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Sunday, January 30, 2011

Juicy Burger: Decent Value But Not Good Enough to Return

Juicy Burger
in Silver Lake seems like a place to go for a quick, cheap and above average burger. It's good value but don't think I'll be returning for various reasons.

I know that's what you get for your money, but those stools were utterly uncomfortable and made for a less than a satisfying experience. If you're on the go and just want to pop in for a bite, it may not be a big deal. But it's definitely not a place to sit down and talk over a burger and shake.

But I digress. Let's talk about the burger itself. I got the signature Juicy Burger and added Cheddar cheese and my one free dipping sauce choice for the fries (cheap) was barbecue sauce. I had to send the burger back once because it came overcooked the first time when I had asked for medium rare.

The second time around, it was cooked right, although the patty itself was so anemic that it barely made a difference. The quality of the meat was decent. I'll give them that. I could see the dude in the back forming the patties by hand so they are definitely freshly made daily. No frozen patties shenanigans a-la fast food. I also liked the red onions it came with, but wasn't crazy about the shredded iceberg lettuce drowning in Thousand Island dressing that made it not only messy to eat, but also drowned everything else with it in terms of flavor.

As for the bun, it was a fresh brioche that was in and of itself ok, but as a burger bun, way too dense, especially on top. Like it was a meal by itself. The ratio of bun to meat was like 9:1, which should be more balanced.

The California burger with guacamole and bacon looked good but was just ok, according to my Burger Club companion who, like me, ranks Houston's as her favorite burger in LA.

The fries were ok but after having a few, I could taste the oil they were fried in, and they tasted a bit stale. In fact, I couldn't finish the fries or the burger because they suddenly tasted too heavy. The barbecue sauce, however, was very good and the owner was nice enough to give me a little container to go.

But I won't be returning unless I happen to pass by this place at 2am, there's nothing else that's open nearby (although there's always Ktown), I'm starving and don't care to linger -- which, in my book, is pretty much never. I'd rather go to BCD Tofu House or Hodori in Ktown that are open 24-hours any day over this greasy spoon that may just be too greasy.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Capital Grille: Mac-n-Cheese with Real Lobster!

We went to Capital Grille in the Beverly Center to redeem a coupon from a Los Angeles Magazine subscription. Prices are a bit exorbitant, I must say, especially for the quality of the food. But there's one thing I'll definitely be returning for -- the gloriously buttery and cheesy mac-n-cheese dotted with generous chunks of lobster.

Wow. It also came in an unusual pasta shape, Campanelle, a bell shape instead of the standard elbow macaroni. The Mascapone, Havarti and Grana Padano-based sauce was perfectly creamy and the panko breadcrumbs and grated white cheddar gave the dish the crunch and bubbly cheesy top that pulled it all together. The soft pieces of lobster felt like gems I bit into. It was odd that the pieces were so large since restaurants usually skimp on expensive ingredients. I guess I was conditioned to expect tiny pieces and looking through the little bell shaped pastas to find those specks of lobster. But not here.

The next best thing I had there -- Parmesan truffle fries. Ok, I didn't just have arteries-clogging things, I swear. More on healthier fare later. But these fries were good. I'm not usually a big follower of the truffle hype, but these had a good truffle aroma and dusted with shredded Grana Padano cheese, which is similar to Parmesan (hence the misnomer menu name). Fries were piping hot and crispy, just the way I like them.

The calamari appetizer was misleading on the menu but flavor was ok. It said pan-fried so we were surprised to find deep fried calamari smothered in the tangy and slightly spicy sauce. Even the online menu claims the calamari is sauteed in butter but maybe it's coated in flour or something because it definitely looked deep fried. Anyhow, we were just trying to be less unhealthy is all. The sauce was ok. I liked the modified version I made later for brunch when I added home fries.
The most perplexing dish was hands down the steak. This place is mostly a steakhouse. The decor, vibe and everything about it screams "old-school steakhouse-cum-power lunch place a-la DC (hence the name)." But the porcini rubbed Delmonico steak (named after the famed New York steakhouse's signature boneless ribeye dish) with 12-year aged balsamic vinegar (whatever -- I couldn't taste the difference) wasn't cooked right despite the insistence of our server. The dried porcini mushroom bits that it was encrusted with had basically charred into a jet black coating, which was beyond browned.

