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Sunday, July 31, 2011

Son of a Gun: Excellent Lobster Roll + Fried Chicken Sandwich = Happy Camper

I've always been a big fan of Animal, a veritable shrine for hard-core carnivores like me. When I heard the dudes behind Animal had opened a seafood-centric restaurant called Son of a Gun, I knew 1) I had to go, and 2) I would like it. I finally made my way there and I was not disappointed.

I mean, behold this cutest little lobster roll that has the perfect amount of lemon aioli and celery with the super soft bread toasted on the sides just so. Ok, I admit I was taken by the way it looked (adorable) but it also tasted great. The little chip it came with played the role of salt as the lobster was seasoned mildly. They were meant to be eaten in concert to marvelous harmony in your mouth.

Everything was very good but one semi-revelation (because a full-blown revelation would be jamon iberico de bellota at the Bazaar) was the octopus confit salad with chick peas, radicchio and fennel. I've had duck confit but who knew one could make confit out of octopus? The octopus was soft and had a thin crust on the outside with slightly charred edges, as if it were straight off the grill. Combined with the chick peas and other vegetables in a light tangy vinaigrette, it was the perfectly refreshing summer salad.

The oysters on half the shell were good but perhaps because it was raw, I wasn't as wowed. It came with freshly grated horseradish, a red sauce and a vinegar-y sauce but I only used lemon. I'm a purist when it comes to oysters. If it's fresh enough, it shouldn't need any embellishments, so to speak.

I had read that the fried chicken sandwich is good and while a bit puzzled at this menu item at a supposed seafood specializing joint, we ordered it.

When it came to the table in all its imposing glory, my dinner companion and I were at first a tad intimidated at how we would attack this scary looking concoction.

The fried chicken wasn't immediately visible, buried underneath a heap of spicy cole slaw dotted with thin slices of jalapeno and what tasted like picked red onions.

Once we found it and took a bite out of that sandwich, wow, that was one excellent fried chicken. It was probably smothered in buttermilk and then fried in lard or something to have it be that crunchy and delicious.

The interesting thing was that it didn't feel too heavy because of all the slaw with the light dressing and the kick in the slaw gave it another fantastic edge that I loved. The bread, oh, the bread -- a perfectly toasted brioche bun that looked and tasted great.

I was so tempted to try other dishes other message boards and reviewers raved about like shrimp toast, but I decided to reserve that and other goodies for my next visit, when I'll bring an army of friends so we can try every single dish on that menu. Really.

The dessert menu was just meh so we were going to skip dessert when our server suggested the sugar plum sorbet. I think it was one of the best sorbets I've ever had in LA. The first bite tasted just like a really sweet and juicy plum except it was in sorbet form and really refreshing.

The communal tables were a bit tight quarters but it was also nice seeing what others were getting and we influenced each others' choices and, in some instances, even shared food. Our neighbors were having some benton's country ham with honey butter and cornbread and offered us the cornbread since neither of them could eat it. After they insisted, we couldn't resist, and that cornbread was pretty awesome. It hardly needed the butter, although the buttah certainly didn't hurt.

I'm impressed. I'm returning. Thumbs up to the dudes.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Cooking: Attention Spice Lovers -- This Thai Sauce is For You

One of my favorite past times is to wander around for hours at markets of cuisines I'm not as familiar with. Ok, I'm actually into any kind of market but there's something exciting about exploring everything an unknown market has to offer. Is that too geeky?

Anyway, as a proud food geek, I recently ventured to a Thai market in Thai Town (we are so blessed in LA) and found a really cool sauce in the ready-made food/condiment section by the entrance.

It was labeled as "curry" but the cashier lady told me it's not really curry. It was a mix of roasted chili (you know how much I like that charred flavor), garlic, salt and sugar. It was pretty spicy but the lady advised that I have "with rice and vegetables" so I tried that first.

