Thursday, July 24, 2014

Feeding Frenzy at Fogo de Chao - Beverly Hills

My name is Kelsey and I am a glutton. Last month I was a hoarder, but a glutton is just a hoarder of food with self-replenishing storage space. It’s not that I've changed, just that my goals have become more focused and better defined. I think that reflects some personal growth rather than perpetuation of a problem...right? Instead of raiding antique stores, thrift shops, and other people’s attics, I’ve switched to overstaying my welcome at unlimited dining places like Fogo de Chao.

For starters, the Salad Bar is every veggie hoarder’s dream. The impressive array of vegetables fresh and pickled provide a much-needed break from the steak. Bite of meat, bite of pickled onion. Bite of chicken, bite of palm heart. Bite of lamb, bit of caprese in pesto.

I don’t like the term glutton because it implies quantity over quality. At Fogo de Chao you get both and not just with the steak. Be a non-discriminating, quality-oriented glutton and try the signature sides as well as the meat. 

I didn't want to fill up on bread, but saying no to light little rolls full of chewy cheese like the Pao de Queijo is about as plausible as declining the cheddar biscuits at Red Lobster. The Caramelized Bananas are a little too sweet - I would have preferred plantains. You’d think I would have stopped there, but a glutton’s gut is can hold far more than you’d expect. The extra pocket in my third stomach opened right up for the Crispy Polenta, the creamy-gritty high-end take on fries, and the Garlic Mashed Potatoes turned out to be some of the best mashed potatoes I've had. 

Unlimited slices of sixteen savory meats-on-a-stick for sixty-something is already an amazing deal, and the DineLA menu is even better. Eight cuts of meat instead of the usual 16 for $45 is fine by me. The Frango is a whatever bacon-wrapped chicken breast, but I'm just not a fan of chicken. Some how the Costela de Porco never made it to our table – I think they might have substituted it with a bitter cut of Garlic Beef. No big deal, the great thing about hoarding is that the stuff you like less gets buried by the stuff you like more. 

I definitely liked the house special Picanha more. It's juicy and marbled with dripping fat. The Alcatra is a soft sirloin that barely needs a chew. The Linguica is a standard sausage - eat with a full glass of water. The Fraldinha was probably my favorite. This bottom sirloin is red with flavor, and the salt crust rounds it out just right. The Cordiero is my second favorite, a pink leg of lamb that is just the right amount of gamey. 

Sorry for the one unappetizing picture. I know slabs of amorphous bleeding meat on a plate don’t do justice to the glistening cuts on spikes, but it's a pretty authentic portrayal of a hoarder's plate. The photos of me stuffing my face weren’t much better. And if you want to see what a glutton looks like, don't bother with the pictures, just take me there and watch me eat!

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Wincing at Wildflower Café – Redondo Beach

I have horrible taste in movies. I’m okay with it, I accept it, and I’ve even learned to enjoy it. In fact, many terrible movies have pretty memorable quotes, probably because they’re one of few, if not the only clever moment in the entire movie. But I do love quoting movies, and for what I lack in wit, I make up for by borrowing memorable movie quotes and adapting them for the situation at hand.

One of my favorite movies growing up was Princess Diaries, where Anne Hathaway got her start in stardom. You may groan and tell me how this feel-good chick flick stole hours of your life, but I did find a gem of a quote in its sequel.

“It’s not a very difficult job, you know. You just have to open the door before the [person] dies of old age!” said a villainous Viscount Mabry as the butler ambled toward his car. This may be just the rambling of a crotchety old man, but it perfectly summarizes my experience at Wildflower Café.

I often say that some things are worth the wait, but I assure you, the food at Wildflower Café is not. My group of three (and at least three other parties) sat outside for an hour before we were led to the outdoor patio, where we had our choice between four fully-set four-top tables. It bears mentioning that the outdoor patio only has seven or eight tables total. A server came to us immediately and asked us what we would like to drink. We told her we were also ready to order, as one hour was a very adequate amount of time to peruse a menu. Her response was classic. “I don’t take orders. I’m not familiar with the menu”. I don’t know how familiar you need to be with omelets and pancakes, but allow me to borrow one more line from Viscount Mabry. Dear Wildflower Café, “Your staff is incompetent and unreliable”.

The service did not improve between the beginning of the meal and the end, but the food did make the incompetence a little less painful with each bite.

The service was so ridiculous that it brought me back to my terrible twos. Good thing I had the crispy pork sausages and over-easy eggs of the Wildflower Two’s to take care of my tantrum.

I got my two’s with the Wildflower Stack, a delicious berry blend with a nutty finish. This is how pancakes should be made, and it was worth every penny of the extra charge.

