Friday, April 11, 2014

Polar Colombian Opposites

I thrust myself into a kind of virtual Colombia this week.  Or I tried to, anyway.  It was already hot and sticky in L.A., a jungly kind of heaviness we rarely get with our hot desert winds, and I was tired from rock climbing, and I wanted empanadas.  Colombian Delicatessen in Hawthorne had stacks of them, haphazardly piled in a cooler that wouldn't have looked out of place at a Winchell's Donuts.

"Where did you come from?" the lady behind the counter asked me.

"Um," I said, running through possible responses (the parking lot?  Chicago?  My climbing gym?) but eventually settling on "downtown?"

"Oh!" she exclaimed.  "I thought you were from Europe because you are so tall!"

Mistaken for a European in a Colombian deli in a largely Japanese/Pakistani area of Los Angeles.  God, I love L.A.

She handed me my two empanadas, and the accompanying green sauce (and my pack of guava milk caramels, and my carton of passion fruit juice, because tropical fruit!) and I balanced the whole thing on one forearm as I juggled my car keys to the forefront.

And, crucially, I grabbed a brochure sitting on the counter that advertised an arepa festival that would take place at Sabor Colombiano in Pico Union that coming Saturday.

The delicatessen's empanadas were so surprisingly savory, beefy and cornmealy, contradicting their unexciting beige exterior, and the sauce so full up with cilantro and spice, contradicting its seeming wateriness, that my heart filled with a wholly unsubstantiated love for the entire country of Colombia, and I resolved to attend this arepa festival, whatever it turned out to be and whether or not I could find someone to go with me.


I did find someone, which is ultimately too bad, because I fear he may never allow me to choose a restaurant again after what I put him through.

Picture a table overflowing with plates, those plates overfilled with masa dough, that masa dough overflowing with fragrant filling.

But now sharpen your focus just a little bit, and realize that the fragrance is entirely Thousand Island dressing mingled with a slightly sour hint of Kraft pre-shredded mozzarella 'cheese food'.  This sickly orange concoction covers every single one of your 'sampler' of arepas, masking as best it can the fact that the chicharrones are rocks, and the bread not much softer.  Then turn your attention to your ears - it's amazing your attention wasn't already turned to them, what with the music piercing your eardrums at a level heretofore reserved for raves.

Now realize you have been sitting there, fruitlessly waving down nonexistent waitresses for over an hour as impatient queuing patrons breathe down your neck and leer at your coveted table.  You are especially fruitless because they didn't have any of their signature fruit juices, "just soda and beer", and now your stomach is roiling with the urgent need for a vegetable or fruit juice of some sort to wash away the gallons of Thousand Island.


I feel like I need a third experience (and a fourth, and a fifth, and a tenth!) to warm me once again to Colombia.  But I at least plan to make empanadas and passion fruit juice an after-climbing habit.  Plus, I'm running out of those guava milk caramels, which are like delightful little Go-Gurt sticks of peanut butter and jelly.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

The six luckiest people in Glendale: Mini Kabob at lunchtime

I found Mini Kabob way back in 2010.  Or, barely found it.  After driving right past it two or three times and cursing my 2010-era GPS device, which kept scolding me and informing me it was 'recalculating' in an Australian accent, I finally realized Mini Kabob was the little cottage next to the strip mall.  The one that looked like a private home and had metal grating over its practically featureless door.  The one with space for exactly six customers.  No more.

Nearly four years later, last week, I walk into Mini Kabob with a different companion and a completely different haircut, plus four years of grad-school-worry-lines on my forehead, and one of the owners pops his head out of the kitchen, looks at me for a few tenths-of-a-second, and says, "You've been here before."  It is a statement, not a question.

"A long time ago," I say.

"Of course," he replies, like it isn't weird that there's been a four year gap and here I am again and here he is, recognizing me.  "You should try the pear soda.  You'll love it.  It's made with Armenian water.  Armenian water is the best in the world."

