Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Undoing past prejudices: Shawarma at Pita Bar & Grill

In college, I worked at an Israeli restaurant that shall, as far as this blog is concerned, remain nameless.

We served falafel, gyros, shawarma, hummus, babagannouj, marinated eggplant, and various vegetarian salads.  I used to mist the inside of my water bottle with a squirt from our rosewater cooler, for making rosewater lemonade, and snack on little sauce-cups full of tabbouleh when business was slow.

Despite the fact that this place was the only place I'd ever had shawarma, I took my experience here to mean that I did not like shawarma.  Apparently I also internalized that it was always made from a big hunk of dry chicken or turkey mixed with onions on a spit and decorated with absolutely nothing.

But the mind remembers only that it feels a certain way, not why it feels a certain way, and I never went out of my way to order shawarma again.  Sometimes I would look at it, slowly rotating, glistening with juices that ran down its bumpy sides into the pan underneath, and wonder for a split second.  But I'd remember the gristly, unchewable poultry I'd held in my mouth four, five, seven years ago, and I'd take a pass.

October, 2013:

"There's a place over on Fairfax that makes great shawarma," a friend said to me as we were inching down La Brea at a snail's place, making almost zero progress towards our usual destination: Japanese breakfast in Gardena.

"So?" I said.  I was grumpy.  It was Saturday and there was no reason for there to be so much goddamn traffic.  "I hate shawarma."

"Not this shawarma.  I promise."

Something inside me unlocked.  It was probably the traffic, my absolute unwillingness to sit for another instant behind every single sports car in West Hollywood.  "You want to go now?" I asked him.  "Let's go now."

He swung the car across a few lanes of ambling traffic and made the turn.

The whole district was virtually shuttered; a largely Orthodox neighborhood on a Saturday, wrought-iron gates were slammed down over darkened shop windows and the streets were full of dressed up, yarmulke-d families coming from temple.  Pita Bar & Grill, sandwiched between a closed something-or-other and a wall of chains, barely gave off any indication that it was open, but it was.

Effortfully not allowing myself to be distracted by the Moroccan mergueze sausage, I ordered a shawarma pita.  He didn't ask me what I wanted on it, and I didn't want him to.  I like it when places give you whatever they feel is tastiest.

In this case, the little wrap was more of a bursting salad than a sandwich, its hunks of lamb all but buried in a pile of mild sauerkraut, bright purple cabbage, and assorted salad-like accoutrements, and smothered in a light hummus.  Despite the wetness and sheer weight of the fillings, the pita remained warm and unmoved.

I wasn't even expecting to be able to taste the meat under everything pressing it down, but despite it all, the gamey lamb flavor came stampeding out of the gate, cinnamon clutching the reins.

There were green bottles, there were white bottles, there were red bottles, there were orange bottles.  Just in case all of the salad and all of the meat marinade wasn't enough, I could choose to slather my sandwich in garlic chili sauce, or preserved mango sauce, or tahini, or garlic paste, or cilantro jalapeño sauce.

I chose the cilantro jalapeño sauce, which hit me with some pleasing Peruvian memories, but otherwise couldn't possibly improve on the flavor.

Not one hint of gristle touched my teeth, not one tough tendon assaulted my jaw, and I even felt healthy afterwards, that kind of cheating-healthy where the sheer amount of vegetables piled on your oily grilled meat fools your stomach into thinking it's ingested a salad, rather than oily grilled meat.

Never again will I claim not to like shawarma.  In fact, this experience reminds me to never claim not to like anything: there's always an amazing preparation somewhere.  You just have to find it.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

No Expectations II: Bún nước kèn at Hà Tiên Quán

"Oh, this dish?  Only you and the family eat it," I think the owner of Hà Tiên Quán is saying to me.  What does he mean?  Am I the first person ever to order it?  Impossible... but intriguing.

"It's a Cambodian dish, like a Cambodian fish stew," he says.  "Ground fish.  Coconut.  We serve it with green papaya.  You know, Hà Tiên is on the border between Vietnam and Cambodia.  I was born in Cambodia."

"Really?"  I've forgotten to wonder whether or not I'm really the first customer to eat his Cambodian fish stew.  Now I want to ask him what this strange ingredient in my Khmer cookbook is.  When asked, Google returns only passages of the text of the very same cookbook.  But he's already started on his family history.

From China to Cambodia to Vietnam to the U.S., this man has plucked languages and culinary traditions up from the ground wherever he's been.  His restaurant is a cacophony of tongues, changing in an instant depending on who's speaking or who's listening.  "I feel Chinese in my blood, but I like Vietnamese food," he says a little sheepishly laughing.

"Me too!" I say with feeling, trying to convey how abnormally much this is true.  I mean, not that I feel Chinese in my blood.  I feel Vietnamese in my blood sometimes.  Like all of it is my comfort food.  Like I grew up eating it, even though in reality I first had it when I was twenty-three.

The mystery Khmer dish, the bún nước kèn, comes out of the kitchen (perhaps for the first time) darkly steaming and wafting the scent of something akin to Thai fish cakes.  Alongside it is a boat-shaped plate of greenish-yellow papaya, jalapeños, cucumbers, and rau răm.  This in addition, of course, to the regular old giant plate of herbs that accompanies everything else - the basil, the mint, the fish-mint, the kitchen sink.

