Saturday, July 23, 2005

Beverly Hills

176 N Canon Dr, Beverly Hills, 90210 - (310) 385-0880
The flagship of Wolfgang Puck's culinary empire, and a necessary restaurant for me because of it's historical role in California cuisine. I had a stunning meal there:

- five kinds of foie gras
- farmer's cheese ravioli, one Austrian Puck childhood dish seemed important
- a pretty good seared tuna (they ran out of the crab-stuffed skate I wanted)
- samplings of a superb veal chop with Yukon potato gratin, and equally succulent Kurobuta pork belly with Parmesan polenta
- ripping German riesling, can't remember the name
- cheese course with expert selection dude! This was great, he actually came up with my favourite soft cheese, Epoisses.

What a great way to close out my LA dining days. Still a taco truck meal or two from departing for Davis, but I'll always remember Spago!

Footnote: the late lamented Umenohana was in Beverly Hills.


090105 update. I am sad to report that Umenohana closed yesterday. At least me and my mother got to try it together!

There must be precious few restaurants outside Japan that serve kaiseki, the formal and exalted cuisine characterized by fresh seasonal ingredients and a rigorous order of small dishes. Luckily, we now have Umenohana right here in Beverly Hills [433 N Camden Dr, 90210 - (310) 274-6114] serving kaiseki with incredibly good tofu as the centrepiece. I'm pretty sure their kaiseki has been tailored somewhat to the non-Japanese palate, and certainly there is a California-inspired section of the menu that I would personally never entertain. Despite this, the "kacho" menu of tofu kaiseki is one of the best meals I have ever eaten. Each dish is a little wonder and you'll love the many varieties of freshly made tofu:

Tofu salad. Silky tofu is hidden under immaculate salad fixin's.

Dairy tofu topped with miso and steamed soybeans.
Extremely creamy - can this really be called "tofu"? - this dairy custard was like a savoury panna cotta that blended very well with the soy toppings. Ian's favourite dish all night.

Three drawers (veges + shrimp, beef rolls, halibut sashimi). One aspect of Umenohana that is true to kaiseki is the simple cooking of very fresh ingredients. These dishes were a good example.

Hikiage yuba. Certainly the main event of the meal, this is freshly prepared tofu skin made by cooking tofu milk on an induction burner on one's table. The waitress comes around periodically and scrapes the skin off the soy milk into a small cup, to which one adds grated fresh ginger and soy sauce. It's marvellous, and the fact that only one serving was made at a time made it even more of a special treat (our party of six was supping on yuba throughout the second half of our kaiseki meal).

Tofu steak. On a hot plate on a sizzling plate with miso sauce.

Rice/miso soup (dark miso)/pickles. A welcome traditional touch, what's not to like about Japanese pickles? Miso soup is very different to the old standby from food court-level sushi.

Tofu creme brulee, green tea tiramisu, panna cotta, chocolate hazelnut mousse, sesame ice cream. These arrived from the kitchen without prompting - my inclination with a large group is usually to run the dessert menu so there were no complaints! Everything was delicious, but my favourites were clearly the sesame ice cream and especially the magical tofu creme brulee.

Umenohana doesn't come cheap but at $48 for the kacho menu (second cheapest kaiseki) it's extremely affordable for the ultra-high quality and unique experience. Don't forget to go to the bathroom, there are Japanese toilet/bidets with "oscillate" and "pulse" functions, which I left well alone!

Friday, July 22, 2005


1414 Lincoln Blvd. Santa Monica (310) 393-8831
Excellent and hearty fare that's fancier than the Polish stereotype might dictate. I got a half/half combo of bigos (hunter's stew) and stuffed cabbage; both were great. Steak tartare is full of mini tastes by virtue of multiple mix-ins, it's all good. Bisongrass vodka for the adventurous.

New Concept

New Concept [700 S. Atlantic Blvd., Monterey Park; (626) 282-6800] is a unique and wonderful restaurant with a great name, up there with "Enjoy Inn" and "Try It Out" (both in Auckland). The style is innovative Cantonese, which neatly solves the problem of Chinese restaurant discrimination; the menu has pictures, and because the dishes are all crazy inventions one needn't fear ordering the wrong thing. Inside the bling factor is considerable - dude at the next table had serious rocks on his watch - but the prices are surprisingly affordable and coz it's L.A. you can't be too underdressed. I have not explored the lauded New Concept dim sum in detail (best so far = incredible Japanese tofu in abalone sauce; lavender cake dessert), but enjoyed a lovely dinner there:

Suckling pig skin with goose liver and blood sauce. Enough of a house specialty to feature in the wall pictures, this appetizer can also be had with duck skin. The crispy skin and rich sauce are served on a cracker, three textures in one delicious mouthful.

