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.