November birthday memories… of food!

November was a good month. Why? Because I got to celebrate my birthday. And what better way to commemorate my new year but with good food.

The morning started off with gourmet donuts. I had just picked up a donut after a meeting that I was eyeing from across the room and my colleague said, “Don’t eat that! Follow me.” We got into the car and ended up in downtown’s Nickel Diner.

Yes, it’s an actual diner where you can get bacon and eggs but they are famous for their fancy pants donuts. We walked away with half a dozen donuts in four flavors: red velvet, strawberry crumble, Nutella, and the bacon maple donut.

We decided to cut up each of the flavors so we could have a gourmet donut tasting.

The strawberry crumble donut reminded me of the Good Humor Strawberry Shortcake Bar. I did expect a stronger strawberry flavor but the sweet crumbles made up for it in its own way.

Above is the Nutella donut with hazelnut. This donut had a nice crunch when I bit into it and it was probably my second favorite donut of the bunch – who doesn’t love Nutella!?

Just by looking at the red velvet donut, I figured I’d would know how it would taste – red velvet powdered donut with some cream cheese frosting in the center. However, it was nice to bite into the donut to find small pieces of chocolate. The chocolate added an unexpected texture at first bite which I think was a smart decision of Nickel Diner.

Last of the donut flavors is the bacon maple donut – my favorite from the bunch. The donut dough was soft and airy which balanced well with the rich maple and bacon on top. Yes, this donut has real pieces of bacon on it! What’s not to love?

For lunch, I went out to get ramen at Shin Sen-Gumi, which I’ve blogged about before. A comforting bowl of ramen with a side of nori (seaweed) and iced green tea was a good way to celebrate my birthday during my work lunch. And yes, it tested wonderful!

And now on to dinner. You’re probably wondering which restaurant I went to but to be honest, I requested a simple home-cooked meal. To have someone you know cook a meal for you on your special day is thoughtful and adds a personal touch.

This dinner consisted of a mixed green salad with cilantro dressing, roasted chicken breast, and fingerling potatoes with sour cream and chives. The chicken skin had the perfect crunch when my knife slid into the flesh. And for dessert…

Molten chocolate lava cake with a side of vanilla bean ice cream. This one was bought from Paris Baguette in Koreatown. You just have to put it in the microwave for about 30 seconds and it heats up the cake and the chocolate in the center just enough without burning your tongue when you take the first bite. I’ve always enjoyed Paris Baguette’s molten chocolate lava cake with a side of ice cream because it’s not overly sweet like most chocolate cakes.

All in all, my birthday was filled with lots of great surprises and treats and I look forward to an awesome year ahead!

A tale of two Brazilian churrascarias

Not all Brazilian BBQs are created equally. Fogo de Chao is one of the popular Brazilian chains that most people are familiar with when it comes to Brazilian churrascarias (tchu-ras-ka-ria). Churrascaria literally means house of barbecue. The meat is savory and simple. My mouth is watering just thinking about it.

Fogo de Chao is a bit fancy and here in LA, the chain is located in Beverly Hills. However, there are other alternatives if you’re looking for your cut of Brazilian BBQ. On the more affordable side, you can check out Pampas Grill in the Farmer’s Market off of 3rd and Fairfax (also a new location in Culver City). You plate your own food and at the end, you pay buy weight. Here’s my plate:

I loaded up my plate with a salad, collard greens, rice and black beans, fried plantains, picanha (top sirloin cap) and linguiça (sausage). This plate cost about $10.

Here’s a close-up of the BBQ meat…

Pampas Grill is great for a quick Brazilian BBQ fix. However, this place can get crowded and you have to compete for a table with all the Farmer’s Market patrons. Here’s a tip, I went around 11:30am and the line wasn’t that bad. It’s a good place to wet your palate to see if you like this style of BBQ. When you’re ready to advance to the next stage of BBQ, you might want to drive east to Koreatown’s M Grill.

