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Thursday, December 27, 2007

Missing Katz's Pastrami

Here's a quick post on my favorite pastrami spot in LA, Langer's in McArthur Park. Maybe that isn't saying much, considering there is a dearth of good delis in LA, especially compared with New York.

Truth be told, my real favorite pastrami place is in New York. I have tried Second Avenue Deli and the touristy Carnegie Deli of monstrously massive cheesecake fame. Some may argue Katz's Delicatessen is equally touristy, but my pastrami heart belongs to Katz's no matter what anyone says. Nothing beats the piping, juicy slabs of hot pastrami on rye and mustard with bright green pickles on the side that Katz's offers. Not to mention atmosphere, but I digress.

This was supposed to be about Langer's. As much as I like Langer's, I guess I can't help but yearn for the best. Plus, I was miffed that Langer's skimped on the pastrami the last time I went and service was a tad slow. The delectable chicken soup (basically comfort food in a bowl) looked great when it arrived and tasted decent but everyone else had nearly finished their meals by then.

I usually try to avoid delis like Canter's on Fairfax and Nate'n Al in Beverly Hills, not to mention Junior's in Westwood. I'm not going to honor Jerry's infamous deli chain, which is a sacrilege in and of itself.

What makes a good pastrami? The meat has a deep, complex flavor that brings out the salt, garlic, pepper and spices smothered all over it before it was smoked. The slices are thin (Langer's is a tad thick for my taste), tender to the point of crumbliness, juicy and super hot -- fresh out of the steamer. The bread is soft. The mustard complements the meat and strong rye bread perfectly. The pickles' sourness adds another dimension of flavor.

If you have never tried pastrami, you are seriously missing out. Photos are courtesy of RSB, who thankfully has the foresight to carry everything one may ever need in her bag. Long live the giant tote! By the way, she recommends skipping the cole slaw.

Validated parking is available in a separate lot on Wilshire a block east of Alvarado, but I recommend taking the Red Line of the metro (McArthur Park station) if you work anywhere near Koreatown, Downtown or all the way in Union Station.

Langer's Delicatessen
704 S Alvarado Street (@Wilshire Blvd.)
Los Angeles, CA 90057
(213) 483-8050

Sunday, December 16, 2007

None Tops This Dog

I finally made the trek out to Berkeley during my most recent Bay Area trip and took photos of my favorite hot dog of all time at Top Dog. I'm usually not a hot dog lover by any stretch and I frown when my partner shows a weakness for fast food. But this isn't fast food in the Fast Food Nation sense. It's the kind of dog whose quality you could vouch for. Top Dog prides itself in getting different sausages from the best vendors such as Molinari and Saag's.

I've tried most of the 11 kinds offered from the classic all-beef Top Dog to the healthier Lemon Chicken option but my perennial favorite is no doubt the Louisiana Hot Link, made of pork and beef and the spiciest of them all. The photo above certainly doesn't do it justice. The combination of the nicely warmed bun, the perfectly charred and juicy dog and the condiments is phenomenal. I'm a sauerkraut-kind-of person and boy, Top Dog has one mean sauerkraut. Top Dog practically turned me into a sauerkraut convert -- who knew piping hot fermented cabbage could look so inviting!

Not to undermine the importance of good mustard to finish off the toppings, Top Dog has at least three mustards to choose from depending on your heat tolerance. I like to have it with the mild mustard because the Hot Link is already pretty darn hot. The first bite into the sausage as it squirts yummy, spicy juices is so satisfying. Add the bread, sauerkraut and mustard and you're in heaven. Chopped onions are also available but I think they merely distract.

It's the perfect snack, at $3 a pop (it used to be $2.50 for the longest time) and you have to love the joint's decidedly anti-establishment messages wallpapered throughout its tiny space. I have had many debates about whether the original Top Dog in the Durant location has the best-tasting dog because of its weathered, aged griddle. I think it does.

When I went to Germany for the 2006 World Cup, to say I had overdosed on those ubiquitous bratwursts by the time I left three weeks later is an understatement. I was done, no more, nein danke. I swore I wouldn't have another hot dog again at least until the next Cup. Sure, a bratwurst is no Hot Link. But it's remarkable that the minute I saw Top Dog on the horizon, all traumatic memories of eating one too many bratwursts squeezed alongside those crazed, face-painted football fans whizzed away and the smell of hot dog on a griddle was irresistible.

We once bought the sausages and buns and served them to our friends and family at a beach-side barbecue to rave reviews (veggie dog available). It also helps that the place stays open late. The original shop closes at 2am (3am on Fridays and Saturdays) -- right around that time you hanker for something to get you going for the rest of the night to study for that exam or hop onto the next party (or just sleep).

Pink's or other hot dog joints in LA don't do it for me. I think Pink's is horrible and have yet to sample one here that's comparable to Top Dog. I was excited to see U-Dog in Westwood try a similar concept a few years ago but it didn't come close and it, well, closed (it is now a falafel place). Note to self: Must try the hot dog cart in Culver City that J Gold mentioned a few weeks ago.

Top Dog (Multiple locations)
Berkeley Southside
2534 Durant
Berkeley, CA 94704
(510) 843-5967

Monday, November 26, 2007

A Korean Hotpot Named Genghis Khan

As a shabu shabu lover, I find it inconceivable that LA doesn't yet have a good and affordable place serving this flash-in-the-pot comfort food. I had to walk out of Kagaya in Little Tokyo because it was too pricey and walked away from the popular Shabu Shabu House in the Japanese Village because the wait was at least 30 minutes on a good day. The all-you-can-eat place I tried in Little Tokyo's Weller Court was ok but the sesame sauce was mediocre and didn't even have a proper curd-remover. It's sad that my favorite shabu shabu joint in terms of taste and value is Shabu Sen in San Francisco. I recently found solace in Seoul Garden in Koreatown for some Korean-style shabu shabu -- or "Genghis Khan" as Koreans call it. But more on the origins of the name later.