I first tried it with some brown rice and baby broccoli stir fried with some garlic and salt. It gave this healthy meal some serious flavor and kick.

I also tried it with some pan fried pork tenderloin that I sliced thinly over rice to great effect. It has since become a great rice bowl condiment to veggies or meat.

On a separate note, I also bought some lemongrass and need to figure out the best way to cook with that. Any ideas?

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Kafe Neo in Long Beach: Good Calamari, Great Chicken Kebab and Interesting Falafel

I'm a big fan of Greek food, but have always found it hard to find good Greek food in LA. I first found Cafe Santorini in Pasadena that had very good grilled squid. Now I found a pretty good place in Long Beach called Kafe Neo. Behold the perfectly fried calamari!

I liked the lightly battered calamari and the only beef was that it wasn't as seasoned as it could be. In a way, this is good because everybody under the sun tends to over-salt things. And I'm assuming it was to dip it one of two sauces it came with, a aioli-like sauce and red marinara sauce that were a bit on the bland side. I also wished they had a grilled version available but still, it was good.

We also had the appetizer sampler that included dips like kalamata olive tapenade, roasted red peppers, hummus, tzatziki and an interesting addition of spicy feta in dip form.

I had hoped the feta would be spicier but it was pretty mild for a "spicy" label albeit different.

The spicy feta made another appearance, this time with none other than french fries. It was interesting but not sure I'd get it again. I mean, it's hard to go wrong with french fries, but it wasn't an ideal match. Plus, the feta could be spicier, but now I'm repeating myself...

I got the Horta, which is a hot salad of dandelion green sauteed with a motherload of garlic, lemon and topped with some crumbled feta cheese. I got chicken kebab on the side. The garlicky greens were really refreshing thanks to the tanginess from the citrus. I also liked that the feta wasn't the super salty kind most Greek restaurants here use. The chicken was also very juicy and charred just right on the edges from the flame-broil or grill. But I didn't get to eat much of my main meal because I had munched on the following starters.

Yes, spanakopitas galore! I had one but these weren't my favorite thing we had. Again, it's hard to go wrong with fried phyllo dough filled with spinach and feta. They were crispy but maybe it was their oddly large size that we had to cut into pieces to share that threw us off. They weren't bad but I've definitely had better.

I also had a falafel shared by a lunch companion that was very interesting. The flavor was good but what fascinated me was that when cut in half, I could see the whole chickpeas that hadn't been ground. What I liked was that it tasted freshly assembled and fried, as if it were made to order. I'm guessing the beautiful green color comes from parsley. I really enjoyed this what to me tasted like an unusual falafel. I'm not sure it went best with tzatziki sauce but I could always ask for a spicy sauce next time I go.

I got the fresh lemonade that I thought was too sweet. It would be good diluted with some spritz or plain water.

I also liked the space -- bright and airy, with a great outdoor patio. Perfect for breezy and sunny SoCal weather.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Cooking: Homeboy Industries' Morita Salsa for your Breakfast Quesadilla

I have always loved the food at Homegirl Cafe so when I heard Homeboy Industries was coming out with a new line of salsas and chips, I had to try all of them.

I ventured out to my local Ralph's and got all the featured items, including a red and spicy morita, a sweet and tangy mango, a mild salsa verde, a refreshing pico de gallo and mole. I also tried the chips.

The verdict: my favorite is the morita, which is the spiciest and in my opinion, has the most flavor. The mango is my close second. Sweet but also with just a bit of heat. I didn't care much for the salsa verde or pico de gallo but I usually like the red salsas with charred pieces of chile than the fresh ones or ones using tomatillo.

I wasn't a big fan of the chips, so I took corn tortillas I got at a local Latino market and made quesadillas. I never understood why breakfast burritos took off but breakfast quesadillas had not, at least as far as I knew. I sprinkled a mix of shredded Monterrey Jack and cheddar cheese and threw in some chopped zucchini (or whatever vegetables clamoring to be eaten in your fridge) and a fried egg. I added a dollop of the morita salsa and some chopped avocado and listo! I had a great breakfast quesadilla in my hands.

