Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Post 18: The Crunch and Crackle of Haemul Pajeon

The Korean seafood pancake (haemul pajeon) has a crunch unlike any other crunch.  It's unique.  It's special.  It's... hard to describe.  

The crunch and crackle from Corner Place in Cerritos.

Are there even different types of crunches? Do they actually sound different? Most definitely.  Let's see... there's the crunch you get when you bite into a ridged Ruffles potato chip.  That type of crunch is more like a snap... it makes cacophonous echoes in the caves of your mouth with every mouthy movement.  There's also the crunch you get when you bite into an Extra Crispy from KFC.  That crunch is deep.  It's got muscle.  It's a force to be reckoned with.  The crunch of a Korean seafood pancake is different.  It's more like a crackle.  It's not noisy... but it's not weak either.  The pancake is crispy... yet it caves in with more pressure...

The pretty pajeon from Han Bat Restaurant in New York City.
(photo courtesy of oolong-milktea)

Koreans say that the best time to eat haemul pajeon is on rainy days because the pitter patter of the raindrops hitting the ground reminds them of the same crackle of the pancake.  In some sort of strange cinematic imagery, I can just see a beautiful (pale as hell) hopeless romantic (Korean) sitting by the window sill with her face pressed against the cold, foggy glass... she is peering out at the grayish storm clouds (don't forget the pale blue hue cast upon her porcelain white skin) and thinking in anguish about her long, lost love (haemul pajeon).  But rain or shine, anyday is a great day for seafood pancake.  No need to wait for the downpour.

I swoon for the pajeon at Soowon Galbi in LA's Koreatown.

This is one of the few food items that I crave on a consistent basis.  If it's been too long of a time without haemul pajeon, it's hard for me to fall asleep.  I count slices of pajeon to fall asleep the same way some people (absolutely no one) count sheep at night.  (Seriously, does anyone actually count sheep?) Images of the flaky, golden outer shell play through my mind over and over again.  I want to embody the tunnels of leggy green onions trapped within the pajeon batter.  It'd even be kinda cool to hang out with the octopus tentacles.  If the pajeon batter was quicksand, well, let me sink.

Kimchi is a suitable complement for a spicy kick and an extra crunch.

Just writing about this is causing a pool of drool to form on my keyboard.  Wipe, wipe.  Korean food is now on the agenda tomorrow.  I can't stare at these pornographic pajeon pictures any longer.  Until you hear the crackle of the pancake, let's get S.O.F.A.T.

ML - 20100515

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Post 17: Red Hot Kitchen (East LA)

When I first heard that Red Hot Kitchen served Korean BBQ tacos, it seemed like just another player in the recent Korean-Mexican fusion craze.  However, after I got a chance to stop by with Rose to sample their nine-item tasting menu.  With its stationary stomping ground (not a truck) and plenty of peculiarities such as the jalapeño bomb and mushroom popper,  it was clear that Red Hot Kitchen had set itself apart from the others.  

This was the bonanza in my box:

Item 1: The avocado mango salad consisted of a colorful array of fruits and vegetables.  It was pleasing to the eye as well as the stomach, for it provided a refreshing start (or end) to a not-so-light meal.

Item 2: The spicy pork and kimchee quesadilla had a smell so strong that it reminded me of foods like Taiwanese stinky tofu that pack powerful, pungent punches.  That didn't mean I didn't like it though.  My appreciation for pungent foods goes far and beyond... the smellier the kimchee, the better.

Item 3: More like a jalapeño torpedo than a jalapeño bomb, this was one of the most creative items on the tasting menu.  If you think the typical gooey, cheese-filled, breaded and fried jalapeño popper is delicious, try one that is stuffed with crab and cream cheese and topped off with not just Sriracha but the ever-popular spicy mayo. Placing it in your mouth is like a slow-mo, clock-ticking countdown to an explosion of spiciness.

Item 4: The beef chimichanga was more like a bomb or a bean flower in full bloom.  At first glance I thought it literally looked like a tub of beans held together with a deep fried tortilla.  It probably wasn't such a good idea to have the chimichanga after the jalapeño bomb because the Sriracha and spicy mayo started mixing together, so it became a bit difficult to discern the flavors.  Regardless, the outer layer was fried to a distinct crisp, and who's to refuse a crispy, deep-fried crunch?