"Genghis Khan" still involves cooking razor-thin slices of rib-eye in a boiling pot of water at your table, but is different from shabu shabu in many aspects (although equally satisfying). Genghis Khan uses seasoned beef broth to cook the meat instead of plain water (or flavored with dashi, or kelp), so there is a lot of flavor even before dipping into the accompanying sauces. There is only one type of sauce (no sesame sauce), a slightly sweeter and almost garlicky version of ponzu sauce, a mix of soy sauce with citrus flavor. My favorite part is the hefty bundle of chopped cabbage, sesame leaves and green onions to be cooked and eaten with the meat dipped in the sauce. Every morsel of meat is paired with stringy veggies splashed with a tangy, salty and slightly sweet sauce. It's a brilliant combination. The sesame leaves add an earthy bite to the pairing that is complemented perfectly by the citrus-y sauce.

Other sides to cook in the hotpot include tofu, mushrooms, fishcakes and root vegetable jelly that the waitress swore would improve my skin. Not withstanding its beautifying effects, the jelly was tasteless. The chunky udon noodles added after the meat is gone was nothing special. But wait. There's more. There is a bowl of rice, one raw egg and some toasted seaweed strips that our waitress promptly mixes into the donut-shaped pot after she drains most of the broth. This concoction turns into jjuk, or porridge, which I didn't love. In Korean Genghis Khan places, this kind of "finale" porridge is usually made with tiny chopped vegetables such as carrot, sesame leaves and green onions. I wouldn't have the porridge next time. Besides, it was too much food for two. Two orders of rib-eye Genghis Khan could easily feed three if not four.

Genghis Khan is, of course, named after the man himself circa 13th century Mongolia. It is said he fed his troops this protein-packed meal because it was quick. Japan reportedly adopted the dish in the 20th century and named it shabu shabu ("swish swish") after the sound of the meat cooking in the water, but it seems like many cultures have some variations of hotpots where thinly-sliced meat is cooked. Japanese shabu shabu joints offer alternatives for non-red meat eaters such as chicken or seafood and Seoul Garden does too. I haven't tried other options but I daresay some things simply shouldn't be messed with. The banchan, or side dishes, were solid. It had been a while since I had had myulchibokeum, or dried baby anchovies pan-fried with green chili peppers in soy sauce, sesame seed oil, corn syrup and sprinkled with sesame seeds. It's salty, sweet and crunchy all at once, not to mention nutritious. What's not to like? It really tastes better than it sounds, as does sliced pickled cucumber seasoned with red pepper flakes and mixed with green onions. The kimchi, spicy fermented cabbage (or radish, green onion, cucumber, to name a few kimchi variations) that is Korea's national dish accompanying every meal, is especially important here because the meat needs something to counterbalance its, well, meatiness. The cubed radish kimchi, or kakdugi, was better than the regular cabbage kimchi.

Genghis Khan novices need not fear. A section of Seoul Garden's wall prominently displays step-by-step instructions in English and Korean on how to enjoy the experience. There is usually a wait after 6pm and a very long one during peak times (7-8pm on Fridays and weekends). It's not cheap -- running about $25-30 per person including tax and tip, without drinks.

Seoul Garden (Korean name is 서울회관)
1833 West Olympic Boulevard (at Burlington between Alvarado & Union)
Los Angeles, CA 90006
(213) 386-8477

Sunday, November 18, 2007

A Taste of Italy and France in Florida

As an addendum to the previous post on Florida, I wanted to add some non-Latin American options in case one has had one too many goat stews, plantains, frijoles or arroz con mariscos.

We stumbled into La Gastronomia in Coral Gables near a trendy area with expensive restaurants that were highly rated such as Cacao and Ortanique on the Mile. We didn't want to pay up to $44 for a steak entree, so headed into this Italian joint that was modestly priced.

I liked the pizza at La Gastronomia that was light and thin, without a blob of cheese dripping all over it. Pizza is its specialty and the brick oven by the entrance greets visitors with the comforting aromas of baking crust, cheese, tomatoes and basil. The artichoke pizza was simple and tasty. The pastas were less impressive. Neither the pancetta bits nor the egg and cream-based sauce added anything special to the carbonara.

Sticking to the Italian theme, we ventured a few days later to South Florida's Hollywood near Ft. Lauderdale and found a decent gelato place. La Paciugo serves an array of gelatos and sorbets, perfect following a heavy meal. It wasn't as good as Mondo Gelato in Vancouver, but it certainly hit the spot in Florida's tropical weather.

I had the raspberry, papaya and mango sorbet combination, which was refreshing to the palate. The papaya had the weakest flavor and raspberry had the strongest. Other creamier gelato flavors were ok but not to die for. More importantly, it didn't carry my favorite flavors such as gianduja(chocolate hazelnut) or hazelnut.

Next stop: South Beach. I really liked the art-deco buildings peppered throughout the bustling corridors of South Beach. I thought they added a unique touch to the otherwise fairly generic beach-front walkway (Third Street Promenade, anyone?).

