Saturday, February 27, 2010

Post 11.2: Grand Central Market (LA: Downtown)

Although our afternoon plans were to run errands, they were quickly changed to partake in some cupcake (Plan B).  However, we decided to round the corner and head toward Grand Central Market on Broadway & 5th.  I guess you could call this Plan C now...? Oh, what are plans for a lazy, rainy, Tuesday afternoon anyway?

The name fits the bill.
The marketplace's grandeur sits in the center of Downtown.

So what's at Grand Central Market? Just about everything.  Fresh produce, a butcher and his fridge of fresh fowl, taquerias and pupuserias, smoothies and froyo, a liquor station, a multi-cultural apothecary (Mexican medicines and spicy Salonpas included), cheap Chinese massages, and even a stand that specializes in two dozen different chili peppers.  From serranos to poblanos, you name it... it's there.

Take a deep breath.
I can feel the air fill my lungs when I first step in... each time and every time.

While strolling through the market, we caught a glimpse of a spicy shrimp ceviche that put twinkles in our eyes.  We ordered the ceviche on a tostada... for the extra crunch. Crunch. Crunch. Crunch.  There's nothing like the heat from a Mexican salsa that refuels the appetite.

 What the fork? 
Eating the ceviche without utensils is a difficult task.

Rina couldn't resist but to grab some yogurt on the way out.  (I don't go one week without being asked if I am Japanese or Korean for some reason.)  The froyo attendant was the one who so boldly asked me this time.

Attendant: Are you Korean?
ML: No... but she is! (pointing at RK)
RK: (smiles) Are... you... Korean?
Attendant: I'm Mongolian.
ML/RK: (pause) uh...
Attendant: ... from independent Mongolia.
ML: Cool... (awkward)... thank you! Bye!

Well, that was a first.  Mongolian! I think she really wanted to chat.  (No one was buying any froyo from her, so I think she was finding ways to cure her boredom.)  My genuine interest in Asian culture, history, and politics prompted me to stay and find out more about Mongolia and its people, but my genuine interest in more food prompted me to jump along to our next stop in our gastronomic gluttony of an afternoon.  Next time I return to Grand Central Market, I really think I'm going to stop and have a little chat with her.

So until then, let's all get S.O.F.A.T. 

ML - 20100304/20100209

Monday, February 22, 2010

Post 11.1: Wurstküche (LA: Arts District)

Welcome to Wurstküche.
Wurstküche sits in the reviving Arts District just east of Little Tokyo.

A friend visited from Korea unexpectedly and had a craving for everything American, so we decided to grab lunch at Wurstküche. In retrospect, that wasn't the most American food that we could have eaten... but there are plenty of grilled German sausages alongside dozens of ice cold draft beer from Deutschland and its neighbors. Who's to argue over what's truly American? So on another rainy February day in LA, we found a haven in grilled sausages and ice cold beer.

The menu. Sausages range from your basic bratwurst to
more eclectic choices such as duck, rabbit, and alligator.

Having had a few of the classics (bratwurst, hot Italian) and gourmets (chicken apple, kielbasa) on previous occasions, we ordered decisively from the exotics section. A duck & bacon for me and an alligator & pork for her. To drink? BIER.

Single file.
A selection of mustards line up for their taste test.

We spent so much time trying to make sure that we had every type of mustard (ketchup + sausage combo is a no-no) that the fries were ready before we even sat down. Note to friends for next time: there are plenty of mustard squirt-bottles at the tables, so preemptively hording resources like squirrels is absolutely unnecessary.

Inviting interior.
 Although brightly lit at lunch, the dining room has a different feel at night.

The fries must have come from large potatoes because fries that are that thick typically are cut in wedges. These were fries. Crisp and golden skin encased the fluffy and steaming potato inside. For God's sake they were fried potatoes! We chose the chipotle aioli and bleu cheese with walnut and bacon for our dip.

Singing the bleus.
The bleu cheese dip with walnut and bacon is one of my favorites.

The tzatziki and the pesto mayo are good pairings with the fries too. Other frequenters of Wurstkuche opt for the white truffle oil glaze, but who were we kidding? It was a Tuesday afternoon.

Take a picture.  It lasts longer.

