Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Brilliant Boa – Santa Monica

My latest reviews have been introspective, giving you a glimpse at the inner workings of my mind. And my, what a strangely scary sight it’s been. It looks like my wheels are turning but in an inexplicably eccentric manner, and more often than not, I think I’m just grinding the gears. I may just be marching to the beat of my own, very strange drum, but historically, all geniuses had a couple of screws loose so I’d like to think that my compulsions and quirks which will one day result in a bounty of brilliance…I can only hope.

If wishes do come true, then Boa’s chef must have a mind like mine because the pure genius of the Goat Cheese Baklava actually left me speechless. For those of you who know me, yes, apparently that is possible. I’ve had good baklava, but this stuff is the perfect balance of decadence, a taste bud tug-of-war between two equally strong teams. The soft, smooth chevre is pitted against the crunchy, nutty-salty pistachio, all folded into flaky layers of perfect pastry to keep the combination crisp.

“I shouldn’t have splurged on that mind-blowing steak”, said no one ever, and believe me a steak from Boa is worth the price.  The appetizer was well-balanced, but there was no balance to the NY Strip, which is simply a slab of the best steak ever. Meaty juices squeeze out with each slow, meaningful chew. Use your fork to mash the entire clove of roasted garlic into a mush, mash it under each Herbed Butter-rubbed bite, and I swear it made every eccentric wheels in my head stopped turning. Want less subtle flavors with your meat? The Bleu Cheese crust makes a heavenly coating, and the Peppercorn dipping sauce is herbed butter with a bite.

The steak was amazing, and I ate every bite, but all beef this mind-blowing-ly intense needs a break like the Chipotle Lime Corn, a golden grill jump-started by tangy lime and a slightly spicy chipotle kick.

It takes a lot to unexpectedly blow my mind, and I didn’t expect to be so impressed by the non-meat dishes at a place that specializes in steak. The thing is, if all the weirdly-turning wheels in my mind can one day culminate in half the brilliance I saw at Boa, maybe my life of awkward silence wouldn’t have been for nothing.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Idolizing India’s Tandoori – Manhattan Beach

Apparently nothing puts me in the mood for Indian food like a glass of wine at Barsha because the moment I signed the check, I was jay-running in the dark to get to India’s Tandoori across the street. I’d risk my life for good Indian food, and India’s Tandoori was no exception.

There are few foods more original than Indian, and there are few cultures with more aesthetic appeal. Even the oven that cooks the food is attractive. Whether it’s an earthy clay pot or a shiny metal barrel, if aesthetics were an award the tandoor would win them all. Then again, it’s what on the inside that counts, and everything that goes in a tandoor comes out like the Chicken Tikka;  resplendently red with sizzling strips of sautéed onion.

I can’t begin to figure out what I love most about Indian culture, but the dances and the clothing are probably tied for first. Whether it’s the hand-clapping, lightbulb-screwing bhangra reverberating like the sharp, spicy Goat Vindaloo or the smoother circles of garba that swirl and weave like the more delicate lentils of the Daal Makhni, just be prepared to end your spicy dance in a glass of water with ice.

The dances are divine, but I’ve never seen anything more stunning than a sari. Like the food, the sari is an artful arrangement of elegant embroidery, breathtaking beads, and rightful wrapping. And like the sari, the Shahi Paneer is an intricately-entwined blend of spices that comes together as a sweet, seamless sauce.

Even the most stunning of saris is incomplete without the right accessories, one of them being the bindi. Choosing the right round dot can make or break the sari, and choosing the right green wheels of not-even-the-tiniest-bit-slimy okra of the Bhindi Bhaji definitely made the meal.

The bindi is important and the sari is a must, but what’s a sari with the perfect bindi if you don’t have bangles? No outfit feels complete without them but sometimes, like the fluffy, thin-crust sauce-sopping Garlic Naan, (which is easily the best I’ve ever had), their importance is often overlooked.

And just when I thought I couldn’t love India’s Tandoori more, we were gifted with some milky, nutty, and mildly grainy Rice Pudding to sample.

I love all that is Indian. Whether it’s because the majority of my friends from med school were Indian or because the majority of my med school was Indian, my relationship with these people has shaped my love for their culture, which I intend to conquer, one bite at a time. And while risking my life for India’s Tandoori sounds a little extreme, I’m pretty comforted by the thought that maybe they’ll let me be Indian in my next life.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Mikawaya – Los Angeles

Everyone loves a happy ending. Disney caters to our desire shamelessly, massage parlors capitalize on it, and places like Mikawaya make a killing on people’s desire for every ending to be sweet.

You’d think nothing could be sweeter than a perfect bowl of Little Tokyo ramen, but not much can match the sweet n’ starchy munchies called mochi.

Any mochi would do, but Mikawaya mochi was mediocre at best. The Mango Mochi Ice Cream was muddled by too much milk to make me feel like I had a real dessert, but the Red Bean saved it with just the right textured blend of sweet beans and cream. Disney may put on a good show, but in life our happy endings are rarely as we imagined. And the Mochi-Lato, i.e. mochi with gelato, was as realistic as it get.

The smooth gelato was superb in theory, but in reality the Green Tea is so sugared it tasted just like the Dulce de Leche. If I were blind-folded, I’d probably mix them up.

I love mochi after any meal, but my meal at Mikawaya didn’t end the way I wanted. The mochi is mediocre, and while I’d never decline a dessert, let’s just say that this ending was far from Disney.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Daikokuya – Los Angeles

Din Tai Fung may be an embarrassment to the Chinese, but Daikokuya should be the pride and joy of the Japanese across the narrow sea. And for those who are fans of Game of Thrones (and actually understand my reference to the narrow sea, let's just say the only thing better than watching tonight’s premiere would be watching tonight’s premiere with a bowl from Daikokuya.

