Thursday, May 8, 2014

Hannah Eats Everything moves to its own domain!

As of today, all new writing will appear at http://www.hannah-eats-everything.com!  Please update your bookmarks and RSS feeds!

It is time for a professional makeover for this site.  Having just begun a new job and overcome a months-long mystery illness, I now have the time, stomach, mental space, and overall wherewithal to put more energy into eating - and writing about it.

The new site, in addition to having a shorter name, also looks a little more organized and the categories are less scattered.  It also includes all previous entries from this blog, writings from my brief stint at Examiner, a few essays I wrote for myself, food-related musings from my 2006 trip to Indonesia, and selected, mildly edited Yelp reviews that I think fall in line with the tone of the site.

See you there!

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

It's loquat season in L.A.!

I'm 6 years old and being held aloft by my rib cage, just under my arms.  Just beneath me is a black, slightly spiked metal fence, its points just grazing my knees as I stretch, stretch, str-e-e-e-e-tch towards a tantalizingly out-of-reach cluster of fruit on the neighbor's tree.


My parents and I are stealing loquats.  I am complicit in an act of fruit thievery.

Even though I grew up in Chicago, my family would spend its spring breaks here, in Echo Park, Los Angeles, and spring break was loquat season (late March to late May).  Chicago during that season was a wasteland of slush and icy dirt, occasionally punctured by prematurely hopeful crocuses.  To fly off to a different land and steal fresh, juicy, tangy fruit directly off trees while all my friends at home shivered and ate out-of-season red apples was a source of great joy.

My memory may fail me here, as my memory has a tendency to invent dramatic additions to childhood experiences, but it tells me I'd fill my sweatshirt pockets with handfuls of the strawberry-sized loquats before my mom or dad or I would hear some noise, some gate slamming, some dog barking, and they'd hastily hustle me back over, my clothes snagging on the fence, and we'd sprint back down the hill, loquats jiggling out of my pockets and leaving a telltale trail.

As an adult, living on the same street as the former site of my crime, the trees look eminently (and disappointingly) reachable. I barely have to stand on tiptoe.   The tree behind the spiky fence is gone.  The new nearest tree, only two houses away, is owned by an amiable man who relaxes in his deck chair and watches me gather them.  His dog presses herself against the fence for a scratch, and that's all they ask in return.  A few more trees, further down the hill, hang over the sidewalk as if to say, "Here I am.  Look how easy this is.  Your days of excitement and petty theft are over."

Strangely enough, even the loquats coat backyard trees all over the city, most people I meet don't know what loquats are, and if they do know what they are, they don't know that they're edible.  This is changing, slowly - I've occasionally seen bunches of loquats on sale in markets, and there have been a few blog posts about them in recent years.  But when I was a child, no one I knew was eating them.  They felt like a family secret.

We'd run into the house with our smuggled booty and empty it out onto the living room table.  The fruit would roll all over the table like soft marbles as we grabbed paper towels from the kitchen.  Then, whoever had the best thumbnails would pierce the skin at the steam and start peeling.



Loquats taste like a cross between an apricot, a grape, and a pear.  They range from tart to sticky-sweet, yellow to orange, and oblong to spherical.  They're one of those labor intensive fruits with a low flesh to skin/seed ratio (see also: pomegranate, coconut, mango, rambutan, pineapple, mangosteen...), but note that those types of fruits are usually insanely delicious, otherwise people wouldn't bother.  Loquats are no exception.

---

So.  How can YOU find some loquats for yourself before the short loquat season is up?  There are two ways: the lazy way and the right way.

Lazy Way: Go to a market.  Try your local farmers market or any Middle Eastern, Eastern European, or West Asian grocery.  Wholesome Choice or Super King are probably good bets.  But I hope you're OK with paying out the nose for something you can probably pluck off a tree right on your block.

Right Way: Take a walk.  Keep your eyes peeled.

Look for this.
You will see them.  By blog-law I am probably required to advise you to ask your neighbors before gathering their fruit, so consider yourself advised.  Also consider the dubious source of this advisement.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Traveling through Thai Town

Thai Town and Little Armenia are squished right up close to one another in the grid of East Hollywood, sometimes overlapping, their mingling tendrils making for some very strange-looking blocks indeed.  There have been times when I've been devouring a soujouk sandwich or dissecting a new box of almond cookies on the curb in front of some Armenian grocery when the scent of basil, turmeric and chilies comes wafting out of the restaurant next door, making me hungry all over again in a wholly new way.

I haven't yet explored the Armenian corners as much as I would like, but I've thoroughly ravaged Thai Town.  This is not to say, of course, that it's been ravaged enough.  Nothing ever has.

I've never been to Thailand.  I've glimpsed it in the Thai corners of Ruili and Phnom Penh, eaten countless plates of pad kee mow in the basement of a food court in Boulder, and that's about it.  I welcome its influence in Burmese, Khmer, and Vietnamese cuisine, and bow down to its ability to make me cry from spiciness.  But, like other Southeast Asian cuisines, it always soothes the fire it wrought with coconut juice immediately afterwards.  So I forgive it.

