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!

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!

I heart ramen!: Santouka Salt Ramen

If you’re looking for good ramen in Los Angeles, you’ll often be referred to Daikokuya or Santouka. Both are Japanese chains but Santouka is located in a food court in the Mitsuwa Japanese market in West LA and Costa Mesa and Daikokuya is a stand alone shop. But don’t let the location of Santouka fool you because at lunch, people line up in the food court for over an hour for their noodles… like me.

My mom thought I was crazy when I told her I was craving Santouka when I was in Costa Mesa with her. She doesn’t believe in waiting long for food – especially ramen. She doubted that any ramen was worth an hour wait. I talked her into it and she begrudgingly agreed to wait with me. We each ordered the Salt Ramen – probably the most popular dish on their menu. I like how you can order the ramen in three different sizes. Here’s my medium sized bowl.

The broth isn’t as thick as Daikokuya. Santouka’s broth has a more clean salt flavor but don’t get the wrong idea – this ramen has it’s share of pork fat. The pork that’s served with the ramen is super fatty, tender, and delicious. Also, the texture of the noodles at Santouka is spot on. If you’re in West LA or Costa Mesa, this ramen place should be at the top of your list to try. Apparently, the hype was right.

By the way, my mom took one slurp and looked at me and said she now understood why people waited in line.

Note: Santouka is cash only.

Orange County Eats

I live in Los Angeles but grew up in Orange County. Why does this matter to you? I get to explore food not just in LA but I often trek down south to visit my family and friends and… to taste what the OC is serving up. This is the REAL OC – not the fictitious world that Fox’s The OC or Bravo’s Real Housewives of Orange County. Let me take you on a tour of some of my favorite eats that span from Garden Grove to Buena Park and Costa Mesa. Let’s start…

1. Brodard Chateau is a Vietnamese-French restaurant right by the 22 freeway in Garden Grove. The food is good but what brings me back to this place are the spring rolls – more specifically, Nem Nuong. What is Nem Nuong? It’s grilled Vietnamese pork that is savory and has a nice crunch on the outside. It’s wrapped with rice paper and inside is a crispy surprise (which I think is actually a piece of fried egg roll skin) and fresh veggies. But the best part is the orange dipping sauce – it’s a family recipe and they won’t give it up. Trust me… I tried and I’m still going to try to get it out of them.

To the left you’ll see the dipping sauce. Know what’s in it? PLEASE let me know.

2. Yoko is in a unassuming strip mall in Buena Park next to a Korean Spa. A couple of my friends took me here to feast on dongkatsu (also often spelled as tonkatsu) – it’s one of my favorite foods. Dongkatsu is a breaded pork cutlet served with the katsu sauce. Note: It’s a Japanese dish but also very popular with Koreans. At Yoko, you crush your own toasted sesame seeds to make your katsu sauce. Take a look…

After my friend crushed the sesame seeds, the waitress came by and poured the katsu sauce on top of it.

The portions are huge so be sure to go on an empty stomach. This was my platter and I didn’t share it with anyone because it was that good.

3. Nidaime Tsujita Ramen is located inside the Mitsuwa Market in Costa Mesa and usually serves up your average ramen. But I made a pilgrimage to this specific location on a weekend in November because they were premiering a very special type of ramen: the Tsukemen. I wouldn’t have known about this if it wasn’t for my foodie comrades, Gregory and Emily – thanks, guys!

Direction on how to properly eat the noodle were posted by the cash register. The Tsukemen is served in parts – you get a bowl of noodles with a couple lines and a bowl of a thick sauce. You pick up the noodles and dip it in the rich sauce, then you take a bite. You don’t want to pour the sauce all over your noodles because the flavors are intense and will ruin the experience. You want to take each bite and savor it one slurp at a time.

Once you’re halfway done with the noodles, you squeeze the lime on the noodles and continue dipping and eating. I admit, next time I eat this, I am going to break the rule and squeeze the limes early on because it adds a crisp flavor to the dish that is right for my palette.

Note: This specific Tsukemen was served a limited time here. According to my source, the chef who creates this Tsukemen will be opening up his own restaurant on Sawtelle late spring of 2011.

I heart ramen!: Daikokuya

I have so much to do with my trip to Korea just around the corner but I couldn’t help myself to a perfect night at the Museum of Contemporary Art and ramen. My friend Alex from Minnesota is visiting LA and I suggested we go eat at Daikokuya in Little Tokyo. I’m used to waiting in long lines there – one time I came by during lunch and it was almost a two hour wait! Sorry to say, I had to walk away because I was starving. Alex and I waited about 20 minutes which wasn’t too bad.

So why is this place amazing? Simple – the food is good. The ramen noodles aren’t too mushy and the broth – oh the broth! – is savory and when you take a sip, it feels like a big fleece blanket that’s warming you up on a cold night. Here’s a photo from one of my previous adventures to my favorite ramen house in LA. It’s the house ramen with a side of the shredded pork over rice.

Bon appetite!