Spotted deer in spicy Szechuan broth. A new conception along the lines of the Szechuan "water boiled" dishes, here made with gamy "spotted deer" which my friend Limster thought was different than regular venison. This dish was insanely well spiced, with subtle Szechuan peppercorn, a not-overpowering level of chilli, cumin & many other herbs I couldn't identify. Less oily than the traditional water-boiled beef, this was Limster's favourite dish.

Braised three treasures. A nice assortment of high-quality Cantonese ingredients with simple flavours. Spare ribs with chewy cartilage are served in the fried, pepper-and-salt "chiu yim" style. Fish cake and giant portobello-type mushroom slices round out the dish. The latter were gigantic and very tasty, an unfamiliar mushroom to my admittedly unschooled tastes.

Fried milk. An unusual dairy dish in a Cantonese restaurant, fried milk is like very soft scrambled eggs with a much subtler flavour. Immaculate chopped fresh shrimp and char siu/barbecue pork were folded in. A truly lovely concoction.

I've only scratched the surface of New Concept, a restaurant that has Chowhounds and other food enthusiasts ablaze with excitement. Any restaurant that makes such a big impression in the stellar San Gabriel eating scene has to be doing really special things. Plan on hearing more in future.

111005 additional dishes:

fat beef in broth enoki
clams in sake
sizzling three treasures eggplant, bitter melon, red pepper
cold platter char siu, jellyfish, pork with crispy skin, chicken, soy beans
lettuce cups with clams and stuff and sweet bean sauce
whelk with lotus root, carrot, beans
papaya with snow frog fat

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Sea Harbor

I love the randomness of dim sum - one is at the whim of the capricious kitchen and its carts. Which is why I am conflicted about Sea Harbor [3939 Rosemead Blvd, Rosemead, 91770 - (626) 288-3939]. On one hand, it is hands down the best dim sum I've eaten in L.A. Then there is the menu-based ordering system, which guarantees freshness yet removes the delightful surprise... In the bad ol' days dim sum was simple, a tea + dumplings Cantonese breakfast that evolved into our modern extravaganza, so the menu quibble is really a trifle. Certainly Sea Harbor innovates in other areas - see descriptions below.

*** out of this world
** equivalent to excellent SGV rivals
* average L.A. dim sum

reasonably traditional dim sum
ha gau/shrimp dumpling*
siu maai/pork and shrimp dumpling***
fung jau/chicken feet (black bean sauce)**
beef balls**
lo mai kai/sticky rice in lotus leaf**
kai lan with hou yau/Chinese brocolli in oyster sauce***
sin juk gyun/tofu skin wrapped around assorted julienned filling**
#1 bun of the universe*
cheung fan/fat rice noodle sheets, wrapped around minced beef***

Ha gau and siu maai are the benchmark dim sum, which everyone always orders for comparison purposes alone. Here the siu maai are awesome, topped with flying fish roe/tobiko. Ha gau were just OK, odd given the exceptional quality elsewhere. Lo mai kai were the small individual portion style, instead of the large communal parcel which they cut open with scissors to share. My family orders the ha cheung fan (shrimp in rice noodle sheets) as our personal standard of quality - the noodles should be very soft and the shrimp perfectly steamed. Here my friend chose the minced beef style which I have not had before. Actually, the ground meat was a really nice change of pace. At most dim sum, steamed veges topped with hot oil after cooking are a menu standby rather than a special item. Here, the kai lan and oyster sauce are so fresh and tasty they enter a new category as a must-order. Oddly, the highly touted "#1 bun of the universe" which is actually brought around as well as served from the menu is not too flash, it seemed like a regulation baked pork bun to me.

dim sum I hadn't had before
#1 pastry of the universe***
do chyun yu (fried)**

In contrast to the #1 bun of the universe, the #1 pastry of the universe was a completely thrilling experience, certainly one of the most superb dim sum innovations I have had. Pastry shell that wraps in a meticulous coil around thin shreds of seafood and radish and other things I couldn't identify. The contrast between flaky pastry and delicate filling is astonishing. Do chyun yu are stogie-sized fish that can sometimes be filled with roe - a generous serving of these was perfectly fried and garnished with cilantro.