While walking around Española Way, a pedestrian street near the main strip, we came across something resembling a Parisian oasis. A La Folie (being crazy about something) is a charming, quaint French cafe with outdoor seating at the end of the street that looked oblivious to the throngs of people and shops only a few blocks away. It was a perfect little haven for a break from the crowds.

The menu offered everything from crepes and quiche to croque-monsieur sandwiches. The pate sandwich on fresh baguette was very good. It came with a small salad and cornichon (baby pickles), which complemented the potentially heavy sandwich had it stood on its own. The pea soup was a bit too creamy and heavy, and I'm usually not one to shy away from any of those traits. The creaminess was simply overpowering any hint of pea flavor, which is not a good thing.

The service was decidedly French, complete with waiters responding in French regardless of the language in which the question was posed. "I'd like the pea soup." "Tres bien!" "The check please." "Bien sur!" Allez Les Bleus!

The quiche lorraine was a disappointment. The crust was too hard and didn't have a soft texture inside. It was more like a pecan pie gone wrong.

Note: this isn't the best place to call a cab from if you have a flight to catch. A woman adjacent to us waited for over an hour for a cab to find the hideaway and was probably late for her flight.

La Gastronomia
127 Giralda Avenue (near Miracle Mile)
Coral Gables, FL 33134-5208
(305) 448-8599

2001 Harrison Street
Hollywood, FL 33020-5019
(954) 616-1664

A La Folie
526 Española Way
Miami Beach, FL 33139
(305) 538-4484

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Fried Yucca with Cheez Whiz in Florida

Having lived in South America as a teenager and heard my share of hype about Miami, it was with some anticipation and trepidation that I made my first trip to that much-glamorized part of South Florida. The food reflected the diverse Latin American groups living there and the verdict from a small sampling is that while I appreciated learning about different food cultures, I was not blown away. I will highlight select items that were very good.

The weather was a refreshing departure from Los Angeles -- humid, toasty and unusually windy due to a slight encounter with Tropical Storm Noel that thankfully ended at that for Florida. The atmosphere was pure Latin America -- palm trees lining residential areas, everyone in the streets or restaurants conversing in Spanish and at the risk of offending some, women tended to wear more makeup, have bigger hair and sport tighter clothes.

One amusing trend was the proliferation of restaurants serving "sushi-Thai," or "sushi-Thai-Chinese," presumably because there isn't enough demand for any one of these cuisines by themselves. To be fair, some Floridians may wince at restaurants in L.A. serving "Carribean" or "Latin American." I didn't see much of that out there. It was either Peruvian, Venezuelan or Haitian, among others. A more disturbing trend was that everything was overpriced unless you had a local take you to a local eatery on the outskirts of Miami. That's what we did thanks to our friends living in Ft. Lauderdale.

Our first foray was Borinqueya Restaurant, a Puerto Rican joint in Davie that used to be owned by a Puerto Rican-Dominican guy (hence the name, which means Puerto Rican and Dominican). I tried one of the country's staple dishes, Mofongo (left), fried and mashed green plantain seasoned with garlic and other seasonings. It was good but a tad dry and dense. The Carne guisado con yuca al mojo y arroz con gandules (first photo, top) was a heartwarming bowl of braised beef accompanied by garlicky yucca seasoned with herbs that had been boiled and a tower of rice with pigeon peas.

I was craving something hearty and got the Pernil de cerdo al horno, roasted pork leg with fried plantains and a small bowl of very good black beans. I loved the plantains (hard to mess up) and beans, but was disappointed at the pork's unpleasant too-porky smell and not-too-tenderness. I was hoping the meat would be melt at first bite, but alas, not only was the texture off, the dish was served lukewarm to cold. Call me harsh or high maintenance, but this is one of my biggest pet peeves in restaurants. Even if other dishes from the table aren't ready, we should get the dishes as they become ready. The wait staff was very friendly, though.

Next stop: Cabo Blanco, a Peruvian place tucked away in a Ft. Lauderdale mini mall. The highlight was Yuca a la Huancaina, fried yucca with a cheesy sauce resembling a much more complex and sophisticated sibling of Cheez Whiz. The sauce is made out of lowfat cheese and yellow pepper, and was the best thing on the menu. This being a Peruvian establishment, we had to try the Ceviche mixto, an eclectic mix of raw seafood including sea bass, squid, octopus and shrimp cooked slightly with lemon juice and other spices. It was refreshing and the thinly sliced red onions added a nice crunch. The national dish (or most popular/well-known dish), Lomo saltado, chunks of beef stir-fried with onions and tomatoes, served on a bed of french fries with rice on the side, was not great. The beef was tough and the french fries unremarkable. We're still looking for a good rendition of this dish in LA. We've been to Mario's Peruvian and Los Balcones del Peru, to no avail.

What I considered the most exotic was Nirvana, the Trinidad and Tobagoan restaurant that got rave reviews from the local L.A. Weekly equivalent, New Times. The chef is a fourth-generation Indian-Trinidad and Tobagoan, and infuses Indian influences into the native cuisine of the Carribean country northeast of Venezuela. Thanks to a brief power outage that nearly left us hungry and irritable, we had the best item on the menu (we were initially told this was the only thing they could serve us after the outage since the cooks had cleaned out the kitchen to go home) -- the curried squash soup.

The deep, sweet squash flavor permeated throughout the hearty soup, but the star was the topping that included sauteed shallots, garlic and zucchini, with chopped tomatoes that tasted like they had been pickled to add a tangy flavor that complemented the curried squash broth very nicely. Other fusion attempts sounded better on paper, including plantain-crusted crab cake served with avocado, goat cheese and organic greens with honey bell mango cream aioli; and flounder stuffed with crab meat and goat cheese served over lentil bean rice with vegetables, topped with an orange guava aioli, to name a few.

