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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