Wednesday, September 1, 2010

#2 Momofuku Ssam Bar (New York, NY)

Last year at about this time, Anna and I traveled with a band of my high school buddies and their burgeoning families to the East Coast for our good friend (Ed)'s wedding. Suffice it to say, we take every opportunity to make such excursions to be all about the food (last week's trip in detail to Kaua'i will follow shortly). During our short stay in NYC, we had the distinct privilege of dining at not one, but two of The S. Pellegrino World's 50 Best Restaurants. And although the other restaurant was slightly more heralded (as to factors such as television exposure for celebrity chef/owner) and significantly more expensive (thanks for treating, honey!), the one that truly spurred in me a sense of wonderment (and sparked in me some well deserved Asian pride) was Chef David Chang's Momofuku Ssam Bar.

The dish that did this to me, that unseated the wondrous spectacle of a 9-course molecular gastronomy tasting menu or the more rustic pleasures of a streetside bowl of Halah-prepared chicken rice with tzatziki and hot sauces, was a simple steamed bun with pork belly, hoison, cucumber and scallion.

It's hard to describe how these flavors that are so familiar to someone raised in a Chinese household, that have been savored again and again in countless greasy Chinese restaurants throughout the world (and even this past week at a "mom and pop" take-out joint in Oahu), could suddenly be perfected by a Korean-American chef... in a bar... in the East Village. In all honesty, I could barely recall the experience. I just remember biting down and meeting the spongy resiliency of the bun, the crisp of the cucumber and scallion, the meat (and fat) almost melting, the explosion of different depths of sweetness from the bun, the pork, the hoisin, the cleanness of it all, and the ecstasy in knowing that this simple dish had met its apex.

I can't stop this post without mentioning that the good chefs at Momofuku Ssam Bar are not without their own molecular gastronimic tricks. The dessert pictured above included a frozen grape jelly sorbet (of sorts) and peanut butter crumbles that once engulfed with the bread of the pie crust co-mingled in the mouth formed a more than memorable (and unexpected) PB&J treat!

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

An ode to pig...

Nowadays, it seems more and more fashionable to vociferously boast of the merits of preparing and consuming pork. I think about the "Obsessed" episode of No Reservations, where Anthony Bourdain spends his time in-between segments butchering, waxing poetic about and massaging a full-sized pig (and its various body parts). I consider the celebration of pork that is the Whole Pig Feast presented by Chef Ben Ford at his Ford's Filling Station in Culver City. I reminisce about the whole pigs hanging from hooks at the front windows of so many Chinese restaurants, drawing crowds in with the promise of their soy sauce brown and crunchy skin. And I recall a quick glance that I stole of a recent seasonal menu at Animal on Fairfax, yielding such porcine finds as pig tails, barbeque pork belly sandwiches, pig ear, balsamic pork ribs, and bacon chocolate crunch bar.

Everywhere, the pig is getting its long overdue, but just due props.

And I myself have to admit that I also am guilty as charged...
I am a lover of pig.

In fact, my absolute favorite dish in all of Thai cuisine (and I have many favorites) is khawkhaamuu--rice with choice bits of lean and fatty pig leg, Chinese broccoli and preserved egg, all doused with a healthy dose of pork broth, in which all of the aforementioned had been slowly cooked. And my absolute favorite place to eat this heavenly creation is on Soi Laylaysaap ("the street where money disappears") in the Silom district of Bangkok. Oh, the memories of stopping by my favorite street vendor stand for lunch and buying a box lunch for 30 baht (a fraction of a dollar)!

Nonetheless, time has passed and, since returning to the states, my consumption of pork has plummeted... almost to the point that pork no longer holds that transfixing, transfiguring spell on me anymore. Yes, the pork of America is beef.

However, this new, misguided mindset has changed for me this past weekend, when my friend Edwin took a group of us to Don Dae Gam Pork BBQ. Ed explained that because beef is so expensive in Korea, pork is the standard and, as in the case of so many other formerly humble foods, the preparation of pork dishes has now been elevated to almost an art form--my own flowery hyperbole added for affect.