killer desserts
deep fried durian rolls**
bittermelon and sesame balls***

Durian is at the outer edge of my culinary horizons, despite the fact that my parents love it so. Somehow the smell is alluring to those raised in Southeast Asia whereas in most of us it activates the fight-or-flight response. When durian flesh is encapsulated in into a spring roll the smell is neutralized and the flavour - OK, it's delicious - can be enjoyed. Sea Harbor is famous for the dessert ball with a bittermelon/fu qua flavoured rice coating and black sesame inside. The filling is much tastier than usual, and given that black sesame is a particular favourite of mine I loved this dumpling from first bite. My friend Victoria claimed that the sesame could have been ground finer and that the coarser texture was to demonstrate how fresh it was - no complaints here!

Old-skool Cantonese folks might well complain about Sea Harbor, the wait is really long on weekends and it's a few $ more than the competition. I say you get what you pay for and it's still darn cheap. This is my #1 choice for dim sum, the food I have considered the most exalted form of eating since early childhood (editorial bias fully acknowledged). Enjoy!

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Pasadena, where you at?

OK, the blog has few Pasadena options, despite the fine concentration of Mexican fare up there. My friend David highly recommends Rosarito (could be #1 at 187 N Craig Ave, Pasadena (626) 440-1640 or #2 at 720 N. Lake Ave. Pasadena (626) 296-2634).

Mi Piace
25 E Colorado Blvd - (626) 795-3131
Pasadena Italian, a bit fancy but I liked the pumpkin ravioli

Tortas Mexico
3033 Foothill Blvd. - La Crescenta, 818.248.0099
La Crescenta torta shop, it's awesome! Try the Mexican version of a Cubano, not authentic but darn good eating.

Ka-San Korean barbecue
3115 Foothill Blvd, La Crescenta, 818 249-550
Good quality Korean gas-fired barbecue with extensive panchan, rice sheets and radish slices for assembly. Also non-barbecue dishes, inevitable karaoke setup and post-church dressy Korean clientele for Sunday lunch.

Olive Branch
658 Foothill Blvd. La Crescenta, (818) 248-9876
Charming neighbourhood Persian, notable in particular for the seldom-spotted queisi polo, with apricots! Chicken koobideh and bademjan also worth a shot.

Glendale/Eagle Rock

Carousel Glendale
304 N. Brand Blvd., Glendale 818-246-7775
Armenians in their natural habitat - Glendale! (As noted by our Armenian guide). Wonderful Lebanese/Armenian stylings and kebab plates. Deafening stage show.

Max's of Manila
313 W. Broadway, Glendale, (818) 637-7751
Don't be fooled by slick chain-y exterior, the menu is hardcore variety meats and Pinoy deliciousness. Lip-smacking lechon (deep fried pork belly) and fine pansit palabok. Karaoke for the cheezoid sensibility in all of us.

900 E Colorado St, Glendale (818) 662 0971
Ideal spot for Filipino fish breakfast, especially the intense smoked fish called tuyo-tuyo or the daing (milkfish/bangus marinated in fish sauce then fried). Also candy-sweet tocino/pork with your eggs and rice. Filling and ultra-cheap. Stop in at the grocery store next door for more Pinoy goodness.

Barrio Fiesta
3687 San Fernando Road Glendale; (818) 244-8502
Highly regarded Filipino sit-down place with great barbecued meat and grand pianist (I believe that is the adjective). For a celebration, of course.

Isla Buffet
4420 Eagle Rock Blvd Los Angeles: (323) 257-1902
Filipino breakfast buffet for the true believer. Fried fish and great steam table choices. Inevitable excellent value. Pinoy breakfasts rule!

Raffi's Place
211 East Broadway Glendale 818-240-7411
Persian Glendale with exemplary kebabs. For the true meat and rice lover, you can even grill yourself under the heat lamps outside.


El Parian
1528 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles, (213) 386-7361
Goat stew and little else on the menu in Pico Union. What a tremendous meal, fresh tortillas and gutsy, bone-in, soulful birria. Not to be missed.

El Taurino
1104 S. Hoover St., L.A. 213-738-9197
Jonathon Gold's favourite pastor and who am I to argue. One of L.A.'s most beloved taquerias, at the far end of the quality bell curve.

