Saturday, August 30, 2014

Curry Leaf – Torrance

We all like to say we’re adventurous, and we all love to say we’d eat anywhere, anytime. But when was the last time you really ate anywhere, anytime? Have you EVER just walked into a hole-in-the-wall that looked like it could give you glory, grease, and maybe the worst case of food poisoning in your life?

I did.  I were starving and saw a sign for Sri Lankan food and walked right in. I don’t know what I was expecting, but a tiny 5-table establishment featuring a Sri Lankan buffet for $9.95 wasn’t it. And then I saw the buffet. The food had clearly been sitting out for quite some time, which was not helping me stand by my decision, but the offerings were of a reasonable quantity, and plus I was kind of in the middle of Torrance nowhere.

Turns out, the quality of the food was surprisingly good and by no means stale. My favorite was the Pineapple Curry. It’s sweet and spicy, but eat it slowly because the burn will sneak up on you with a vengeance. The Fish Curry was A-okay – I’m just not a fan of curried fish. The Dahl was disappointingly salty, but the sweeter String Beans were right on the money. The deep red Beetroot Curry was irresistible, with a heavier curry broth than the pineapple. The Chicken Briyani was tasty, as was the other seasoned rice I can’t remember.

This was a huge gamble, and the only thing I’ve learned from gambling is that I really shouldn’t gamble. But that’s the thing with people who gamble – we don’t learn. Casinos don’t make the big bucks because people like me can step away from the slots. Instead, I walked right into the fire, and even when it looked like a shady situation, I still charged straight ahead, ready for a wager with a small probability of payoff. But instead of losing half a paycheck at blackjack like I usually do, I got away with a pretty good Sri Lankan meal, full of foods I would never otherwise try. I really don’t like to gamble, but Curry Leaf may be the only gamble I was glad to take.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Hanging at Honey Pig – Los Angeles

When a now-ex-boyfriend once told me that my spirit animal was a mongoose, I wasn’t exactly thrilled. Because what I really wanted my significant other to see every time he looks at me is a furry little rodent. But no, that’s not why he’s my ex. He went on to tell me that those weasley little rats are scrappy little fighters. A mongoose is the only animal that will face down a king cobra and win. Good save, Jeff, good safe.
I’ve long since forgotten that guy, but I never forgot the analogy he made. And that awkward moment was what fueled me through 22 med school applications and 20 exhausting interviews for residency. Whenever the electronic mailman brought yet another rejection, I would stand in front of the mirror and say, “Kelsey, you're a mongoose. And this is just another snake". Don’t worry, I only said that when no one else could hear me.

Being a mongoose got me through a lot. Today I'm loving every moment as a junior resident, but now that I no longer need to be an adorably underestimated little ball of fur, my spirit animal has become the sloth. Instead of that hard-working, always-trying pre-residency person, I’ve started cashing my paychecks at chipotle, and the only cleaning I do is in the shower.

Good thing I ended up at Honey Pig for dinner. The staff took pity and did the hard part for us fumbling foreigners. They grabbed the tongs and faced the fury of a hot half-dome grill so we could feast without lifting a finger. First, they laid out the Bulgolgi with the trademark sauce soaked all the way through. The sweet, slippery slices sizzled, and we took our time savoring every bite of beef.  

It’s not Korean barbecue unless you have bulgolgi, but if you haven’t tried the fatty-piggy Pork Belly, you’re definitely missing out. The belly is interlaced with ribbons of fat that drip off the sides and add a burst of flavor to every silky bite.

Just when I started rubbing my protruding belly, the server poured a bowl of tofu and seasoned rice over the grill. The rice mixes with the kimchee and bean sprouts, and together, they cook in the drippings of the pork and beef for a meaty, mind-blowing Kimchee Fried Rice.

My options have been pretty limited in K-town ever since I went from mongoose to sloth. If I won’t even microwave my own food at home, there is no way I’m paying someone to let me cook my own food in a restaurant. But I’d go back to Honey Pig even if they made me cut my own meat… but I’d probably bring some friends…

Monday, August 18, 2014

Zengo – Santa Monica

When you’re in residency, they tell you that the more time you spend working, the more you’ll learn. That’s probably true you first roll in from a scarcely-sufficient siesta. It’s still true while you watch a noon-conference powerpoint, lunching on knowledge that fills your brain just as much as that Styrofoam tray of cafeteria food fills your belly.  It stops being true somewhere between hour #20 and hour #24 of a 28-hour shift. No matter how much sleep you think you go overnight, you start to feel like you took advantage of the bottomless Bellini at Zengo’s unlimited lunch, and all that food for thought becomes about as easy to stomach as the tourist-town that surrounds the Santa Monica Pier.

Residency entices with the fountain of knowledge while the menu at Zengo promises the fountain of unlimited drinks. Sure, the balance of every ingredient in every dish is about as off as anyone who’s had a couple pitchers of bottomless booze. But in the delirious, sleep-deprived mind of the post-call resident, the sheer amount of learning justifies the hours, and at Zengo, the “quantity over quality’ approach actually makes sense in the context of drunkenly justifiable gluttonly.

Let’s start with the good news first. The Grilled Achiote Salmon was decently cooked with a passable ponzu and a crunchy bed of broccoli. Mediocre at best, but it’s a crowd-pleaser like Santa Monica’s famous Ferris Wheel – a safe, not-unpleasant choice that most people can live with.

But where the salmon was a little more subtle, the crude chunks of barely-seasoned chicken of the Thai Chicken Satay is about as Asian as the Bungalow crowd is down-to-earth.

