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Sunday, September 30, 2012

Mexico Roundup III: Veggie Ceviche and Fusion Pastas at Onix in Huatulco

I wasn't sure what to expect food-wise in a beach town like Huatulco, but my party and I were pleasantly surprised when we ran into Onix right off the main plaza.

We liked it so much we went two nights in a row (ok, and there was a dearth of good places).

The first night we got complimentary veggie ceviche, which were surprisingly very good. I never thought I'd like vegetarian ceviche. I mean, should those even be called ceviche?!  But the mix of crunchy raw vegetables that included tomatoes, cauliflower and onions were just what we needed in the hot and humid tropical weather.

Then the oyster tostadas topped with some melted cheese surprised us once again. I don't even like oysters unless consumed super fresh and raw. These were cooked and I had never had anything like that before. Thumbs up.

I reluctantly ordered the chicken flautas and was worried they'd be too greasy and dry like most places in LA serve them. 
How ethereal were these lightly fried flautas stuffed with miraculously moist chicken meat inside?

Also adding to this place's brownie points was the side of pickled vegetables to accompany our meal. The plate included carrots, cauliflower and zucchini pickled to perfection with just the right amount of bite to them.
After days of eating nothing but Mexican food, even the biggest Mexican food enthusiast like me gets a bit Mexican food-ed out. So I couldn't help but try some of the more fusion pasta dishes offered.

I tried a spaghetti dish that had chile, cilantro, tomato, onion and topped with some quesillo. Ah! my least favorite cheese.

I adroitly set aside the big lump of cheese atop my pasta and enjoyed the pasta underneath. It was fresh and light -- just what I wanted.

The other pasta with squid ink, squid and pine nuts served with fusilli was also very good. I was impressed at the mix of modern and traditional ingredients.

I also tried the soup donaji, which is a Oaxacan delicacy and yes, you guessed it, I wasn't a big fan. It was a shrimp-based broth with dried shrimp and chick peas that was a bit on the fishy side for me. But interesting nonetheless.
The plantain chips were always a welcome appetizer. The steak I got the second night first came too undercooked and then overcooked, and then they redid it from scratch for me and it was cooked right -- just too much meat for one person to finish, even me.

The side vegetables had too much butter on them and not good quality butter so I couldn't eat them.

I liked the habanero salsa this place gave us upon request for some hot sauce. That thing is crazy spicy so beware spice fiends.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Mexico Roundup II: Nab an Elote on the Street and Keep the Mole Red in Oaxaca

Another revelation while traveling in Oaxaca was the versatility of squash blossoms and nopales. I want to add them to everything now, just like they do -- in quesadillas, soups and salads. I'll probably get flamed for saying this but I was generally disappointed with the food in Oaxaca. Sure, I could have gone to the wrong places and ordered the wrong things or gone on an off-day. But I concluded I'm likely just not a Oaxacan cuisine-kind of person.

For example, I didn't care for memelitas, a local delicacy of tiny tortillas topped with a bean spread, meat or veggies and sprinkled with some fresh cheese.

I also didn't like the tetelas at Itanoni that got rave reviews on message boards. These are corn masa triangles filled with beans, cream, queso fresco and salsa. Finally, I didn't like quesillo, the stringy, super heavy cheese they add in virtually everything.

Having said that, I did have some awesome things. Some of my fave dishes in Oaxaca were from Oscar Carrizosa, the chef at Casa Crespo who shared his kitchen with a group of us (although not cheap, I highly recommend his cooking class) and showed us how to make a multitude of dishes like mole Coloradito (red mole) with chicken thighs, squash blossom quesadillas, potato and cheese croquette and mezcal (a regional spirit similar to tequila but with a worm inside the bottle) sorbet to finish off the very full meal. After having such excellent tortillas, I was inspired to buy a tortilla press and make my own. I just can't go back. He took us shopping at the market beforehand, which added to the experience.

I should add that I also didn't care for tlayuda, that ubiquitous street food revered by all, apparently except for me.
It's a large, thin tortilla topped with bean spread, shredded lettuce, quesillo, avocado chunks, tomatoes and any kind of protein that floats your boat. I got ambitious when visiting the 20 de Noviembre Market in Oaxaca and got the one with chorizo, beef and al pastor. I didn't care for it. The meats were far too salty and I didn't love the combo with the other components. I also didn't like the way the tortilla shell tasted.
I did love the elote, or Mexican-style corn on the cob sold on the streets. I got it "con todo," of course, which included salt, butter, chili powder, cheese and lemon juice.