Item 5: Upon first bite of the bulgogi slider, I knew I was in love.  It wasn't the meat that captured my attention but the bread.  It was so soft, so sweet... like biting into a pillow of bread.  I might have even closed my eyes for just a bit when as I was savoring the sweet and savory taste.  I discovered later on Yelp that the rolls were the original King's Hawaiian sweet bread.  Although it's great to know that the chef knows his bread, the King's roll may have stolen the bulgogi's thunder just a bit.

Item 6: There's no way I could have simply popped the mushroom popper into my mouth, but because of that I was given an opportunity to repeatedly crunch on the popper's ridiculously crispy shell.  I had thought that perhaps the mushroom would have been diced or somehow blended in with the crab, but surprise! Like opening a time capsule (which I've never done... horribly analogy), an entire mushroom cap tumbled out when I sliced the popper in half.

Item 7: By the time I had reached for the short rib taco, it was cold... not lukewarm or cooled off... but cold.  No matter.  The flavor of the meat was just napping, and a squirt of the lime definitely woke it up from its slumber.

Item 8: I could tell that the chicken taco would have been better had it been warm, so I took it home for a minute-nuke in the microwave.  The chicken was still tender and still moist, but the short rib had left a stronger flavor on my palate.  I may have to try it on-site again in its solitude for a better taste reference in the near future.

Item 9: The slice of Mexican pizza is not the prettiest item on the menu; I'll tell ya that right away.  But after a few bites, this petite piece of pizza begins to be a bit addicting.  This quesadilla on crack is cheese sandwiched between tortillas... topped off with beans, guacamole, onions (both green and white), and sour cream.  Did I forget the meat? Something red (perhaps tomatoes or salsa... no more Sriracha!) may help its aesthetic appeal.

The tasting menu was a great way to get a glimpse of what the little bungalow could create.  The menu is extensive, so I'm sure anyone can find at least one item to enjoy.  If it's your first time there, the japaleño bomb is a great way to whet your appetite.  Props to this local business for sprouting in this tough economic environment. 

Thanks to Rose for dragging me out to get my mind away from a difficult day.

ML - 20100417

Monday, April 19, 2010

Post 16.3: Oodles of Noodles (LA-SGV: Arcadia/Alhambra)

A post on A&J Restaurant (半畝園) cannot be complete without mentioning the oodles of noodles on their menu.  As a purveyor of the hand-pulled noodle, A&J has a variety of noodles that ranges from the ever-popular Taiwanese braised beef noodle soup to Szechwan-style noodles in sesame and peanut sauce (AKA dan dan noodles) to native favorites such as zhajiang noodles.  Many of these noodles hail originally from Szechwan (Sichuan) Province of China, but have been popular in America by Taiwanese noodle houses like A&J.  Here is a look at some of A&J's most popular noodles:

Braised beef noodle soup (紅燒牛肉麵)
listed on the menu as spicy beef noodle soup

Braised beef noodle soup is almost a staple of Taiwanese noodle houses everywhere.  And although it was first introduced to Taiwan in the 1950s, it has become one of Taiwan's most popular and well known national foods.  Every family, every chef, every restaurant adds different ingredients to their beef noodle soup, but the method is standard everywhere... and it begins with braising or stewing beef broth until the beef is tender and the soup is flavorful.  A&J's beef noodle soup is infused with soy sauce and succulent beef that isn't the least bit tough.

It's topped off with bok choy and sliced green onions for health, color, and flavor.  Some noodle-goers like to add cilantro as garnish while others cannot go without topping the noodle soup off with pickled mustard greens for some crunch and flavor contrast.