Halfway through chomping through my duck & bacon, I looked over at my friend. I almost choked. The two squares of the ends of the roll was all that was left in her metal container. Rina had already finished her alligator & pork sausage. Wiping crumbs from her mouth, she declared, "I want another one. Will you split it with me?"

Duck & bacon. With spicy peppers and grilled onions.

That was one of those pseudo-rhetorical questions that begs an unrequited response. Who's to say no to more sausages? "Sure, as long as you finish your beer!"

Alligator & pork. With sweet peppers and sauerkraut.

So Rina disappeared to the front of the house, and another sausage arrived: apricot & ginger. "I'm just trying to eat all the foods I miss before I head back to Korea for work," uh huh... By this time we were peeling the roll off the sausage the way you have to peel a banana to eat it. It was all about the sausage now. The bread didn't matter anymore... and neither did plans for the rest of the day. An inquiry: "You still wanna get cupcakes?"

Auf weidersehen.   If only Heidi served sausages here.

Until next time let's all get S.O.F.A.T.

Photography by Rina is featured in this post. Thanks for the socks!

ML - 20100228/20100209

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Post 10 (SH-1): Landing in Shanghai

Two years ago today I was packing... well, stuffing is perhaps the better word. I was stuffing my luggage in preparation for my semester of studying abroad in China. It was 4:00 in the morning, and I hadn't slept the whole night. I had been packing, er... stuffing my luggage since dinner. Since it was 32° Fahrenheit in Shanghai, my aunt insisted (last-minute) that I bring an extra parka and long underwear. Little did we realize that by the end of my spring semester in Shanghai, it would be 32° Celsius. The parka got stuffed in, and a pair of Adidas got tossed out.

Each time an item was put in and another item was tossed out, I would zip the suitcase up and weigh it by carrying it on a bathroom scale. My aunt insisted on this practice so that I wouldn't have to frantically sort through my clothes at the airport (since I've been guilty of it so many times). And because carrying the suitcase hindered my view of the scale's reading, my aunt would shout from somewhere near my toes, "23 kg! Just 3 more kilos away! 好, 好... 快了! Good, good... almost!" Unzip. Open. What do I take out now...?

5:30 a.m. "Time to go!" I was too delirious from sleep deprivation to acknowledge what my uncle had said. Before I knew it I was standing in front of security checkpoint. With a final hug for my aunt and, "I'll call as soon as I get a cell phone," I walked through the security gates. Five seconds later I realized how strange that statement was... "I'll call as soon as I get a cell phone..." Holy shit. No cell phone. I felt so... naked.

The stamp from R.O.C. Immigration literally marked the beginning of my journey.

The thought of going to China all by myself really scared me. Even though I was excited to meet everyone on the program... landing to a new place without a companion is a bit unnerving. Still suffering from sleep deprivation, my thoughts became mere images, lost in a sea of mental hyperventilation. Let's call it hyper-mentilation...

Preparing for departure.
At Taiwan Taoyuan Airport waiting to board the first segment (TPE-HKG) to Shanghai.

8:00 a.m. BR 851 pulled back from the gate.

I usually take pictures of the in-flight meals, but I must have knocked out. I remember having major difficulties pulling the tray table out. "Here," the kind businessman next to me said. He unlatched the table and unfolded it in one swift motion. (I swear I've been on planes before.)

10:00 a.m.
The jolt from the wheels hitting the runway woke me. I fell back asleep while the Boeing 747 taxied to the gate. The next thing I remember was slipping in and out of consciousness at the airport in Hong Kong.

Waiting for the connecting flight (HKG-PVG) at Hong Kong International.

11:30 a.m. Blink. Final boarding. Sweat of panic dripped down my face. Where were my bags?! I jumped up... and nearly fell over. I had nudged my carry-on between my feet as a precautionary measure. Against what... I'm not quite sure (two years later). People probably thought I was crazy. "Paranoid Taiwanese..."

One word described both the weather and my state of consciousness.

Struggling to stay awake, I rest my head against the curvature of the plane. KA 892 was on its way to Shanghai. I missed another opportunity to snap a shot of Dragon Air's lunch of grilled beef with strawberry glaze over rice. (Is this Chinese food?)

