Archive | April, 2010

April 30, 2010 – What Chimichangas Mean to Me

30 Apr

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11 am

supermarket sushi

1 can of Diet Hanson black cherry soda

3 pm

El Chaparral

shredded beef chimichanga

Diet Pepsi

For some reason, I remember that the first Mexican food I’ve ever ate was a chimichanga. It was at a Chicago Mexican restaurant chain called Pepe’s. I came to the United States when I was four and growing up, Mexican food was a completely foreign concept to my family. But deep-fried food, that’s a universal language. Pepe’s advertised a deep-fried burrito and deep-fried ice cream. My brother and I thought it was the greatest idea ever conceived (deep-fried ice cream?! mind=blown) and begged our dad to take us. He finally did one day when I was either seven or eight. The deep-fried ice cream was awesome. As for the chimichanga? I don’t think I liked it as much. I’m pretty sure I almost crapped in my pants on the ride home.

This chimichanga from El Chaparral was the first chimichanga I’v eaten since my formative years as a young rabble-rouser roaming the “rough” streets of Chicago. Surprisingly, it’s not a common dish outside of the Southwest part of the country. Most restaurants that do serve chimichangas also scare me with their inevitable heavy-handed cooking. The odds are, if you see a chimichanga on a menu outside of Arizona, you’re probably at a real greasy spoon. El Chaparral, a 40-year-old institution in Sylmar, is such a place. This is the type of Mexican restaurant where the bar is just as prominent as the dining area, where customers prefer to watch MLB baseball over Guadalajara futbol on the many TVs, and where the biggest draw is the fine Mexican tradition of the all-you-can-eat Sunday champagne brunch. The most exotic thing on the menu is the sopes, deep-fried masa with refried beans and meat. Otherwise, it’s your standard tacos, burritos and large fajita plates. And then there was the chimichanga, and my mild curiosity to revisit a faint childhood memory was piqued. At El Chaparral, the chimichangas can either be described as two small burritos or giant taquitos. Either way, it had the same effect as the first one I ate many years ago, bowel-inducing. Ah, nostalgia.

7 pm

1/2 brownie

9:30 pm

a LOT of beer

2:30 am

Damiano’s

1 slice of sausage pizza

After midnight, if you crave pizza but are too drunk to drive anywhere in LA, then Damiano’s is your only option. This is really the only reason why Damiano’s is well-known by locals, because they’ll burn the midnight oil to serve every last drunken appetite. If you can’t make the actual pizza joint, this means that delivery can take over 2 1/2 hours, as I found out many years ago at my then-girlfriend’s place in the Santa Monica area. Hey, ordering pizza from a place over 10 miles away seems like a sound idea when you’re drunk. Damiano’s best virtue is their beer selection, which is sizable. There are several imports and microbrews you can’t find anywhere else. You can only take advantage of this before 2 am, and only at the actual restaurant. But if you’re far, crave pizza and can’t go anywhere to get it? Meh. It’s not bad, and not great. The pizza’s nothing to go through too much hassle to eat. It’s much faster to cook a DiGiorno’s pizza in the oven than ordering one from Damiano’s. That’s exactly what we started doing after that 2 1/2-hour wait.

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April 29, 2010 – Tender Greens

29 Apr

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11:30 am

Tender Greens

tuna nicoise salad

1 glass of blood orange soda

When Henry Ford invented the assembly line, he probably didn’t think it would be used to compose salads. But that’s exactly what Tender Greens does. Everything there revolves around lines. You wait in line to order, then wait in another line that slowly meanders its way to the cash register to pay. While waiting, you see the assembly line in the kitchen putting your salad together. There’s a guy who throws various vegetables in a giant metal bowl with some dressing. It gets plated by someone else. Yet another person garnishes your salad with more vegetables. My tuna nicoise passed through a hand who’s sole purpose was to add haricot verts to the plate. Meanwhile, a guy is responsibly for grilling beef, chicken or tuna while an entirely different person is only responsible for slicing the meat on a bias. In all, nine people might’ve had their hand in making your salad. And that doesn’t count the 2-3 people at the register getting your drinks, making sure you have silverware and taking your money.