One of the biggest disappointments was La Biznaga, which got rave reviews and boasts a beautiful, artsy and inviting space but seems like a tourist trap serving diluted, overrated and overpriced food.

The only thing worth mentioning was the chile relleno that came in a mild green sauce but everything else was outright bad. The al pastor fish I had was completely lacking in flavor.

At Itanoni, I thought the use of hierba santa, a local herb, in a tortilla rolled up with some beans would be good but I didn't think the flavors gelled very well. And the tetelas mentioned above, well, the cream was too strong and ruined it for me. I just didn't care for the tortillas to begin with, despite wanting to like them after seeing how they were hand-made right before me. I liked the drink infused with herbs.

I had another unremarkable meal at Los Danzantes, which I was glad had a location in Oaxaca as the wait in its Coyoacan location in Mexico City was too long so we went to Corazon de Maguey. In retrospect, this turned out to be a blessing in disguise as I liked Corazon a lot better than Danzantes, or at least the Oaxacan location didn't impress. Interesting because Corazon and Danzantes are owned by the same group.

I had chile en nogada again but this version wasn't nearly as good as that of Corazon. Could it be that things are never as good as the first time? Nah. I'm convinced the restaurant wasn't as good as Corazon. Even the drinks weren't as good.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Mexico Roundup I: Chile en Nogada Rules in Mexico City

There are far too many places I went to on my Mexico trip to review them all, and not all of them I liked anyway. So I'm just going to mention the highlights. The best thing about eating Mexican in Mexico is its sheer variety -- so much more varied than Mexican food in LA. I know that's obvious and true for any cuisine but it just hits you when you travel.

My favorite food moment was at Corazon de Maguey in the Coyoacan area of Mexico City of Frieda Kahlo fame (the area not the restaurant). I loved the tamarind Margarita made with mezcal even though I don't usually like tamarind as a solo drink. Mix in some alcohol and frappe it and I suddenly loved it. I also discovered mezcal, which I hadn't tried before, and bought four small bottles at the El Rey distilling plant in Oaxaca days later.

The top dish on this trip was chile en nogada, which fortunately was in season. My friend I was eating with told me it is a very labor intensive dish and worth trying. What's not to like about a poblano chile stuffed with a mix of ground meat, onion and pineapple, topped with a nutty walnut sauce and sprinkled with beautiful pomegranate seeds? It's from Puebla and associated with the country's independence, which explains the ode to the Mexican flag with its corresponding colors of green, red and white.

All patriotism aside, I fell in love with this dish. I've never been a big fan of chile relleno as I found it too heavy with the stuffed cheese and deep fried aspect. But this dish stuffs the chile with ground meat, which I love, and mixes savory and sweet with the pineapple in the filling. The walnut sauce looks creamy but isn't in the least heavy. The pomegranate jewels give the dish a tangy and refreshing bite. Just perfect.

I also loved the chocolate cake that had a surprise center oozing with 80% Oaxaca chocolate and came with a side of cotija cheese sorbet. See what I mean? You can't find this kind of creativity in any of the Mexican joints stateside. Ok, the flavor of the sorbet was a bit pungent for my taste but it was still a welcome take on traditional flavors and textures.

The venue was also gorgeous, as were the restrooms. They're important! Service was also solid. I'd definitely recommend this spot, although I was initially skeptical due to its central location lining the plaza.

We went to a neighborhood taco joint, El Farolito, which was also a revelation. It didn't just offer carne asada tacos. It offered skirt steak or rib meat. I learned that arrachera meant flank steak. Did I want that with cheese? Sure. It turned out it wasn't any shredded cheese or even queso fresco. It was manchego cheese, melted on the grill over the meat. Wonderful.

I couldn't get enough of the salsas either. Instead of the watery guacamole sauce or a chunky order of guacamole found here, our server gave us wedges of fresh avocado, just like that.

I like roasted salsas so it was nice having several to choose from. The salsa verde that I usually don't like was super fresh and concentrated in flavor.

I also liked the flan, which wasn't too sweet and had just the right consistency.

I had two things at Merotoro that I had never tried before and therefore will mention. I'm not sure how much I liked the flavors but I always like to try new ingredients and mix them with familiar ones.

First was salicornia, a green that was very mild in flavor but was an interesting accompaniment to the raw clams and cucumbers.
The second was barnacle topped with sea urchin on a bed of cherry tomatoes, avocados and red radishes dotted with greens.