He smiles at me, setting down the tall, wine-colored bottles, and I have a flashback.

I'm sitting in the exact same seat in the summer of 2010.  I've just moved to California.  I don't know anything about Armenian food.  I don't even know what a kabob is, actually.  I think that a requirement of a kabob is it has to be on a stick.  Basically, I'm operating under the misconception that Middle Eastern meat is some oddly spiced mashup of carnival turkey legs and BBQ skewers.

I'm staring at the bright green sodas he's got lined up on the counter, and he notices, and pops one open for me.  "Try this.  You'll love it.  It's tarragon.  Nothing artificial.  Nothing fake.  It's made with Armenian water.  Armenian water is the best in the world!"

As he regales me with tales of the natural-ness and purity of the rest of the food he cooks - stories that would later be corroborated, and more, by my nascent tastebuds - I drink the tarragon soda, marveling that something that looks only a few shades off Mountain Dew can taste so... interesting.  It doesn't taste anything like tarragon.  It tastes, in fact, like a sharp, simplified version of Virgil's Root Beer.

Mini Kabob's food hasn't changed any more than, apparently, my visage has.  There's restaurant food that tastes like it was prepared by someone who went to culinary school and learned about precision, presentation, and proportion - and then there's restaurant food that tastes like it was prepared by someone who's made tiny tweaks to the same ancient recipe, spice by spice, year after year, for decades.  This food falls under the latter category.

You can drive a fraction of a mile in any direction and drown yourself in other kabobs - after all, this is Glendale, and Glendale is dotted with as many kabob restaurants as Monterey Park is with dim sum places, or Gardena is with ramen joints, or Artesia is with Indian buffets, or...

You get it.

But don't.  Don't drive that fraction of a mile.

You'll feel rejuvenated after eating here.  Every bite of kabob energizes you, instead of sending you one step closer to that post-lunch food coma.  There aren't any bash-you-over-the-head flavors, so you get a sort of comfortable wash of taste.  Like high tide at the flavor beach.  The hummus is extremely garlicky, but they've cooked it so it doesn't bite.  And the eggplant caviar is spicy, but muted by the sheer volume of roasted, slightly charred eggplant skin and flesh.

While the rice doesn't have that bright yellow color that most places' rice does, it doesn't need to, because it tastes yellow and that's all that matters.  How do they get their luleh kabobs to step away from the 'floppy hamburger' genre and into magic?  Why is the barely-dusted pork so delicious when the crystals of spice are hardly visible?  How is their lavash so toilet-paper thin and still manages to scoop up giant globs of hummus every bit as well as those tortilla chips shaped like canoes?

Normally, I prefer bash-you-over-the-head flavors.  Lemongrass.  Mint.  Ginger.  Sichuan peppercorns.  Things that loudly make their presence known, like drunk girls, but better-smelling.  Mini Kabob is one of the few exceptions.  I wouldn't take someone here to blow their mind.  I'd take them here to cheer them up.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Tasting without tastebuds: Eating during flu season

There's a bowl the size of my face on the table in front of me.  It's heavily layered in seafood, its peaks and valleys striped and shining.  Sprigs of seaweed spring like ribbons, and play-doh-like puddles of uni overlap one another.  The musky aroma of charred uni-stuffed tamago curls into my nostrils

Or it would, had I any sense of taste or smell.  I only know that it is, objectively, because I have had this exact bowl before.

You may recall that I lost my sense of taste in Japan last July for a few days.  This completely blindsided me, reducing me to a crying, paranoid ball of uselessness.  It had never happened before.  It had no precedent.  What if it never went away?

Well, it did go away - luckily, because I had two more months in Asia, and a tasteless trip in Asia is a depressing trip in Asia - and when it happened to me again a few weeks ago, I remained dry-eyed, knowing that it would pass.