I can't relate it to any familiar dish, really, without seeming uncomplimentary, though this isn't at all my intent.  The texture is peculiar, like if you dissolved sausage in milk.  Lumpy oatmeal?  No no, ground beef in pasta sauce!  But strands of noodles come poking through and scatter the lumps, which, despite their soaked sausage visage, taste coconutty and vibrant.  The fish flavor is somehow both fresh and a little smoky, giving off the taste impression of jerky while maintaining moistness.  I dump all the veggies in and quickly lose track of what is a noodle, what is a papaya spear, and what is a bean sprout, leaving the surprise for my teeth to figure out.

It should probably go without saying how delicious it is, how much I savor it, returning to Asia behind my eyelids as I chew.

"Can you eat spicy food?" the owner says, returning to me just as I'm starting to lose focus.  "Cambodians do it like this: chew on a pepper between bites.  Spoon.  Bite on pepper.  Spoon.  Bite on pepper."  And he sets down a plate of little red bird peppers in front of me.

Monday, November 4, 2013

No Expectations I: Bún mắm at Hà Tiên Quán

Walking down the street in Saigon, you'll see signs for dishes virtually unknown in even the most concentrated Little Saigons in the U.S.

Bún mắm. Bò lá lốt. Bún nước lèo. Bánh khọt. Bột chiên.

Bún mắm in particular is everywhere. It's always listed at the very top of noodle restaurants' menus, breaking the bank compared to everything else at around 40000-50000 đồng ($2-$2.50).

I never tried it in Vietnam. It was too big a gamble! The translation of "bún mắm" is basically just "noodles with sauce" or, if you want to take an educated guess, "noodles with fish-paste-like sauce". I didn't know what that meant. Was I about to pay a whole $2.50 for a bowl of just sauce-drenched noodles?

It sounds completely ridiculous now, but you do get accustomed to foreign prices very quickly. You recalibrate your parameters of acceptability. I definitely sulked for a good few minutes once when my (equivalent of) $4 duck noodle soup in Bình Tân district turned out to be less than impressive because, gasp, the price point; gasp, the disappointment!

I didn't try bún mắm until I got back to Los Angeles, and I tried it at a wonderful place called Hà Tiên Quán in San Gabriel. In order to punish myself for being so stingy and unadventurous in Vietnam, I didn't even look at the English description. I ordered it blind. The only clue I got was from our waiter (and later, I discovered, the owner), talking to one of my companions about it while trying to convince her to get her hủ tiếu with deer instead of beef.

"Don't worry, deer soup you can eat no problem, even if you never had before, but the bún mắm, like she's getting, it takes... a little getting used to!" He turned to me. "You had it before, right?"

"Yep," I lied through my teeth. I didn't want him to make it any milder for my benefit, or tweak the ingredients to make them more American-friendly. I didn't really think he would do this, but I wanted there to be no chance. I wanted him to think I ate bún mắm all over the place, that I ate it in my sleep with my eyes closed.

He bought it.

I could smell it as it was being carried towards me, from behind my back way across the restaurant. It smelled like a sunny warehouse full of busily fermenting jars of anchovies. In a good way, if you can imagine it. Not rotten anchovies, not fish-market-at-closing-time, not even the nostril-assaulting funk of lutefisk - just anchovies fermented exactly the way they're supposed to be.

For the smell, the broth itself was surprisingly clear. It was the mound of ingredients that gave the bowl its colorful effect. A bright purple eggplant, thickly cut with a browned skin and oozing center, stuck out of the top like a birthday candle. Twists of soft fish floated airily past the rice noodles, while big old crispy pork belly slices - the kind that are higher than they are wide and let you see the whole cross section of flesh: crisp skin, the thin fat layer right beneath, then the tender meat closer to the bone - held court around the edges. Sprinkled over the top were skinny leek slices, giving the thing a festive air.

I took a picture, but it was after I'd already demolished most of it, so thanks, Alex P. of Yelp, for having better self-control than I!
Sometimes tastes are less concentrated than smells. Jackfruit, for example, can stink up a whole city block, but in your mouth it's just a vague suggestion of foot-sweat, rather than a mouthful of it. It mostly tastes like not-quite ripe mango mixed with pineapple. Another example is yak butter tea. It smells straight-up like freshly deposited vomit, but if you breathe out while bringing it to your lips, it morphs into an only slightly funky chai.

The bún mắm broth was not one of these types of foods. It tasted exactly like it smelled, a bloom of fish and ferment. I loved it. Each bite was an adventure. The front of my tongue explored the sour notes from the lime I squeezed in and the back explored the settled concentrate of the anchovies. Every dip I made with the spoon unearthed some vegetable or sea creature or another. I lived for the crunch of a surprise piece of pork skin or a some pork fat that was masquerading as a noodle.

Is this what bún mắm tastes like in Saigon? Was I turning my nose up at paying a mere $2.50 for this wonderment? Or is the chef at Hà Tiên Quán just extremely good at her job?

I'll never know. Well, not until the next time Vietnam beckons me back.  Could be next week.