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Sunday, March 25, 2012

Soi 7 in Downtown LA: Avoid and Go to Thai Town Instead

I knew it wasn't going to be pretty as we walked into Soi 7, a dark, unpromising Thai place situated next door to Bottega Louie in downtown (it gets all the overflow of customers unable to get a table there).

Like most people there, we were desperate -- hungry with no reservations anywhere and just shut out of Sai Sai Noodle at the Biltmore that supposedly had good noodles (I remain skeptical but will try it).

Our suspicions were confirmed. It's not so much that the food was inedible as it was either bland (papaya salad) or drowning in sodium (the rest).
We got chicken pad siew, crab fried rice and deep fried catfish because they had run out of deep fried whole fish (snapper).

While the chicken, noodles and greens were fine, the pad siew was extremely salty to the point of giving a headache.

Then the crab fried rice was also very salty. Why pour on the salt/soy sauce so much? The catfish was ok but the sauce that came with it, which I didn't add as we got it on the side, was, you guessed it, a ball of sodium.

I also had the mango mojito and it was pure alcohol, too strong so I couldn't even finish it. Service was spotty.

Needless to say, this seems like a takeout-cum-delivery place for a quick lunch. I will not be returning.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Food+Lab in WeHo: Good For a Ham Gruyere Omelet + Latte-Kind of Brunch

I've always driven by Food+Lab, a cafe in West Hollywood that I finally visited and gave it my thumbs up.

Sure, it had its downsides, like mixing freshly squeezed orange juice with concentrate, which shouldn't be done. It offered many different kinds of juices, but the bad experience with the OJ didn't make me want to try the pomegranate or other good-sounding ones. But overall, it was a respectable breakfast/brunch spot with decent coffee and omelets.

We got the omelet with avocado, fresh cheese and another one with ham and gruyere cheese. The ham -- and there were layers and layers of it, to my delight -- was very good and took me back to Paris (maybe it was because it was called Paris Ham and I became a victim to marketing), or at least those really cool complimentary breakfast buffets they have at European hotels where they have all sorts of yummy cold cuts displayed next to the cheeses.

But I digress. So the ham was good but I was surprised to see slices of gruyere cheese in my omelet, which for $10 should really be shredded rather than be layered like the ham. So there wasn't much stringiness to the cheese -- in fact, the layers got lumped and stuck and made it clunky to eat.

As much as the flavors melded well, I prefer the ingredients to be incorporated into the omelet batter rather than have a cooked omelet as a pocket for the ham and cheese. Ok, I'm getting picky but again, it's these small things that make an omelet a great omelet.

I did like that it came with a green salad, although I wouldn't have minded having the option of hash browns or home fries. The omelet came with two sad slices of bread, one like a sourdough and another walnut raisin. They were both good but should be heated when served.

Coffee was good -- it came in what could only be described as a bowl. Here's your bowl of latte...

Good vibe and decor, with a nice outdoor patio that I hope to visit on warmer days. Parking lot in the back and it also sells packed ham and ready-made food to go. Ah, I may try some of its picnic fare for the Bowl this summer. Looked promising.

Silver Lakers -- it has a location in your hood too.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Homegirl Cafe: Great Food, Great Drinks and a Great Cause

I went to Homegirl Cafe shortly after it opened a few years ago and really liked it. The food was creative, tasty and I could tell used very fresh ingredients. Years later, I was heartened to see Homegirl Cafe outposts at City Hall as well as at Kaiser Permanente. The food was just as solid as the first time around.

I like going to the actual location next to Union Station though and while service was spotty back then, I'm sure it's gotten better over the years.

We started off with Angela's Green Potion, a spinach mint limeade, and Mango Agua Fresca, which wasn't too sweet and refreshing. It's hard to say anything negative about mango. I also loved how pretty the pop of colors looked side by side.

Then came the guacamole, which had a bit of a kick that made it better. Homegirl now serves a guac with roasted pineapples that I haven't yet tried but can't wait to sample on my next visit.

Our group ordered a mix of tacos that were all good. I mean I do prefer my fish tacos fried, but the grilled whitefish taco wasn't bad.

I got a 3 taco combination that included red chicken mole, carnitas and beef tinga. The red chicken mole was moist and came with habanero pickled onions, cilantro and sesame seeds, which gave it a slightly nutty flavor.

The carnitas one was topped with an apple-tomatillo salsa and fresh cilantro. It was tart, tangy and very refreshing. The carnitas was moist and soft.

The beef tinga, a stewy way of preparing shredded meat, had a slight kick as well and was topped with habanero pickled red onions and fresh cilantro.

The trio came with a wedge of lime and some sliced radishes.

The sandwiches are served on a freshly baked baguette (on the premises) that also have creative combinations of cold cuts or grilled meats paired with Mexican cheeses.

It's always inspiring to learn about the mission of Homeboy Industries, which is the umbrella nonprofit Homegirl works under. Jobs Not Jails is the organization's slogan. It's a great cause and they do great work so going to its restaurant and bakery is also a great way to do your part in the mission. Check out the inspiring stories here.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Napa Valley Roundup: Mustards Grill, SolBar and An Oakland Taco Truck

Napa Valley was great -- what's not to like, right? The food, however, left some to be desired. Yes, I'm spoiled coming from a place like LA that has everything from Din Tai Fung to ink.