Although it's not in Thai Town proper, I find myself most often at Watdongmoonlek Noodle.  This used to be a microscopic place with 12 seats, no bathroom, and these uncomfortable wobbly stool-like chairs that left my long legs dangling like a child's.  They'd always fall asleep by the end of the meal, since I'd linger so long sipping their bizarre smoothie concoctions.

Its food has always been magical, and recently they renovated, expanding into the space next door.  Now they have a bakery AND a bathroom.  That's awesome in and of itself, but why else does Watdongmoonlek get my vote?

1. It's right smack between Silver Lake and Los Feliz and is affordable and doesn't suck, which is a miracle in and of itself.  (Aw, come on, 'Eastsiders' [and that nomenclature is another can of worms, I know], I'm sorry, but I wish one of you would successfully prove me wrong about this generalization.)

2. It does 'street Thai' and 'fancy restaurant Thai' equally well.  Want a plateful of sweetly charred pad see ew, and also perhaps an artfully arranged rambutan salad with swirls of coconut milk and precisely placed clusters of peanuts?  You don't have to go to two different restaurants anymore!

3. When it renovated, it left its low prices alone.

4. It's the first restaurant that picky me and my equally, but polar oppositely, picky uncle have ever agreed is delicious (with the possible exception of Western Doma Noodle).

5. It has lychee mint slushies.  It has pickled plum slushies.  It has pineapple basil slushies.  It has watermelon ginger slushies.  Mountains of icy slush topped with chilly fresh fruit.



Here's a slushy story: my ex-boyfriend was (and is) a vegetarian.  I tried in vain for years to get him to fall in love with food, but his perpetually stuffy nose, refusal to compromise his morals regarding animal flesh, and inordinate love for food like cereal, mashed potatoes, and steamed broccoli made this difficult, if not impossible.

However, he gamely tried his best, and we were a competitive pair, so whenever we'd go to places like Watdongmoonlek, or, say, Mil Jugos in Santa Ana - anywhere with an extensive and crazy drink menu - he'd quickly claim the craziest drink for himself, looking at me slyly as if to say 'who's the adventurous one now?'  At Mil Jugos, he ended up with something called a lulo, which tasted like someone took a lime and a jicama and spliced it with a cherry tomato.  At Watdongmoonlek, he ended up with the pineapple basil slushy.  (I had to take second place with my pickled plum slushy.)

And I've ordered just that slushy almost every time I've been back.  Even if I order basil-heavy dishes like the jungle fried rice.  You can't have too much basil!

Watdongmoonlek is delicious and reliable, and occasionally surprising, but when I want something that will force into existence whole new colonies of tastebuds on my tongue, I go to Jitlada.  I've written extensively on Jitlada before, so I won't reinvent the wheel by finding new ways to gush about it, but their dishes are so carefully and precisely balanced, with handfuls of perfectly complementary mystery herbs and spices, that each bite feels like a stop on a journey through a wildly exotic land.  Whenever I think I'm plateauing, that most of the tastes available to human beings have already touched my tongue, Jitlada disabuses me of that notion.

While fascinating and adventurous, Jitlada is also pricey, maddeningly crowded, glacially slow, and totally lacking in parking.  More often than not, I just want a quick bite, packed with flavor, for under $10, no pretensions.

For noodles - soup noodles and dry noodles, respectively - I have two go-to places.  For soup noodles, my pick is Rodded Restaurant for their excellent duck noodle soup.  It's dark-brothed, with duck textured as though it came right off a grill or out of a broiler.  It's tender, the fat is practically liquid, and very silky, and it still has its color.

For dry noodles, I go to Hoy-Ka Thai Noodles, which packs its namesake bowl with ground pork, pork liver, BBQ pork, pork meatballs, fish cake, and herbs and allows me to shoplift it from them for the ridiculously low price of $3.99.  Even though 90% of the bowl consists of different types of pork, each slice, ball, and chunk tastes unique.

For rice, Ruen Pair does a mean Cha-Po combination - its duck, pork belly, and BBQ pork are all cooked to their respective levels of perfection - and Pa Ord's crispy pork with holy basil is tooth-crackingly, greasily wonderful, with a spice chart so elevated that all but the most hardened diners should stop at 'medium'.  The deadly little pepper circles that look so innocuous blending into your basil are not innocuous at all, so treat them with respect.

In a category all its own is Spicy BBQ Restaurant, south of the meat of Thai Town, a place smaller than even the old Watdongmoonlek, with a sweet, friendly owner and a menu that starts out pedestrian but slowly morphs into mouthwatering at the Northern Thai end.  Its Northern special pork patties inspired me to go home and try to make a Thai fusion hamburger (this did not work, but the pork patties come close enough), and the spicy jackfruit has a back-of-the-throat kick that that distracts you from the oddly meat-like texture of the fruit.  The pork and the jackfruit are so indistinguishable that were I a terrible person, I could have easily fooled my vegetarian ex into eating this dish.

However, Spicy BBQ's Northern Thai Noodles did tempt a dining companion into taking her very first bite of blood cubes!  Usually, when someone points to the burgundy square and says 'what's that?' and I oh-so-casually say 'oh, you know, it's just blood cubes', they wince or reel back.  This dish looked so inviting that she merely shrugged and popped one in.

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.