Also, my dad was in town for four days and he required a food guide.  Basically, I was going to eat, I was going to eat constantly, and I was going to have to find a way to like it.  There was no wallow-in-self-pity option this time.


To hold back my intermittent waves of regret as I consider the prospect of eating this bowl without tasting it, I start thinking about what else I can do to help me enjoy it.  Might this help me get better at noticing texture?  Is it possible for me to enjoy the tiny snaps of fish egg membrane on my tongue as much as I normally enjoy the little individual waves of saltiness?

Viewed through a textural lens, the bowl takes on an utterly new quality.  It's a little bit like trying to taste in a dream.  In dreams what one experiences is based entirely on inference and expectations, since there are no external stimuli.

Or maybe it's like trying to appreciate one of those thickly layered, practically 3-D oil paintings by licking the surface and feeling the points and swirls of the dried paint on my tongue.

I have to ignore the tendency to infer and focus only on what I can actually feel.

What I can feel is those tiny snaps, how far my teeth can go before their pressure breaks the roe's surface tension.  It reminds me of watching videos of water gliders walking on ponds.  I try to hold my teeth at that exact point where my teeth are skating across the surface.

What else I can feel is the pillowiness of the salmon enclosed in the sharp, close sheets of seaweed.  If I get a piece of fish between two pieces of seaweed, the salmon abruptly shoots out the sides into my cheek like a Nerf ball, and I have to reconfigure the food in my mouth in order to chew it all at once.

The tuna is more striated than the salmon, and this allows it to fall into neat, even blocks after one clean chew.  I like it best with with strips of daikon, like onions around ceviche.

And the uni - oh, the uni.  Ten tongues of glistening marigold, and I know that they taste like sweet oysters and ocean, but I have to not know that for the time being.  They fall apart mashed between my tongue and the roof of my mouth, but for the first time, I notice that the seemingly slimy blob is actually thousands and thousands of miniscule lobes and globes.  Not eggs, but protrusions like the currently nonfunctional bumps on my own tongue.

Something my teeth think is a sort of mushroom turns out, upon discussion, to be sea cucumber, and the squid in uni marinade is oddly identical to certain kinds of Vietnamese c.

The tamago is the only thing that sort of makes it through my heretofore impenetrable wall; even though I can't experience it directly, after I eat it, the inside of my nose feels a little bit like I'm at a barbecue.


Postscript: Spicy BBQ Thai Restaurant

My tastelessness lasts three days, and like last time, it evaporates so suddenly that the ensuing rush of flavors feels like being on powerful hallucinogens!

I recommend, should you find yourself coming off a nasty cold, or even should you not, and just want a delicious, basil-y punch to the tastebuds, you order the Northern special pork patties at Spicy BBQ in Hollywood.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Al Bap Addendum II: Twists of Korea and Japan

Since my love affair with al bap began in the summer of 2012, I have mostly been resigned to making it myself.  After all, if the shortest route to al bap involves 40 minutes on the freeway, why shouldn't I raid the fish roe section of H-Mart and make my entire house smell like chopped kimchi and sesame oil a few times a month?

It took me a few months after I moved to Los Angeles to realize that the shortest route to al bap was no longer 40 minutes on the freeway.  It was 10 minutes in a car (followed by circling insane parking lots full of jostling valets, but I digress) to Koreatown.

Desiring to start my descent into al bap madness in a controlled fashion, I carefully chose two restaurants who boasted wildly divergent approaches to the dish.  (You have no idea how happy it makes me that my potential al bap selection is now so enormous that I can type the previous sentence.)

The first, Chunju Han-Il Kwan, was a bustling stew-ladling madhouse at lunch, the whole place smelling like Seoul distilled and echoing with enthusiastic Korean vowels.  Four waitresses served the whole restaurant; there were no assigned 'areas' or 'sections'.  They came by the tables in shifts while the others filled banchan dishes, refilled and shook the barley-water machine, and visited the kitchen.  Each took care to warn us, in studied tones, to be careful of our hot stone bowls!

