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Sunday, January 1, 2012

Best of 2011: Short-ribs Gravy over Fries, Fried Chix Sandwich and Pizza that Won't Kill Your Wallet

1. Best Fine Dining: ink
Ok, this is completely predictable but I thought I'd get the obvious ones out of the way. ink was creative, flavorful and well-executed. The chef even impressed me with his version of bokchoy kimchi. The service could be better and I wish it were open on Sunday. I don't want to kiss up too much, but I'd say this joint is one of the best new eats around town too.

2. Best Comfort Food: Son of a Gun
It's no diner, but Son of a Gun manages to take something so close to our hearts like a lobster roll or fried chicken sandwich and elevate it to such heights you tolerate its not being on Opentable for an easy reservation and grudgingly make a call. The chicken sandwich was everything you'd expect from fried chicken and more. The sugar plum sorbet was like biting right into an actual sugar plum, except it was icy and slushy, both in a good way.

3. Best Brunch: Square One
Yes, Square One is hipster central, but it has the nicest patio and serves something different than typical brunch joints. I love its baked eggs with chorizo and gruyere cheese and salsa. Even brunch place standards like french toast and pancakes are well executed and well above your typical joint. I had fresh plums over my french toast as it offers seasonal fruits over them and it was summer time. They were incredibly sweet and juicy. One gripe about this place: get rid of the flies indoors. It's extremely annoying. If I wanted to go to a nature preserve, I would have.

4. Best Gastropub: Biergarten
It's a humble joint located in a non-descript strip mall in Koreatown but I've been repeatedly impressed by the creative menu items and for the most part, being pleasantly surprised at how good they are. Oh, and they're decadent. Behold this short rib poutine, with some blue cheese thrown in. Actually, the first time I had it was the best version. The rib meat didn't taste as good the second time around. They tasted old and I couldn't really finish it off as cleanly as I had the first time. Great concept and decent execution but needs to work on quality control of ingredients used. Great beer selection although I didn't love the beer flight. Other standouts include the excellent German fried rice with a gooey fried egg on top, the above-average burger (save for the bun that needs improvement), the roasted chicken and the fig salad.

Honorable mention: Congregation Ale House  in Long Beach. It didn't make the best of cut because the quality of the burger that was excellent the first time around, deteriorated the second time around. Why did I give a pass to Biergarten for its lesser poutine? Because I'm a hard-core burger person and can't tolerate inconsistent burgers! And the chairs are uncomfortable, unlike Biergarten's cushy booth-like seating where we can spend hours chatting, laughing and stuffing our faces with delicious short rib gravy over fries.

5. Best Banh Mi: Banh Mi Cho Cu
I haven't tried the Nom Nom truck but judging from all the other less than satisfying food truck experiences, I'm highly skeptical that I'll be blown away. In the meantime, I'll stick to Westminster for my banh mi sandwiches. I so wish there were more authentic banh mi joints closer to me but alas, it is not to be.

The bread was fresh and the meats used were flavorful and not smelly like some bad ones I'd visited.

6. Best New Burger: Lazy Ox Canteen
You didn't think I'd let 2011 pass by without mention of one of my favorite things in the world, did you?

I didn't like the Ox the first time I visited soon after it opened. But it came around on my next visit and then again and again. The burger was perfectly cooked and the patty was juicy and boasted all of its glorious meatiness in one bite. The bun was fresh, toasted and held its own to the hefty patty and the works. Hope it stays that way.

Houston's is still my number one burger but this one is definitely a good alternative, especially now that Burger Kitchen has downgraded its patty meat and parted ways with Pat LaFrieda out east.

7. Best Alternative to Mozza: Olio Pizzeria & Cafe
I know there are a ton of new fancy pizza joints that popped up but I've been out of town so until I visit them, my favorite alternative to the madness that is Mozza is this place, sitting quietly on the corner of Third and Crescent Heights.

No, it isn't as good as Mozza. But the crust is thin and crispy, and the ingredients fresh. A bonus is the house-made sodas that were refreshing and not too sweet.

8. Best Cooking Discovery: Chorizo, parsnips and manchego bites
Since I made these at a dinner party last June, I've made them over and over for gatherings and outings and they're always a crowd pleaser. People often wonder what's the root vegetable -- is it potato? Is it celery root? Radish? Parsnips have a stronger flavor than carrots and potatoes but also have a slightly sweet side -- perfect to pair with the spicy chorizo and nutty manchego slices. Add a fried egg and you've got breakfast served.

Honorable mention: Banana and shiso harumaki dessert

I fell in love with this dessert when I had it at Nobu in Las Vegas. It was by far the best thing on the menu I had that evening. I tried to recreate it several times and after an initial glitch of buying the wrong spring roll wrapper, I finally got it right and made it for my family and boy, was it a hit. The ripe bananas, paired with dulce de leche and shiso leaves, all in a wafer-thin wrapper and deep fried -- throw in some great quality green tea ice cream or such and you've got yourself a fantastic dessert everyone will love. I was initially concerned the sweetness of the dulce de leche would overpower everything but it wasn't too sweet and in fact, people wanted more of that melted goodness to spread on some bread!

9. Best Out-of-town Food Experience: Fried Catfish at Flying Fish in Little Rock, AR
I wasn't sure what to expect when I embarked on a trip to Little Rock, but I had excellent fried catfish at this joint that's also a local favorite. I didn't have great mobility as I was staying downtown but I was very impressed with the quality of the fish and how light it was breaded and fried. I wasn't too fond of the sides but the star of the show was most definitely the fried catfish and that was a success.

10. Best Out-of-country Food Experience: Fresh Grilled Eel in Korea
Besides the delicious homemade meals I had in Korea, the best restaurant food was the fresh eel I had grilled table-side and topped with an array of sides such as pickled perilla leaves, grilled garlic, kimchi or pickled radish. Anyway you enjoy it, it was something I couldn't normally have in LA and all the ingredients were so fresh-tasting and pickled just right that added a tangy and lighter balance to the fatty fish, delightfully complete with charred grill marks and all.

That's it for 2011, folks. Let me know what you think. Thank you so much for subscribing, following me or just plain reading my posts. Hope 2012 will be an even more exciting year for eating and cooking.

Happy New Year to everybody and happy eating!! I made a pretty mean ttukguk (rice cake soup consumed by Koreans on the first day of the year) today after boiling some bones and meat for like 100 hours yesterday. Hope you had your fill of whatever your New Year traditions are!

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