It’s not a fusion restaurant – it’s Brazilian. They serve 17 different cuts of meat…

The restaurant is smaller than what I expected and it was a little hard to find (entrance is on the second floor) but once we walked in, the service staff was very attentive. Definitely A+ for the excellent service and recommendations on cocktails. The all-you-can-eat lunch goes for about $23 and the dinner is about $43 but you do get your money’s worth.

Because this is an all-you-can-eat restaurant, they give you a card – one side is green which means servers should stop at your table and the other side is red to tell the servers to move on.

This is a basket of the Brazilian style cheese bread – it’s light and airy… and delicious! I could eat a basket of these alone.

Here is the linguiça and smoked sausage slices.

Here’s the hunk of sirloin. If it’s a little too rare, the server will take it back and cook it to your liking.

And before I forget, they also have a large selection of veggies and sides at their buffet. My favorite was their creamed corn and collard greens.

For dessert I got the sorbet trio – coconut, passion fruit, and mango. It was the perfect way to end the meal because it was light and sweet. And it turns out they get their sorbet from Fosselman’s in Alhambra!Oh wait! I almost forgot that I also had s slice of their grilled pineapple with cinnamon.

sdLooking through these photos, I think I’m having food coma flashbacks. I hope you enjoyed my recent outing to fulfill my Brazilian BBQ craving.

Heading downtown for Chimu Peruvian Soul Food!

At the foot of Angel’s Flight (next to the Grand Central Market) – where the modern downtown LA meets the historic part of LA – you’ll find Chef Mario Alberto Orellana’s newest Peruvian eatery: Chimu Peruvian Soul Food. I’ve been to his other restaurants that he’s worked at in the area, Mo Chica and Lazy Ox Canteen, but I think this fast take-out place may be my favorite of the three. Read on and you’ll see why.

Chimu Peruvian Soul Food opened over the summer to some great reviews. One of the members of my brunch club told us about it and we made a trek there on a sunny Sunday afternoon.

So what is Peruvian soul food? I asked the guy at the order window and he said it’s everyday Peruvian food that you’d eat with the family if you lived in Peru. After one bite, I admit I could eat Peruvian soul food everyday!

The menu is written on a chalkboard so I assume it can change but here’s what was being served on the day we went:

I ordered the lomo saltado – a typical Peruvian dish that is Asian inspired. It’s marinated beef, onions, and tomatoes with a hint of soy sauce served over frites and with a side of white rice and the traditional aji sauce.

The beef was juicy and had the right amount of marination. It was cooked perfectly! Here’s the vegetarian version that my friend, Jin, ordered…

My other brunch companion, Gregory, ordered the seco de cordero (lamb belly) and he was kind enough to share with us.

Lamb is pretty tricky to cook. Sometimes it can come out really gamey but not this dish. You could taste the flavor of the lamb meat but it was seasoned well and was not over-cooked – definitely rich in flavor.

I’ve only been here once and I’m already planning on what I want to eat next time I go back – I think that’s a good sign, right?

Note: It is a walk-up window but you do have a lovely outdoor space to eat at. Check out the view we had:

** UPDATE: Chimu is now CLOSED. I went there on Nov 1 and signs were gone and somebody who worked for the property said Chimu closed their doors but Silverlake’s Local will be opening there in a week. Restaurant business is rough! **


My cold remedy: Sul Lung Tang

I had a cold for the past two weeks. You know, the one where you think you’re getting better but it doesn’t quite go away. Don’t worry, I’m cold-free now. While I was sick though, I had the biggest hankering for some sul lung tang (or seolleongtang… pronouncer: SUH-loong-TAHNG). It’s a Korean soup which is equivalent to a chicken soup for me. Why? Because I crave it whenever I get a cold or flu.

It’s a simple soup but takes almost the whole day to make. Basically, you boil ox bones for hours that make a milky broth without seasoning. You can add Korean glass noodles and also some brisket, tripe, or both for some protein. Then when you are ready to eat it, you can add garlic, green onions, and salt to flavor the soup — you season it yourself right when you’re going to eat it and no before. Here’s my soup that I got as take out from Han Bat Sul Lung Tang in Koreatown.