The second, A-Won Japanese restaurant, though Japanese in title, murmured quietly with the sounds of Korean just the same.  I was politely shown to the sushi bar with all the other single diners.  Everyone else except me was a Korean businessman silently and methodically scooping up chopstickfuls of rice, fish, and fish eggs.  The sushi bar was staffed by a tall, thin chef who made al bap and hwe dup bap in rows like a single-man assembly line.  He took a break to gaze at me with an unreadable expression as I started mixing the beautiful rainbow of fish eggs, seaweed, uni, and tamago he'd just carefully arranged.  I couldn't read his gaze.  Perhaps I should have taken more than five seconds to admire the swirl of color and its deliberate asymmetry.

Chunju Han-Il Kwan's version came with the normal dizzying array of banchan - some standouts like spicy zucchini and marinated fishcakes were terrific and gone in no time - but the main attraction itself was surprisingly low key on flavor.  Of course, it came out angrily splattering hot oil everwhere, and when I nudged it with chopsticks it sizzled menacingly.  Leaning my whole upper body away, I stirred the rice, dodging the explosive snaps, knowing that my reward would be a perfectly crunchy, yet not unrecognizably blackened, rice layer.

And so it was, and it was the best part of the dish, once I got to it.  Until then, the little piles of tiny roe dissolved so thoroughly into the rice that they left little in their wake but a slight oceany tinge on the tongue.  I ate it enthusiastically nonetheless - the upbeat atmosphere was contagious and the promise of the crispy rice on the bottom propelled me through.

If this al bap was understated, I expected the al bap at A-Won to be overstated.  I'd cheated and looked at pictures of it online, and it was an absurd carnival of colors.  Fully four different shades of roe provided a pointillist background to a big old yellow slash of uni, two different types of seaweed salad (the light green wakame and the earthy green hijiki), and the giant orange marbles of ikura (salmon roe).  Even the rice was speckled under the roe with tiny chopped pieces of tamago.  A few strands of surimi poked their stupid meddling heads up around the bowl.  I scowled at them, but mixed them in with everything else.  My chef was watching.

A-Won's al bap, though, was a whole lot of showmanship masking a similarly muted flavor.  The presence of yellow pickled daikon helped, but the only major difference here was the ikura, which burst showily between my teeth, and the lucky few times I was able to get some uni goo in a bite with all the rest of it.

What have I learned?  I've learned that al bap may only be transcendent when taken as a welcome break from a constant overdose of gochujang, but it's always going to be a comfort food, and whether it's due to bursting ikura or crackling rice, my teeth are going to enjoy the ride.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Sunny with a chance of quesadillas

The Loch Ness Monster of Echo Park Lake does not have a long, scaly neck or a coiling, curlicued body.  She doesn't have green skin or big teeth.  Her feet are (probably) not webbed, and she certainly doesn't have claws.  She looks absolutely nothing like a dinosaur or a dragon.

And she's really damn good at making blue corn quesadillas.

I fondly dub the sweet, totally un-monster-like proprietress of the Oaxacan Quesadilla Cart 'Nessie' because she only appears when I'm not looking for her.

Want to brag to your friends that the best quesadillas on earth are made in your neighborhood, then take them down the street to prove it?  Too bad.  She's nowhere to be found.

But are you speeding down the street, late somewhere, with no quarters for meter parking?  Or did you just eat a huge lunch?  Perhaps you're on a jog or a bike ride and you didn't bring your wallet?  Then there she is, under her big rainbow umbrella, cheerfully patting her ovals of soft masa dough barehanded, like she doesn't have any nerve endings in her fingers.