Dan dan noodles (擔擔麵)
listed on the menu as noodles in hot spicy sesame sauce topped with peanut powder

Dan dan noodles are simply noodles with sesame and peanut sauce.  Dan dan refers to the shoulder poles that peddlers or hawkers used to carry the noodles back in the old days in China's Szechwan Province.  It's one of my go-to noodles that I know I can count on whenever I'm indecisive... or feeling down.  This is my big bowl of comfort.  I remember the days when I used to sit at the kitchen table watching my Aunt Wendy make this dish.  I would ask my Aunt Wendy to top off my bowl of dan dan noodles with a dollop of Peter Pan brand peanut butter to soften the blow of the spicy Szechwan chili.  I ate dan dan noodles whenever I needed to soften the blow of bad grades or parental punishment.  How fitting.

Dan dan noodles are the grown-up, sinicized version of licking peanut butter from a spoon.  I relish in its comfort; I relish in its simplicity.  Even the name is simple... dan danAnyone, Chinese-speaking or not, can order it easily.  

Many variations of this noodle exist.  Some are prepared with a heaping pool of chili oil, and some others include ground pork.  But my favorite is simply noodles, sauce, and a hint of pickled mustard greens.  How simple, how amazing.

Zhajiang noodles (炸醬麵)
listed on the menu as noodles with ground pork, bean sprouts and shredded cucumber

Zha is to fry, and jiang is the word for sauce.  Ground pork has been stir-fried with either soybean paste or black bean paste as the base for these noodles, hence the name zhajiang noodles.  Some versions of zhajiangmian include diced carrots or dried bean curd (tofu) in the sauce, but I prefer mine without.  I prefer A&J's version... hand-pulled noodles cooked just to a chewy, elastic, al dente consistency (or a 'Q' consistency for Taiwanese), ground pork, and cold bean sprouts and cucumber.  Yum.

A&J offers many more noodles on the menu, but these were some of the favorites for regulars and first-timers alike.  The same menu (and more) is offered at A&E Restaurant (北平麵館), which was A&J Restaurant's original location before it became a chain restaurant.  Got a favorite bowl of noodles? Share yours.  Until then, let's get S.O.F.A.T.

ML - 20100926/20100116+0419+0423+0711

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Post 16.2: Carbohydrate Pairings

For almost every carb there is a complementary, liquid counterpart... call 'em BFF's.  For example, the perfect pairing for a warm chocolate chip cookie is... an ice, cold glass of milk, of course! How about an evenly glazed morning doughnut? It's hard to imagine that without an equally fresh, steaming cup of Joe.  Cornbread, you say? Arguably, it just might be a bowl of chili.

The complementary, liquid counterpart for my thousand-layered, hand-pulled shredded pancake (手抓餅) is the simple bowl of stewed beef soup.  If you can dunk a doughnut into your coffee at breakfast, and if your cookies can take a dive into your milk after dinner, then you can surely dip the shredded pancake into a savory beef soup.  

Like a bloomin' onion, each piece of the pull-apart pancake can picked off... and like string cheese, each shred can be torn away to its roots... if you try hard enough.  And as each piece of the pan-fried pancake sinks into the soup, each drop of soy-sauced soup ascends each fiber of the pancake... and the chili oil from the soup surface obediently follows its leader... remember chemistry class when you tested pH balance by watching the chemicals travel up Litmus paper?

And just when the pancake is holding its own weight in beef soup, it shows you that it has absorbed more than a Bounty paper towel by descending the soup back down the same fibers it's traveled up.  Xylem... up.  Phloem... down.  I hope you have a spoon handy.  And if not you had better be holding your recently drenched pancake over the bowl of soup.

Drip... drip... drip... MUNCH.  After three drips the pancake was at the zenith of perfect balance: when the soaked innards of the white carbohydrates had softened... and the crisp, brown exterior had just started to crumble under the pressure of osmosis.  I just couldn't hold back any longer.

Sometimes I take more pleasure in submerging the shredded pancake into the soup than splashing a classic French-dipped sandwich into au jus.   Ha, you can't spell au jus without A&J.  One of my favorite carb/liquid pairings can be found at A&J Restaurant (半畝園).  What's your favorite pairing, and where do you get it? Until next time, let's all get S.O.F.A.T.