Just after 2:00 p.m.
The first thought as I peered out the window for my first glimpse of Shanghai was... why are all the roofs bright blue? Seriously, has anyone else noticed all the bright blue rooftops on approach to Shanghai? Please leave me a comment and tell me why all the roofs in Pudong are bright blue.

Two thoughts popped into my head after landing...

1. The marshaller is wearing a navy blue, body-length, wool coat with a gold Communist star.
Shit. I'm in China.

2. The marshaller is wearing a navy blue, body-length, wool coat with earmuffs and a cap.
Shit. It must be cold outside.

The cabin door opened, and I immediately felt the bite of the cold winter air. I anticipated the worst while walking through Pudong International Airport. Filing out of the jetway, I noticed more officials wearing navy blue, body-length, wool coats... and stone-cold faces. Shit. I was in China.

The immigration officer flipped to my visa. "You're here to study?" I nodded my head. He smiled. Pound. A bright red oval now adorned page 13 of my passport. His smile calmed the butterflies in my stomach... but then I peered down the escalator at Baggage Claim at Pudong Airport. Pure chaos.

Shit. I was in China.

It was like looking at Murphy's Law... live. Bags flew onto carousels the same way dust flies out of a vacuum cleaner in reverse mode. Wives yelled at their husbands to grab luggage carts. I was shoved by some who were charging for their bags. I nudged back and then inched as close to the carousel's edge as I could. "Like Spanish bulls..." I thought. LAX is crazy, but this was a whole other ballgame. I buttoned up my coat and crossed my arms over my chest. Defense.  Although I put no thought into it at the time, this simple defensive action of crossing my arms across my chest was a blatant foreshadowing of the next half a year in China.

3:00 p.m. It had taken me almost a whole day to get from Taipei to Shanghai. I was completely drained, but... shit. I made it. I was in China.

To be continued in S.O.F.A.T. in Shanghai... let's all get S.O.F.A.T.

Kenny, thanks for picking me up at Longyang Station. Seeing a familiar face in a bustling crowd of Chinese in a rush made a huge difference.

ML - 20100223-27/20080217

Friday, February 12, 2010

Post 9: Rainy Days in Taipei Call for Beef Noodle Soup

At this time two years ago, I was spending my Lunar New Year in Taiwan with extended family, and I was preparing to travel to China for a semester of studying abroad. It was one of the coldest and wettest winters in Asia in history. It poured non-stop in Taipei. Coincidentally, it has been pouring non-stop in the States this winter as well. When it rains here at home, I am inclined to curl up in the corner of the couch with a comfortable cup of cocoa. But when it rains in Taiwan, my inclination is completely different... I want to grab the nearest umbrella and dash out the door for a bowl of beef noodle soup (牛肉麵).

En route to beef noodle soup.
Taipei 101 was still the world's tallest skyscraper in 2008.

My favorite beef noodle soup in Taiwan is made on the streets of Taipei by a gentleman by the name of Mr. Chao. It is not a restaurant or even a cafe, nor is it close to being a hole in the wall. It is a stationary stall that sits in the same exact location every day of the year, rain or shine. The shining star of the stainless steel stall is an enormous kettle that Mr. Chao employs to bring beef broth to a boil. It is rolled away with the equally enormous gas tank into a nearby hole in the wall that is shared by the neighboring street vendors, many of which are beef noodle soup stalls as well. The only other permanent fixture is the sign that reads Old Chao's Noodles (老趙刀切麵).

Three's a crowd. The bustling streets of downtown Taipei.
Each one of Taiwan's 23 million citizens has a favorite location for beef noodle soup.

Everything about Mr. Chao's noodle business seems simple. The name is straightforward, and the menu consists of just a few items: beef noodle soup, beef soup, or just noodle soup. But Mr. Chao's seemingly simple noodle shop isn't simple in the least. During off-peak hours the noodle stall turns into a complex noodle production factory complete with an assembly line that includes Mr. Chao and his son Chao, Jr.

Mean metal. Almost everything at the stand is stainless steel.
The wok roars with a ready flame for roasting chilies.

A kitchen cleaver is unsheathed. Shing! Young Mr. Chao begins to dice pickled mustard greens (酸菜), a complementary (and almost mandatory) after-purchase addition to the soup. Each person adds more or less and adjusts the flavor to his or her taste. At the same time, older Mr. Chao reveals a wok and begins to quick-fry chili peppers and with green onions in a searing hot oil. The peppers are perfect for patrons who want their soup spicy. Within minutes, the attention is turned towards a basketball-sized ball of dough. One Chao portions, and another Chao kneads...

