Tag Archives: Vietnamese

March 16, 2010

16 Mar

7 am

1 NuGo protein bar

7:15 am

McDonald’s

1 small coffee

11:30 am

Tasty Noodle House

pork belly, Napa cabbage and glass noodle stew

4 pieces char sui bao (pork buns)

green tea

It’s been over a year since I last ate in San Gabriel Valley, and that’s a major oversight on my part. Some of the best Chinese cooking in the world can be found in this sleepy suburb. I used to go regularly right out of college and there was a time in my life where I had several special occasion gatherings in the banquet halls of Harbor Seafood or Mission 261. And when my dad came out to visit, we’d head out and try to find our next favorite eatery. Even then, it was impossible to make a dent in the list of places we want to try. San Gabriel is a long expanse of mini-malls, and each one might have two or three of the best dishes you’ll ever eat. There are hundreds and hundreds of different restaurants in a few small towns. But just as quickly as you found a place to remember, it might disappear or move without warning. My favorite restaurant from years back, Green Village, was originally in San Gabriel valley, opened and closed twice, then popped up in name only at Rowland Heights, with the actual chefs rumored to be at another restaurant. My dad simply preferred dumplings and lion’s head soup at Mei Long Village and went there regularly. He knew what he liked and didn’t need to spend any more time following restaurants he didn’t know. Me, I tried to go somewhere new every time. The only place I’ve gone more than once is Din Tai Fung, where I try and stop for carryout dumplings if it’s convenient.

Since picking a place to eat in San Gabriel can be daunting, there are two ways to go about it: choose a place with a big crowd or consult a guide. I went to Tasty Noodle House, a newish (they changed chefs recently) restaurant in the same mini-mall as Golden Deli, because Jonathan Gold gave it very high praise. I almost didn’t go here though. It was one of the few times that Golden Deli didn’t have a wait and it took a lot of willpower to resist one of the best Vietnamese restaurants in LA. But I made my way into Tasty Noodle’s tiny dining area with expensive, lacquered tables and booths. The cooking at Tasty Noodle is austere too. When the waitress first brought out the pork belly, cabbage, frozen tofu and noodle stew, I instinctively reached for chili sauce. It looked so plain. But I realized that there were no condiments to be seen anywhere. You have to request it, the better for the proprieter to discourage you. I can see why they don’t want customers to gild their food with sauce. The flavors are very sharp and focused, and the broth had a clear pork and cilantro flavor. The pork belly slices tasted like pork even though it was boiled. Freeze-dried tofu is an interesting trick. It’s dense, spongy and has enough heft to stand up to the other flavors it soaks up. I would’ve added a bit of hot sauce if I could, but it didn’t matter. This relatively simple dish was compelling beyond it’s means.

I had the same initial reactions to the pork baos. They looked a bit dry and didn’t have the slight crust of other pa-fried buns. But the first bite revealed an impossibly light and fluffy bun. It was a cloud bursting with a subtle flavor of pork and scallions. I only ate four during lunch due to the sheer quantity, but I later devoured the rest at home. Portions here tend to be large and I had a lot of leftovers, but I also wish I could’ve ordered more. Scanning the menu, there were a lot of pork, jellyfish, sea cucumbers and cabbages. Judging by my first impressions, Tasty Noodle revels in subtleness. Flavors are focused and not too strong. It’s more about the interplay of flavor and texture. Nothing here will overwhelm your senses or flair your nostrils with spiciness. If eating at a Cantonese of Shanghai restaurant is like watching a James Cameron movie, Tasty Noodle has a subdued complexity like a Yasujiro Ozu film.

3:30 pm

1 banana

6 pm

Mr. Baguette

“special” banh mi on sesame baguette

1 can of Sprite

Despite their culinary ingenuity, I don’t know how the French never thought of the banh mi. It’s a sandwich made with French baguette, loaded with French charcuterie, with a condiment of French pate and French aioli. But they’ve pretty much just stuck with ham and butter. Meanwhile, it was their former colony of Vietnam who thought to put all the French ingredients together, along with pickled carrots, turnips, jalapenos and cilantro. There are now hundreds of banh mi places dotting Vietnamese neighborhoods San Gabriel Valley and north Orange County. There are equally as many variations. Roast pork, BBQ pork and chicken are popular. I’ve even seen breakfast banh mis with the scrambled eggs and bacon. But the classic one is the banh mi dac biet, which is a melange of cold cuts, usually ham, pork meat loaf, head cheese, pork slices and pate.