An added benefit is that when you buy these Homeboy products, you're also helping former gang members start a new life. If you're in LA, check out the fantastic food at Homegirl Cafe near Union Station.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Who Makes a Good, Messy Burger and Mean Potato Chips? Biergarten Does.

UPDATE: I returned several times after my first visit and I must say, I've been consistently impressed with the food. Except for the short rib poutine whose meat wasn't up to par one time, the German Fried Rice, the Korean Burger, Short Rib Poutine and Fig Salad were all excellent. Check out the images and captions below.

I had my reservations about Biergarten because it initially reminded me of those grungy beer "hofs" in Korea's college towns where the Hites and OBs are watered down, food is a greasy mess and everything comes with an unappetizing green cabbage salad with a big old squirt of mayo or thousand island dressing. But I was pleasantly surprised.

I had read good reviews on Biergarten so decided to give it a try. That it allegedly had a good burger certainly nudged me further.

The first thing we got, freshly fried ultra thin potato chips, was pretty solid. They came with a ranch dressing-like dip that was not entirely necessary. The chips were salted just right and crispy to perfection.

Let's talk burger. I had the regular burger with bacon, lettuce and tomato. The first one was overcooked so I took it back. The second one was a lot better -- cooked medium rare. The flavor of the patty was good. While I rarely met a bacon strip I didn't like, I thought the layers and layers of super thick bacon were a bit much. I liked that they weren't too fatty but 3-4 layers of bacon took away from my enjoying the patty. Then I have a major beef about the bun. The first bun was good but the second bun was cold, dense and at complete odds with the decent patty. It was almost an afterthought that someone remembered to take the buns out of a fridge. The bun needs work. Brioche buns are the way to go.

Another surprise was the roasted chicken, which is usually pre-cooked and therefore dry. But this one was juicy and roasted just enough so the skin was browned and crispy. I didn't care much for the accompanying cabbage salad with some mayo squirted over it (yes, it reminded me of my hof experiences). I should say that I don't just hold negative feelings about my hof experiences in Korea. It's part of the nostalgia one feels when walking around college towns like Shinchon. But the food and drinks weren't really what I remember them for. I remember the gigantic 500cc glasses we did one-shots with and the French fries being the only remotely edible thing on the menu.

Biergarten is a vast improvement from those joints. I'm not crazy about the sports-bar-wannabe ambiance but I will head over there if Korea plays at the next World Cup (I'm not a big fan of women's soccer, sorry).

The beer selection was impressive and I was offered an IPA flight when I couldn't decide which IPA to get with my burger. In typical Korean fashion, when asked what were the differences among the various IPAs, the server pointed to one and said, "this one is the most popular everyone orders." Come ON. If you purport to be a true gastropub or microbrewery or whatever the moniker for good food and beer is, you need to train your staff so they know and are as passionate about beer as you. Otherwise, you lose credibility.

I probably will return to try some other dishes and beers but this place needs work in terms of having servers familiarize themselves with the menu and beer, and the ambiance is not as quaint as one would like, perhaps due to the larger size of the space than, say, Village Idiot.
German Fried Rice: Rice stir-fried with some serious German sausages and veggies, all topped with a super decadent gravy that bordered on curry (did we order curry rice?) and a runny fried egg. This one didn't last very long on our table.
Short Rib Poutine: Need I say more? This was insane the first time we had it -- perfect fries sprinkled with some blue cheese (or really stinky aged brie of some kind) and smothered with short rib gravy on top. OMG! I'm proud to say my dinner companion and I one time managed to finish this off. But the second time around, unfortunately, the short rib wasn't as good. It was smelly and I didn't have a lot of it (just the fries). Great concept. It reminded me of the barbecued pork poutine from Animal, another great institution.
The Chosun One: I liked the stir-fried kimchi and spicy aoili, as well as the pickled daikon radish (I've actually used this radish pairing for my braised oxtail sliders for a Bowl outing once to pretty delicious effect if I may say so myself). I didn't love the spam (I know. Spam is big in Korea. But I couldn't get myself to have the burger with it). Otherwise, a pretty decent if not overcooked burger -- maybe at the level of the Village Idiot.
Fig Salad: Refreshing and lightly dressed, with thin slices of persimmons at the bottom of the plate and a mix of arugula and frisee, sprinkled with walnuts, figs and Parmesan shavings. Highly recommended, especially effective as a way to balance out the high fat and cholesterol content of the other menu items.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Cooking: Pan-Fried Tofu and Grilled Zucchini for a Healthy and Satisfying Meal