Old Chao's beef noodle soup. Fried chili and onions garnish the top.
Nothing about a cup of hot chocolate can beat this.

Upon arriving at Old Chao's stand, Mr. Chao turns from the steaming vat of beef soup and eyes me. The way his left eyebrow jerked into a sharp, upside-down V was his way of asking for my order. In Mandarin I say, "beef noodle soup... small bowl." Mr. Chao responds with lightning-quick Taiwanese, a tongue that I just don't understand unless my grandmother slows it down for me. "Huh?" Mr. Chao, slightly annoyed that I'm not one to understand the native tongue says in Mandarin, "It's not ready yet. Five minutes. You wanna wait?" I nodded. Even if I hadn't ran to the MRT station, switched from the blue to brown line, and walked in the pouring Taipei rain... it was well worth the wait.

Some serious steam.
On rainy days I'd rather relish in beef noodle soup than hot cocoa.

Five minutes have passed, and without saying a word, Mr. Chao drops a bowl of beef noodle soup on his counter... but in my direction. His left eyebrow formed the same jagged, upside-down V shape. But this time it meant that was noodles were done. I thought I had better catch on with his silent language... might as well... I couldn't speak Taiwanese, and he didn't want to speak Mandarin... I pulled out the change from my right pocket and dropped four 10 NTD coins into his plastic tub of change. 40 New Taiwan Dollars... just over a buck. I shot him a look with my right eyebrow... I was capable of the jagged, upside-down V shape too, but my raised eyebrow meant, "Thanks."

Ambidextrous. My left hand grasps noodles with the chopsticks.
My right hand spoons beef soup while forming a barricade around the bowl.

I wish I could remember the address (does h
e even have one?) or at least the name of the street, but if you blindfold me and drop me anywhere on the streets of Taipei, I would be able to find my way to Old Man
Chao's Noodle Shop as easily as a Golden Retriever is able to locate his favorite bone buried in the ground. Every Taiwanese native, local, or diaspora descendant has a favorite beef noodle soup place. Old Chao's is mine. And it's my rainy day cup of hot chocolate... in Taiwan.

Until next time, let's all get S.O.F.A.T.

ML - 20100210

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Post 8.2: Tacos La Doña (LA-SGV: San Gabriel)

A white, unmarked van pulls into a dark, empty lot at the corner of Duarte Road and Rosemead Blvd. The Tacos La Doña cart is hitched to the back of the van. When the vehicle comes to a complete stop, more vehicles enter the lot, and a line of parked cars is formed.

Def. la doña. A title of respect bestowed on elders or employers.

Out of the car file high school students and parents with children. They approach the cart's window and place their orders, "Tres tacos tripas... " It becomes apparent that many of them are locals. They know that La Doña is cash only, tacos are a buck a pop (no tax), and that they serve Coca Cola imported from Mexico... the kind that is made from real sugar cane and not high fructose corn syrup.

Authentic. The scratches indicate that the bottle has been reused.

Upon picking up their paper plates of pastor, the parents place their children in their laps and squat down on the concrete islands where gas pumps once stood. A few of the folding chairs provided by La Doña have of onion and cilantro on them, remnants of recently eaten tacos. Rather than wiping the chairs down, the parents have decided that it's easier to squat.

Provide a caption.
I'll buy a round of tacos for the reader who submits a winning caption by Feb. 28.

The teenagers eat standing over the trunks of their Civics and Integras. The rear spoilers provide just the right height for a makeshift table. Another group of locals arrive... they are gray-haired seniors of Asian descent. They arrive by foot, and they are wearing sweats and pajama bottoms. Definitely locals.

Suave suadero.
The brisket is smooth and comes from the lower chest of the cow.

Students, families, and retirees... what strikes me is not how different these groups are from one another, but that they all seem to have something in common. Although this is complete speculation, my intuition tells me that La Do
ña's patrons aren't here for the tacos (even though they are quite delicious). They are here to break the monotony of their daily lives and experience a bit of the local community nightlife.