I later asked the chef what was up with all the goat cheese and he said it was a twist on the islanders' love of goat meat, whether mixed into curries or stews. Fair enough. I am rather neutral on goat cheese and perhaps not surprisingly did not love the crab cake or the flounder. There was simply too much going on with both the strong-flavored goat cheese competing with the crab meat in the flounder, aggravated by the soggy, flavorless rice that accompanied it. The sweet aioli didn't do much to enhance the flavor of the flounder or the rice. Maybe I'm more of a savory person than sweet, but the flavors and textures simply didn't jive for me. The house salad that came with entrees was a pleasant surprise -- a mix of greens topped with pickled apples, carrots, red bell peppers and cucumbers.

I'm glad I tried it but not sure if I would return. Entrees were in the low-to-mid-20s range.

You may ask why I didn't have Cuban food. It didn't seem as different (maybe too obvious of a choice) and mostly circumstantial. I would like to have tried Venezuelan in Weston and Haitian in Little Haiti as well but not being a professional food critic who has the time or budget to have ten meals plus a day, I present you the best of what I did try. The first two restaurants don't have Web sites.

Borinqueya Restaurant
The Shops at Stirling Place
6875 Stirling Road
Davie, FL 33314
(954) 587-2482

Cabo Blanco (Multiple locations)
948 NE 62nd Street
Ft. Lauderdale, FL 33334
(954) 489-2244

1701 North Congress Avenue
Boynton Beach, FL 33426
(561) 752-1932

Monday, October 22, 2007

Can you say fall-off-the-bone in Afghan?

How's this for a story: local favorite Afghan restaurant in San Francisco named "The Helmand" located on the edge of North Beach and Chinatown closes down. Its manager moves to Arizona to set up shop because he's told there isn't a single Afghan restaurant there. I'm glad he did. I would return any day to savor his amazing lamb shank, but more on that later.

We drove by Kabab Palace -- Cuisine from Afghanistan a few times thanks to its prominent location. Curious, we walked in, only to find out it had been three days since it opened. Armed with a huge appetite and even larger party, we ordered a good sampling. The top photo features two appetizers that can be ordered as entrees: aushak, a ravioli filled with leeks and scallions, served on a sauce of yogurt mint and garlic, topped with ground beef and mint; and mantwo, homemade pastry shell filled with onion and beef, served on yogurt and topped with carrots, yellow split-pea and beef sauce. Interesting factoid: the word, "mantwo," used for these ethereal dumpling-like things is the same as "mandoo," used for Korean dumplings, and "manti," tiny dumplings served with yogurt in Turkish cuisine.

Both appetizers were mild and the flavored yogurt sauce complemented the dumplings nicely, but I liked the aushak better, only because I thought the ground beef inside the mantwo was a bit dense. It may well be the garlic-infused yogurt sauce on the aushak that did me in. It helped that the bright white yogurt tinged with sprinkles of green from the mint and red from the meat sauce looked vibrant and inviting.

Let me jump to the best dish, hands-down: qabelee, a pilaf-type rice baked with chunks of lamb shanks, raisins and glazed carrots. This type of rice is called "pallow," and is described as basmati rice boiled then drained of water, seasoned with vegetable oil, cardamom, cinnamon, nutmeg, cumin seeds and black pepper caramelized and then baked. That's a pretty elaborate preparation of the rice. But the star of the dish was the lamb shank, in all its fall-off-the-bone glory. Lamb isn't usually the most popular meat, but my companions were devouring it. The lamb was buried inside a mountain of the rice topped with raisins that added a tinge of sweetness to the rice and lamb combination. It was like discovering a treasure tucked inside that was waiting for its shining moment. I can't think of a better way to eat lamb shanks.

Sabzi challow was another good lamb and rice dish but slightly different. It was lamb loin and the challow rice is made in a similar way to pallow rice but with less seasonings. I liked the spinach that came with the lamb, but some grains of rice of the challow were dried out and hurt when I bit into them.

My third favorite dish was chapendaz, beef marinated, grilled and served on a sauce of grilled tomato, hot peppers, onion and cumin seeds served with lentils and spinach rice. I liked that the beef was cooked medium as requested, although I'm a medium rare kind of person (family-style dining has its pitfalls). We also had mourgh challow, a chicken dish infused with spices and sauteed with yogurt, cilantro and curry, which was similar to chicken tikka masala but less spicy. Koufta challow featured rice with beef meatballs sauteed with sun-dried tomato, hot peppers and green peas in a tomato sauce. The meatball dish looked a lot better than it tasted. The meatballs were too densely packed and felt dry.

What pulled the flavors together was the condiments trio that included "chatnis," the Afghan word for "chutneys." Cilantro chatni was my favorite, which tasted almost identical to the Indian variety, bu the other red chatni was made out of chili peppers and there was a yogurt and dill sauce that added a refreshing touch to the meat dishes that could feel heavy at times.

All of these delectable dishes were washed down with the perfect drink -- green tea with cardamom. Service was great and I would definitely recommend this place. It also has a lunch buffet I have yet to try but I'm sure it'll be as well-prepared with care and attention to detail as the dinner dishes.

Kabab Palace
Cuisine from Afghanistan
710 W. Elliot Rd., Suite 108
Tempe, AZ 85283
(480) 775-6288

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Everything that a Lamb Stew Should Be

I am so excited I found yet another gem in the San Gabriel Valley. Even though I can't say I've tried everything or gone five times, I feel good giving it a solid endorsement because it hit the spot in such a big way.

