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Monday, June 25, 2007

Thank You Zankou

I've tried many a rotisserie chicken in my lifetime, and I can safely say that Zankou Chicken is hands down one of the best I have ever had. Sure, it raised its prices slightly since expanding to the West side and such, but you can't expect the owners to keep their everyday low prices forever. I do have a beef with the valet parking at the West side location, however. I don't want to pay for valet when I'm going for a quick and cheap bite.

Zankou's chicken is just what rotisserie chicken should be -- crispy skin on the outside that's browned to perfection and moist, juicy meat on the inside seasoned with just the right amount of salt. I prefer the juicier dark meat and like it as is -- I consider the famed garlic sauce, which is really lard mixed with minced garlic, a distraction.

An Armenian family opened the first Zankou in Beirut, Lebanon, back in the 1960s, eventually opening one in LA after they immigrated here in the 1980s at the original Sunset & Normandie location. Zankou has since expanded to six outlets throughout Southern California and counting.

I haven't tried much Armenian food but I really like the bright fuschia pickled radish strips that come with the chicken. They're almost reminiscent of the more vinegary radish cubes that are on the sweeter side and come with Korean-style deep fried chicken smothered in spicy sauce that has reportedly become all the rage in New York. Take a bite of the pink radish after every chicken morsel and it refreshingly cleanses the palate. For heat, since this is LA, after all, there are pickled jalapeno peppers.

I always order mutabbal, which is akin to baba ghanoush, made out of eggplant, tahini sauce and garlic. Tear that pita bread and plunge it into this sumptuous dip with a smoky flavor from the grilled eggplant. Although a party of two totaled a whole chicken at a recent visit, I usually get the 1/4 dark meat chicken that includes hommus, radishes and tomato salad (the last of which I don't care for).

I have only been to the West LA and original locations, but hear they are fairly consistent throughout.

West LA location
1716 S. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90025
(310) 444-0550

Friday, June 15, 2007

Simply the Best Sushi in LA

I am both happy and sad that Hiko Sushi is no longer LA's best-kept secret, no thanks to LA Weekly's food critic, J. Gold, who recently reviewed this not-so-hidden gem and led us to stand in line for the first time since we stumbled upon it over fours years ago.

A few months after it opened in 2003, we were driving by and my companion suggested we try it, saying it "looks promising." I took one look at the storefront and nondescript mini-mall it was situated in, and dismissed it immediately. After he insisted we give it a shot, I broke down and agreed. We walked in, only to be greeted by a young woman who, upon knowing it was our first time there, proceeded to give us a laundry list of all the things Hiko does not do, including California rolls, teriyaki or anything cooked, stressing that it was "traditional sushi only."

She added that if we sat at the bar, it would be chef's choice, known as omakase. Forget it, I said, slightly put off by this imposition, we're sitting at a table because I want to order what I want.

The first experience was good, sampling tuna (maguro), yellowtail (hamachi), salmon and others.

The best was yet to come, however. We sat at the bar on our next visit, at the complete mercy of the chef, and have never looked back since. It's too bad that on food message boards and circles, sushi chef & owner Shinji-san is known more for his strict rules and lack of "Mr. Personality"-evoking friendliness than the amazing fish and the craft he masters so beautifully every time we go. The man is an earnest guy who takes his craft seriously and doesn't care about prominent food critics or A-list celebrities who seem to flock to his no-frills establishment time and time again.

Let me run down our usual sequence of jewels, infused by some anecdotes told by his daughters, who are also the wait staff. He starts us off with the most refreshing baby tuna sashimi salad, drizzled with ponzu sauce and sprinkled with tons of sesame seeds and finely-chopped green onions. Lovely.

Hamachi (yellowtail) is next. Good as always. I love that he pairs the slightly cold fish slabs with perfectly cooked, warm rice. The pairing is phenomenal. Like most things, I learned to appreciate the right chewiness of the rice grains after having one too many sushi where the rice crumbled or was too hard due to over-refrigeration. I couldn't help recalling a 20-series Japanese manga(comic book) entitled "Sushi King" about the art of sushi-making and the trials and tribulations of sushi chefs and their apprentices. One book was devoted entirely to perfecting the rice -- making it from the best rice grains grown from a tiny, remote village and cooked to just the right doneness.