Like Pat’s and Geno’s cheesesteaks in Philadelphia, or Lafayette and American for Coney Island hot dogs in Detroit, Mr. Baguette and Lee’s Sandwiches, two of the more popular banh mi places in Los Angeles, are situated within a half-block of each other on Valley Blvd. in Alhambra, each drawing in large crowds for their Vietnamese sub sandwiches. Whichever you prefer is strictly a matter of personal choice. I personally like Mr. Baguette a bit better because I prefer their bread, especially the sesame baguette, and their sandwiches are bigger. I know people who get annoyed at Mr. Baguette for making you add the pickled vegetables yourself and not having cilantro (which does irk me). I do go to Lee’s though if I plan on eating there, it’s a more comfortable space. There are better banh mi places in a town that has a ton of them; Banh Mi My Tho and Banh Mi Che Cali a bit further west on the same street are probably better. But if I’m getting a sandwich to go, I like the drive-thru at Mr. Baguette is a grand idea.

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March 8, 2010

8 Mar

9 am

3 scrambled eggs

1 slice of wheat toast

1 glass of water

2 pm

Top Chef: Just Desserts

I’m going to state this right off the bat. Don’t expect to read about the show, contestants or specific dishes from Top Chef: Just Desserts. A confidentiality agreement prevents me from revealing any details. I’ll write about the episodes I might appear in until after it airs, and I do have a lot to say about the dishes and contestants. I just have to wait until April, when the show premieres.

Through a friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend, I got a chance to attend two tapings of Top Chef: Just Desserts, one on Saturday and another on Monday. This is yet another spin-off of the Top Chef franchise. If you’ve seen the show before, then you’re probably aware that desserts scare the crap out of the contestants, they act all haughty and dismissive about desserts, and then get eliminated for a horrible creme brulee that they’ve never made before but inexplicably tried for a challenge. This new spin-off is Top Chef’s way of giving pastry chefs their due. If you’re familiar with the show’s format, there are occasional challenges where the contestants have to cater a party. I got to attend two such events and will appear in back-to-back episodes. I don’t know if Top Chef producers will care if a tall Asian guy keeps appearing in the show, but that’s their problem to fix in post.

Again, I can’t comment on any particular dish or divulge any details. I will say that most of the contestants are all too aware of certain food trends. I will also say that eating that many sweets at once is grueling. I know what you’re thinking, “oh it’s a tough life to eat free desserts. You’re an asshole.” But eating 10 sweets in an hour is painful. By the end of the meal, I had involuntary shaking and an inability to stare at one spot for longer than two seconds. Another guest, who attended a taping before, told me that I should not finish any dish. I didn’t listen to her and quickly felt nauseated. By the end, I was just taking one bite and tossing the rest. I don’t know how the judges eat so much and stay relatively skinny. Eating on Top Chef is similar  to Man Vs. Food. You would think that Padma Lakshi and Gail Simmons would slowly get fat like Adam Richman did over the years. But nope, the only reason why they got fat were for babies. I don’t know how she does it, and I’m not willing to spread wild rumors thinking of possibilities. (FYI, Gail takes over Padma’s hosting duties on Just Desserts, inevitably spurring unfounded rumors that this is the eventual line of succession for Top Chef).

Top Chef is actually the second culinary show taping I went to. Hell’s Kitchen was the other one and I have to say, Top Chef is much more fun and efficient. Hell’s Kitchen is a pain in the ass. You’re in a green room for three hours before taping, and that room consists of folding chairs, a vegetable tray from Ralph’s and bottles of water. I’m pretty sure Cary Elwes was handcuffed to a pipe with only a hacksaw to free himself in Hell’s Kitchen’s green room. They warn you beforehand that service can be slow and you might not eat, and sure enough, dining drags out over a couple of hours. They do provide unlimited wine once you’re seated. Top Chef, on the other hand, provides an open bar from the get-go and the wait is only an hour. Free booze is the secret for most reality shows, whether it’s Jersey Shores, The Bachelor or Top Chef, in getting people to loosen up on camera. Top Chef treats you well in the green room with wine, beer (Stella and Newcastle) and cheap champagne. They also give you 10 different type of cheese, including smoked gouda, blue, brie, white cheddar and this goat cheese mixed with cranberry that I ate too much of. In fact, I was allowed to take a picture of my cheese plate, so this is the only picture I have from the Top Chef shoot.