I had read much about the fine Muslim Chinese food haunts and finally made my way to China Islamic in Rosemead. The lamb hot pot (called Lamb Stew Warm Pot -- we got the small size) was excellent, as was the sesame green onion bread. There were a good number of lamb dishes, not surprisingly, and I went with what was most recommended on message boards. Our waiter told us the hot pot would take 20 minutes (made fresh to order!) and we were in no hurry.

The best part about the hotpot was the ultra-tender, fall-off-the-bone chunks of lamb that were so incredibly succulent that two of us had no trouble totaling all the bone-in pieces of lamb in the pot. And it was a big pot. The silky pieces of tofu, vegetables and glass noodles harmonized with the aromatic herbs and spices that went into the hotpot made it such a pleasure to slurp and dunk the bread in that we surprised ourselves by barely leaving any juices in the pot.

I detected some nutmeg and cumin, but the most pronounced flavor that distinguished this dish from other hot pots was aniseed, which has a slightly liquorice-like undertone. I think there were fresh sprigs of cilantro topped on the soup that gave it a very refreshing finish.

Now for the bread. You can get thick or thin sesame green onion bread and I opted for the thick one because I thought that would be more authentic. And thick it was -- a bit too much so for me. But the crust was perfectly crispy sprinkled with toasted sesame seeds and the dough had chopped green onions integrated into it. It was good by itself and did a decent job of soaking up the juices in the pot. I would probably get the thin bread next time, which looked more manageable. I'm just not a huge fan of overly doughy breads.

My only Muslim Chinese food experience prior to this was in Xian after visiting a mosque nearby. We were obsessed with trying local places that wouldn't be touristy, and were directed to a hole-in-the-wall that served only one thing -- soup with soaked pieces of bread torn by the eater. I don't remember what it was called but do recall loving it despite the laborious task of tearing the bread into very small pieces. When my lazy ways prompted me to tear bigger chunks into the soup, the local patron we were sharing a table with gestured to produce smaller chunks -- much smaller chunks. I complied. It was worth it.

Back to China Islamic, we also had the Shredded Chicken with Bean Sprouts and Dried Bean Curd that was a stir-fry with vegetables. It was bland; I wouldn't recommend it. The restaurant was initially empty on a weekday but later got a bit noisier with kids frantically running around as more families occupied large round tables with lazy susans.

I will definitely return to sample more.

China Islamic
7727 E. Garvey Avenue
Rosemead, CA 91770
(626) 288-4246

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Soups Up (the hearty seafood variety)

On top of the good food I had in San Francisco restaurants, the icing on the cake was that I was invited to a dinner party cooked by a master chef in training who made the most amazing garlic bread and heartwarming seafood stew.

The menu was simple yet hearty and flavorful.

We started out with Belgian endives topped with a modified Caprese salad of sweet tomatoes, balls of mozarella and shredded basil seasoned with oil, garlic and balsamic vinegar (she may some other secret ingredient I wasn't aware of). It was great because while I'm not a huge Belgian endives fan, the bitterness of the vegetable complemented very nicely with the refreshing and garlicky salad topping. It was also a treat not having to cut each piece of tomato and making sure each morsel contained the threesome combination that make a Caprese salad great. No fussing -- I just scooped it up with an endive, or bread later when we ran out of endives.

Now for my favorite part of the meal -- the garlic bread. While she didn't make the bread herself (courtesy of Il Fornaio), she brushed the chunky slices with a divine mixture of olive oil and garlic before placing them face-down on a nonstick grill pan and grilling them to perfection, crispy and soft at the same time, complete with grill marks. I know that an actual BBQ grill would do the trick better, but since I don't have one and won't get one anytime soon, I vowed to treat myself to one of those pans soon.

Needless to say that the bread topped with the Caprese salad was even better than the endives. You could say I had bruschetta, then, although the correct pronunciation of the beloved appetizer and snack topped with anything from tomatoes to prosciutto is much debated (is it brus-ke-ta or brus-she-ta? We hear it's likely the former and others have said both are correct, but maybe I need to consult my Italian sources in Bologna to weigh in).

We had to police guests from eating all the bread so we could use it to soak up the juices of the wonderful seafood stew called cioppino. I'd like to share a unique cioppino recipe our host created from multiple sources. The cioppino was extremely filling but it felt ok indulging because it was fish, clams, shrimp and veggies -- stuff that's good for you in moderation, of course. In short, it was the perfect comfort food for a cold day.

I'd like to thank our host, JK, aka Cocinera, who graciously fed us and shared her passion for cooking with us mere mortal cooks. Hope she doesn't forget about us little people when she opens her new cozy eatery!

photos: courtesy of Catherine the Great.