As anticipation of our next dish starts to simmer, we dip into the freshly-grated wasabi on our plate alongside pickled ginger slices, and dissolve it with soy sauce. The light green wasabi tastes as fresh as it looks. It doesn't come cheap. A single root (photo: Wikipedia) may cost $8 to $10, and wasabi roots cost about $70 to $100 a pound.

Shinji-san then offers red snapper garnished only with rock salt and a dab of grated yuzu. "No soy sauce," he says gently, meaning this one doesn't need to be dipped because it's already seasoned. Fresh with just the right tart-ness from the citrus, score again. Yuzu is a key ingredient in the much-loved ponzu sauce and is used in many other east Asian cuisines to garnish. Koreans store sliced yooja (yuzu) in honey and dissolve it in hot water to make yooja tea, a cold remedy.

What's amazing about this chef, besides being a master, is that even though it is omakase, he remembers what his loyal customers like and serves them exactly in the sequence we always have it. We spotted another regular having multiple shellfish varieties that were totally different from ours. And despite outraged postings about his alleged rules of not allowing one to order the same thing more than twice, he never gave us a hard time about our requests. I, for example, prefer my sushi without wasabi in them and he was more than willing to oblige. In fact, he gets super apologetic when he happens to forget because his hands move so quickly.

But I digress again. I happily await as Shinji-san assembles my all-time favorite sushi, the utterly velvety toro(fatty tuna). It just doesn't get better than this. The fat gives it an almost meaty taste and texture, full of deep flavor and melt-in-your-mouth smoothness. Every time I pop one into my mouth, I can't help but hum "mmmmm" for extended periods of time as I savor this true gem.

Albacore tuna with ponzu sauce topped with chopped green onions is a winner too. Then comes a small amuse bouche of sorts, tuna sashimi with ponzu sauce nested in fried wonton skin. This was on the house but would probably cost a hefty $12 at a fancy restaurant with a velvet rope.

My second favorite is the blue crab handroll, a beauty that comes wrapped in a super-crispy seaweed sheet. He once told us in passing that a small box of these nori sheets cost $300. It certainly tastes like a million dollars. I appreciate his high standards even more when we venture to other much-hyped sushi joints like Sasabune and Echigo and are served sloppy handrolls on not-so-crunchy nori sheets that are torn or have pebbles of rice on the outside. These popular places have absolutely nothing on Hiko.

Shinji-san is credited for making me an uni(sea urchin) convert. It turns out that I like uni -- so long as it's as fresh as the one Shinji-san serves. Prior ones I've tried had a weird smell that reminded me of the sewage system. Not good. As soon as I took my first bite of his uni, it was sheer creamy goodness. Just can't get enough.

We usually wrap it up with anago (fresh-water eel) -- flash-broiled nice and warm with just a hint of the syrupy brown sauce. This one melts too. Just don't ask for more sauce. I never felt the need to ask for more, but I heard that it has historically irked the chef, to put it mildly. You won't get more, so my advice would be to trust him. You won't be sorry.

Other major pet peeves for the chef are cellphone users (that's a "no cellphones" sign you see below) and those who leave out the rice (I recently witnessed an offender who was politely told by Shinji-san's daughter, the waitress, that Shinji-san wouldn't serve her if she left the rice out) and those like Cameron Diaz who allegedly asked for more ponzu sauce (she was refused). I read a few complaints on message boards about how it was the worst service ever but it isn't surprising when they proceed to reveal that they had violated his rules and thus disrespected him. When they protested, some were promptly kicked out. I wish more restaurants had a zero-tolerance policy on obnoxious customers.

On occasion, Shinji-san has served up bonito (yes, the fresh version of bonito flakes, those animated shavings that dance when you sprinkle atop an okonomiyaki, Japanese pancake), sardine and monkfish liver. All were fresh but I wouldn't say they were my favorites.