I have waited tables in the past, and I do know how hard it can be. Plates are heavy, and sometimes they can burn. I think that’s what happened to our server because that is the only way I can halfway justify her language. I don’t always demand service with a smile because I understand how tired you can be in the middle of a crazy shift, but I do ask that I be spared service with a fuck.

Because that’s what our server said…twice! she set the Sun-dried Tomato Omelet in front of us. The omelet was tasty enough, with tangy tomatoes and fresh spinach and basil. But it could have used a little more goat cheese, and our server could have used a little more class.

The Eggs Benedict with smoked salmon were pretty good. The eggs were nicely poached, and the Hollandaise sauce was a little bit runny, but the salmon, eggs, and English muffin were in pretty good proportion.

If you’re in the mood for salmon, I recommend the Benedict over the New York Scramble because between our server’s eloquence and the pool of water I found my eggs in, I’m pretty sure the part of “New York” this dish represents is the Jersey Shore.

It was past lunchtime by the time we got our food, and if it’s lunch you’re craving, I would order something other than the Grilled Portobello Mushroom Melt. The juicy Portobello is just fine, but the thick bread makes it pretty impossible to taste anything else, except the occasional hint of goat cheese.

I had to wonder if they forgot half the ingredients in my sandwich, and if their chefs are as well-trained as the rest of their staff, I suppose I should just be grateful that my food wasn’t raw. I almost never rate a restaurant based solely on service, but Wildflower Café should consider my one-star rating a gift since the service got negative five stars and the food only got three.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Kneeling Before the King Hua - Alhambra

We went crazy over food trucks last year. Suddenly it seemed like everything edible could be put on wheels, and it seemed like everything edible WAS being put on wheels. Soon we spawned a subsection of food that could roll away, and people acted like it was the greatest invention since the wheel.

Sorry people, but like most things, the Chinese did it first. They’ve been doing it long before you conceived of it, and they’ve been doing it long before you were conceived. Dispensing small, steaming-hot ready-made ramekins of the good, the better, and the even better is a tried-and-true brunch tradition also known as dim sum.

It's a widely accepted fact that the best dim sum lies buried deep in the folds of the SGV, and it's no surprise that the hills that harbor the model minority are overachievers in their own cuisine.

King Hua seems to be one of the veritable kings of SGV dim sum, heralded as one of the top 10 in all of LA by the Weekly. I haven't had quite enough SGV dim sum to know if it's true, but since all Asians are good at math, the Rice Noodle with Shrimp does have a pretty good shrimp:noodle ratio for starters…

The Juicy Pork Dumplings had a sweeter soup, and though they weren’t as good as Bao, I really can’t complain…

I’m not as into Shrimp and Pork Shumai, but they’re a favorite of my mother’s so I’ve had a lot of them in my lifetime. The keep the heavy pork mixture light at King Hua, and I never thought I’d say this, but maybe my mother was right.

As all Asians know, I grew up with a tiger mom. And anyone who grew up with a tiger mom would never leave the table without finishing their vegetables first. It’s just that I never ate my vegetables with any pleasure until I started crunching into green, leafy stalks of Chinese Broccoli that can only be found at dim sum for some reason.

Sometimes, I wasn’t even allowed to touch my favorites dishes until my vegetables were gone, which really sucked when my favorite Crystal Shrimp Dumplings were on the table. The ones at King Hua were as good as it gets, but when you’re a true Asian, good is never good enough. In the style of over-achieving Asians, let's kick it up a notch with the Shrimp & Scallop Dumplings and top an already-amazing ball of shrimp with a succulent scallop and a little pinch of roe.

There is always room for dessert, and people always say it’s the best part. It’s the worst part of dim sum for me because it means my meal is over. But I can think of worse ways to end than with the classic Deep Fried Sesame Balls filled with smooth red bean paste.

Not all good food is on wheels, and thanks to the aftermath of food truck fever, we learned that not all food on wheels is good…unless it’s dim sum. Sadly, King Hua forgoes the carts in favor of an order slip, but I’m okay without the thrill of the chase. LA Weekly names King Hua among the top 10 in dim sum, but I personally haven't had enough dim sum in the SGV to call King Hua king just yet. Then again, after a meal this good, I think it’s earned at least a knighthood.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Dally at Din Tai Fung UPDATE – Arcadia

If you think about it, Chinese people are actually pretty accepting. Sure, my people make rigid rules for their children and are dogmatic disciplinarians, but about anything goes in just about every other aspect of life. When it comes to clothing, there are no patterns too gaudy, no colors too clashing, and no style too bold to try. And when it comes to food, there are no ingredients too exotic, no combinations too confusing, and no flavors that can fail, just to name a few.