By utilizing an army of prep cooks, Tender Greens’ salads are a bit complex than the usual fare. Besides the standard mix of arugula and escarole, my tuna nicoise had chewable pieces of dill and surprisingly, mint. There were haricot verts, tiny fingerling potatoes and a hard-boiled quail’s egg that matches the size of the tiny potato. The tuna is of decent quality and seared rare. For some reason, I always get the tuna nicoise. I’ve tried the other salads like the cobb and the steak salad, but they’re both heavy. Still, some people like rich, hearty salads, and they’ll probably steer toward those. The other regular menu item I usually get is the tomato and bread soup, which is delicious. There are specials, and they sound good. It was braised lamb cheeks on the day I visited. But again, I stuck to my usual. I stuck to the assembly line.

7 pm

white cheddar grilled cheese sandwich on sourdough bread

1 can of Diet Hanson black cherry soda

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April 28, 2010 – Square One Dining

28 Apr

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11 am

Square One Dining

1 BLAT sandwich

side green salad

several glasses of water

Before braised pork belly began to appear on every other restaurant menu, there was bacon. Specifically, there was Nueske’s slab bacon, sliced 1/8-inch thick and slowly roasted in an oven. That’s how Square One Dining, a breakfast and lunch spot right in the shadow of the Scientology Headquarter on Fountain and Vermont, cooks their bacon. When they first opened three years ago, I went every other week. Square One was one of the first restaurants in the neighborhood that meticulously sourced their ingredients, and promptly add a pronoun to all their ingredients. Hence, breakfast potatoes aren’t just potatoes, their Yukon golds from Weiser Farms. Grits are specially ordered from Anson Mills in South Carolina, where they stone ground organic corn (it’s the best grits I’ve ever tasted). And the bacon, as mentioned before, is from Nueske, the Wisconsin butcher renowned for their smoked meats. Every time I come here, I order bacon in some shape or form. The BLAT, the classic bacon-lettuce-tomato sandwich, with avocado, is the best BLT I’ve had in LA.

5:30 pm

2 piece of sourdough bread

1 slice of cheddar cheese

I was running late to my softball game. Hence my Chinese prison meal.

10 pm

Cha Cha Lounge

2 pints of Pabst Blue Ribbon

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April 27, 2010 – I Ate Too Much

27 Apr

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10 am

1 brownie

1 glass of water

12:30 pm

peanut butter and jelly sandwich

1 glass of water

5 pm

grilled cheese sandwich with white cheddar on sourdough

1 can of Hanson’s black cherry soda

9 pm

Snakepit Alehouse

1/2 buffalo chicken pizza

2 pints of Heferweizen beer

I can’t take it anymore. I’ve been eating out a lot and not particularly well recently. As much as I enjoyed this meal of pizza and beer, it was actually my second dinner of the night and completely unnecessary. I felt sick afterward, got bad heartburn and fell asleep in pain on my couch while watching Treme. This is not how I should be spending my nights (although Treme is a very good show. So says a die-hard Wire fan). From now on, I’m going to be more careful about my diet. I’m serious. I’m not trying to lose weight or anything. I just want to eat better so I don’t feel sick after every damn meal. So from this day forth, I will eat healthier. For today is the promise of a new day.

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April 26, 2010 – The Only Doner Kebab In Los Angeles

26 Apr

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9:30 am

1 coffee cake

1 cup of coffee

3 pm

Chick-Fil-a

1 chicken sandwich

6 chicken nuggets

medium waffle fries

medium Diet Dr. Pepper

I’ve been to Chick-Fil-a a couple of times already over the past few months. My friends Ryan, Adam and Sam on the other hand, haven’t been to one in years. This explains why Ryan and Adam ate two chicken sandwiches, and followed that up with a side of nuggets and waffle fries. “You never know when you’re going to eat this again,” Ryan said. And by the way he ate today, he’s right, because he drastically reduced his life expectancy with this meal. We were reminded of Warren Zevon’s quote to “enjoy every sandwich.” Ryan and Adam decided to eat as many sandwiches as they could enjoy. Can’t argue with that, I guess. I’ll just have to see if I outlive them.

8 pm

Spitz

doner kebab

side of fries

medium Diet Coke

When I spent a week in Berlin, I ate a doner kebab every day for lunch. It’s not that these Turkish-influenced sandwiches are great or anything. But they’re cheap, usually costing between 3 and 5 euros, they’re literally sold on every single block in Berlin, and they’re filling without ruining your digestive system like currywurst. By eating a doner kebab every day, I had enough euros to splurge on dinner and especially on beer. Sometimes I ate it twice daily, once for lunch and again after a late night of drinking. There was a doner kebab place next to the music club Kaffee Burger in Mitte that I went to three times over two days. They were conveniently open late amongst several bars and there was no better way to soak up beer. The long line even at 3 am testified to that fact.