Han Bat Sul Lung Tang is a no-nonsense restaurant – this soup is pretty much all they serve but I’m sure you got that from their name. You can eat at the restaurant but since I was pretty sick, I got my meal for take-out.

My mom always told me if I craved sul lung tang, go to the place that only makes this — mama Kim was right because this place didn’t disappoint. For $9 I got the soup with brisket (you can choose from brisket, tripe, tongue, or flank), two types of kimchi (cabbage and radish), rice, chili paste, green onions, and sea salt. Here’s the spread I made when I got home…

Before I spooned the rice into the soup, I added green onions and then the sea salt. I matched the flavor first then I added my rice. NOTE: I try not to add too much salt to be healthy.

If you’re looking for some Korean comfort food soup, I highly recommend Han Bat Sul Lung Tang. By the time I was done with it, there wasn’t an extra drop left in the bowl.

TIP: If you get the soup for take out, put it in the fridge for a little bit and the fat will collect to the top of the broth and you can easily spoon it out – this is what I do so it’s less fatty.

There’s a new ramen in Little Tokyo: Shin Sen-Gumi!

I watched the movie Tampopo for the first time and now I can’t stop craving ramen… a specific ramen I had last week. But first, let’s talk about the movie.

I can’t believe it has taken me this long to see Tampopo. This movie was made for people who love food porn – and for those who love ramen. Several stories about each person’s relationship to food weave in and out of this classic 1985 Japanese film. Here’s the original trailer:

As soon as the film ended, I was craving ramen. Go figure. Actually, I started to crave the new ramen place I went to last week in Little Tokyo – Shin Sen-Gumi Hakata Ramen. They have locations in Gardena and Fountain Valley but this is the first in the Los Angeles-area that I know of. They serve ramen from Hakata in the Fukuoka Prefecture, Japan. I dropped in last week without knowing it was their grand opening. Check out all the flower arrangements at the entrance from other businesses and family/friends to wish them luck.

When you arrive, sign your name in the notebook on the small podium outside their main door. Then wait… and wait… until they call your name. When my friend and I entered, everyone in the restaurant gave us a gregarious welcome. The restaurant space is open – you can see exactly what the chefs are doing and you can see what everyone is eating and drinking. I loved how there was a lot of light in the place.

One of the reasons this place is different from Daikokuya is how you order. There’s a base ramen bowl that is your typical pork broth that is $7.50. You get to choose the noodle you want (hard soft firm), thickness of the noodle (thick or thin), and how strong you want the soup base (strong, medium, or mild). For my ramen, I chose firm, thick, and medium.

I dunked my spoon into the bowl and brought the broth to my lips. I stopped and smelled the savory steam brushing my face. I opened my mouth and took a sip. Wow. The broth has a salty flavor that tickles your tongue but them transitions into a sweet and creamy taste. I couldn’t figure out the flavors at first so I had to quickly bring another sip to my mouth… and another… and another. I was addicted because it felt like the broth’s flavors were flirting with my taste buds. And the noodles? The noodles were perfect – not too chewy or too soft… perfectly firm. I could have eaten another bowl of just noodles if I had the space in my stomach.

You can build your own ramen by adding sides. I ordered nori (seaweed) that I crumbled and put on top and the flavors boil egg. My friend ordered extra chashu (pork) which I regret not doing. The pork was thinly sliced and flavorful in the broth.

I’ve always said Daikokuya was my favorite ramen place in Little Tokyo but after going to Shin Sen-Gumi, I have to reassess my go-to ramen restaurants.

TIP: Yogurtland is right next door so you get to have your ramen and eat your yogurt too!

Finger lickin’ Waffle Chix

When I told my friends that I went to a semi-healthy chicken and waffles place, they laughed. They laughed harder when I said I liked it. Note: I say “semi-healthy” because fried chicken is still fried and that’s not healthy.

Waffle Chix is located in the heart of Westwood by UCLA and they use hormone and antibiotic free chicken. My friend works in the area and took me here right after the lunchtime rush. I wasn’t feeling too adventurous this day so I passed on the Raspberry Red Velvet Waffles and instead got their house chicken and waffles.