The flavor was also mild but the texture was a bit odd, on the gooey side and chewy. It was definitely a type of dish not easily found out here and a great summer dish for its crunch and refreshing mix.

One other cool thing I had in Mexico City was fried parsley that came with a dollop of cream cheese in the middle at La Tecla, a trendy spot in the posh Colonia Roma neighborhood. Such an odd idea but somehow it worked.

Another dish that was just as novel but didn't work quite as well was the ancho chile stuffed with mashed plantain. I noticed the balance of sweet and savory was a big theme in Mexico and this place was no exception. It came with a side of bean sauce but it didn't do it for me. But glad I tried it!

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Koreatown Food Tour Roundup: Red Hot Mackerel to Ice Cold Buckwheat Noodles

I recently led a food tour of LA's Koreatown where we made five stops along 6th street and got to sample delicious dishes ranging from kimchi spam stew and shaved ice with red beans to cold buckwheat noodles and fried chicken.

Here are highlights:

1. Seongbukdong

We had the galbijjim, braised short ribs slow cooked in a garlicky, salty and sweet sauce for hours and hours until it delightfully crumbles upon popping a morsel into your mouth.

The godeungeojorim, braised mackerel that was also slow cooked equally garlicky but spicy and slightly sweet. The mackerel chunks were super tender as well, as were the moo, Korean radishes, which are my favorite part of this dish.

We also had grilled mackerel as well grilled covina, or jogi, as the fish is known in Korea. They were both good but I liked the braised version of mackerel better. Grilled versions would be good if you're in the mood for something lighter.

The pork bulgoki, where the meat is marinated in a spicy sauce as opposed to a salty soy sauce-based sauce like the classic beef bulgoki. The marinade wasn't too sweet and the pork would make a fine accompaniment to a cold glass of soju.

The duenjangjjigae, or fermented soy bean paste stew, also known as miso on steroids, was good but I liked the one in Jangan Duenjang better.

Another thing worth noting is the banchan, or side dishes, that come out. The owner personally made the acorn jelly that came topped with a soy sauce, red pepper and scallion mix. The jelly was very concentrated in flavor and I could tell it had been made with care, unlike the commercial ones you find ready-made in markets.
Since the restaurant specializes in Kyungsang Province's regional cuisine from the southeastern part of South Korea with a large coastal area, the seafood dishes are its most popular dishes.

2. Ice Kiss

With temperatures hitting 100+, patbingsoo, or shaved ice with red bean and a bunch of fruit and ice cream, was a welcome treat.

We had different variations with strawberries, bananas, taro or green tea ice cream, all topped with some colorful corn flakes pristinely sitting atop a dollop of whipped cream.

Taro was my favorite, closely followed by the green tea. I love that it had a ton of fresh fruits and not too sweet.

In Korea, it's apparently so popular that every fast food joint offers it, including KFC, Burger King and Mickey D's.

3. Chunju Hanil Kwan

Ah, spam and kimchi. They are like peanut butter and jelly. They go so well together although I must say, it's hard for me to swallow spam these days. I used to love it too, but I think my taste buds have changed.

Having said that, the budaejjigae, or military base stew, as it's called, totally hits the spot with its spiciness and perfectly aged kimchi.

The stew has tragic origins dating back to the Korean War, where US involvement led to the introduction of spam, vienna sausage and other canned, processed foods to Korea. They were considered fancy foods after the war when the country was so impoverished that even garbage and scraps from the US military base was coveted as food. Koreans allegedly threw everything coming out of the bases, including spam and sausage leftovers, into a stew and threw in some kimchi and boiled it to death.

The military base stew was born. Decades later, the stew is now a popular accompaniment to soju among younger generations.

4. Chilbomyunok

We needed another reprieve from the scorching heat so sampled some ice cold nengmyun, buckwheat noodles. A North Korean specialty, we got both the broth one and the one with less broth and smothered in a spicy, tangy and sweet sauce. Both mul nengmyun (brothy one) and bibim nengmyun (spicy one) were very respectable but as my previous review said, I go here for the yooksu, that hot beef broth that basically like extra comforting soup that's at once garlicky, salty and super flavorful.

5. Kyochon Chicken

This photo is officially the very first photo of an actual person, Ruth, who was one of the 13 tour participants. She is sampling the soy and garlic fried chicken leg with some pickled radishes.