I can't even fathom or entirely describe in words the way that I loved the experience or the way that each individual dish rekindled my love for pork...

It has to do with the careful balance of flavors, of a splash of soy sauce with chopped peppers or a fine coat of ground salt and pepper, of the way the umami of the sauce melds with the natural sweetness of the meat and the sour spiciness of the pepper-dressed lettuce, of any level of adornment or unadornment you choose to form the perfect bite.

It has to do with the different textures, the way that grilled meat (yes, the meat pictured above is beef) becomes transformed from raw to cooked to charred, the way the fat gains so much when it starts to solidify and then crust, all wrapped in the crunch of preserved daikon or the supple softness of the rice cake (duk) wrapper.

It has to do with all the right components mixing together: the char of the perfectly wood-grilled fat; the tender, sweet and succulent meat; the fiery slow-burn of the Korean peppers; the just-right pinch of large salt crystals; the subtle richness of the sesame oil; and the well-doused, but still resilient, leafy greens.

And at Don Dae Gam, it even had something to do with the amazing accompaniments: the seafood pancake...

the spicy octopus with rice cake...

and the kimchi fried (brown) rice.

But above all else, it was the pork... the meat was of amazing quality, sliced and marinaded with great care and respect. The neck and the belly were featured in all their glory. It was like a homecoming for me, a reminder of a long lost love returned.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Some recent highlights - The Loft and Sweets Truck

This past week, as Anna and I were scouring the LA/OC vicinity checking out wedding venues, we decided to take a side trip to one of our guilty pleasures: The Loft in Gardena. After not eating since morning and it being almost 4PM, our hungry eyes ravenously ate up the word pictures on the menu--we really did want to order almost everything, but we finally narrowed our focus to two items:

(1) the loco moco

(2) and the Hawaiian fried chicken

The loco moco was serviceable, especially after a few forceful pumps of Hawaiian hot sauce, and the macaroni salad was also alright. However, in the former case, I did find myself longing for a sloppier, saltier and less self-conscious version of the meat gravy and runny eggs, and in the latter case I did wish that there was a bit less of the frills of potatoes and black pepper seasoning and more of just the good stuff: slightly soggy macaroni noodles in a heavy bath of mayonnaise goodness. Oddly, it all tasted a bit too refined to me.

Nonetheless, the Hawaiian fried chicken with accompanying cabbage salad really did deliver on its promise. Anna and I often marvel over the heavenly creation that is fried chicken in all its infinite permutations of Southern, Japanese, Korean, Thai and, most notably, Hawaiian perfection. The Hawaiian version is sweeter than the others, with no bones to mess with as you ravenously devour it with rice, mac salad and hot sauce. The cabbage salad had a good crunch (aided by small bits of uncooked ramen noodles) with just a bit of bitter and just the right touch of acid from the dressing to counterbalance the other elements on the plate.

The meal reached a satisfying conclusion with the pineapple cake.

It was amazingly moist, just sweet enough (for an Asian palette), with chunks of (unfortunately canned) pineapple in the filling and accents of caramel from the sauce. Not bad at all.


I can't conclude this post without a heartfelt thanks to Molly from the Sweets Truck. Not only did they generously support Achievable at the recent Westside Food Fest and El Pozo at Cupcake Camp OC, but they also continue to be extremely kind and gracious towards me whenever I see them out in public. Last week, I dropped off a tee shirt for Molly and bought a few of their highly-addictive Red Velvet ding dongs.

As I was leaving, she gave me a flyer with a discount to the upcoming OC Foodie Fest and a handful of frosted donut bites, free-of-charge. The bites were dense and delicious and came in a variety of flavors: carrot cake, red velvet, lemon and brownie.

I'm trying to convince my fiance to forget about going back to culinary school in the spring--apprentice with the Sweets Truck instead!