Ever seen me without sleep? I get Angry Zengo Roll, and anything I say is as impossible to understand as the tuna is to taste. I think my brain takes on the rubbery texture of the Jamon Omelet, a dry egg sleeve with chunks of canned ham and grocery-store grated cheese.

At my hospital, more than half the patients speak Spanish. I’ve made an honest effort to learn, but my medical Spanish is about as authentic as the Chicken Chilequiles.  My gringa accent sours my Spanish like the mouth-puckering tomatilla salsa, and the chicken is as nonexistent as my ability to roll my R’s.

I actually liked the steak and kimchee combo in the Steak Benedict, but the dry biscuits overpower the stingy serving of steak. The Bacon Fried Rice hits the spot like post-overnight hospital-cafeteria breakfast sausage - salty with a side of grease.

You don’t go into residency for the lifestyle, and you don’t go to a tourist town like the 3rd Street Promenade for gourmet goods, but when you watch a sick person get better under your care, the victory dances tenderly on your tongue like the Bay Scallop Ceviche. Swallow that with a bottomless Bellini on an outdoor rooftop in sunny Santa Monica, and your flute will always be half full. Any way you sip it, Zengo’s $35 for all you can eat AND drink is a steal, even if it’s about as palate-pleasing as Panda Express. 

Friday, August 1, 2014

Men Oh Tokushima Ramen – Torrance

If you’re a restaurant in Torrance, saying you serve ramen is like saying you’re an actor in LA. Everyone is an actor in LA, and even if they’re not, people in LA still excel at pretending. In Torrance, everyone serves ramen, and even if they don’t, they’ll still put out a bowl of soup with some sort of noodle.

Ramen in South Bay has almost as many meaning as the term “actor” in LA. Sometimes it means you’re South Bay’s best, and you look haughtily at the less fortunate while adoring fans Instagram photos upon sighting your perfect broth. Other times it means you’re serve a solid, hit-the-spot B star soup. But nowadays even Kula Revolving Sushi and the skewer-sticklers at Torihei offer ramen. I’m sure it’s talented, but it’s not going to be discovered in the shadow of Santouka.

With all this ramen, ramen everywhere (and so many drops to drink), I wasn’t all that excited about trying yet another place. But people raved about Men Oh’s Little Tokyo location, the bowls were half off for ramen week, and my friends were so excited about checking out the new kid in town there was no way I could refuse.

Let’s just say the new kid in town is probably going to be known for his appetizers. There was nothing wrong with the Gyoza we shared, but the thicker wrapper and standard pork-and-generic-veggies filling was nothing you couldn’t get frozen from a bag.

The appetizer was lackluster, but the Tokushima Ramen was one of the least regrettable decisions I’ve ever made. The richly intense broth of pork fat and oil has some of the softest chashu I’ve ever had, and even the leaner parts dissolve on your tongue. The classic flavored egg is soft-boiled just right, and the al dente noodles are spot on. The butabara is new for me, and every little stir-fried greasy bit was delightful. Plus this is probably the most fun bowl of ramen I’ve ever had. Most of my favorite places have limited variations, and the sides are often scarce. Men Oh lets you add extras of anything you want for a reasonable charge, and while there’s no way I could finish an extra helping of noodles, adding a pound of chashu and butabara didn’t hurt…until after…

Saying you serve ramen in Torrance has myriad meanings. Your ramen could be incredibly talented and waiting to be discovered, a diamond in the rough waiting for the right cutting and casting, or a rising star who can’t help but shine. In the case of Men Oh, this ramen’s audition blew me away.

Great Stuff from Good Stuff - Redondo Beach

Everything moves slower at the beach. Time slips away luxuriously while we lay out under a scorching sun, swaying to the smell of Coppertone and the sound of crashing waves. In Redondo, the serene beach-town scene permeates the nearby Rivera, a beachy village straight out of a summer romance. Even its diner-style digs smell of surfboards and salty sarongs.

Good Stuff is a medium-sized diner-style joint serving breakfast at any hour. Things may move slowly at the beach, but this granola pancake house turns over tables faster than a wave under an inexperienced surfer. There is a 20-minute wait at 11 AM on a random Monday, and you'll spend your Saturday baking on their bench. But the free coffee outside does make the line seem shorter, and a cream and sugar a day keeps the hanger pangs away.

In case you forget where you are, the Krabby Cake Benedict is a cushy beachy spin on a favorite brunch. I didn't mind the softer crab with runny yolks as yellow as a tanning sun and a sandy shade of Hollandaise, but I do prefer the texture of the classic Canadian bacon/ham. 

The Carne Asada and Eggs features a thin, juicy, grilled steak the size of beach umbrella, shading firm grains of Spanish rice, tasty corn tortillas, and a cool touch of pico and guac.

The California Quesadilla is every breakfast food you could possibly crave, stuffed into a generous flour tortilla and glued together with slightly stringy cheese. The scrambled eggs are interspersed with chunks of applewood honey bacon, chewy morsels of mushroom, and creamy chunks of avocado. It sounds like a crude combination, but the right proportion of ingredients makes it the perfect pre-surf scarf-down.

My favorite part about the beach is the humbling feeling you get from standing in the sand watching the majestic miles of neverending water on the horizon. I think whoever named Good Stuff was doing just that when he was coming up with names. Good Stuff keeps it simple, but its name is the wildest understatement around. It is probably my favorite beachy brunch to date, and it deserved to be called "Great Stuff" at the very least!

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.