Whenever I'm feeling kind of bloated and want to have a light meal (especially dinner), I whip out tofu from my fridge. I always like to stock up on tofu because they last at least 1-2 weeks if unopened and they always make for a quick, healthy and satisfying meal.

Take it out of its container and dry the block of tofu with a paper towel to get the liquid out. Even though it's already cooked, I like to fry it in a pan for more flavor. If you don't dry it completely, it will splatter as the water will react when it hits hot oil so be careful. I like to slice them just under 1/2-inch thick, heat a pan to medium-high with vegetable oil and place the fat squares on the pan. You should hear a sizzling sound. Sprinkle some salt. When the squares have browned (about 3 minutes), flip them and salt them again.
One vegetable I don't mind eating over and over again is zucchini. It's so sweet and flavorful I don't get sick of it and it's good for you.

A very simple way to prepare these is to slice them lengthwise about 1/4-inch thick and grilling them.

I don't use my real grill but I do love my Le Creuset cast iron grill that I just place over my stove and it does the trick perfectly. Check out the grill marks on those babies!

I preheat the grill on medium-low heat for a few minutes, brush some oil on the grill, place the zucchini slices, add salt and pepper. When you see grill marks using thongs, lift the zucchini, brush some oil on, and grill the other side. Then add salt and pepper. They'll be done in about 3-5 minutes. The zucchini don't have to be completely translucent for it to be fully cooked. They're a great pairing.

Wait. Did I really just sing the praises of a meat-less meal?! I hardly recognize myself anymore. But seriously, this was good and good for you.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Chego: Really Good Kochujang-Lacquered Pork Belly Cubes But Not Much Else

My review of Roy Choi's A-Frame was harsh and I must say I wasn't a big fan of his first casual joint post-Kogi truck, Chego, either.
The one and only thing I would return for was the wonderfully glistening cubes of pork belly that were in the rice bowls. The problem was there were too many things going on in the bowl. I liked the fried egg, since anything tastes better with an oozing fried egg, but the radishes, water spinach, cilantro, cotija cheese and peanuts was just too much. Combining all these elements made it hard to discern any taste.

The chicken bowl dubbed the Hen House, wasn't much better. I couldn't taste the grilled part, for one. Still loved the fried egg, but the other stuff, like Chinese broccoli, sour cream sambal, Thai basil, sesame and red jalapeño, again just got lumped into this big old mesh that didn't taste like anything.

I mean I love the concept of rice bowls. I have them all the time. But these didn't work for me.

I felt the same way about the fries, which also had the sour cream sambal, and came with melted monterey jack and cheddar cheese, cotija, chillies, cilantro and pickled garlic.

The five-kimchi sampler was nothing special either. It included radish, fennel, cucumber and cabbage but while it was interesting to try fennel kimchi, it wasn't great.

The donut balls as a finale was just ok. I wouldn't get them again. 

I did really like the vibe of the place though. Communal tables, order at the counter, pay and they bring over your food for you. Great music and crowd. But alas, the food didn't impress me.