Awesome asada.  
I couldn't resist using both salsas on the beef.

The students appear to be high school seniors that have finished their college applications and have contracted full-on senioritis... hanging out at a local late-night eatery foreshadows the forthcoming college nights. The parents bring their young'uns to La Doña to break from their nightly routine of washing dishes, reviewing homework assignments, and tuning in to Leno's lame laughs. The gray-haired grandparents may have been eagerly awaiting their post-dinner meal, which is common in many Asian countries where dinner is not the final meal of the night. (Taco Bell may have been marketing their Fourth Meal to the wrong demographic.)

Premium pastor.  
Grilled onions have been tossed in.

From the first visit to Tacos La Doña during my late-night taco run last week, I have been absurdly infatuated with the motor-less meals on wheels. Warm tortillas, grilled meat and onions, spicy salsa... asada, al pastor, cabeza, tripa, lengua, suadero... all of them are good. Not clubbing in Hollywood but got a craving for bacon-wrapped hot dogs? They have dirty dogs here too. What more could you ask for?

Dirty dog.
It's an absolute mess, but it's absolutely delish.

When I asked if I could take a few pictures, I was answered with silence. Dumbfounded, I took the 'reply' for no, but immediately, I was met with a sharp rap on the window. La do
ña began flipping the grilled meat. She was met with a blank stare. She rapped on the window again and used her stainless steel spatula to point to the pastor. When it finally registered that the show was for me, I whipped out my Canon and clicked away.

Service with a smile. The world is still good.

The steam from the meat began making its ascent into the air... I swore to myself that I could smell the particles of pastor pleasure. She even cooked with a smile on her face. I couldn't believe it. If that's not genuine service, I don't know what is.

Compliments for the complements.
Grilled meat and grilled onions are an undeniably perfect pair.

I am indebted to Tacos La Do
ña for providing a late-night alternative to 626's HK-style cafes and fast food drive-thrus. I may have found a new local spot. Granted, the tacos might be larger at other taco trucks, but hey, for a buck a pop, it beats McDonald's dollar menu any day.

Verde y roja.
If they were political parties, bipartisan gridlock would be a thing of the past.

Hasta luego, mujeres y muchachos... let's get S.O.F.A.T.

ML - 20100216

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Post 8.1: The Late-night Los Angeles Taco Run

As a change of pace from the typical Friday night, some fellow foodies and I decided to run the town and do some taco tasting. After dinner three of us set out a plan of attack to taste as many taco shops in Los Angeles in one night as we could. Quite frankly, it's impossible to hit up every famous taco stand, shop, and truck in LA, but in one night we got to 5 different shops in just a little over 5 hours (and 80+ miles). Here's what happened:

Stop #1 - La Dona taco truck - 9:00 p.m.
SE corner of Duarte Road & Rosemead Blvd. (San Gabriel)

Locals only. Some patrons arrive by foot in their pajamas.

In an empty gas station parking lot, local residents arrive on foot to order their late-night snacks. The meat was tender and flavorful; the salsa was spicy and fresh. There wasn't anything else that I needed at that time... except cilantro. How can you not have cilantro with your onions and salsa? What a shame. The silver lining was that La Dona made the al pastor with grilled onions, and they sliced their radishes up so that I could toss some on top of my taco mound. After warming up my stomach for the night's taco run, I picked up Diana and Duke, and we were on our way.

No cilantro. No fun.
Despite the lack of green, the taco is still full of flavor.

Stop #2 - Kogi taco truck - 11:00 p.m.
Abbot Kinney Blvd. (Venice)

The spicy pork taco.
The crisp, cool, crunchy cabbage slaw contrasts the pork's spiciness.

Searching for the Kogi truck along Abbot Kinney Blvd. was like going through a Where's Waldo of taco trucks. Lined alongside the road were trucks left and right... delicious delicacies everywhere! Unabated by our temptation to stop at the other trucks, we made our way to Kogi, which didn't have a long line to our surprise. (I have a sneaking suspicion that the newer trucks may have done damage to Kogi's market share.)

The tofu taco.
Chunky cubes of tofu coated in kimchi goodness.