Our server insisted that was the way it was supposed to be and offered to give me a new one but when I saw that the inside was cooked medium rare properly the way I like it, I decided to take a bite first. The steak was ok but frankly the porcini rub didn't add much other than my having to scrape it off because it likely was carcinogenic. The meat flavor was good enough, but no match to the juicy ribeye I had at Jar or the mother of all steaks I had at Peter Luger's in Brooklyn.

We ordered the haricot verts with tomatoes and fennel to balance out all the fat and grease we were consuming. It was good but nothing special. After all, it's hard to compete with lobster mac-n-cheese.

Service was ok but not great.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Myung Dong Kal Guk Su: Get the Dumpling

I was so happy to find a decent Korean place near Long Beach, which I've been spending a lot of time in lately. Myung Dong Kal Guk Su in Lakewood has one of the best mandu, or dumpling, I've had in LA. I was ecstatic because I've always had a hard time finding a dumpling I liked even though mandu is one of my favorite things to eat. Myung Dong is a chain of restaurants with locations in Koreatown and Tustin, although I've never been to any of these locations. It specializes in kal guk su, literally translating to knife noodles because the noodles are hand-made and cut with knives.

Why did I love the dumpling? It had pork and scallions, all seasoned with some garlic, salt and likely some sesame oil and sesame seeds. It's usually next to impossible to find pork mandu that doesn't smell porky in a bad way, so I was pleasantly surprised to find these to be delicious morsels of un-smelly goodness.

The namesake kal guk su -- handmade noodles in a thick chicken (and probably dried anchovy) broth topped with sliced zucchini, onions, potatoes and optional spicy seasoning -- was good but not as good as my Koreatown favorite, Madang Gooksu.

Ditto for the kong guk su -- noodles with a broth made from ground soy beans. Add some salt and it makes for a refreshing summer noodle dish. Even though it's not summer, I'm such a fan that I decided to try this rendition. The restaurant offered hecho noodles made from a kind of seaweed that's good for you. And it added some black sesame seeds to the broth so the color had a tinge of black sesame. It came with the standard sliced cucumbers and half a tomato.

The broth wasn't nearly as flavorful as Madang Gooksu's version, which I've waited in line for on some of the hottest days of the year.

Now on to the all-important kimchi review. The place offered two kinds -- white kimchi and keotjeori, which is napa cabbage kimchi that hasn't been fermented for as long as the regular kimchi we're most familiar with. Because of that, it has a more raw taste. I usually like this kind of kimchi but this one was too garlicky even for me.

The other kimchi was a white napa cabbage kimchi that is so called because it isn't red from the red pepper flakes usually added. So it's basically pickled cabbage. It was mild and good.

This place also has bibim guk su, the same seaweed noodles smothered in a sweet and spicy red sauce and topped with cucumbers.

I'll return to try some other soups offered, such as ttukmanduguk, dumpling soup with rice cakes and hanchihoe guk su, a delicacy noodle dish with sashimi smothered in a spicy sauce.

In the meantime, I enjoyed the extra order of mandu I got to go. I'll definitely be returning for more of those.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Jinya: So Not What'cha Want

I was so disappointed by the blandness and lack of depth of the broth at Jinya, a Studio City ramen joint that had been getting rave reviews. I mean this tonkotsu ramen didn't even come close to my local faves, Shinsengumi and Santouka. True, they had run out of the curiously limited edition (20 servings max per day) of the richest "premium pork" Hakata tonkotsu ramen so had to resort to the Yokohama tonkotsu, whose only virtue was that it came with crispy onion bits that reminded me of an amazing ramen I had at the Yokohama ramen museum except that ramen had crispy garlic bits. The crispy onions imparted great sweetness and also gave the otherwise boring-as-hell bowl something interesting texture.

Felt like the broth hadn't been boiling with massive pork bones in them for hours on end. It was weak. It was bland. I had to add some sriracha sauce and chili flakes to be able to finish it. I didn't think it was on the level of Daikokuya, which I don't even like that much despite the ubiquitous lines outside of that yellow awning in Little Tokyo.

Going back to Jinya's ramen, the addition of spinach was ok but nothing to write home about. Not even spinach could salvage it from its blandness. The chasu pork slices weren't flavorful either. Yes, they were soft but again, so bland.