Friday, August 6, 2010

From the Vaults - best soba in town (Bangkok, Thailand)

During my year-and-a-half stint in Bangkok, I had the privilege of eating some of the most unbelievable street food and enjoying some world-class (usually Italian) cuisine, sometimes at no cost whatsoever. In the latter case, my friend Hyojung was touring the city in search of the best food, nightlife and shopping for a book that she eventually published in Korea. We were wined and dined by the purveyors of these fine establishments and allowed to take copious amounts of pictures. Thrown into the mix of "the 22" and more recent finds will be excerpts of a handful of these "From the Vault" reviews. I hope these add a bit to discerning my food POV--ENJOY!!


Unlike other Asian cold-noodles (most notably Chinese liang mien or Korean nyang mien), soba is meant to be engulfed with a healthy slurp, rather than chewed. As the noodle hits the back of the throat, the hardness of its form is noted, and the usually peripheral gustation receptors at the back of the tongue discern the taste. Homemade buckwheat soba differs quite dramatically from factory-produced soba. Production of homemade soba involves grinding of soba seeds into a fine powder, with the full hardness and sweetness of the soba intact. Factory-production often results in the loss of the soba aroma, the stripping away of the sweet soba skin, and a softer (limper) noodle.

Homemade buckwheat soba exists in Bangkok, but only in one place! Or, at least that was the claim of one of my good friends, Nobu, who was at one time an assistant chef at the Soba House. At the time of this review, the Soba House was located about 300 meters away from Sukhumvit Road, hidden from view along Soi 31 by a long drive-way with only Japanese and Thai signs demarcating the way.

The menu at the soba house revolved around the hand-crafted soba, most notably the zaru soba. This cold soba arrived atop a bamboo mat, with separate bowls for hot dip, cold dip, and finely sliced onions with wasabi. Also included were two carafes: one with cold soba sauce and another with hot soba run-off. The hot dip was not bad, with a taste of fish stock, eggplant and onions, and a touch of sugar. However, the sauce was overwhelmingly salty, and the heat welted the soba, robbing it of its natural hardness. On the other hand, the cold dip was more mild and refreshing. I mixed the cold dip myself in a small bowl, with soba sauce (soy sauce, sugar and meting), onions and wasabi. The element of control involved with the preparation of the sauce allows the consumer to vary quantities of each ingredient according to his or her preference, adjusting savoriness and sweetness in a likewise fashion. The natural sweetness and textures of both the soba noodles and the onions were far more noticeable with the cold dip, with flavors suggesting a hint of fish stock and sugar. The hardness of the noodle was noticeable, and the melding of the buckwheat soba and sauce fantastic!

The soba meal concluded with the pouring of the hot soba-runoff into what was left of the cold soba dip. This was the part that I loved the most! There was a certain art to this process, involving just the right amount of each liquid. The final masterfully concocted soup had a foggy consistency, much like miso soup. There was a subtlety to the taste, yet also a richness of flavor that was not unlike a hot pot of shabu shabu after a long night of cooking.

Yes Virginia, there is homemade buckwheat soba in Bangkok... and it is GOOD!

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

#1 Waiola Shave Ice (Honolulu, Hawaii)


During our short stay in Honolulu, we tried to sample everything: fresh poki, laulau, Zippy's loco moco, the aforementioned Local Deluxe Breakfast, Liliha's creme puffs, every ounce of spam musubi that we could find, kalua pork pulled straight from the pig (at least that's what the luau operators led us to believe), another phenomenal breakfast at the Halekulani, sample upon sample of Honolulu Cookie Company's dipped shortbread cookies, and even a few fingertips of poi. We tried almost all of Anthony Bourdain's choice stops (more on this in another post) and most of the local favorites. Though we were devastated to run out of time before testing out the shrimp trucks and shaved ice of the North Shore, we left content knowing that we had sampled heaven in a Styrofoam cup.

Perhaps part of the perfection of Waiola had to do with our surroundings. In the sweltering tropical heat of Oahu, a situation exacerbated by our unwillingness to put the top up on our Mustang convertible, few things could possibly have tasted as good as a perfect cup (and I do mean perfect) of Hawaiian shaved ice.