While Diana and I decided on the spicy pork taco, Duke announced that he would ask about the special of the day. (I now secretly wished that I had done that too, but thankfully I got to have a bite.) Kogi's special of the day turned out to be mulitas containing shredded chicken on the inside and a searing salsa roja,. After taking a bite of the mulita, I became delusional from the deliciousness, and I almost lost all focus on the tangible names of the ingredients. The salsa that was seared on the hood of the mulita was good enough to substitute as gravy on mashed potatoes. Absolute heaven. A few more bites, and we said kamsamhapnida to the Kogi.

Don't judge a book by its cover.
The mud topping is actually a sizzling salsa roja on this magnificent mulita.

photography by DWC

Stop #3 - Flying Pig truck - 11:45 p.m.
Abbot Kinney Blvd. (Venice)

On the way back to the car, we noticed the baby pink Flying Pig truck parked across from the Kogi truck. Based on a friend's recommendation, we had no choice but to stop and have a taste.

Pigs have finally flown.
I never thought Taiwanese-style buns would have ever come from a truck.

photography by DWC

To my surprise the menu was based off of many of the traditional buns from Taiwan and China. Diana ordered the braised pork bun, inspired by a Taiwanese bun shaped like a pac man called gua bao (刮包). Traditional Taiwanese gua bao is also made of braised pork but is garnished with cilantro, crushed peanuts, and a savory mustard green. Flying Pig's version is accompanied with cooling cucumber slices.

The tamarind duck taco.
Flying Pig's version of the classic Peking Duck dish.

photography by DWC

Flying Pig's tamarind duck taco was quite an impressive reconstruction of the traditional Peking Duck dish. Rather than flavoring the duck's skin with the almond scent as chefs of Peking Duck do, Flying Pig dropped sliced almonds in between the warm tortillas, and a single Mandarin orange wedge was placed to substitute the orange glaze that typically accompanies the traditional crispy duck. Props for creativity. Done eating... off to Pinches!

Stop #4 - Pinches Tacos - 1:00 a.m.
8200 W. Sunset Blvd. (W. Hollywood)

A pair of Pinches.
The al pastor taco (front) and the carne asada taco (back).

Someone I know is always raving about Pinches, so we put this down on our list of taco shops to try. What really captured our attention at Pinches was not the carne asada or the al pastor but the cactus taco. Having cactus was a first for all of us. Taste like chicken? More like a pickled bell pepper. Is it prickly? The texture is a bit slimy like okra. Would I try it again? Probably not. Pinches wraps the taco innards with just a single layer of tortilla, which subtracts from the strength and sturdiness and lets the meat fall to its peril on the plate. Fail. 

We also tried the guava flan, which was posted on the chalkboard as a special for the day. I could tell that the resins from the guava pulp had sunk to the bottom of the flan, but the flan itself could have had more guava oomph. We left a bit disappointed, but I was sure that King Taco would redeem the reputation for renowned tacos.

Cactus cooler. Pinches also serves cactus tacos.

Stop #5 - King Taco - 2:00 a.m.
4054 E. 3rd St. (East LA)

A little bit goes a long way. Taco al pastor with a touch of salsa roja.

King Taco is a childhood favorite of mine. Their al pastor is one of the best in the business, and their salsas are to die for. The salsa roja was like lava on my tongue, and it helped spark my appetite a bit, so I pressed on with the cabeza (beef head) taco. It sounds like it may prompt gag reflexes into action, but it's simply the most tender (and fatty) meat from the head, not the brain. The taco cabeza has a flavor that is not loved by everyone, but it is something everyone has to try. The char from the salsa verde complements the carne de cabeza perfectly, but by this point in the night, I could barely hold down another bite. Tiempo para regresar a la casa.
The best head (tacos de cabeza) I've ever had.
King Taco makes the best tacos de cabeza and salsa verde.

Tacos has got to be one of my favorite foods of all time. Seriously. Carbs, meat, and vegetables (sometimes) all in just a few bites... what other food can do that for ya? But 5 taco shops in one night resulted in an absolute food coma for me. The entire drive home Diana and Duke had to suffer from their own gastric catastrophes while listening to my cacophonous cries, "Ohhhhhh... my estomago..."

Until next time y'all, let's all get S.O.F.A.T.

Photography by
Duke is featured in this post...
... and thanks to
Diana for playing human GPS... fail.

ML - 20100129