Two very thin slices of fruit is the complimentary dessert. I should also add that Shinji-san has a disdain for loud people. When a group of young, bubbly and loud kids raved about how good the sushi was and that they would bring their friends next time, Shinji-san didn't flash an ounce of a smile and grunted, "Next time, be more quiet." Terrified, they smiled awkwardly and ran for the door. I suppose it's his prerogative to dislike loud people in his establishment. The funny thing is, the chef doesn't even know celebrities like Josh Harnett or Scarlett Johansson who allegedly stopped by for a bite -- not to mention a Pulitzer Prize-winning food critic who could give him a huge business boost (Let's just say he doesn't plan on framing the LA Weekly review and putting it up on his wall). And when asked what he thought about the positive LA Weekly review, he said it was true. When asked what he thought about the critic, he shrugged and said, "I don't care." His self-assuredness often passes as arrogance. He's an artist, what can I say?

Disclaimer: My budget hasn't allowed me to try perennial favorites such as Ursawa and Nobu (although I did try Nobu in Las Vegas and it wasn't all that), but I have tried the overrated Kiriko (blah) on Sawtelle, in addition to the aforementioned Sasabune and Echigo. In NYC, I have tried Tomoe Sushi (not worth the wait), Blue Ribbon Sushi (yuk), Nobu Next Door (not great) and more recently, Shimizu (innovative sushi), all of which were not as good as Hiko. At the risk of ruffling some feathers, I hereby anoint Hiko to be the best sushi in all of the US.

Make no mistake. This meal won't come cheap -- about $70 per person including tax and tip if you do omakase without drinks or miso soup. Lunch won't be any cheaper. The illogical but convenient trend of charging less for the same items for lunch doesn't apply here. I have also seen them turn away multiple customers who asked for take-out. How do you expect the sushi to hold up when the steaming rice is straight out of the rice cooker?

I am heartened that it's doing as well as it is, as I was concerned when I saw the empty tables on weekends throughout the years. It's a family-run business where wife and children all pitch in, and that makes me want to support it even more. If you ever decide to try it, tell him you read it here. He'll know it was me and I guarantee you he won't kick you out unless you violate his rules! My only complaint is that they need to diversify their music choices. Shinji-san is an avid fan of bossa nova singer, Lisa Ono, and he is in desperate need of some new music infusion. I'm tempted to bring him a new CD on my next visit.

I've decided to include an address for all restaurants I review from now on.

Hiko Sushi
11275 National Blvd. (at Sawtelle)
Los Angeles, CA 90064
(310) 473-7688

Monday, June 11, 2007

Eating Healthy at a Westwood Greasy Spoon

I'm on a roll with comfort food. Next up, we head to our trusty ol' brunch destination, the no-frills, 50's-themed greasy spoon where portions are decidedly huge and atmosphere student-friendly: Headlines Diner & Press Club, aka. Headlines. Unless you're a truck-driver or a college student with a voracious appetite and sky-high metabolism, one order of the omelet should be enough to feed two.

My favorite omelet is the healthy omelet, which isn't that healthy save for the fact that it has vegetables. It also has optional cheese that I gladly opt for.

I like that a host of chopped green bell peppers, zucchini, onions, tomatoes and avocados are fully integrated into the omelet with the cheese holding everything together. Too often I have encountered omelets where the egg is separate from the filling like a pocket and everything falls out when I lift to eat it. Believe it or not, it's pretty rare to see such well-integrated omelets, even in fancy establishments.

The omelet comes with a choice of toast or English muffin and hash browns or fruit. I usually get the wheat toast and hash browns (I can only do so much healthy). It's hard to resist the tempting pile of potatoes stacked on the griddle in the open kitchen, in plain view of customers sitting on the counter nursing their coffee. The hash browns aren't exactly the thinly-shredded-and-cooked-to-brown-perfection kind I am partial to, but they still have some brown bits and more importantly, are hearty.

If you're not a butter and jam person, extract chunks of the avocado from the omelet and spread them on your crunchy wheat toast and sprinkle with some salt. It's healthier (yes, it's a theme) and so much more flavorful! In Chile, people spread palta, or avocado, on bread all the time, not to mention hamburgers, hot dogs, etc.

I have tried other omelets but this one is my favorite. I have also tried the breakfast burrito, which come in two's and are appropriate if you're desperate but inappropriate if you're heading to East LA or Orange County, where you can get a better one for a fraction of the price.

One thing I didn't have this day but highly recommend are the classic diner fare -- curly fries. It's spicy, crispy and plentiful. What's not to like? My companions were also seduced by the inviting look of the fries on somebody else's plate. While you're at it, you may as well try the fish and chips, which are surprisingly good. Sure, Headlines is no Irish pub. But it's decent. I wouldn't get the burger, however, which was not that different from Fatburger across the street.

