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.