But the one thing the Chinese don't accept is mediocrity of any kind. You go big or you go home, and if you didn’t go big, you really don’t want to go home to the raging eyes of an angry tiger mom. And in a county of 6 billion people, the competition is pretty fierce.

There may not be billions of Chinese people in the SGV, but when it comes to authentic Chinese cuisine, the bar is set sky high, and I don’t understand how Din Tai Fung has managed to survive. 
My initial experience there was ordinary at best, but everyone insisted that I hadn’t had an authentic Din Tai Fung experience. The Pork Dumplings are their best dish, and since I’d only tried the pork and crab dumplings, I was clearly an unfit judge.

They had a point so I gave it another go. I ordered the pork dumplings steaming hot, and I sipped the savory soup with unparalleled enthusiasm and hope. The soup was tasty, the soft meat filling was satisfying to my inner fatty, and the thin, slightly chewy wrapper made for a tight little package. The dumplings were well-made, and they were definitely pretty good, but they were standard southern Chinese at best. Enjoyable, but they didn’t exactly change my life.

Din Tai Fung may not be making any life-changing liquids, but their Milk Tea with Boba was still a pleasant sip. It was nice to wash down all that hot soup with something icy and cold.

The Pork and Rice Shumai were a lot better than the pork and shrimp. The chewy chunks of pork nestled in a pearly ball of sticky rice were palatably exciting,  but these became a little bit bland. Maybe a little more pork to liven up the ratio?

I had tried to chalk up my initial lack of enthusiasm to my recent return from China, but I’ve been back for a while now, and it’ll be a long while before I’m back to Din Tai Fung. The dumplings weren’t bad by any means, but good isn’t good enough when you’re in the valley of the Asians. Come on SGV, even an A- isn’t enough if you’re Asian, and you’re getting a solid B. How about you try to disappoint your tiger mom a little less next time?

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Filling My Belly at Ford’s Filling Station – Culver City

I’m a nobody. I was born to Chinese peasants, and in a world that values who you know as much as what you know, I wasn’t exactly born for glory. Maybe my upbringing made me understand the value of standing on your own two feet or maybe I’m just bitter, but nothing irks me more than people who stand on the shoulders of prodigal parents.

Chef Benjamin Ford is the son of Harrison Ford, and Ford’s Filling Station stood for everything I hate. But still, I had to see what all the fuss was about so I guess I just had to eat there before it closed.

Shortly after I sat down at an unpretentious outdoor table, the mere thought of Ben Ford climbing the culinary food chain had me scowling at my starters. I couldn’t bear the thought of him getting famous and rich…but no one would ever be as rich as the perfect mix of crisp and fat in the Pork Belly Lettuce Wraps. Their savory flavor is both braised and burnt, and the spicy sauce topped it off just right.

The thing is, it’s easy to succeed when you have the right stuff, and it’s hard to make pork belly poorly. But brisket isn’t as easy to work with, and the Smoked Brisket Taquitos full of soft, flavorfully shredded beef continued to impress.

The Octopus Tostadas took every bit of scowl off my face. The balance of soft cephalopod on a crunchy chip with a crisp kick of jalapeno and a lightness of lime were a mouthful of fresh air.

The Garlic Shrimp were just shrimp in garlic and butter, but they definitely took my breath away…mainly because I couldn’t really breathe in polite company after consuming this slightly pungent dish. Don’t let that stop you - the sauce is well worth the smell.

The special of the day was a Goat Cheese Gnocchi. Soft potato pillows with a freshly creamy tomato sauce and creamy goat cheese was a lot of softness on the same plate. The execution of this simple dish was more seamless than Harrison Ford’s acting skills, but I would have like a little more edge.

The Roasted Beet Salad is fine by itself, but it acts as a great side for any entree. The leafy butter lettuce with sweet golden beets is light and luxurious, and it doubles as a main dish for those craving something a light.

The Flattened Chicken conjures the image of the chicken who crossed the road and never made it to the other side. And it is probably the best chicken I’ve ever had. The meat is so tender and juicy it literally melts in your mouth, and the side of mashed potatoes and succotash make a strong showing while highlighting the chicken itself.I never expected something so fowl-y named to blow my mind.

I hate people who coast through life on who they know instead of what they know, but I don’t doubt that Ben Ford knows his stuff. I guess I was one of the last people to eat at Ford’s Filling Station, and I mourn its closing as deeply as the entertainment industry would mourn the loss of Harrison Ford. It’s easy to be good when you have all the goods, and Chef Ford has more goods to his name than just his name. I don’t know what he’ll fill me up with next, but I can’t wait to try.