Cioppino Recipe
(serves 6)

1 onion, chopped
1/2 green bell pepper, chopped
1/2 red bell pepper, chopped
4 large shallots, chopped
1 can (28 oz) peeled tomatoes, chopped
6 cloves garlic, minced
2 Tbs flat leaf parsley, minced
3 Tbs basil, chiffonade
1 Tbs thyme leaves
1 bay leaf
1 Tsp red pepper flakes
1/4 cup (8 oz) tomato paste
2 cups dry white wine
6 cups fish stock/clam juice
Olive oil
salt & fresh ground pepper for seasoning
1/2 lb large shrimp
1/2 lb mussels
1 lb clams
1/2 lb halibut
1/2 lb squid

1. Clean & steam the mussels & clams in water until the shells open. Remove the seafood and save the liquid.

2. Shell & devein the shrimp, leaving the tails intact.

3. Make additional fish stock if there isn't enough clam juice.

4. Heat about 3 tablespoons of olive oil in a large stock pot.

5. Add onions, shallots, green & red bell peppers until tender (about 5-6 minutes).

6. Add garlic & red pepper flakes and sauté for few more minutes.

7. Add tomato paste, peeled tomatoes (with juice), basil, thyme, parsley and bay leaf. Cook for 2 minutes.

8. Add white wine & fish stock. Bring to boil.

9. Salt & Pepper to taste.

10. Cover the pot and bring the heat low to simmer for 30 minutes.

11. Add shrimp, squid & fish. Continue to simmer until fish & shrimp are cooked.

12. Add mussels & clams. Cover and simmer for 5 more minutes.

13. More salt, pepper & red pepper flakes to taste.

Ladle the stew into bowls and serve with garlic bread.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

I Left My Stomach in San Francisco

I had a whole list of eats in mind when I arrived in San Francisco, pondering that eternal question of whether to go for the excitement of possibly discovering a new gem or go to an old standard with the comfort of knowing I'll have a good meal.

Here I share the gems, since I've already reviewed the old favorites (Shabu-sen, etc).

I was fortunate enough to have a very nice dinner at Fringale, a tiny restaurant serving "Basque-inspired" cuisine. Having a large group gave us the advantage of trying many things on the menu.

We shared appetizers, including beef carpaccio with a Szechuan pepper mayonnaise and crispy horseradish (pictured), which looked beautiful but lacked punch in its flavor as I couldn't taste the Szechuan pepper or the horseradish; spicy monterey calamari "a la plancha" with jalapeños and chorizo, which was the clear favorite of mine and the group, with its perfectly-cooked squid that was soft and chewy enhanced with the kick of both the pepper and chorizo (what's not to like?); and butter lettuce with sweet anchovies served with mustard vinaigrette, which was nothing special.

The roast rack of lamb with pesto and Emmental potato gratin I ordered was the most expensive item on the menu at $25, and at least the meat was worth it. The lamb was cooked medium-rare as requested and melted in my mouth like buttah (red wine helped). The pesto seemed almost superfluous given the freshness of the meat that could hold its own flavor. I'm a huge fan of both Emmental (Swiss cheese) and potato gratin, and thought the combination of the two would be a no-brainer. The melted cheese on top, however, was hard by the time the dish made it to the table and the gratin was a bit too mild.

The steak was decent but not anything spectacular. Desserts were good but we were too full to enjoy them. They were creme brulee, hazelnut and roasted almond mousse cake and warm chocolate gourmand, which were rich, dense and a bit too sweet for my taste.

Overall a good experience with attentive service by a waiter with a French accent so thick that he made me wonder whether he was really from the Midwest.

I also liked Flytrap, where I had very good French bread and a prawn salad that was very refreshing but the service was slow, in part due to our large party.

The next stop was Out The Door, the casual sibling of the much-hyped and beloved Slanted Door in the Westfield mall located within walking distance from the hotel. It was very convenient and I vowed to explore that food court more next time.

Out The Door serves Vietnamese food, or rather, Americanized versions of the venerated cuisine. Don't get me wrong. I liked my chicken thigh curry with tiny grains of rice. It hit the spot after days of consuming bland and heavy soups and sauces. The dark meat was juicy and the spices made me sweat but I was happy.

We also had the vegetarian fresh rolls made with tofu, shiitakes, cabbage, mint and peanut sauce, which were bland. My companions had the grilled lemongrass pork over rice noodles with imperial rolls, cucumber and mint, which was meant to be bun with BBQ pork, but turned out to be a watered down version of the real deal with dry, overly sweet meat. Another had the lemongrass chicken with red onions, jalapeños, roasted chili paste and peanuts with rice. The red onion was the star of this dish -- crispy and slightly sweet with a hint of spice. A vegetarian ordered baby spinach sauteed with garlic and caramelized shallots, which reminded me of spinach namul, a Korean side-dish of steamed spinach seasoned with garlic, salt and green onions. It was good but not substantial enough to base an entire meal around.

I've had good food at Slanted Door, but am turned off by the way it charges $24 for its shaking beef, or bo luc lac. Maybe Slanted Door uses extra-good quality free-range beef and adds a modern twist to it, but it tastes similar to (but not as good as) the bo luc lac I've had in Little Saigon -- that splendid Vietnamese dish of stir-fried filet mignon cubes accompanied by watercress and a lemony dipping sauce. Maybe Slanted Door made Vietnamese food more accessible to the masses but I look forward to exploring Little Saigon more than I do going to SD. I have nothing against it, but am convinced I could find so much better for so much less in Westminster where the largest population of Vietnamese Americans live.

Now for the best part: Beard Papa cream puffs in not one but two shops within walking distance from the hotel. After lunching at Out The Door, I picked up a pumpkin cream puff, a flavor I had never had before, and saved it for my late afternoon snack. One could say I'm a fiercely loyal devotee of these puffs and am usually partial to vanilla but this puff's rich pumpkin flavor with a hint of cinnamon was strangely comforting as it reminded me of fall and mentally prepared me for a Thanksgiving feast.

I'd like to thank my new food stylist-cum-photographer, CC (you know who you are, but I'll call her Catherine the Great), for these amazing shots.

All restaurants reviewed here are within walking distance from the Powell St. Bart Station area with lots of hotels.

