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Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Let's Be Frank about Bad Dogs

I'm introducing a new section featuring the dud of the week or month -- that much-hyped place that merely disappoints and makes you yearn for the real deal.

I'm kicking it off with Let's Be Frank, the hot dog stand in Culver City that got rave reviews from J. Gold as well as LA Times. Verdict: I want my Top Dog! The selling point is supposed to be the fact that the dogs are grass-fed and completely organic. A gourmet hot dog, one called it.

First of all, they are too big and too expensive for a hot dog. Look at the size of that -- it's definitely not a snack. Then it's $5 or something exorbitant like that. I'd rather have a decent bowl of ramen for that price. But the most important thing about a hot dog -- the flavor of the sausage -- just doesn't compare to the juicy, crunchy, spicy and complex flavors and textures of Top Dog's Hot Link. Don't even get me started about the bread and condiments. The sauteed onions added a nice touch, but no amount of embellishment can make up for a lackluster star.

The dog tasted bland and because the owner was a bit frazzled with multiple customers at once (service was a tad slow), the dogs weren't even nicely charred on the outside. I simply don't understand how such a mediocre dog can generate so much buzz while other perfectly amazing eats don't get the time of the day. Don't get me wrong. The lady, who apparently hails from the Holy Grail of organic -- Chez Panisse -- was super nice.

The cart is located in the Helms parking lot near all the furniture shops on Venice Blvd. It may be a step up from Pink's, but make no mistake. This is no Top Dog. The search continues...

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Best Deal in Town: Let Them Eat Rice Cake--TEMPORARILY CLOSED

Update: it moved to a new location on Western and 1st. A LOT bigger but not sure if it has retained its taste.

I'm going to kick off the year with one of my favorite Korean BBQ places that also happens to be one of the best deals in town -- Shik Do Rak.

This is no ordinary Korean BBQ, however. It's one of those ingenious inventions that could only have been conceived in a place like LA. Thin slices of chadol, or beef cooked tableside, but not with the usual condiments you would see at a regular Korean BBQ place that serves marinated ribs and the classic bulgoki. In addition to the usual banchan (side dishes) spread of kimchi, braised potato, pickled cucumber, seaweed and spicy and sweet strips of radish, you get a stack of super-thin rice cakes slightly bigger than your average business card. Instead of a heaping plate of lettuce, kennip (sesame leaves) and ssamjang, the chili and bean curd paste you add to the lettuce wraps of kalbi or bulgoki, you get a bowl of finely chopped lettuce mixed with strips of raw green onions. As condiments, you get two dipping sauces of sesame oil, salt and pepper and a spicy red sauce that seems to have originated from the Vietnamese sriracha sauce.

I am a huge fan of the classic Korean BBQ meats and condiments, but this was a revelation when I first had it. A ttukbossam lover was born. Shik Do Rak claims credit for inventing what literally translates to "rice cake (ttuk) wraps (bossam)."

This is how it works. It's best to ignore most everything else on the menu except the page where the combination deals are listed. The first one listed feeds 3 (or a very hungry twosome) and for something like $29.99, you get a lot of meat, onions and mushroom accompanied by an unlimited supply of rice cake wraps, greens and side dishes. The pricier ones feed more people and include drinks and other types of meat such as pork belly, but as much as I like pork, I stick to beef here.

Koreans always like to eat a "real meal" after BBQ meats, so the combination deal includes a bubbling pot of duenjangchige, a delightfully salty and slightly spicy fermented soybean paste stew with veggies and a choice of rice or nuroongji, toasted rice porridge that is the ultimate comfort food.

The tastiest way to eat these wraps is dip the cooked meat in the sesame oil sauce and lay the meat on a bed of green onions and lettuce on your plate. Spoon on some of the red sauce onto the meat, carefully peel off a slice of rice cake wrapper and use your chopsticks to scoop the meat dipped in sesame sauce and greens, topped with the red sauce. It's heaven on a stick, or two sticks, I should say.

At once you taste the seared meat with a hint of sesame oil, salt and pepper, and the refreshing crunchiness of the greens with a kick from the red sauce -- topped with the neutral and slightly chewy white rice cake wrap. It's a full meal in one bite -- and a pretty darn satisfying one at that. You simply have to taste it to believe it.

Even though the post-meat stew isn't the star here, you can't help but finish it despite the fact that you have long exceeded the healthy 80% full mark. It's comforting, salty and goes so well with that rice or rice porridge that reminds you of how your mother used to make it at the end of every meal (the porridge is meant to help digestion although in this case it may have the opposite effect).