The chicken was juicy and had a good crispy skin but wasn’t overly greasy. The waffle was thinner than what I expected but it was tasty and had the nice crisp edges that I like on a waffle and a hint of cinnamon. On the side I got hot sauce and some honey to eat with my chicken and waffles and a 1/2 OJ and 1/2 lemonade.

One of the reasons I think this place is healthy is because their portions aren’t too generous – it’s just the right amount so you don’t feel bloated when you walk out the door. You do feel full but you don’t feel like you have to unbutton the top button of your jeans. They use organic products and really embrace the “California” twist to southern cooking and it’s your “healthy” alternative to Roscoe’s Chicken and Waffles.

I read the Yelp reviews after I went and found them to be surprising. A lot of the reviews complained about the price and I think the price point is a little high but if you think about how they are using local and organic products, it makes sense. I wonder how this moderately priced restaurant with proper (bot not generous) portions will survive in a college neighborhood where quantity on the cheap often wins out.

Korean-German fare at Biergarten in Koreatown

I’ve had my share of Korean food and I’ve had some German food but for the first time in my life, I had Korean-German food. Where? Biergarten in Koreatown. I thought there would be an outdoor beer drinking area like most biergartens but this one happens to be all indoors. But don’t be too disappointed because it’s pretty swanky inside – it has that “we just opened” kind of feel with the flat screen TVs and the clean spacious dining area.

I met some people at Biergarten for the Happy Hour drinks but we couldn’t help ourselves from the food menu. Immediately, I was won over by their fresh potato chips and a horseradish type dip.

The chips were hot, crispy, and well-seasoned. I love my potato chips but sometimes I’m not a huge fan of fresh potato chips because the potato slices could be a little too thick and absorb too much oil, making the chip soggy — not this kind. This one had a great light crunch when you took a bite.

Next up, we ordered the sweet potato strings… don’t expect french fries. This is an entangled ball of thinly sheared sweet potato. You take a big glob and eat it — there’s a great CRUNCH! sound that makes you want to get seconds.

I saw deep fried artichoke hearts on the menu and I was curious to taste this. I had high expectations for this one but it missed with me. The other two fried dishes had the right texture and flavor but the artichoke hearts seemed a bit bland to me on its own. I admit when I drenched a piece in the dipping sauce, it was good but it’s too bad that it didn’t taste good on its own. Perhaps, it’s best kept in a salad.
Speaking of salads, we did order one! This is the green bean salad and I think it was one of my favorite dishes – it was fresh, light, and flavorful. The green beans were accompanied by tangerines, hazelnuts, frisée, and a truffled honey vinaigrette. I would definitely order this again.

I have a weakness for short-rib and grilled cheese sandwiches. So when I saw that Biergarten served up a short-rib grilled cheese sandwich, I knew I had to have a bite (at least).

The sandwich was served on sourdough bread with fontana cheese and a onion type of marmalade. It was sweet and savory and the bread was nicely grilled to give you that hearty crunch when you bite into it.

And of course, the Biergarten stays true and serves brats! You get your choice of bockwurst, bratwurst, kolbasa, or knackwurst.

And if i didn’t mention it before – they have 25 types of beer, sake, soju, and they even serve alcoholic cider (which is what I got). I could have blogged about the beer but I found the food to be pleasantly surprising and it wasn’t the normal biergarten fare one would see.

NOTE: The prices are moderate and I suggest going in a group (like many small plate places) so you can get your fair share of the various dishes.

Cold eats: mul naengmyeon

This post highlights one of the dishes I talked about last weekend on public radio’s Splendid Table. The theme was cold eats in Los Angeles and one of the dishes I highlighted is the Korean dish called mul naengmyeon [pronouncer: mool nay-ng-me-yuhn]. It’s basically buckwheat noodles in a cold beef broth soup with a tangy flavor (vinegar and a little sugar) served with julienned cucumbers, sliced beef, sliced Asian pear, and a hard boiled egg.