I wouldn’t cross any sea for the pan-fried Gyoza, not even the Dothraki sea we call the 405, but I’m a little biased because these little pan-fried pickings are right on par with my mother’s best. They do have a good ground pork filling, and the frying keeps them crisp and fun. I don’t know what they’re fried in, but I found the thin sheet of something that binds them together to be surprisingly exciting. Not quite as exciting as marrying a Dothraki khal but almost enough to justify a horseride to Little Tokyo.

The Daikoku Ramen, on the other hand, is well worth a transcontinental journey, and it only took me 45 minutes with traffic. I prefer the wider, chewier, pasta-esque noodles of Torrance’s ramen-sensation Santouka to the thinner, equally eggy ones at Daikokuya, but it’s really a matter of whatever you want. 
Cersei was hot, but Robert preferred pretty much every other woman in Westeros. Like I said, to each his own but try not to go...STAG. The chashu made me want more, and the broth around it is fit for a king. Just ask for kotteri to get all the rich, golden pork-back oils of Casterly Rock.

I may not live in Kings Landing, but I do live in Torrance, which is the true home of every bowl of ramen known to man. Thus, I’m usually hard-pressed to drive an hour away from my couch to have some, but I think I’d even take my chances at the Red Wedding if they got Daikokuya to cater.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Dallying at Din Tai Fung – Arcadia

Some say that food is the gateway to the soul. I don’t know if I’d go that far, but it’s been proven that smell is associated with memory, so it’s not much of a reach to say that food could surface some sentiments as well.

I am a lot of things, but to say I’m sentimental would be wildly inaccurate. But I did get back from China not too long ago, and I’m still being plagued by the occasional wave of homesickness so I was pretty reluctant to write about Din Tai Fung for a while. Plus feelings scare me, and food-feelings sound just plain terrifying.

The stinging seafood that permeates the Juicy Pork and Crab Dumplings bore a pretty terrifying resemblance to the seafood smell that permeates the Dalian air of my father’s seacoast city. Unfortunately, the balance of land and sea is way off in these too-crabby pockets of pork, and while my gorgeous city can pull it off, these dumplings don’t even come close.

Those dumplings brought a nice feeling of nostalgia, but all I felt for the Shrimp and Pork Shao Mai was disappointment. I had never had a shao mai with soup inside, but once the novelty of the concept wore off, I found the generic pork filling about as memorable as the changing of seasons in SoCal. To top it off,   the unsalted shrimp on top was even drier than the California climate.

When I was finally done with the unsatifying shao mai, I was pretty disillusioned with all things pork. Fortunately, the Pork Bun was a perfectly tender, perfectly flavored ball of pork ensconced in a fluffy wrap and definitely didn’t disappoint.

I was still glowing from the home and hearth feeling that only comfort food can conjure, but the best was yet to come. The chili sauce of the simple, al dente Spicy Noodle brought on pure elation, but it’s a pretty sad day when the noodles are your favorite dish at a famous dumpling house.

People rave about Din Tai Fung, and I’ve heard the stories from far and wide. But I guess there’s a reason legends are only loosely based on fact because the only emotions I got from eating here were sad. Maybe I ordered all the wrong things, maybe they were busy, or maybe they were off. Honestly, I could speculate all day, but let’s just say that on that day, I wasn’t feeling Din Tai Fung.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Best Breakfast Ever at Blackbird Café – Long Beach

To say I’m not a morning person would be an understatement. It would be like saying that Fox News is only occasionally biased when reporting current events. Another example of an understatement would be the claim that I am less of a morning person than most people.

Anytime before 10 AM is an outrageous hour at which to be awake as far as I’m concerned, and if I said I didn’t mind getting up at 7:30 AM to drive to Blackbird Café in Long Beach on a Saturday morning, I would be lying through my unbrushed teeth. You see, in the case of Blackbird Café, its location is called Long Beach because it’s a long way from anything remotely appealing. By the time I finally stumbled in, no one could tell whether I was smiling or grimacing, and my eyes were half-closed and not because I’m Asian.

I may have also been the tiniest bit hung over, and everyone needs an eye-opener like the CinnaWhip. Regardless of why you need it, a delectable bowl-sized brew with whipped cream the size of a baseball will get the job done. Just drink it and try not to judge.

Once my eyes were a little more open, it didn’t take long to order the Huevos Rancheros, the classic tortilla-topped beans and eggs, mixed with perfectly-braised carnitas-on-crack, which turn a simple breakfast staple turns into the best before-brunch bite of your life.

The huevos rancheros were by far the best breakfast of my life, but one look at the Elvis French Toast and I knew that this thick, fluffy toast smothered by peanut butter and gluttonized with gooey bacon and banana would be tied for king…of breakfast. Inspired by Elvis’s favorite food, the King was known to go through as many as 12-15 of these sandwiches in a single sitting, and this French toast is so filling it feels like you ate at least ten.

In retrospect, I wouldn’t have changed a single thing about my morning except I wouldn’t have bothered with the CinnaWhip. Because as awesome as it is to have this cup of coffee to start your day, the heaping helpings of carnitas and carbs will undo all caffeination.

After breakfast at Blackbird Café, I started thinking that if I were waking up to food this good every morning, I may actually become a morning person, but when the food coma kicked in, I smiled/grimaced a goodbye, got into my car, drove the long way from Long Beach while squinting through the sunlight with my half-closed eyes, and promptly went back to bed.