If you want to know even more about my Top Chef experience, listen to my friend Ryan’s podcast, where a certain blogger is his guest. I was hoping that I could turn my blog into an audiobook narrated by Michael Clarke Duncan, but this podcast will have to do for now.

6 pm

Pho Cafe

1 bowl of pho

1 glass of water

After Saturday’s Top Chef taping, two of our newfound friends suggested pho. We were all stuffed, but our body was also screaming for salt and protein to chemically balance ourselves. We ended up at Blossom in downtown LA and even though the pho itself was just OK, it was probably the most satisfying bowl I’ve ever had for the sole fact that it wasn’t dessert. It was salty, beefy and not too substantial, so pho was the perfect curative for sugar shock. After Monday’s taping, I needed to replenish my body’s sodium level again, and dinner at Pho Cafe was mandatory. I feel nominally normal now, though my fingers still twitch involuntarily while typing this very sentence.

8 pm

3 glasses of water

9 pm

1 cup of vanilla ice cream

Well, my “I can’t eat sugar for the rest of my life” phase lasted for six hours. I’m a pig.

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Dec. 14, 2009

14 Dec

9:30 am

1 red bean paste pastry

1 cup milk

1:15 pm

Pho Cafe

1 bowl of pho

1 bottle of Coke

My lunch plan with a friend fell through and I ended up at my neighborhood pho spot in hopes of calming the last lingering cough I have. I was originally introduced to Pho Cafe by a former neighbor, of Vietnamese descent who gave the following glowing recommendation, “It’s OK. Better than Gingergrass.” And so it is. The broth is mild with barely a trace of lemongrass, but there is a discerning beef flavor. The primary draw for me to this place is that it’s in my neighborhood. Pho here might not be as good as the ones in San Gabriel Valley, but it’s also a lot easier to get to. The main features for today’s lunch crowd was that every customer (except me) was white and sported a tattoo, flannel shirt, or horned-rimmed glasses. They offer meatballs and tendons, but most of the clientele will stick to steak slices or the tofu and mushroom veggie version. The place doesn’t even have a sign or identifiable marking. You either know it’s whereabout or you don’t. In other words, Pho Cafe is very “Silver Lake.” I will say that my hair was appropriately tousled for the atmosphere.

2 pm

Starbucks

1 tall eggnog latte

You know the holidays are coming up when Starbucks start selling awfully sweet coffee drinks. I’m not a fan of overly-sweet stuff, yet I regularly get them, just to fit into the Christmas spirit. I usually dislike Mariah Carey, but around Christmas, her voice is as calming as a castrato angel. Although I will stab a Santa Claus impersonator if I hear “All I Want for Christmas is You” again. Anyway, egg nog is my favorite of Starbucks’ holiday offering, but I even find that one heavy and overly sweet. But this year is different. Thanks to a tip from Sports Illustrated’s Peter King, I found out that the egg nog latte is made with skim milk this year. It’s a lot lighter, less cloying and much easier to drink. And that was my best Peter King-coffeenerdness impersonation.

6:30 pm

bibimbap

2 cans of Diet Coke

I wish I took a picture of this dish because it can be visually striking. Oh well. I eat it fairly regularly, so I’ll write more about it next time.

Instead, I’m going to rant about the Arizona Cardinals’ awful seven-turnover performance against the San Francisco 49ers. Really? Seven-turnovers? Five sacks? I HOPE YOUR “GOD” DISOWNS YOU AND DAMNS YOU TO HELL, KURT WARNER! And that goes for everyone on Arizona’s offense. BTW, I’m actually a Bears fan. I just had a “friendly” bet on the over/under. Just because it’s a “friendly” outcome doesn’t mean that I can’t wish unpleasant, bleeding diarrhea to strike every member of the Cardinals’ offensive line tonight. I blame Peter King for convincing me that this game would be a shootout. Fuck you, coffeenerd.

9 pm

4 Oreo cookies

1 cup milk

Cookies helped me forget my troubles.

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