I've had many permutations of the charred, oozing blue semicircles and can confidently say that the huitlacoche (corn fungus) is the best, its half-mushroom half-onion texture squishing satisfyingly within its cage.  I pry the edges of the quesadilla open, its flaps giving only slightly less than soft taco shells, and dump in onions, nopales, and cilantro, cotija, and, if I'm smart, I remember to put the sauce on the inside so as not to make everything soggy.

Usually, I am not smart.  The salsas on offer are so brain-scramblingly spicy that merely being in their presence must make me forget.  The green is an everyday lip burner, but the red, oh, the red.  You don't know whether you're choking or breathing.

The first time I dumped an ungodly amount of salsa over my quesadilla can perhaps be chalked up to a combination of adventurousness and ignorance, but every subsequent time can only be called stupidity.  Or maybe not.  I never regret doing it, for the flavor behind the pain is so worth it, and though I wince all the way home and every breath of air I puff climbing the hill burns, I still reliably over-salsa my plate every time I return.

Which is often, though accidentally every time.  I have never set out with the intention of eating a quesadilla.  But I have also never walked by her stand without stopping.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

No Expectations III: Churrasca Tipica

I'm on my way to Eighth Street Soondae, on foot, about a 4 mile traverse along the west edge of downtown.  Not a quarter of the way there, not even all the way out of my own neighborhood, my foot starts killing me.  Every time I bring it down on the pavement my ankle whines.  Not screams, just whines.  On a normal street, this may have been tolerable, but here on Alvarado Street, northwest of downtown, where all the concrete-laying appears to have taken place right before a massive earthquake or three, this is a serious, abruptly-walk-ending issue.

Limping into a strip mall for shelter from the clattering cars, I see a carnival of colors in front of me.  Initially, I assume it's a party supply store, but, getting closer, I see that the reds and greens and yellow and blues are framing images of food: Salvadoran, Guatemalan, Mexican, and... Mediterranean?  Hmm.

Coco's International Food.

It is empty but for the proprietress and the cook, who remains behind a divider, and many of the things on the menu are entirely new to me.  Pupusas, sure, huevos divorciados, of course, tamales, of course... but then there's also the garnachas, and the pepian de pollo, and the churrasca tipica.  The most I can say about any of that is that there's chicken in the second one and third one is barbecued... maybe... probably.

I mess up a hundred times while ordering the churrasca tipica (the maybe probably barbecued one).  I order it because it's kind of expensive, so it must be a big platter of something. This no-expectations thing is hard for me.  I'm super Type A.  Finding a restaurant I don't have preconceived notions about is tough enough.  I spend so much time on Yelp and Chowhound and local food blogs and scouring the LA Times that almost every place I see has some rogue phrase from somewhere branded into my mind already.

And even if one falls into my lap like this one did - practically beams down from the sky like a vision - I have trouble ordering totally blind.  What if it's - gasp - steak?

Guess what?  This is - gasp - steak!  (At least partially!)  She asks me how I want my beef cooked and I'm halfway through asking her to substitute another kind of meat before I bite my tongue and answer the question: "Medium's fine," I say, which is another leap of faith, because usually ("usually") I get it bloody and rare, practically alive.

But she asks me how I want it cooked as follows: "You want it well-done?" - nodding encouragingly - which makes me think she knows something I don't about the meat.  I'm sure she knows everything I don't about the meat, actually, since my grasp of what will be on my plate still consists only of knowledge that it will probably be from a cow.

My agua jamaica comes out first, and I can say, since I do have experience with jamaica drinks, that this one is without a doubt the cinnamoniest, floweriest joy I've ever sucked through a straw.

The platter, when it comes, is not as sprawling and intimidating as I'd pictured it.  It's cute; each food item is compact, perfect, and arranged artfully separated from its neighbors.  This is a flourish I attribute sometimes to the Japanese and sometimes to five-year-olds who don't like their food items touching.

The plantains (or bananas: a consequence of my not knowing what's on my plate is my not reporting to you precisely what's on my plate) are an absolute crispy cloud of flavor, melting almost like a good macaron on the tongue, but with a satisfying oily bite.  The chorizo, though it looks kind of like fruit cake, is a crunchy play on textures, almost like that Lao sausage with the crispy rice.

