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