That said, I am curious to try the prime rib fried rice or rice plate. Oh, and the sriracha bar consisting of chocolate crisped rice bottom, caramel, Sriracha ganache, spiced candied peanuts and dark chocolate. Interesting. 

I had initially wondered what Chego meant, but by the looks of the thumbs up logo and the fact he's Korean American, I'm going to go with "best" or "greatest" (최고) in Korean, which is, technically "Chuego," but I'm no romanization police. 

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Cooking: You'll Become Addicted to This All-Purpose Dressing (Like Yours Truly)

I never thought I'd like something that has an ingredient called nutritional flake yeast in it. Sure, I was skeptical from the beginning when a friend extolled the virtues of this amazing salad dressing that she had at a health spa. I now swear by it.

She agreed to make some for a recent dinner party I hosted. She brought some deliciously grilled green beans mixed with cauliflower and peas. They were good by themselves but when drizzled with this magic dressing-cum-sauce, those veggies became excellent.

She was nice enough to bring me a big batch, so it has lasted me a while as I pretty much have poured it on anything and everything from arugula salad to pan-fried tofu.

What I like most about this dressing is that its flavor packs a punch. The cider vinegar and garlic give it tanginess and tons of garlic goodness, and it's hard to go wrong with tamari, which tastes similar to soy sauce.

The only drawback may be finding some of the ingredients but I'm sure health stores would have it if you can't find them in the usual suspects.

Thanks to DS for introducing me to this gem. 

It turns out this dressing is also good for you (rich in vitamin B) and is versatile (can be made with less fluid and a little corn flour to spread on toast or as a topping for many meats or vegetables). In short, the sky's the limit!

Without further ado, here's the recipe courtesy of Hollyhocks Cooks.


1/2 cup nutritional flake yeast (not brewers yeast, this kind of yeast grows on molasses. Look for yeast flakes such as "Red Star" brand)
1/3 cup of water
1/3 cup of tamari (read label to make sure it is gluten free. Try to find tamari since regular soy sauce or Bragg's doesn't taste quite the same)
1/3 cup of apple cider vinegar
2 tablespoons crushed garlic
1 1/2 cups of canola or sunflower oil (less for thicker consistency. Don't use extra virgin olive oil as the flavor is too strong)

1. In a blender add the yeast, water, tamari, cider vinegar and garlic. Blend for a minute or so until everything comes together.
2. With the blender running, remove the lid and slowly add the oil (in a thin, steady stream).

This will taste better if allowed to sit in the fridge for a while. Shake well before each use.


Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Red O: Great Drinks and Crab Tostaditas, Hold the Guac

There was no way my expectations wouldn't be high for Red O by superstar chef Rick Bayless, although he isn't the chef per se but apparently a "consultant," whatever that means (flies in once a week, it turns out). I watched his PBS show and own his cookbook. He cooked for Mexico's president. Thankfully, it wasn't very hard to book a table, on a Saturday, at that. We got a table in the nice outdoor terrace, which was perfect for the toasty evening weather.

The place was packed, much to my surprise, and service was good. I had a list of dishes to get and avoid from my diligent  perusal of message boards and reviews. I was ecstatic when I learned that my friend VM now ate a lot more seafood and even red meat and pork. She used to be Ms. Chicken Everything and Occasionally Calamari. I definitely have Mr. F to thank for that!

The first thing I had to have was one of those exotic-sounding cocktails. They all sounded amazing, but I got La Dama, which included Tres Agaves Reposado Tequila, serrano chile, mango grenadine (syrup), lime juice and syrup, with pomegranate liqueur and pomegranate seeds. It was far too sweet for my taste, so I exchanged it for Alacrn, the scorpion, which included Sauza Conmemorativo tequila, Veev Acai spirit, orange liqueur, lemonade and serrano infused syrup. This was a winner. I liked the chili pepper on the glass rim with slices or serrano chiles floating in the drink. Very refreshing albeit pretty strong.