The noodles: they were ok but not as good as the hard noodles at Shinsegumi. The overall bowl was so unremarkable that I, who never lets a good bowl of ramen go to waste, couldn't finish it. That almost never happens with me.

And don't even get me started on the gyoza. Oh my God. All I have to say is, have some of your kitchen staff go train at Shinsegumi to get a handle of what real gyoza should taste like. The inside was a lump of ground pork that reeked of unfresh pork. What a travesty to peddle these as gyoza.

The chicken karaage was average to below average. I just can't believe that this place got so many raves. Am I missing something? Did I catch them on an off day?

I'm not so sure. The salad that came with the ramen combo was meh. I don't think I'll be returning. I'll go to Shinsengumi or Santouka any day over this place. So not worth the hype.

Even the so-called organic green tea served was so watered down and unimpressive that I vowed never to set foot in that joint again.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Best of 2011: Burgers, Marinated Raw Crab and Everything In Between

It's that time of the year again, the roundups, the best of's. Ok, it's a day late, but let's kick off the new year with a summary of highlights from 2010.

1) Best New Burger
: Burger Kitchen

Yes, it was a great burger that cost me an arm and a leg -- that $26 Black Label burger from famed butchers La Frieda in New York. But no, it didn't replace Houston's California burger as my favorite burger just yet. While the patty was fantastic, there's something about the combination of the patty with the avocado, arugula and red onions that this Burger Kitchen didn't have. Wouldn't hurt to up the ante on the works on the burger. I also love the trend of new serious burger joints popping up. Other honorable mentions include Rustic Canyon, Village Idiot and Bowery.

2) Best New Italian Find in LA: Girasole

I was elated to discover this hidden gem smack in the middle of one of my least favorite areas, Larchmont. After I returned from a trip to Italy this summer, I was searching for a place serving food that reminded of my amazing eats there. Well, this joint came close. The pumpkin sage ravioli was to die for, as was the mushroom ravioli -- which gave off this wonderful mushroom aromas and flavor where I could really taste the earthiness of the mushrooms in a creamy sauce that wasn't too heavy. It also serves addictive carbonara, which isn't on the menu but they will make it for you upon request. I felt the non-pasta entrees weren't as excellent but still pretty up there. The BYOB option is an unbeatable deal. A great value alternative to places like Osteria Mozza, which I also love but is more of a special occasion place than this. Granted, this is no everyday joint either, but I mean relatively speaking. A must try for Italian food-lovers.

3) Best New Sushi: Sushi Zo

It doesn't get any more food porn than this number to the left. The sushi was fantastic. I was most blown away by a squid sashimi the chef made where he cut the squid into thin strips like noodles and smothered them with uni, or sea urchin. Wow. The shrimp sushi was also excellent, although I don't usually go for shellfish. In short, a true gem but only thing was I was turned off by the rude chef, which seems to be a mandatory trait for some sushi chefs to be taken seriously. Shame. A close second and a neighborhood joint is Jinpachi, which also had first-rate quality fish. Warning: neither of these is particularly cheap, so save them for a special occasion and make sure you do omakase, or chef's choice, if you go since they know best what's fresh.

4) Most Luxurious Meal: Don Alfonso near Sorrento, Italy

This was by far the most elaborate and luxurious meal I've had this year (thanks "mj"!). It was while traveling in the southern part of Italy, near the coastal city of Sorrento, known for its delicious lemon liqueur lemoncello. This meal had like gazillion courses, each with a description spanning like five lines of adjectives and such -- and all fantastically delicious. The wines that were all local wines were also fantastic, as was the impeccable service. The cold cuts, cheeses, meats and fish were all amazing, as were the combination of the dishes, which were innovative and traditional the same time. A great place for a special occasion trip and meal!

5) Best French Toast: Amandine Cafe

I'm biased about best brunch places because I love French Toast more than I do pancakes or omelets. But Amandine Cafe serves up some mean French Toast, with tons of fresh fruit on top. Gotta love that. Plus, the coffee (cappuccino in my case) was pretty good. The only downside is that it's cramped. But go early and you can avoid the crowds. At least there's no line waiting outside like the ones I see in overrated joints across LA.