It gets crowded on weekends, so come before 11am and you'll be ok. I can't speak for its coffee, but I always order Naked Juice OJ, which is good enough for me. So visit your friendly neighborhood diner, sit on the counter and devour that massive omelet. Occasionally, you'll sit next to hung over kids or extremely loud kids, but they're generally innocuous. Besides, it's owned by Koreans so we support the peeps and it's run by the super-efficient and friendly Mendez brothers, who have worked there for years and love soccer.

Saturday, June 9, 2007

I Gotta Goreng

After recently having traveled and tried a host of new places, I was ready to go back to my favorite haunts in LA and appreciate the familiar.

Naturally, we headed to Singapore's Banana Leaf at the Original Farmers' Market. The food is an eclectic mix of Singaporean, Malaysian and Indian and I can't get enough of it. The outdoor food court gets pretty crazy and often cold at nights, but it's hard to beat the value and spice at this tucked-away joint.

On this particular night, we had fish curry, which is my personal favorite, mee goreng (stir-fried noodles with vegetables and tofu), nasi goreng (fried rice with vegetables and chicken), beef rendang, which the menu describes as "spicy coconut, chili, ginger chicken or beef served with rice & cucumber pickle," and is usually my second favorite except this night, it lacked spice unlike most of the times we've asked for spicy (it was a busy night), spring rolls, samosas, roti paratha and chicken satay.

The fish curry (above) was just spicy enough and the green peas, carrots and cauliflower were cooked just right and the cilantro sprinkled on top gave the sauce a very fresh flavor. We usually ask to make the beef rendang (left) spicy, but it wasn't this time and disappointed. When it is spicy, though, it goes so well with white rice and has a very complex flavor -- a hint of ginger here, chili there. Wonderful.

The appetizers are almost more impressive than the main dishes. I'm sure it's got loads of butter and not good for you, but the decadently crispy and fluffy roti paratha dipped in the all-too salty curry sauce was extremely satisfying. Tearing apart this Indian bread reminded me of croissants, as they have similar textures.

I've only had the chicken satay and both the meat and sauce were good. The only complaint I had is that the meat could be more thinly sliced so it wouldn't so hard to get it off the skewer and less filling! The samosas were perfectly crunchy and almost creamy on the inside with an amalgam of potatoes, peas and spices. The spring rolls were an afterthought -- not particularly memorable. I wouldn't order this unless you generally love spring rolls.

Now on to the rice and noodles. The rice dish, nasi goreng, is a classic Indonesian dish that I remember fondly from my days traveling in Bali. Likewise, the noodle dish, mee goreng, is a standard Indonesian dish I recall eating quite a bit of when I was there. My favorite part being the fried egg on top, I asked for it but didn't get it this time due to the busyness. You can usually get the egg without asking if you order the set combo that comes with a smaller portion of the noodles or rice and 2 satay sticks.

The noodles were ok but on the dry side. I wanted a bit more moisture and I think the runny goodness of a fried egg may have accomplished that. Sigh. The rice was probably my least favorite. It was dry, dry, dry, and the dry chicken strips on top didn't help.

Even though we didn't on this particular night, we've also had the Rojak Salad, which comes with cucumber, jicama, pineapple, bean sprouts, apple, tofu, and spinach, tossed with a spicy peanut tamarind dressing. Refreshing and healthy, but it didn't serve our purpose of going for comfort food.

Wash it down with an ice-cold mango juice, grab a table amid the busy foot traffic browsing the food stands and dig in. Welcome home.

Saturday, June 2, 2007

AZ Report: Fish Tacos, BBQ, Habanero Burger & Juicy Kebabs

I wasn't sure what to expect from Arizona's eateries, so went with an open mind and had a great time. Not all of the food was stellar, but some were certainly noteworthy for their sheer novelty and heat factors. I'd like to highlight some of the better ones.

First off, we headed over to Pro's Ranch Markets, which a friend had recommended. Upon entering the massive Whole Foods of all things Latino, complete with neat stacks of chile and tamarindo as well as an incredible food court bustling with people devouring tortas and splurping glistening sopa de res, we were smitten.