For appetizers, we got the crab tostaditas, goat cheese tamales and guacamole. The meaty crab atop crunchy slices of deep fried plantains was very good. The grilled pineapple cubes and tomatillo-avocado salsa brought it all together -- some smokiness, some sweetness and all with varied textures.
We found that the guacamole had been hopelessly overrated. This guac was seriously nothing special. It was actually pretty bland. Some reviewers raved about the chips but I couldn't really agree there that they were anything to write home about. They were ok but nothing exceptionally excellent. I found them on the heavy side.

The accompanying red and green salsas salvaged the guac. My dinner companion correctly assumed that they likely made the guac mild for the masses and one could adjust the heat level by mixing and matching with these salsas. I liked the red one more. Still, good but nothing special.

The goat cheese tamale wasn't my favorite either. It was a corn, roasted poblano chiles and goat cheese tamale but I didn't detect too much flavor.

I got the Tinga Poblana, which was pork shoulder and belly braised to uber tenderness, chorizo, roasted tomatoes, smoked chipotle, potatoes and avocado, with a sprinkling of queso fresco on top.

I liked the idea of it more than the actual dish, I think. I was also pretty full by the time the entrees arrived. So I nibbled on a few bites, which tasted pretty good, especially when I scooped up the meat with some avocado and other sides.

To tell you the truth, while good, I was concocting all sorts of ways I would repurpose the meat at home. Wouldn't it be nice as a breakfast quesadilla with a fried egg on top? Or just plain tacos? My friend liked her adobado shrimp tacos.

I was devastated when I later found myself home without the meat! What a loss! Hate it when that happens.

I had read a lot about the delectable desserts, and was poised to get the buñuelos, which are like donuts only better. I was momentarily disappointed the menu didn't have that, but alas, the replacement was even better -- churros!

Yes, it is hard to go wrong with churros -- deep-fried beauties sprinkled with some sugar and cinnamon powder, and drizzled with some gooey chocolate sauce that had just the right amount of sweetness. 'Nuff said. They were delicious -- crunchy on the outside and soft on the inside. They were a bit heavy on the sugar coating, literally, but they were easily dusted off. 

Behold, those babies...

It isn't cheap but while I wasn't blown away, I am curious about his take on other classic Mexican fare, like cochinita pibil, short-rib sopes or the chorizo queso fundido.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Going Picnicking? Try These Delish Tuna Kimbab

I have been a sad witness to not one but two of my favorite kimbab (Korean seaweed rolls) joints move their locations. First it was Jongno Kimbab in the Koreatown Plaza food court, which had great tuna and perilla leaves kimbab that made many a fellow picnicker happy back in the day. Then it was the one in the food court of California (or Kaju in Korean) Market on Western, which recently moved locations to a fancier place.

I was ecstatic when I found that the food court in Hankuk Market on Western and First has great tuna kimbab too! I suspect it's actually the same vendor as the one in California Market because the kimbab look, taste and cost exactly the same! It's not cheap at $6 but it stretches to 3-4 meals.

It's like a seaweed roll, but has pickled daikon radish, spinach, carrots, egg and the two ingredients that takes it over the edge to fantastic -- canned tuna and perilla leaves!

Perilla leaves often get confused for shisho but they're very different, both in origin and flavor. I myself am partial to perilla leaves because it enhances the whole package with its nuttiness and adds great texture with its crunchiness. You've read my extolling the virtues of this leaf before.

Adding a bit of mayo to the tuna makes it softer and delicious but you can skip it if you make it at home.

One of the best things about these babies is the aromatic scent of sesame oil on the seaweed (You're supposed to lubricate the knife with sesame oil when cutting the rolls. It's a good tip!). One word of caution is that it doesn't keep well in the fridge because the rice gets hard. And you're best off eating it fairly quickly because of the perishable mayo. That said, you could also make it without mayo, which still tastes pretty good. But that's another post on cooking...These are great for picnics, Bowl outings, etc. Kimbab away!