our loco moco, a dish I can only describe as a "heart attack on a plate" of hamburger steak and a fried egg over rice and smothered in rich gravy, was literally bursting at the seams and oozing with gravy. The hamburger steak, with its dense patty, had a nice charred beefy taste and was delicious. Mixed with the slightly crisp edges and runny yolk of the fried egg, it proved that protein and cholesterol were indeed good things. A bed of fluffy white rice was the perfect sponge to soak everything up. All was good--all, that is, except for the gravy, which we both thought was a little overkill. There was so much of it, first of all, that it seemed to form a moat of gravy around the egg and second of all, we didn't really care that it had so much onion and mushroom in it. The side of potato-mac salad was pretty damn good with the potato giving it a unique edge, but we would have prefered it not having been soaked in all that gravy. Other than the gravy overload, it was allright--at least our bellies were full to keep us warm for that afternoon's trek up to Maui's volcanic summit.

would you like some loco moco to go with your gravy?

not such a little guy, this one: the haleakela summit

Because we were tourists ourselves--it had been over 20 years since I'd been to Maui and it was Isaac's first time--we were a little restricted in both time and location by our vacation schedule, but had we had a little more time on the island, we definitely would have gone to some other local faves. Fuck that East Coast/West Coast shiznit--we're putting
Sam Sato's, Honolua General Store, Honokowai Okazuya & Deli, and Kitada's just to name a few on our list of "Hit 'Em Up" joints for next time.

Stay tuned for Part 4, Section C when Isaac and I visit another little guy who's all about the island, but not necessarily this island.

Hanafuda Saimin
1279 S. Kihei Rd. #304 (located in the Azeka Shopping Center)
Kihei, HI 96753
(808) 879-9033

Kihei Caffe
1945 S. Kihei Rd.
Kihei, HI 96753
(808) 879-2230

Da Kitchen
2439 S. Kihei Rd.
Kihei, HI 96753
(808) 875-7782

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Maui, Part 4, Section A: Don't Forget The Little Guy--Tacos in Maui, WTF?

next good/cheap food: at least 5 miles.

The good news is that you're basking in the throes of paradise. There is no work to do, your inbox is temporarily empty, your boss is not asking you for the seventh time to reformat your report because the CEO is blind. If you felt like you didn't want to move a muscle, you pretty much wouldn't have to, except for maybe a few quick squiggles of your hand to scrawl an illegible room number and signature for yet another mai tai. The sun's rays make you all warm and fuzzy inside, and on the outside, a a nice shade of glowing bronze.

The bad news is you're probably stuck in a tourist trap. Which for all the reasons I mentioned above isn't at all a bad thing. But when there are thousands of other people besides yourself on the island for those same exact reasons, restaurateurs are going to try and market to all of us suckers, I mean, tourists.

Fine dining with an ocean view!

Voted Best Restaurant Three Years In A Row! (as determined by Random-Maui-Tourist-Guide)

Award-winning chefs will prepare Maui's best seafood as you dine under the stars!

It's all a big to-do production, this tourist-destination restaurant business. Sometimes it's simply annoying, like when Isaac and I decided to not leave our resort one morning for the sake of relaxation and spent forty bucks on a shitty hotel omelette and generic pancakes. Sometimes the food's good, but still too expensive because you're paying not only for the food but for an experience--
one that would mimick the Disneyland of Fresh Fish, if there ever was one. And sometimes, you get a good one, and it's just right.

hey--the pepper was free! the other stuff? not so much.

But what about the little guy? I mean, surely there's got to be stuff to eat outside of the grandiose resort, right? I'm talking places where there is mostlikely no view or ambiance whatsoever, where the food is maybe served on paper plates or where you can perhaps bus your own table...places that a few locals may even patronize. These were the kinds of places that my hubby and I were actually seeking out on our vacation over the big fancy restaurants, but because we were tourists ourselves, it was a little difficult knowing where all the good ones were (or at least having the time to get to the good ones) despite having done a little bit of research. There were some good ones, but there were certainly some not-so-good ones as you could already tell from
our very un-extraordinary taco stand experience on the road to Hana.