I love those radishes, although my beef is with having to pay for what in Korea you would get for free. It felt like paying for kimchi but I'll let it go.

You can still sign up for the 9/22 tour here, which may include slightly different stops and samplings.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Asa Ramen in Gardena: Give This Anemic Broth Some Steroids!

I had tried to sample the much talked about Asa Ramen for years now but it was always closed for lunch on weekends. Or more accurately, it only opened from 6pm-2am so had given up trying. Going to have ramen for dinner in South Bay that's farther from where I live turned out to be harder than I thought. 

I finally tried it and now that I made time to go for dinner, it is open for lunch too. Go figure. I know I am rather late in the game -- it opened at least five years ago -- the verdict is a resounding thumbs down.

The kotteri shoyu tonkotsu broth was so weak I thought I was having instant ramen. Ok, that's a stretch. But doesn't kotteri mean thick in Japanese? Come on. Where's the milky, industrial strength pork broth that makes ramen so incredibly comforting and satisfying?

The broth wasn't horrible. It just wasn't thick enough. Was I supposed to order the extra topping of butter/pork fat, which actually exists on the menu?

The char siu slices were solid. I'll give them that. And the noodles were cooked al dente, just the way I like them. But that's where the good ends. It was respectable but merely above average and most definitely below Shinsengumi, the reigning ramen joint in LA for me, followed by Santouka.

The gyoza, another litmus test I like to do when I go to a ramen joint, was just as disappointing. The filling smelled too porky and not in a good way. They were piping hot, fresh off the pan, which I liked, but what use is it if the experience is botched as soon as you bite into the dumpling? Sad.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Brodard Restaurant: Rolling in the Deep (Fried Goodness)

Finally tried the much-talked about rolls atBrodard Restaurant in Garden Grove and glad to say I wasn't disappointed. Evidently, there are times reality does live up to the hype. The beauty of these rolls is that they were nothing like any Vietnamese fresh rolls I had had before. I'm not sure how traditional they are, but I like them.
I think the biggest element that sets these rolls apart is the crunch factor from the inside, delivered by a wonton skin that's been neatly rolled up and deep fried to perfection, which they then surreptitiously inserted amid all the freshly cut vegetables like cucumber, lettuce (use anything but iceberg), a type of flatter green onion strand, carrots and radishes.

The fresh veggies definitely help to reduce the guilt factor. Then the protein can be either a slice of grilled pork sausage, grilled shrimp paste or tofu. Bonus points if you can guess which was my fave. Yes! Pork, of course. The shrimp one was on bland side and I wouldn't order it again.
My buddy PK and I tried to recreate these rolls and they turned out pretty well, if I may say so myself (I know, I often do...).

We deconstructed the rolls to figure out the ingredients and then snooped on the master rollers to see how they were rolling them. They made it look so easy. We didn't churn out the rolls as quickly and deftly as they did but we weren't too shabby.

They were a hit. I predict I will be making these rolls for many a dinner party or Hollywood Bowl outing in the future.

We weren't able to replicate the thick, slightly spicy sauce but that's ok. I wasn't too crazy about the sauce anyway. So we created our own, one with almond butter, garlic and soy sauce with a bit of kick from sriracha.
We also got the "Luna rice cakes," which were little omelet cups filled with shrimp, mung bean and scallions, served with a bunch of greens, pickled radish strips and a side of chili lime sauce.

The cups could have used a bit more flavor but I just had to reach out for the hot sauce on the side of the table so it wasn't a problem.
We also liked a noodle soup that had everything under the sun, including shrimp, pork slices, ground pork, quail egg, "assorted pork organs" and greens in a super flavorful pork-based broth. It was so flavorful that it made me wonder whether it had used any MSG but I'm going to say it was likely from boiling the bones for hours on end. The noodles were clear noodles that were like thicker versions of vermicelli and the soup was topped with fried onion bits.

Now for the least satisfying part. The Bo Luc Lac rice was weak. I haven't had a good version of this classic dish in a while. It is to Vietnamese cuisine what lomo saltado is to Peruvian. The quality of the meat has to be excellent since it's filet mignon. But this meat was not tender. The tomato fried rice it came with was fluffy albeit on the bland side. It reminded me of arroz con tomate you get in Mexican restaurants when you order a carne asada plate.
The taro plus coconut milk dessert was interesting. The wait is usually insane so make sure you come at an odd hour, like 5:30pm-ish on a Sunday, like we did.