6) Best Italian Meal in Italy: Tie between Da Michele in Naples and my friend's home-made dinner in Bologna

You can't beat the value and sheer simplicity of a beautiful pizza Margherita at the humble Da Michele, located a 10-minute walk from the train station in Naples. It's tomato-y and cheesy without being too heavy. The fresh basil is perfect and the crust, oh the crust -- Crispy but chewy and thin as ice.

Then the home-made dinner my friend EB made me in Bologna was also priceless. She made us spaghetti a la carbonara and served us an assortment of cheeses and cold cuts that were out of this world that gave me a newfound appreciation for real ricotta cheese that I had never had and I also developed a grumpiness about the US not importing enough goodies from that side of the world. I want good, smoked provolone, darn it!

7) Best New Cuisine Discovery: Greek, from Meal with a View in Santorini, Greece

It's not that I've never had Greek before. It turns out I'd never had real Greek before. What a revelation. I was never big on the go-to items for Greek cuisine, like gyro or feta cheese and flavor-less black olives.

But this place, which had an amazing view to boot, Archipelago, served up some amazingly fresh and flavorful dishes that blew out of the water (pun intended) any misperceptions I had about Greek food. I could taste the great quality olive oil in this grilled octopus dish and the lamb wrapped in grape leaves came stuffed with other goodies that made me want to wish there were some good Greek eateries right here in Los Angeles. Oh why oh why can't we find such good Greek here? Oh, and the cheeses were entirely different. They weren't as one-dimensionally salty as the feta found here. It actually had layers of flavor and different textures. I'd definitely like to return to Greece to experience the real deal again.

8) Best New Korean Find in Korea: Pro-Kanjang Kyejang

This was a tough one. I picked this kyejang place because marinated raw crab isn't something that's easy to get here -- at least not first-rate crab. This crab was meaty, wonderfully garlicky and just salty enough.

I just don't know what people are smoking when they say that LA's Koreatown has better Korean food than in Korea. Something about better quality meat? Seriously, as much as I love Ktown, it has nothing on the OG back in the homeland. I had some incredible Kwangyang bulgoki, sweet potatoes in the eastern coastal region, amazingly fresh fish by the sea and so much more. Ah, time to go back.

9) Best New Korean Find in Ktown: Don Dae Gam

This outpost of a Korean chain, Park Dae Gam (aka Park's BBQ), that specializes in pork (case in point of my previous entry about Korean food in Korea) serves up fresh pork every way. It's cooked table-side and comes in different cuts. There's the rice fried on the grill at the end and the delicious spicy green onion salad that you can add to your meat wrapped goodness. It's much like Honey Pig but I thought the quality was a tad better. They're almost comparable, I'd say.

10) Most Intrigue-filled Blogger Moments: Starry Kitchen and Shady Offer from Gourmet Sandwich Man

Last but not least, I found it amusing to have an unexpected and extremely lengthy exchange with the owner of Starry Kitchen, which started when I reported extremely rude and inappropriate service from the owner on my second visit after I wrote a negative review. He responded by saying he doesn't know what I look like, and it wasn't rudeness. It was his sense of humor, he insisted. All I have to say is, I'm not the only person who's experienced odd behavior by the owner. But that's ok. I didn't like the food but it seems to be doing well with good reviews so more power to them.

Coincidentally, I got a strange offer from the alleged owner of a gourmet sandwich shop chain that will remain unnamed to serve as his "advisor" and give an honest opinion on his restaurant empire. Laughable, truly. I thought it was weird that he insisted on "having lunch" and showering me with compliments on my reviews. Not surprisingly, after I asked him for details on this "admittedly unusual" arrangement, I never heard from him again. I should out him, but let this be a warning to other food bloggers who write anonymously. When a restaurant owner suddenly asks you to lunch and offers you a job as an advisor, ask for details. If s/he responds and confirms the arrangements in writing, then maybe will it be truly legit. Thanks mj, for your advice!

Nice try Mr. Sandwich. Oh, and in case you're wondering, I don't think much of his sandwich shop. It's plenty popular in the office areas of downtown, but I always found them far too bland. I've never reviewed the shop but I have reviewed another downtown restaurant he owns, which was awful and I made my opinion known.

I can't wait to devour all that 2011 has to offer. Happy 2011, everybody, keep eating well and thanks for reading!