570 Fourth St.
San Francisco, CA 94107
(415) 543-0573

606 Folsom St.
San Francisco, CA 94107
(415) 243-0580

Out The Door
Concourse Level
Westfield Shopping Center
865 Market St.
San Francisco CA 94103
(415) 512-6776

Beard Papa
Multiple Locations
Concourse Level
Westfield Shopping Center
865 Market St.
San Francisco CA 94103
(415) 512-6776

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Canada Report: Afternoon Tea in Vancouver

I was fully ready to indulge in some serious dimsum and other Cantonese chow, armed with recommendations from an employee of the City of Vancouver. I am disappointed to report that I didn't have great Chinese food or any great food in Vancouver, but it's less a reflection on the quality of the restaurants than it is the restrictions and finicky tastes my travel mates had.

Besides the gelato place posted below, my only real recommendation would be the afternoon tea at the Dining Room inside the Butchart Gardens in Victoria. At $25 a pop, it's a bargain compared to the Fairmont Empress Hotel located on the waterfront, which charges a whopping $55. And the three-tiered spread is not bad, including hot, cold, sweet and savory goodies to munch on while sipping ultra-rich tea (I had the "Teaberry Blend," which I recommend for berry-lovers.)

The seasonal fruit cup with yogurt citrus dressing was nothing to write home about. The hot and savory things included a quiche with dried-up shrimp and Gruyère
and a sausage roll that could have come from a box. You can't miss those delicate little tea sandwiches, of course. We had smoked salmon with maple Dijon cream cheese, egg salad and watercress (standard), mango-curry chicken salad with toasted cashews (my personal favorite), smoked ham with sweet grainy mustard (blah) and cucumber with fresh ginger (could hardly taste the ginger) cream cheese.

Top it off with sweets like chocolate Grand Marnier truffle (too sweet for me), orange apricot loaf, chocolate brandy Napoleon slice, shortbread cookie, a fresh fruit tart (which was bad, bad, bad), candied ginger scone (rock-hard) and a traditional black currant scone with strawberry jam and whipped Devon-style cream.

You may be wondering why I bothered to review this place if I didn't think much of its food. Two words: the view.

I mean, how can you go wrong with such a killer view? This confirms my theory that all restaurants with a great view don't have good food. I usually avoid these like the plague but it's hard to pass up such a nice ambience and view from your window.

I should also add that the pasta one of my companions ordered from the lunch menu was superb. It was pappardelle pasta with grilled oyster mushrooms, pine nuts, roasted garlic, cherry tomatoes and watercress in an olive oil sauce.

Service was good but a tad slow, like in most fancy restaurants. Another reason to come here is that afternoon tea is a treat and seems to be the thing to do to experience the Commonwealth-ness of this country (and you get to nibble on a variety of things).

Yes, as pretty as the flowers were, the Gardens felt like Disneyland, so I appreciated a moment of peace from the throngs of tourists. Although the dining room was full of tourists like myself, it felt more mellow.

Here are a few restaurants to avoid: Seoul House Royal Korean Restaurant on Broadway near the airport unless you're absolutely desperate for Korean (don't ask why we went); Fish House in Stanley Park, which had great salt cod fritters but the day's special of three types of salmon was dry and the salmon didn't even taste very fresh. And it was very expensive.

In Victoria, we went to Pagliacci's, which seems to be immensely popular with locals and tourists alike. It's a charming Italian place (right) with very warm service. Unfortunately, the food didn't quite measure up. We had smoked salmon salad with avocado, roasted red peppers, artichokes and greens, which was good, but when it came to the pastas, it flopped. My massive lasagna smelled like it had mixed ground beef with spicy Italian sausage, which I dislike, so couldn't eat it. I really wanted to like it, but the food didn't deliver. If you decide to go, however, make sure you get there at 5:30 p.m. sharp for dinner, as lines form even before the restaurant opens and only get longer as the evening progresses into peak dinner time.

I was amazed at how nice and efficient the wait staff managed to be at Pagliacci's. Despite the chaos of people lining up outside, tons of hungry eaters asking for things, our waitress never failed to check in on us and respond to our multiple requests for water, more bread, etc., with a friendly, "for sure," or "certainly." I quickly realized that Canadians say "that's for sure" a lot. Not sure what it is but Canadians were generally a lot nicer than people in any other English-speaking tourist hot-spot I've been to. Is it the water?

Besides sampling good Chinese food in Vancouver, one thing I wish I had done is eat at Granville Island's market, which boasts myriad of food stalls and fresh fruits and vegetables. Check out the varieties of Canadian bacon and salmon displayed below. Sheer pleasure. In case you can't tell, that is a real lemon meringue pie. Tell me about your fave Vancouver spots. Finally, a plug for Pacific Palisades Hotel, which was conveniently located on Robson Street, close to shops and restaurants, and mostly importantly for us, a Japanese market that had good green tea and red bean pancakes. My only complaint about the hotel is that it charges $25 a day for parking in its garage.

Dining Room
The Butchart Gardens
800 Benvenuto Avenue
Brentwood Bay, BC V8M 1J8
(866) 652-4422 (within North America)
(250) 652-4422 (outside of North America)

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Canada Report: Molto Gelato

Some may suspect I have been rather lax with the postings, but alas, I have been doing my fair share of food hunting in Vancouver and the Canadian Rockies and I kick off my first update with something to cool off from the current heat wave in LA.

I could hardly contain myself when I ran into Mondo Gelato, my favorite gelato shop this side of the world (meaning not Italy), on Robson Street in Vancouver.