The doner kebab is probably the defining food of Berlin at the moment, even though it’s a relatively new creation from Berlin’s sizable Turkish community that’s Germans are sometimes ambivalent about. The sandwich isn’t too different from a gyros or shawerma, but the doner kebab was the one thing I craved when I came back home. While Berlin has a doner kebab place on every corner, Los Angeles only has one that I’m aware of, Spitz in downtown (that’s the second location. The original is in Pasadena). Thanks to a $20 gift certificate from my friend Ella, I got a chance to see if they could provide a decent memento of Berlin. Right off the bat, I noticed that Spitz’ sandwiches are smaller. The amount of ingredients is probably the same, but they wound their sandwiches up tightly into a dense log, so it’s neater than the ones that inevitably fall apart onto the streets of Berlin. Spitz also uses lavash instead of a pita. The garlic aioli is very bland, but that’s how it is in Germany too. I wish Spitz had hot sauces more readily available like they do in Germany, but they did provided a container of Tapatio after asking and it helped. My meat sandwich was inevitably made with gyros meat, but that’s not too different from what you can get in Berlin. Honestly, a doner kebab isn’t exactly a work of art, and it pales in comparison to Zankou or Falafel Arax. But Spitz is the closest approximation to a doner kebab in LA, and that’s reason enough for me to go again eventually. It’s cheaper than a plane ticket to Berlin.

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April 25, 2010 – Recipe for Korean Grilled Cheese With Braised Short Ribs

25 Apr

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Here’s my recipe for my entry from last year’s Grilled Cheese Invitational. For some reason, no one took an actual picture of the sandwich. It’s a time-consuming recipe that’ll take at least two days to make. There is no way I’m making this again unless there’s a cash prize to be won. Instead, here’s a stock photo of Abondance cheese. I found a photo of a grilled cheese I made the next day with leftover Abondance cheese and bread. This is the closest photo evidence I have of my sandwich.

For galbi jjim

4 pounds of beef short ribs

1 1/2 cup soy sauce

1/2 cup sugar (I prefer brown)

1/2 cup plum wine

2 1/2 cup water

1/2 yellow onion, sliced

1 carrot, cut into large slices

1/4 cup gingko nuts (optional)

8 cloves garlic

1 scallion diced

1 tbsp freshly grated ginger

1/2 Asian pear, peeled and grated

tbsp of toasted sesame seeds

ground pepper to taste

1. Score the short ribs cross-wise, so it’s divided into 4 pieces on the bone. Bring water to a boil in a large pot to a simmer. Parboil the ribs for 30 minutes (Parboiling for a braise is normally not the way to go. But the braising liquid in a galbi jjim is strong, and Koreans don’t like their ribs as greasy as a traditional pot roast. But if you want a more tender cut of meat, you can skip this part and add more water to the braising liquid)

2. Combine all the other ingredients and stir to taste. You can adjust the sugar depending on how sweet you like the dish. I actually use 2/3 cup brown sugar, because I like a more sweeter dish.

3. Place meat in the braising liquid. Simmer on low heat for at least 1 1/2 hours.

4. Once it’s fork tender, take ribs out and let it cool.

This galbi jjim recipe is only for the grilled cheese. I usually make a slightly more complex version if serving this as the main course. That’s for another time.

For pickled shallots (white kimchi shallots)

4 shallot bulbs, sliced into thin strips

2 cups water

1/4 cup sea salt

2 tbsp. sugar

3-4 cloves garlic, diced

1 red chile, seeded and diced

1 Asian pear, sliced into thin strips

1. Bring water, salt and sugar to a near boil to make a brine. Let cool

2. Sterilize a pickling jar in boiling water.

3. Stuff shallots, chiles, garlic and Asian pear in the jar. Top to the brim with brine.

4. Seal the jar (make sure it’s airtight by not leaving any space at the top) and cool in the refrigerator for at least a day, and up to a week.

For the grilled cheese

2 pounds galbi jjim short ribs, pulled into pieces (I used my hands, which leaves bigger morsels than pulling with a fork)

pickled shallots

8 slices sesame bread (I got mine from La Brea Bakery)

3 cups Abondance cheese, shredded

unsalted butter, softened

1 clove garlic, sliced

black sesame seed

1. Either grill the slices of bread or toast in a 500-degrees oven for 2-3 minutes.

2. Take the garlic clove and slice it in half. Rub both sides of the bread slices with the cut side of the garlic.

3. Butter one side of two slices of bread. Layer one slice with a handful of shredded cheese, some galbi jjim, another handful of cheese, a few slices of shallots and a sprinkle of black sesame seeds. Top with the other slice.