This paradise of a market offers everything from freshly made tortillas ("from an old fashion tortilla factory on the premises," according to the website) to prepared meats and fish. After marveling at the amazingly fresh produce and abundance of chile varieties, we were ready to eat.

We got an order of the fish tacos, which were my personal favorite, ceviche de camarones (raw shrimp with veggies slightly cooked by citrus marinade), a carne asada taco plate, carne asada sandwich, the beef soup, and to round it off, watermelon aguas frescas (literally "fresh water"), which was just what I needed to quench my thirst in 100+ weather out in desert-land.

Back to the fish tacos. The freshly-made tortillas made a huge difference as they were the first thing you bit into. But the star of the meal was hands-down the fish. They were fried to perfection but not greasy at all. Crispy on the outside and moist and soft on the inside. The fish was very fresh. You know how some places try to mask fishiness with blobs of the thousand island-type dressing? I'm glad they went easy on the dressing so I could really taste the fish, which I did and loved.

The carne asada tacos were ok but they tasted like the meat had been pre-cooked and sitting there for some time, which it had. Likewise, the torta, which used the same meat, was average. The bread was soft and I liked the cheese, but pre-cooked meat is pre-cooked meat.

The beef soup with vegetables seemed like a great hangover remedy or just plain old comfort food. The sizeable meat chunks were very tender and had absorbed the great flavors of the vegetables and spices, as if they had been slow-cooking for hours on end.

The shrimp ceviche was refreshing when we had it, but we suspect that one of our companions got sick from it. Although everyone else was fine, I'm not sure I'd recommend it, just to be on the safe side. I suppose that as a general rule, it's not very wise to have raw seafood in 100+ weather.

Now on to Joe's Real BBQ, for some ribs and brisket. I had the Meat Plate that comes with 1/2 lb of one or two meats with two sides (BBQ pit beans and potato salad) for $10.99. I thought it was a good deal until I got the puny portions and had to buy another set. The ribs are usually my favorite but I liked the tenderness of the brisket and pulled pork that our companions had ordered better. The BBQ sauce came in regular and spicy -- I liked the latter. I should disclose that my BBQ heart belongs to the Salt Lick near Austin, TX, followed by Fat Matt's Rib Shack in Atlanta, GA, but then again, I have yet to take my dream BBQ road trip to the South to sample all the best BBQ in the country. I think there should be a BBQ Museum created a-la-Ramen Museum in Japan, complete with tastings of all the best BBQ.

The sides? The beans were good, potato salad (they also had a cheesy version that congealed too quickly) standard and mac'n'cheese decent. The fluffy bread the plate came with was light and airy -- a good accompaniment to all the other heavy sides.

Housed in a real 1929 brick building from the "golden age of agricultural Arizona," the restaurant features engaging murals of that bygone era as well as props and posters that conjure up images of how people lived during those times. There is also plenty of outdoor seating for cooler days.

During my research, I repeatedly heard about this infamous Habanero burger served up by Carlsbad Tavern in Scottsdale. Being a burger-lover and heat-seeker, I proceeded to dare myself to try it. The burger meat was surprisingly good quality, considering the place reminded me of a horror-themed restaurant, and the heat did not disappoint. They had added ground habanero peppers into the patty and at first bite, nothing happened. Seconds later, it crept up on me -- slowly but surely, until the heat started spreading its goodness.

It was memorable and I was sweating profusely, but it didn't seem as bad as the ill-fated experience with habanero my dinner companion once had in Merida, Mexico. Thank God the waiter warned me not to drink water as that would have magnified the heat. The burger generously comes with a free glass of milk instead, which I politely declined. A few things the burger did not have going for it were the dense and stale bun and the fries dripping with grease. And what's up with the side salad drowning in ranch dressing?

Last stop: Med Fresh Grill on S. Mill Avenue near Arizona State University in Tempe. Cities are so close to each other that going from Phoenix to Scottsdale or Tempe takes no more than 20 minutes. I was skeptical at first as the place looked too pristine, but I was pleasantly surprised at how juicy and moist my chicken kabob was. I can't say the hummus was the best I ever had but I would most definitely return for the chicken. I had many others on my list of places to try -- such as a famous hot dog place -- that will have to wait until my next trip.