The first element of the charm of Waiola Shave Ice has to do with the location. Waiola is situated in the middle of a suburban neighborhood, surrounded by houses and apartment complexes just a few minutes drive away from Kalakaua Ave via King St. We knew that we had arrived as soon as we saw the long line snaking around the corner. This line consisted of a motley crew of locals and camera-wielding tourists, and ended at a window that formed the side of a small mini-mart.

And the "shave ice" itself? Read the first word of this post and let it sink in. The secret is the consistency of the ice. Biting into Waiola's version is like placing your mouth onto freshly fallen snow, like God's amazing, previously unreproducible work of artistry on your lips. Mixed with condensed milk, the texture takes on an added dimension, like the most perfect, light as air ice cream.

There were plenty of flavor options, of dizzying arrays of tropical syrups, toppings and fillings. Every option that we tried was simply amazing with just the right hint of flavor, just the right amount of paradise without becoming overwhelmingly saccharine sweet. My personal favorite was a large cup of half lilikoi and half melona, with condensed milk generously lathered on top and ice cream on the bottom.

Before I experienced Waiola, I had never been a fan of Hawaiian shaved ice. But ever since returning to the mainland, I've sought that magic combination of consistency and texture and flavor time and time again with greater and greater disappointment. I now know that my only hope is my next stop at Waiola Shave Ice.

Monday, August 2, 2010

First, the rules

Some people think that the most unbelievable dining experience comes from a Michelin-starred restaurant or a place where you have to call immediately upon opening and three months in advance to reserve a table or an establishment where an entire day's/week's/month's salary is dropped for a single seating. I am NOT of this opinion. In fact, my most memorable eating experiences have by and large occurred without much fanfare, on crowded sidewalks or unadorned strip malls. These moments have caught me by surprise, sideswiping me with unexpected depths of flavor, tenderness, sweetness or heat.

I recall my first taste of Tom Yum Kung (a red, smoldering pot of sour and spicy Thai soup)--the real stuff that seemingly can only be found in Thailand. It must have been in Sukhothai, the former capital, but now mostly a historic postcard, a place for the most part untrampled upon by foreign soles aside from the mostly well-intentioned missionary. My first sip of real Tom Yum Kung was intoxicating with the sour tartness of lime juice, the fiery spice of Thai peppers, the rich, fragrant and even sometimes subtle textures of lemongrass and galanga, all soaking into the meaty flesh of the luscious, head-on shrimp. And as unlikely as anything, my favorite bowl of Tom Yum Kung came to me one day unheralded and unexpected at Black Canyon Coffee, and my mind fluttered as I stared blankly onto the crush of human, automobile and sky train traffic near Saladaeng BTS station.

I recall McDonald's (of all places!!!) in Honolulu, Hawaii with a menu boasting of their Local Deluxe Breakfast platter. I remember the surprise on my face when the slightly salted rice mixed in an amazing marriage with scrambled eggs, Portuguese sausage and SPAM. I dream about that breakfast sometimes, along with jok (rice porridge usually with pork meatballs and heavy in ginger) from a simple guesthouse in Thailand, hot soy bean milk and fried dough from a greasy-spoon in Taipei, Taiwan, or an everything bagel with lox, red onions and cream cheese in Manhattan.

Over the course of the next eight months, I'm planning on reflecting upon the 22 most indescribably brilliant (though I will try to describe them) eating moments that my fiance and I have had the privilege of sharing. These 22 rapturous events will make up the table themes at our wedding. Let me tell you in advance--we do LOVE eating... probably as much as we love each other. And we (by we, I mostly mean she) also love great deals.

Feel free to agree, disagree or even add your own a-ha moments. There's still time for us to make edits. ;)

Btw, I may throw in a post or two (or three...) about some of the places that I've been to on my own over the years. And if I try something new that just absolutely demands attention, I may be forced to post about that, as well. For example, Jocko's in Nipomo, CA DEMANDS me to act. Some good things just can't be contained.