ML 20100424/20100321+0419+23

Monday, April 12, 2010

Post 16.1: Palm-sized Patties of Perfection (牛肉陷餅)

A&J Restaurant (半畝園) is a Taiwanese restaurant that specializes in northern Chinese style dishes and Taiwanese-specific specialties.  Its simple dishes, simple recipes, and simple ambiance convey a mom and pop shop feel, but its name is displayed at locations across the state.  From Cupertino to Arcadia to Irvine, A&J Restaurant allows all who walks through its doors to experience the comfort of northern Chinese noodles.

My favorite item here is absolute heaven.  And it's arguably one of their most popular items: the beef and scallion patty (牛肉陷餅).  I'm sure there is a better translation, but the print-out receipt at the Arcadia store lists this item as "beef pupusa."  (I think beef and scallion patty can suffice for now.)  Imagine a patty of fresh ground beef blended with a sporadic abundance (if that's possible) of fresh, green scallions... wrapped in a thin layer of dough... and then sizzled on the griddle until the outer layer of dough is just a minute or so past golden brown.

The result? To the naked eye it may appear to be a larger, rounder and more flattened potsticker.  (And perhaps it just may be that.)  But to the nose, and most importantly the tongue, the result is a savory sensation that sensualizes your smell and sinks deep into your tastebuds. 

Upon first bite, the searing juices from the patty burst into your mouth.  (Taking a petite bite is a smart and strategic plan of precaution.)  Veterans know that to savor the juices, you must take a small bite, just enough to pierce the tender skin of the patty, and let the juice of the beef run... flow... drizzle... into your spoon.  

Tedious much? The extra effort is worth it... because the beef patty's liquid essence has now congregated into a bite-sized pool on your spoon... and you can now effortlessly airlift the concoction of bare beef brine to your mouth.  And as the mixture of juices and oils travels through the caverns of your mouth and slide down the back of your tongue and into the pitfalls of the esophagus, you think... how heavenly.  And now... to focus on the patty itself.

One of the greatest textures I've discovered in my 24+ years of being entwined in food is the unique combination of a crispy or crackling outer layer and a tender or soft inner layer.  Foods that exemplify this texture model include (but are definitely not limited to) extra-crispy fried chicken... a freshly baked, rustic, French baguette... and a perfectly-made creme brulee.  Well, ladies and gentlemen, this Taiwanese beef and scallion patty may very well provide the rubric upon which all crispy-outer-layer-soft-inner-layer foods are judged by.

Nothing makes me happier than biting into one of these patties.  Really.  The root of my happiness can be attributed to routine visits to the pediatrician as a child.  If I didn't cry after an immunization shot, my parents would take me to A&J afterward and present me with these premium, palm-sized patties of perfection.  The kids who were rewarded with lollipops were such suckers.

A few of my favorites appetizers at A&J:

Chilled and crispy cucumber slices in red chili oil.  While the spicy chilies contrast with the cool cucumber, a few slices of fresh garlic adorn the pile and complement the refreshing crunch of everyone's favorite bright green vegetable.

A mixture of earthy vegetarian delights.  The bran dough from the same bran of Raisin Bran and bran muffin is tossed with wedges of carrots, tender bamboo shoots, wild black fungus, mushrooms, and delightful soy beans.  The bran dough is the centerpiece of the dish.  One bite into the spongy texture causes the bran dough to ooze with sesame oil.  Pure pleasure.

Hundreds of pickled mustard green leaves tossed with soy beans (shell-less edamame) and tender bamboo shoots.  This mustard greens have a briny bitterness that allows you to appreciate the tender sweetness of the baby bamboo shoots.  The lightness of the soy beans blends in naturally with this light salad.

Shreds of seaweed swimming in sweet vinegar is another classic at this restaurant.  The soy bean sprouts are savory, yet sweet, and soft, but still provide a crunch.  I love how the seaweed and soy bean sprouts intertwine and create a haystack of greens and whites on the plate.

I plan to feature some more of A&J's titillating tastes in the next post.  Until then, let's all get S.O.F.A.T.

ML - 20100413+19/20100321

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Post 15.3: That's Not Tomato Juice!

The one thing I will always remember about my first flight with United Airlines (LAX-SFO) was the unexpected Bloody Mary Mix.