4. Grill on one side for 5 minutes on medium-high heat. Flip sandwich and grill the other side for another 3-5 minutes, until golden brown. Weigh down the sandwich with a brick wrapped in foil or a heavy pan (greased) to meld all the ingredients together.

5. Eat and/or enter in a grilled cheese competition.

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April 24, 2010 – My Time In Last Year’s Grilled Cheese Invitational

24 Apr

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Hilary (red head) delivers grilled cheese sandwiches (Source: LAist)

“Are you going to enter the Grilled Cheese Invitational this year?”

I got asked this question numerous times over the last month as the Grilled Cheese Invitational, which took place on April 24th, approached. Every single time, I answered with an emphatic “no.” Then I had to go into an explanation as to why I thought the event was a travesty. Last year, it too over two hours to get into the venue. Then there was another line to get into the beer garden. And yet another like to get a quarter grilled cheese sandwich made with Kraft individually-wrapped slices. The only thing that didn’t have a line was samples from the contestants. That involved an anarchic scrum that you fought through. Then you had to yell really obnoxiously or show boobies to get the attention of whoever was handing out grilled cheese samples. Needless to say, it was not fun.

It wasn’t that fun as a competitor either. Last year, I signed myself up to see how I’d do. I decided to sign up for the “Kama Sutra” division, which is the toughest one. Basically, anything goes. Meat, bread, accompaniments, whatever your imagination can come up with, it can go in the sandwich. The defending champion was Eric Greenspan, head chef at the Foundry and a competitor on The Next Iron Chef. He was the judge this time, but I entered the same competition as several professional chefs. I am not a professional, not even close. I did have three lovely assistants, Abigail, Ella and Hilary, and $200 with which to spend.

After a few weeks of deliberations, I decided on a Korean grilled cheese. It was when the Kogi BBQ trucks just got big, and I’m Korean, so I thought I had a decent chance to do well. After several test sandwiches at a dinner party hosted by my friends Mike and Becca, I decided on a sandwich based around galbi jjim, or braised Korean short ribs, Abondance cheese, a semi-hard raw cow’s milk cheese from France that tastes like a slightly more pungent Cheddar, and sesame bread. I actually stole the basic concept from Greenspan’s winning grilled cheese the previous year, which was braised short ribs and taleggio. Galbi jjim is a very traditional Korean dish, but it’s not too popular outside of Korean homes. Since the braising liquid is almost the same as a Korean BBQ marinade, I thought it’d be accessible enough. As for the cheese, Abigail got me in touch with Andrew’s Cheese Shop in Santa Monica and after several tastings, Abondance was the best choice. At the last moment, I decided to add pickled shallots, made to taste like white kimchi or the Japanese tsukemono, for some crunch and a sharp flavor to cut the richness of fatty meat and fatty cheese.

The sandwich turned out pretty good. I brought my own pan for the competition, but the gas burner was too weak to heat it in time, so I used the smaller, cheaper griddle the competition provided. Because of heat issues, I also undercooked quite a bit of sandwiches, and my friend Katie said she got one where the cheese was still shredded. It was chaotic in the beginning, but as the 30-minute time limit elapsed, we all settled into a rhythm. Abigail did prep work in back, Ella was a one-woman assembly line, Hilary worked the crowd and won votes, and I cooked and flipped. The last sandwich was for the judges, and for Mr. Greenspan himself. Despite the undercooked sandwiches beforehand, this was the one that mattered. I cooked it carefully to a crisp, golden finish, and the cheese properly fused the bread and meat together. I delivered it to Eric, who asked what it was. “It’s a Korean grilled cheese, with short ribs,” I answered. He looked at it, took a bite, and then proclaimed it “awesome.”

The sandwich was awesome, but not awesome enough to win. I lost to a sandwich that had rabbit confit slow-cooked in duck fat. There was another sandwich that used foie gras. It seems that bigger was better, and the more luxurious ingredients, the better the result. Even though I spent a little over $200, I could not and would not keep up with the grilled cheese arms race. Our sandwich was well received, and at the end we only had a one word compliment from Greenspan as a reward for all our time, money and effort we put in. Awesome indeed.

The recipe for my Korean grilled cheese will run tomorrow.

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