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Friday, January 2, 2009

Best of 2008

You won't see the usual suspects that I'm so tired of seeing on annual roundups featured in glossy magazines and newspapers. True, I haven't tried all of those exclusive places and my wallet has inevitably dictated where I've gone in 2008. But I also want to stress that there is culinary life beyond the fancy hotel restaurants and $200+ sushi palaces in LA. I wait for the day when good food throughout LA will be recognized as such, without the monikers "Best Ethnic Food" or "Best Cheap Eats." I believe these are the best that I've tried within my budget. Enjoy.

Here are my picks:

1) Best new find in LA: Lake Spring Shanghai Restaurant
It looks intimidating at first but inside this mass resides the juiciest, most tender slow-cooked pork you'll ever find. The meat has just the right amount of fat and seasonings for a perfect complement to the string beans. Thanks to AC & family!

2) Best "Hype is True" in LA: Din Tai Fung
The only downside to this joint is the wait but a new branch behind the old one has signficantly reduced the wait. Either go early or late and you'll be fine. I recommend the pork soup dumplings, which are piping hot (careful not to burn yourself -- follow the instructions on the chopsticks cover -- just trust me) and have an incredibly flavorful filling of ground pork and other goodies. If you're so inclined, get the crab dumpling but it isn't the same. I also like the low prices.

3) Best new food item in LA (that's also a steal): Mulita at La Taquiza
It's something between a taco and a quesadilla, so what's not to like? The carne asada was good and I'm looking forward to trying the al pastor and seafood options.

4) Best comeback in LA: Hanyang
If you like ttukbossam, the delicious pairing of rice cake paper with thin slices of meat and other toppings, I daresay Hanyang may be a more interesting choice than Shik Do Rak, the old standby. The reason: the garlicky and spicy red sauce that is smothered on the green onion mix. It simply adds a touch that you won't find at Shik Do Rak.

5) Best BBQ in LA:
Go Brazilian with Almir
You can't go wrong with Almir, the master of Brazilian barbecue, complete with rotating skewer grills and caipirinhas cocktails to boot. His to-die-for catering repertoire includes top quality filet mignon, tri-tip, rib-eye, bacon-wrapped chicken, lamb chops, ribs, etc. The list goes on. It will be the best party you'll ever host.

6) Best steal in LA:
Aloha Cafe
For a quick meal that's nutritious, cheap and fast, I head to Aloha Cafe in Little Tokyo's Honda Plaza (of Sushi Gen fame). It's a quaint little place that serves up Hawaiian standards like Kalua pork and Loco Moco -- and most plates come with a scoop of rice and a nicely toasted piece of Hawaiian bread. My favorite is the special braised rib that is fall-off-the-bone tender. You may want to ask for the gravy on the side.

7) Best home-cooked meal:
Persian Feast
My partner in crime YT and I kicked off our cooking extravaganza series by venturing into unfamiliar territory -- Persian food, courtesy of cookbook, New Food of Life by Najmieh Batmanglij. My personal favorite was a walnut and pomegranate chicken dish that I made again and again with basmati rice thereafter at large gatherings to rave reviews. It's fairly easy and different from what I'm used to cooking so I'm glad that I broadened my cooking horizons.

Best out-of-town joint: Julia's Empanadas in DC
I wish there were more Chileans living in LA so we'd have a Julia's equivalent. Empanada's Place and other Argentine joints don't cut it for me. I miss Julia's excellent spicy, baked ground beef version with a black olive inside. The lines forming outside of Julia's after midnight despite bone-chilling weather speak for themselves. Sigh.

9) Best meal while traveling: tossup between grilled fish and marinated crab in Korea
The meals I remember most fondly (besides my Mom's cooking, of course) are the super meaty and succulent grilled kalchi fish from Jeju Island that I had in Seoul and the kyejang, or raw crab marinated in garlic, soy sauce and other seasonings. I guess I miss the fresh and chunky seafood you get in Korea that you can't get here, for some reason.

10) Best new food item outside of LA:
Garlic Leaf
Who knew that you could use garlic leaf to add flavor to a pork dish? Truth be told, I didn't even know there existed such a thing. Being a garlic lover, I couldn't have been happier to discover at Sosonjae in Seoul that they first pickled this garlic leaf in a soy sauce-based liquid and used it to wrap steamed slices of super-tender pork. Genius!

I look forward to another fruitful year of eating, cooking and other stomach-happy revelations!

Happy 2009 everyone!

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