I have a habit of ordering tomato juice as my in-flight beverage.  Strange, perhaps... but there's something about the saltiness of the juice mixing with the quickly melting ice that gets me.  I'm not sure it's that I like the taste as much as I like seeing the nano-sized bubbles blend with the liquid tomato and sink in swirls to the bottom of the plastic cup.  It's art, really.

So sitting in the aisle seat of row 27 (the very last row) on the plane, I was patiently awaiting to be served my highly anticipated ice cold Da Vinci in a cup.

FA: Sir, what would you like to have?
ML: Tomato juice, please?

Without saying a word he placed a can of Mr. & Mrs. T. Bloody Mary Mix on the tray table.  Immediately, he called a few rows above to the other flight attendant, "Done!" 

He began locking up the cart while the female attendant served her final passenger.

FA: Ma'am, would you care for a beverage?
Ma'am: Tomato juice, please.
FA: We're all out of tomato juice at the moment.  We have a Bloody Mary Mix though... it's like a spicy tomato... would you like that?

I was speechless.  Just 3 rows up was a completely different world.  I know I was sitting in the last row of United Economy, but I am damned sure that row 24 was not part of First Class.

It's not like I requested anything too crazy, right? I mean, I didn't ask the flight attendant to go Starbucks crazy with the skim milk + extra foam + half a shot, etc.  My first inclination was to switch the Bloody Mary Mix out for a more standard apple or cranberry... or even ask for a shot of vodka, but I thought I'd try the "spicy tomato" for the sake of trying it.  

And you know what? The taste grew on me.  The more I swiveled the cup, and the more the ice melted between the velvety, red liquid... the better it tasted.  No aftertaste or anything.  As long as I didn't stare at the stalk of celery on the can, I was fine with it.  Would I order it again? Probably not.  But if it were ever carelessly substituted for a V8 or a plain tomato juice, I think I'd just pop open the can, let the pour melt the ice, and... swivel away...

ML - 20100412/20100314

Friday, April 2, 2010

Post 15.2: Milpitas Mealtime Mayhem

At 2:30 on a Monday afternoon, Milpitas Square was dead.  Like... tumbleweed-blowing-through-by-a-cactus dead.  The only movement in the parking lot was from a middle-aged man who was reading the newspaper in his Lexus.  And he wasn't moving at all.  In fact, his bare feet were kicked up on his dashboard, and his wiggling toes were quite visible to passing shoppers.

Not only was it blazing hot in Milpitas on that day, it was smelly too! Did you know that Milpitas was built on an old landfill? Man... it was even worse because the warm breeze picked up the scent of trash and carried the awful olfactorial odor right to our noses.  We were sweaty, smelly, and hungry... it was quite an uncomfortable afternoon. 

We took a first we sped down the street to the next plaza.  We were so famished that it didn't matter what kind of food we ate anymore.  We found a Chinese restaurant as a substitute.  CASH ONLY.

Mike: Hey, I think I only have a buck.  Do you have cash?
Vickee: *shakes head*
Mike: Is there a Chase somewhere around here?
Vickee: Chinatrust Bank?
Mike: HELL NO.
Vickee: Get in the car.

The midnight Honda fit sped back down Barber Lane. I didn't know what Vickee had in mind, but I knew she was hungry. Upon parking the hunger-mobile, Vickee announced, "99 Ranch. Cash back!"

Ahhhh, what a genius. So we tore through the market like the contestants on Supermarket Sweep. Shortbread cookies? Okay! (I would get cookies, wouldn't I...?)

Check-out register man: 沒有現金呀?
Mike: 沒有啊...
Check-out register man: 啊! 我也是! *laughs and points at empty drawer* 好! 等一下...

Wow, this was turning out to be the most arduous process of finding lunch ever.  How does the cash register not have any cash?

Check-out register man: You don't have cash?
Mike: No...
Check-out register man: Neither do I. *laughs and points at empty drawer* Hold on...

He returned with my twenty, and we ran to the first restaurant that seemed... I don't even know.  We just... stopped.  It was like the flashback of when Forrest stops running, and everyone running with him is like... WTF.  Well, I stopped running.  Vickee stopped running.  That was our Forrest Gump WTF moment. 

And there it was... Taiwan Noodle House.

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

ML - 20100405/20100315