That triangle of white in the upper corner that looks like those pre-cut Brie wedges at the grocery deli?  Fresh, crumbly, moist, salty cheese.

And the steak, that wild card, that meat I never, never order on purpose because it's either bloody or bust, and even then I can only ever manage a few bites of it?


Even though it is medium-well, it's pounded thin like chicken-fried steak, and rubbed thoroughly with a savory dry spice blend.  While it isn't spicy in the fiery sense, I am provided with a bottle of homemade-looking sauce whose dominant flavor profile is pork fat.

As for the tomatoes, they quickly become the second tomatoes I've ever happily finished!

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Cold day, hot udon: Marugame Monzo

There is a stark divide among the patrons at Marugame Monzo.

Half of them are fighting their instincts.  Their instincts tell them to be restless.  They tell them to feel irritated at the long wait, the shoulder-to-shoulder closeness, the space for exactly two people to wait inside and no more, this coupled with the freezing (for L.A.) temperatures and threat of rain.  Even once they're seated, the overwhelming smell of dashi, butter, and seaweed coupling with their own empty plates, their instincts tell them to be urgently, impatiently hungry.

Their bodies want to fidget, their fingers to seek their phones, their voices to rise, but their brains won't let them, because their brains are firmly directing their eyes to stare at the Udon-Making-Man.

The Udon-Making-Man is a wonder.  He is perpetually on display - behind a large glass pane at the bar - and perpetually moving.  He isn't a blur, for he moves at a steady, careful pace, but his limbs never stop rolling, patting, flour-sprinkling, stretching, chopping, and rinsing.  Not once does his hand derail to wipe his brow (a kerchief takes care of that) or do his eyes leave his station (despite the pairs of eyes all directed at him).  He displays no evidence of being unsettled by the attention.

The disc of dough grows, it stretches, it's floured.  It's floured A LOT.  "Floury," murmurs my mom from her spot at our hard-won table.  I detect a hint of judgment in her voice that may just be me, projecting my own.  It looks like the noodles are going to taste like a used rolling pin.  90% flour, 10% dough.

They do not.

For the other half of the patrons, those who have received their half-bowl, half-platters of noodles, have a different air entirely.

Their bodies and brains are in harmony: both dedicated wholly to eating udon.  They're wearing constant grins, grins visible even through rapid chopstickfuls of noodles and the motion of conversation.

Mirroring the Udon-Making-Man's, the customers' hands don't stop moving until the job is done.  The job, in this case, is to get every last snake of udon into their mouths.  Every last spoonful of roe-speckled, lightly spicy butter, every last textured tiny tongue of urchin, every last strip of pork fat or duck breast or green onion.

As for me, I look like everyone else - robotically yet wonderingly raising chopsticks to my mouth - but I'm also marveling at the slow build of the spice in the mentai (cod roe) and how well the tiny eggs stick to the noodles, as though the noodles had microscopic gaps made just for them.  I'm wondering how the squid came to be so butterfly-edged and tender, almost like a whitefish, and how the cook coaxed all the rubber band texture out.  I'm staring at my sauce, thinking how even though it looks like melted butter, I still somehow want to eat it with a spoon.

And perhaps most strongly of all, I'm enjoying the udon like I've never really enjoyed it before.  Secretly, I've historically dismissed udon as unnecessarily beefed-up pasta: the steroid-injected gym rat of the noodle world.  This particular udon, though, retains none of the excess flour I watched poured onto the wooden rolling-mat.  It has three textures: the outer bite, the slight give afterwards, and the final chew, which feels like the most satisfying sort of sourdough.

My appetite is hardly ever as big as my tastebuds want it to be, but here I am left with a tiny, penny-sized pool of butter-broth and nothing else.