Papa Cristo's
(323) 737-2970- 2771 W. Pico Blvd
Greek contender attached to grocery store. Excellent rack of lamb for very little dinero.

Paseo Chapin
2220 W 7th Street - Los Angeles, CA. 213-385-7420
Guatemalan classic in Pico Union. Good round-with-skin-on chorizo and marimba bands.

King Taco
2020 W. Pico Blvd. (310) 884-9984
Taco chain near the pinnacle of L.A.'s Darwinian proliferation of the species. Al pastor tacos and sopes that are out of this world. Highly recommended. Pico Union branch is closest to Westside

Pollo Campero
1625 W. Olympic Blvd., Ste.1020: 213-201-2990
Legendary Guatemalan fast food chicken in Pico Union. No line around the block anymore but the crispy skin and spices will make you forget Colonel S. forever.

Langer's Deli
704 S. Alvarado St @ 7th, Pico-Union. 213/483-8050
Touted as the best pastrami sandwich in the known universe by many; Langer's does not disappoint. The meat is thickly sliced and has a perfect balance between crusty edges and juicy, beefy inside. Light rye is a mirror image, just crusty enough but somehow not soggy on the inside. Go for an egg cream to complete the time-capsule feel of a legendary restaurant holding its ground in a strange land.

Mama's Hot Tamale Cafe
2124 W. Seventh St. Los Angeles (213) 487-7474
A tamale tasting menu, possibly the most enticing pan-Latin meal a food-lover can imagine. Don't miss the nacatamal-like Honduran tamal! This place is for a good cause, but the main reason to go is to eat some of the best tamales you'll find anywhere.

Guatemalteca Bakery
4032 Beverly Blvd, East Hollywood [kind of] 213-382-9451, 6am-9pm
Fight your way through the crowd for hearty Guatemalan stews with rice and beans and confusingly named antojitos/appetizers. Quesadilla is a very rich cake bread to be savoured in small quantities. This one's truly for the people, they will fill your own container with carne guisada!

Downtown and USC

La Taquiza
3009 S. Figueroa St: 213-741-9795
Right next to U.S.C. a juice bar and taqueria with the famous mini-quesadilla called a mulita - fabulous. I liked the six-juice drink.

Chichen Itza
3655 S. Grand Ave., (213) 741-107
Mercado Paloma again for Yucatan fare - hard to find but delicious! Try the tamal, and of course authentic cochinita pibil/pork stew. A real treasure.

Taqueria Vista del Hermosa
3655 S. Grand Ave. (213) 741-1251
Great taqueria in Mercado La Paloma near USC. Killin' pastor plus the rare and wonderful pambaso, a sandwich on roll drenched in salsa.

Tacos Don Kike
Beaudry @ 2nd, Downtown (no phone)
Taco stand with passable pastor, extensive condiments - frijoles are free - and a great view of the Figueroa St skyscrapers. Good for post-Disney Hall dining.

Sarita's Pupuseria
317 S Broadway Los Angeles in Grand Central Market, Tel: (213) 626-6320
Large range of pupusas, loroco and carne asada are solid. Also the delightful, bright red drink with "chia pet" seeds called chan.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Mama's Hot Tamale Cafe

Growing up in Godzone I knew approximately zero Mexican folks, so the classic weather forecast "chilli today, hot tamale" went right over my head. Thankfully, I 've learned a lot since then and have been itching to get to Mama's Hot Tamale Cafe [2124 W. Seventh St. Los Angeles (213) 487-7474] to check out the scene. It's a gaily decorated non-profit restaurant where skilled tamale makers learn capitalist precepts or some such, the key is that the recipes are straight from the source and the tamales are killin'. With three hungry dudes we made a good run at the menu, greatly aided by sage advice from our waiter. The six tamales we sampled:

Honduras. Chicken with potatoes, olives, raisins, rice. Much like a Nicaraguan nacatamal, this was predictably my favourite tamale. The masa of these Central American tamals is a squishy miracle that practically disintegrates when one looks at it, and the variety of produce inside guarantees excitement in every bite. It's strictly a matter of personal preference, but this is my Platonic ideal of what a tamale should be.

Valle de Oaxaca, pollo. Chicken with mole negro that has a satisfying richness and isn't too sweet. The masa has the cornier Mexican flavour.

Guatemala. Pork with a tomatoey red sauce. I think this would be better than the same tamale with chicken, the other white meat is a stronger complement to the heavy sauce. I hadn't tasted this type of tamale before and it was a pleasant surprise though closer to the Mexican than Nicaraguan masa style.