I had first run into a Mondo Gelato in Berkeley a few years ago and it was truly love at first bite. It helped that Mondo carried multiple variations of chocolate and hazelnut that I have a soft spot for, including gianduia (chocolate blended with hazelnut), gianduia riso (Gianduia with rice crispies) and Ferrero Rocher (yes, the delectable sphere-shaped chocolate in gelato form), to name a few. It has over 100 flavors.

Mondo beats Pazzo Gelato in Silver Lake hands down, not to mention Angelato Cafe in Santa Monica. I have yet to visit Scoops and other much-hyped gelaterias in LA, but who needs black sesame-flavored gelato when you can have Nutella in all its creamy gelato glory? Better yet, who needs Pinkberry or Red Mango when the more health-conscious have a choice of sorbetto, soy gelato or yogurt?

I relished every morsel of my gelato -- on this particularly serendipitous day, it was two scoops of gianduia in a cup. I happily sampled my companions' flavors, which included vanilla (tasted the wonderfully pure and deep flavor of real vanilla beans, no artificial flavors here), green tea (refreshing and just the right aftertaste that good quality green tea offers) and maple walnut (naturally, I had to try this since we were in Canada and it was perfectly sweet without being overpowering with the right crunchiness of walnut).

I had no idea Mondo's reach extended all the way to Beijing, Rome, Hawaii and three Canadian shops. The closest one to LA is in San Diego (In the historic Gas Lamp District: 435 10th Avenue, San Diego, CA 92101), which I haven't yet visited. Maybe it's time for me to trek down to San Diego. How I wish Mondo would land in LA.

Mondo Gelato
1222 Robson Street
Vancouver, British Columbia
Canada V6E 1C1


Monday, August 6, 2007

Makings of the Best Kimchi Fried Rice

Whenever I get a hankering for perfectly seasoned kimchi fried rice with a crispy crust on the bottom, I head straight to Dong Il Jang, a BBQ-cum-sushi place (but the sushi part you can ignore) in Koreatown that serves positively the best kimchi fried rice around with just the right level of spiciness, glossiness (read: grease) and chewiness.

The fried rice is like a surprise present that comes at the end of the BBQ fest, and clearly the star of this meal. Order the "rosu gooey," which includes thick slabs of unmarinated ribeye pieces the size of sushi. The meat is cooked at the table with some butter spread onto the grill, alongside sliced onions that are placed at the center as if to keep the balance.

Because the meat is not marinated, the flavors come through by way of the salt, pepper and sesame oil dipping sauce and the fresh green onions to wrap the meat with. Optional add-ons include the wide array of banchan, or side dishes, that come with the meal. On any given day, the side dishes include at least two different kinds of kimchi, loosely defined as the "fiery Korean national dish usually consisting of fermented cabbage or radish, garlic and lots of chile powder." As you can see, I prefer to mix my meat with the kimchi and green onion.

Other side dishes include kongnamul namul, steamed bean sprouts seasoned with salt and garlic; gamja jorim, sweet and salty braised potatoes; oiji moochim, spiced pickled cucumbers; odeng moochim, spiced fish cakes; moo-u moochim, pickled radish strips; and a "New Korean" concoction -- chopped romaine lettuce salad in a spicy dressing with sesame seeds. My favorite side dishes are the potatoes and salad, and I usually add the bokchoy red kimchi into my green onion wrap for the meat. Don't worry if you don't finish some of them. They will become useful later in your meal.

The meat wrapped in any of these combinations is good, but nothing beats the anticipation of what is about to come down when the waitress brings a small steel bowl of chopped kimchi and bits of meat to be used to make the fried rice, along with a dollup of kochujang, Korean chili paste. "Will it be standard spicy?" "Yes!" we exclaim gleefully, recalling the just-right spiciness of our last experience that did anything but overpower.

What happens next is sheer magic. The waitress pours the contents of the bowl onto the same grill the meat had been cooked on, which in turn makes a delightful sizzling sound. This may not be for everybody, but the waitress also collects leftover banchan dishes from the table and piles them onto the grill. Bean sprouts, green onions -- it's all good.

Then she adds the chili paste depending on the spice level requested and cooks the kimchi and meat some more. Then comes the three bowls of rice, which the waitress so adroitly incorporates into the kimchi mixture that all of us at the table can't help but stare in awe of her super-fast hand movements.

No matter how many times I go, it never ceases to amaze me how well (and quickly) she mixes the rice evenly so that the snow white rice becomes fully tinged with the deep red color of the kimchi and chili paste, glistening from the butter and fat from the meat. The result is a heavenly bowl full of red jewels peppered with seared pieces of meat and soft kimchi pieces with a hint of sesame oil. If you like to scrape the rice crust from the bottom of the pan, you must be patient and wait for about 3 minutes before digging into the rice, or else you will have no crust, or nooroongji, as Koreans call it. It's simply the best part, but you have to work for it.

I recommend ordering the rosu gooey for 2 (minimum portion you can order) for up to a party of 3, as it's a lot of food and can get pricey. Don't forget to wash it all down with some shik-he, a refreshing Korean dessert drink of ice-cold water, rice and sugar, that is complimentary after a meal.

For homecooks, this dish is extremely easy to make. Sautee chopped store-bought cabbage kimchi on a pan with one teaspoon of sesame oil, add meat (or not if you're a veggie) and use day-old rice ideally, as it's drier than just-made rice. If you're a spice hound, mix in some of the hot paste and add some butter or vegetable oil to facilitate mixing. When fully incorporated, sprinkle with sesame seeds and/or green onions and voila.

Dong Il Jang Restaurant
3455 W 8th St. (at Hobart)
Los Angeles, CA
(213) 383-5757