All in all a great trip and here are some food highlights.

1. Guadalajara
100 Fruitvale Ave.
Oakland, CA 94601
(510) 533-7194

The best food experience was not in Napa proper -- it was hands down the pit stop we made on our way to Oakland airport to a taco truck, which is actually next to a restaurant of the same name, Guadalajara. It was sold as having killer carnitas and who am I to refuse? I had the carnitas and al pastor. They were truly excellent. The shredded pork was soft, moist and not at all porky-smelling. The al pastor was well seasoned, tender and moist as well. Add the works on top of those and wrap them in fresh, teeny weeny double tortilla and we had the workings of the perfect pre-flight snack, dinner, lunch, breakfast, you name it! Totally hit the spot. Thank you RS and TM! I have to confess I haven't found a favorite carnitas joint in LA yet. Crazy, right?

2. Mustards Grill

The sweet corn tamales filled with wild mushrooms and topped with tomatillo-avocado salsa and pumpkin seeds were winners. I loved the tangy slightly sweet salsa and the pumpkin seeds gave them a crunchy texture.

The lamb loin was seared just right with enough redness inside. The meat was fresh and tender. It went well with the wine. So did the lamb chop that was part of the lamb special. It was much less meat but it was well cooked and tender. The sides weren't as creative -- mashed potatoes and some garlicky greens.

Another dish I liked was the pork chop that came smothered in the housemade namesake (mustard) with sweet and sour red cabbage on the side. The pork was a tad on the sweet side for me but it was tender and cooked right. It also made for a good breakfast a day later.

I also liked the crusty bread and butter that was brought to the table at the beginning. The butter had grainy salt on it. Yum.

One curious thing about the menu: it featured a dish called "Korean Curry Smoked Duck, grilled long beans, mango pickle." I wasn't going to be caught dead ordering that but I inquired about it and our server insisted the curry was labelled "Korean." I assumed it was one of those S&B Curry blocks commonly known as Japanese curry. Not sure Koreans can claim credit for this one. Anyhow, it struck me as odd having an instant curry dish featured on a menu for a fine dining establishment. Food was overall solid though.

 3. SolBar

The restaurant attached to Solage Hotel, a nice getaway complete with spa, pools and nice accomodations, was notable mostly for its nice surroundings and extremely attentive service.

The food was good and memorable but I was probably the least happy with my dish in the group (it doesn't always happen this way, I swear). I liked the components of the spicy chicken paillard such as cucumber, savoy cabbage, carrots, mint, cilantro and cashews but it was a bit drowning in the ginger vinaigrette. The chicken was seared nicely but the overpowering ginger sauce was weighing everything down.

The trout with poached eggs, watercress and hollandaise sauce and red potatoes was a pescatarian take on eggs benedict that worked very well.

The brisket hash was equally good.

The complimentary basket of flat breads that came with romesco sauce, salsa verde and white bean pureƩ sprinkled with pimenton de la vera sauce was a nice treat. Great al fresco dining.

Looking for a winery to visit? Check out Clos Pegase winery. I'm not a big tour person but it was a great experience. Wines are great too.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Rant of the Week: Do You Really Want Your Steak Well Done? The Horror!

I'm currently reading a great book called Art of Choosing and it brought up some interesting points about choice that got me thinking about choice in how you eat.

More specifically, choosing to eat something a certain way, as the author herself experienced when trying to add sugar to her green tea when visiting Japan (her request was politely declined).

I realized I've had plenty of moments like those and find myself torn. You know I'm a steak and burger lover, so when I see someone ordering their steak or burger well done, I gasp in horror and do everything I can to stop them or change their minds with limited success. Do I need to let go? Am I obstructing their exercising freedom of choice? Or am I guiding them to make a "better choice," as I'm deluding myself to believe?

I recall going to have sukiyaki, one of my favorite hot pot dishes when it's cold outside, and seeing a friend dip the sukiyaki vegetables in soy sauce and being horrified.

So I ask: is it that bad to consume things in ways different from the way they were meant to be consumed? What is the line between fun improvising and faux pas?

Here's another one. I once brought some kimbab, Korean rolls, to a dinner party and got super annoyed when a friend asked if I had soy sauce she could dip them in. "You don't dip this in soy sauce because they're not like Japanese rolls where you dip them in soy sauce and wasabi!" I thought to myself. Besides, everything in kimbab is well seasoned so there's actually no need to dip them in any sauce, maybe except for kimchi juice?! Was I depriving her or guiding her? I, of course, saw it as the latter since it may have tasted too salty if she had dipped them, given the seasoning.

The point is, some hard core sushi chefs insist we should consume their sushi exactly as they meant it to be consumed. Some steak houses would balk at well-done requests. I remember feeling a rush of victory when I managed to get an acquaintance to try a burger cooked medium (rather than well done) that he liked. Woo hoo! One down!

Have you ever had this dilemma?