Speaking of tacos, we were surprised that there seemed to be somewhat of an interest in them on the island. We knew in the back of our heads that finding good tacos in Maui would be somewhat akin to finding good sushi in the Midwest, yet our curiousity led us to try not only those heinous road to Hana tacos but also tacos from a popular Hawaiian taco chain, Maui Tacos. Just a hop, skip, and a jump from my family's condo rental in Kihei, Maui Tacos seemed like a convenient place for a bunch of us grumpy travellers and
wedding preppers to grab a quick bite and also to see what all the hub-bub was over tacos on this island.

how do you say "baja fresh" in pidgen?

Despite the faint glimmer of hope that we'd be wowed by some unique Hawaiian-Mexican fusion flavors, we were--as expected--thoroughly unimpressed. My
Baja Fresh-esque two taco combo plate was just allright, but I kind of almost wish it had been really bad, because then it'd been able to kill me quickly without me having to think too much. The combo of somewhat-tasty- steak-with-shredded-lettuce-and-cheese-overkill-on-lukewarm-tortillas-along-with-some-decent-yet-generic-beans-and-rice was so mediocre that it was almost as if someone were trying to kill me with a cookie-cutter. I will give these guys a "A" for service, however, since the guys behind the counter were nothing but smiles and "no problems" even though most of my family members couldn't make up their fucking minds on what to order and literally took up half of the tiny restaurant's space just standing there blankly staring at the menu board. Oh, and by the way, I just found out that Maui Tacos has franchised locations nationwide; meaning I coulda gotten some of this shit in Boise, Idaho if I wanted to.

acceptable by maui standards; not so acceptable by l.a. standards

But oh no--these weren't the last tacos we had in Maui. After a few hours of hanging out and playing around at Makena's beautiful Big Beach, we were completely famished, and it just so happened that the Jawz Tacos truck was sitting there right as we turned onto Makena Alanui Road. Now you and I both know that despite the taco truck facade, this conveniently located truck preys on hungry beachgoers like myself and is just as much of a tourist trap as any of the resort restaurants in neighboring Wailea. But as hungry as we were and as disheveled as we looked coming straight from the beach with damp clothing and sand sticking to our skin, this little wood-paneled taco truck on the side of the road was a much more logical choice than anything, say, at The Grand Wailea.

do you like my "please support the little guy" disguise?

We all know that on the whole, food in Maui is quite expensive and even the Jawz Taco truck was no exception. A refried bean taco costs 5 dollars and tacos with any kind of meat in them cost at least 6; burritos start at 6 dollars and hot dogs are a whopping $4.50. Isaac and I ordered a couple of mahi mahi tacos to scarf down and what we got was twelve bucks worth of more mediocrity. These tacos were defintely more tightly constructed and better team players than those we had on the Road to Hana, but that's not saying much. The fish was quite fresh, yes, but the taco itself was quite bland. As a general rule for all fish tacos, the sauce is key in tying all the elements of the pillowy tortillas, flaky fish and crisp cabbage together, and the sauce on these bad boys couldn't quite make the cut, leaving the cleaner flavors of the fish and cabbage to just simply sit there doing nothing. And at six bucks a pop, they were quite a ripoff considering I can get a taco bursting with all kinds of flava's back home in LA for under a buck. But we were in Maui after all, and at least we were able to drive back up to Ka'anapali with less acid in our stomachs (as well as less money in our pockets).

next thing you know, carl's will have a "six-dollar taco"

After having had tacos from three different places in Maui, I can now say with complete confidence: Don't do it.

Before you start chasing me with dogs and torches for ever considering eating tacos in Maui, let me just assure you that it's not all we ate in terms of cheaper, non-fancy, non-resort food. Stay tuned for Part 4, Section B, when Mr. and Mrs. Gluttony wise up to not eating tacos in Maui and try out some of the "little guys" who serve local fare.

Maui Tacos
2411 S. Kihei Rd.
Kihei, HI 96753
(other locations throughout Hawaii and the U.S.)
(808) 879-5005

Jawz Tacos
Makena Alanui Rd (mauka side) near the entrance to Big Beach
Makena, HI