It’s a light (but filling) noodle dish that’s perfect for the summer. A lot of people may not realize this but mul naengmyeon’s origin is actually from North Korea and it became popular after the Korean War. The noodles are intentionally long because it represents long life but most restaurants will cut the noodles so it’s easier to eat. If you go to a mul naengmyeon restaurant, don’t be surprised by all the slurping noises because that’s the only (and best!) way to eat the dish and show your appreciation for the food.

The mul naengmyeon in this post is from Chosun Galbi in Koreatown. They serve banchan (Korean side dishes) with the noodles and the best part is they have a nice outdoor patio where you can dine – perfect for a summer afternoon lunch.

I think the best mul naengmyeon I had was in Seoul last year. Why? The broth. It was the perfect balance of savory, tangy, and sweet. I’ll try to post it later so you can compare.

Note: If you like spicy dishes, there’s also another variety of naengmyeon called bibim naengmyeon which is served in a red hot spicy dressing instead of a broth.

Cheap eats: Jaragua Restaurant

On Beverly Boulavard in LA, there are a lot of hole-in-the-wall restaurants that serve up some of the best El Salvadorian food in town. One of these gems is Jaragua Restaurant.

You can order a carne asada steak, rice and beans, and empanadas; but for me, I go there specifically for their pupusas. For those who don’t know, pupusas are disk shape and made out corn flour dough and is usually filled with cheese, beans, pork etc. Usually it’s served with a side of curtido, a tangy cabbage slaw.  It’s a great compact meal that fills you up on the cheap.

Their bean and cheese pupusa is my pick for the best pupusa. One of my eating companions said “the bean and cheese pupusa is the reason I go!” Couldn’t have said it better myself. The pupusa has a nice crunch when you bight into it and the melted cheese and black beans retain their flavor and isn’t soggy with grease.

I can’t for the curtido. I think last time I was here, I had to ask for more because I couldn’t get enough of it. I love to put it on top of my pupusa so each bite has some tangy flavor and crunch from the curtido – it works well with the salty taste of the cheese from the pupusa. It reminds me of a cold slaw and kimchi hybrid.

And last but not least, here is the ensalada. No, it’s not a salad, it’s a refreshing drink made from fresh fruit like mangoes, pineapple, apple, and also some fresh mint leaves. This stuff isn’t from a can – they make it fresh daily and it’s nice to wash down your savory meal with this cold sweet drink.

Why is this a cheap eat? This sit-down restaurant meal consisting of two pupusas with a side of curtido and an ensalada was around $10 (without tip and tax). There’s no need to spend a lot of money for good food. I’ll try to post some more cheap eats in the coming weeks. Stay tuned…

Tip: Don’t just order the ensalada. The ensalada is super sweet and I recommend ordering a savory dish to go with it.

Casablanca, Venice Beach

When my friend said we were having her birthday dinner at a Mexican restaurant called Casablanca, I thought she meant “Casa Blanca.” I was wrong. The Venice Beach restaurant we went to was actually named after the movie and Moroccan city.

When you walk in, there’s Casablanca tchotchke everywhere – the walls, the shelves… even a life-size mannequin of Humphrey Bogart wearing his trademark trench coat encased in glass. The restaurant has been open for over 30 years and apparently, they have one of the largest Casablanca film memorabilia collections in the country.

Besides the decor, the restaurant is also known for their homemade flour tortillas. I could have eaten these all night. They were piping hot and each one had a slightly different shape – definitely a sign that it was handmade. You can see the tortilla in the background and the “muy, muy, grande margarita” in the foreground.

In terms of food, they have your typical Mexican restaurant fare of enchiladas, burritos, and tacos but the waiter told me that they are known for their calamari dishes. He suggested I get the Calamari Acapulco which is basically shrimp and crab sauteed in a whole lot of garlic and butter served with rice and vegetables.

It was a little too buttery for me so I ended up taking my leftovers home. The shrimp and calamari were prepared just right – not overcooked and rubbery – but I do wish there was a little more acid to cut down on the butter.

This is a great place for a birthday and it’s definitely family-friendly. The atmosphere is really fun and kitschy – but what else did you expect from a Mexican restaurant named after a Moroccan city?