Peru. Spinach, mushrooms, garlic and onions. Mushroom flavour predominated in this tasty veterinarian tamale. Reminded me of the empanada de huitlacoche at Guelaguetza.

Valle de Oaxaca, vegetariano. Surprisingly different from the chicken tamale of the same name, this really was the hottest tamale by virtue of rajas/jalapeno slices. Cheesy and delicious.

Usulutan, El Salvador. We couldn't pass up the classic elote/sweet corn tamale with the cake-y texture and delightful taste of mais. When it comes to sweet tamales I am a minimalist but am willing to expand my horizons in future, particularly because the Colombian tamale contains guayaba!

Mama's enters the pantheon as one of my favourite Mexican restaurants of all time. These tamale riches are yours for a paltry $2.25 a throw, and the privilege of assembling a tamale tasting menu cannot be overstated. Then again, maybe I'll eat nothing but the Honduras next time...


Everyone loves Sunnin, the Lebanese cafe that together with the Persian joints rescues Westwood from culinary mediocrity. Although the plates, falafel sandwich and specials are excellent, perhaps my favourite way to eat here is to assemble a meal from appetizers/mezza. Every appetizer I've tried has been great, these are my top picks:

Labneh. I first encountered this amazing soured cream/cheese from an Israeli labmate in SF. Sunnin's version is super thick and optionally drenched in garlic with a splash of olive oil. Also called kefir, this is possible my favourite mezza to eat on pita bread.

Foul. Fava bean classic is extra sour from lemon juice here, a nice combo with the richness of labneh.

Falafel. I have never had better falafel than Sunnin's. They may be even better without the potential soggification of sandwich fixings.

Fried cauliflower. Suggested strongly by our host one evening, who pestered us to name the batter after our first satisfied bites. A few feeble guesses later he beams "Nothing... nothing, my friends!". Tahini is a jolly good dipping sauce.

Soujouk. This is Sunnin's secret weapon, a plate of mind-blowing Armenian cured beef sausage sliced up and fried with onions. The flavour is rich and spicy, you'll want to sop up every drop of sausage-and-onion flavoured oil from the dish.

Hommos. Like many other things at Sunnin, this is the hummus/hommos you're familiar with but executed to perfection, crushed to a paste that's mushier and much more flavourful than the often-grainy supermarket hummus.

For the indecisive, there are also pastry combos (to me, the assorted fried things are more similar than they might seem - all are very tasty) and a mezza combo. If there is a daily special, one could do far worse than order it indiscriminately. Stuffed peppers are particularly fine. Viva Sunnin!


In a corner of Culver City/Mar Vista that feels teleported from East LA, Tacomiendo (4502 Inglewood Blvd 310 915 0426) rubs shoulders with a branch of Taqueria Sanchez and the Mexi-American stalwart El Abajeno. After receiving the following note about the cunningly named restaurant [I believe "esta comiendo" = I'm eating], I was keen to try it out.

The best authentic Mexican-style taqueria I've found in the Culver City area is Tacomiendo. Wonderful juicy flavorful meat, homemade corn tortillas, and a nice full salsa bar. My friend from the Yacatan calls it "a national treasure." :)

Mixed messages upon entering. Crowd of local homies includes a friendly Mexican-American woman who says she eats here all the time, but "no lard" sign is disturbing. The proof is in the eating:
Albondigas. Generous serving of splendid meatball soup, the meatballs are herb-y and plentiful and the soup has a rich tomato base gussied up with chillis. Handmade tortillas are a highlight, much softer and thicker than storebought. One could make an excellent meal of tortillas alone at the salsa bar that is plentifully stocked with mild and caliente sauces plus frijoles bucket and encurtido.
Plato de asada. Not what I would have ordered for myself but flattened, well-done steak is tastily marinaded. One could sample the steak in taco form, add an enchilada and a tasty, not-too-squishy chile relleno for an absurdly reasonable $6.95 in the Super Plato.
Chancla. Not that I'm a foot fetishist but it's hard to resist shoe-based antojitos (see Garcia Bros taco truck notes). Chancla is slipper, which here means a tortilla filled with black beans and topped with salsa rojo. A nice surprise and addition to my galaxy of maize variations.

Give Tacomiendo a try if you're keen to find quality Mexican on the Westside - a rare commodity. A big shout-out to "h" for the tip.