Now for the side dishes. My favorites are the pickled cucumber because it's refreshing and crunchy without being too sweet or vinegary; sweet and spicy radish strips because they also add a crunch, freshness and spiciness; and kongnamul, a bean sprout variation lightly seasoned in salt, garlic and sesame oil, for its mild and nutty taste. I will say that the cabbage kimchi tastes like the raw kind they haven't fermented for as long as the usual ones. Raw is fine. I just don't like this version that much.

While I'm at it, I may as well lay it all out. Shik Do Rak should really add to the array of accompaniments large, round slices of pickled radishes. Its biggest competitor in Garden Grove, Morangak, offers these full moon-sized radishes that add a whole other dimension to the rice wraps. If I feel like I've had one too many rice wraps, I forgo them and opt for the bun-less burger equivalent -- ttuk-less ttukbossam. The round slices of radishes could also stand in for wraps.

The beauty of ttukbossam is that just like with Korean BBQ, you can pretty much custom-make every single wrap to your liking. Some people like to throw in some raw or cooked garlic. Others like to add some kimchi. I happen to be a purist but anyone is welcome to try different variations.

I'm glad to see many non-Koreans frequenting Shik Do Rak these days but the place remains largely a Korean haunt and those who have Korean friends who either take them there or tell them about it. I really wish it broke into the "mainstream" so many more people could enjoy it. That's my goal -- to spread the word about this gem.

By the way, I think I saw a "B" sign last time I went, so for the faint of heart and those who like clean surroundings, this may not be the place for you. Parking is valet but if you come after 7pm, there is free parking right in front of the restaurant on the street. On weekends, it gets crowded and you may have to valet park, especially because it's not considered the safest neighborhood and you don't want to wander around looking for a great spot and walk too far. Also, the rice porridge is only offered for dinner as is the braised potato side dish.

Interesting factoid: despite the fact that I go there almost every other week, the friendly manager never recognizes me but ALWAYS remembers my eating companion Omurice who comes as frequently as I do. We always test him by having me walk in first, but alas, he doesn't break into his signature "Oh! Hello!" until he sees Omurice walking in right behind me. What's up with that? Omurice, this post is for you!

AVOID: many impostors have popped up since ttukbossam's popularity but none come close so do avoid those. They include Hangyang on 8th near Hobart, Castle on Western and many others. Morangak in Garden Grove I like (the round radishes, remember?). Many butcher shops and markets in Koreatown also sell the raw materials to make it at home. I have yet to experiment so will let you know how that goes.

Shik Do Rak
2501 West Olympic Boulevard (at Hoover)
Los Angeles, CA 90006
(213) 384-4148

Orange County location (different owner):
9691 Garden Grove Boulevard
Garden Grove, CA 92844
(714) 534-7668

Best of 2007

Here's my belated "Best of" list for 2007 out of the places reviewed here:

1) Best splurge in LA: Hiko Sushi
Go omakase and trust the master, Shinjisan. 'Nuf said. Best sushi include toro (fatty tuna), uni (sea urchin) and blue crab handroll.

2) Best steal in LA: Shinsengumi
Porky Hakata ramen custom-made to your liking -- hard noodles, low oil and normal-strength broth. Don't forget the spicy miso for those who like some kick and those combination lunch deals with gyozas or fried rice for the budget conscious.

3) Best new find in LA: China Islamic
The lamb in the stew was truly a revelation (read: melt-in-your-mouth).

4) Best consistent joint in LA: Singapore's Banana Leaf
If you don't mind the hustle and bustle of the farmers' market, the food here is solid -- the beef rendang, samosas and the delightfully stringy roti paratha.

5) Best out-of-town all-around gem: Top Dog
Try a Hot Link topped with some sauerkraut and mustard and you'll be dreaming of biting into its juicy goodness for years to come. Here's a reason to visit Berkeley.

6) Best out-of-town find: Kabab Palace
This Arizona joint set the standard for Afghan food and I'm still looking for a comparable place in LA.

7) Best consistent out-of-town joint: Shabu Sen
I always try to stop by my favorite shabu shabu place in SF, where I can get thinly sliced quality beef with solid sesame sauce.

8) Best new discovery: Mondo Gelato
I was heartened to run into my favorite gelato place from Berkeley when I traveled to Canada. I relished my gianduia, chocolate hazelnut.

Thanks for all your support and comments! I look forward to reviewing more gems and finds in 2008.