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Thursday, June 23, 2016

The Halal Guys - Long Beach

I can't even pretend to be anything less than 100% miserable right now. There is nothing okay about being stuck in board prep, having the entire field of internal medicine hammered rapid-fire into my brain by a conceited, tangential man with an barely-intelligible accent. And if I can't get a decent meal during this intellectual assault, I would probably lose my will to live.

I guess I owe the Halal Guys for saving my life. A now-global franchise born from a humble street cart on 56th and 8th, they've landed in Long Beach, and they take my palate by storm every time. The Beef Gyro is juicily chopped, a waterfall of white sauce cascades over a riverbed of yellow rice. The hot sauce tap-dances on the tongue and settles in for a slow-kill burn so deep.

I'm usually too carnivorous to deviate, but when I do, the Falafel is incredible. I often find the fried chickpea concoction bland, but Halal Guys keeps it fragrant and moist.

When I left the northeast, I thought I'd lost them forever, but here they are. As I toil through six unbearable 12-hour days, Halal Guys gives me hope; food for the brain and fuel for the soul. The Halal Guys Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Good-Day Korean Restaurant - Torrance

I miss my mom. She's on the other coast, and I usually prefer it that way, but there's no one who can cook like her. No gourmet, but she has her style, and her food will turn any day into a good one.

My mom has been on an organic kick lately, but the dishes are still the same. Hearty and hefty; steamed, boiled, or pan-fried sizzling; the smell is unmistakable. Nothing comes close...wait, what is that? Stewed, pulpy cabbage clogs my nose in a robust Cabbage Short Rib soup. The ribs are chewy and sinewy as you rip them off the bone, sacrificing savor to flavor the broth, and the cabbage has an earthy sweetness. It tastes like something mom throws together on those winter days when we don't feel like shopping.

When I was a kid, I was really a picky eater, and my mom would coax down an entire bowl of rice, ssam bap style. She rolled a marble of rice into a leaf of lettuce and added a bite of vegetable hidden by a chunk of meat. Well the Ssam Bap with Bulgogi is irresistible, no tricks needed to scarf this one down. I don't know what leaves they use, but there is a bold and bitter aftertaste that cuts through the gooey purple rice and saucy slices of sweet beef.

Wholesome and fresh, organic and clean. It's easy to feel at home in Good Day, an unassuming strip-mall spot in random little Lomita. Korean comfort food that tastes homemade will make any day a Good Day.
Good-Day Korean Restaurant Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Baco Mercat - Los Angeles

A friend of a friend once asked me where I lived, and I told her Redondo Beach. "Oh," she said. An indifferent shrug rolled off her shoulders and traveled upward, flowing through her face, ending in a wrinkled, upturned nose. She adjusted the top two layers of her intentionally-oversized boyfriend-cardigan over her intentionally-ill-fitting boyfriend button down over as they fell off her shoulders yet again. "I don't even know where anything IS outside of LA."

I think that girl lives at Baco Mercat. Or in one of the many well-known, high-end renters of this remarkable complex. The affordable valet combats the scarcity of street parking, the exposed pipes justify the role of ill-fitting hipster clothes in fine dining, and the creative list of cocktails is all sorts of wet n' wild. The soul of LA shines through every orifice, ritzy masquerading as shabby-chic, ego and attitude with not enough cred to back it up.

To be fair, Baco Mercat doesn't just please LA snobs like my new fre-nemy described above. The ingredients are quality, and the place holds some charm despite the clientele. Or maybe that's just the cocktails talking.

We are off to a good start, however, with Octopus & Crispy Pork Belly. The combination is unexpected, but the octopus is perfect, the pork belly is crispy fat juice, and I love every separate bite with sweet pear and a cool vinaigrette. A somewhat dissonant combination at a smaller portion, but not unappreciated, and quality trumps quantity any day.

The Caramelized Cauliflower is not so good. There is a LOT of acid, and it turns the whole dish sour. The cauliflower itself lacks the softer texture expected with caramelization, and acid aside, it has no other detectable flavors.

Lesson learned: stick to the namesake dish. The Toron sounds like just a glorified sandwich wrapped in flatbread, but it's so much more than that. The baco bulges with mollescent oxtail, savory and slick. Soft, melty cheese with a twang of horseradish yogurt rounds out all the flavors for a flatbread full of fabulous.

I was really excited about the Lamb Riblets. It sounded creative, and I haven't seen anything similar anywhere else. That might be because it's a dish that just shouldn't be served. At a whopping price of $25, the "jerk" sauce was a punch to the palate. Inedibly salty and strangely bitter, all lamb lost under a muddy swamp. It felt like a jerk was stomping across my taste buds in steel-toe boots, and my eyes actually watered with the first bite.

The food is 50-50, but the service is 100% infallible. We sent the riblets back and were met with a genuine apology. We were offered a do-over in the form of a re-attempt or a whole new dish, both of which we declined. Still, it was really nice of them to ask.

We skipped to the Harry's Berries Crostada dessert, no longer willing to flip a coin with small plates and sides. The crust is buttery, flaky and dense, among the best I've ever had. The ripe berries are farmer's-market fresh, and their tartness tangoes with a creamy vanilla gelat.

Baco had potential, but I remain displeased. It's clear that someone there can cook, but they cook neither consistently nor impressively enough to atone for the fatal flaws. I may be just a girl from NOT LA, but at least I know when LA isn't worth visiting.
Bäco Mercat Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Monday, June 20, 2016

Shinsengumi Shabu - Gardena

Another shin-sen-gumi in the South Bay? MUST GO. I love the ramen, the yakatori is great, and surely the shabu can't miss!

AYCE is an irresistible deal, but theirs should also come with a warning. You'll find no fault with a pot of water and konbu, nor with the unlimited plates of tofu, udon, and Napa cabbage.

All is fine, really, until you get to the beef. Suffice it to say, the quality is crap. The meat slices have turned dark from aging in a freezer, and the freezer burn is apparent in each leathery slice. I tried cooking them for progressively less time to no avail.

Bad meat in an awkwardly-placed shabu pot had all three diners straining to reach the food, an effort so distracting that I actually forgot to take photos. Pretty impressive - nothing has entered my mouth without first being photographed for over a year.

Some people do have it all, but I'm sad to say that Shinsengumi is not quite a jack of all trades. The yakatori is good and the ramen is highly recommended, but shabu just isn't their strong suit.
Shin-Sen-Gumi Shabu-Shabu Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Taco Sinaloa #3 - Torrance

There was so much denial at first, but I think it's time to come clean. I am inevitably and shamelessly addicted to Taco Sinaloa, and the sooner I accept it, the sooner I can change. 
I find excuses to drive 20 minutes from home in the opposite direction for a taco. I spend money when I shouldn't, and I still spend money when I have an entire fridge stocked with food. 

My use of Lengua Tacos has been escalating at a disturbing rate. I started with two, I moved to three, and in just two short months I am up to four per sitting. I don't just buy for today, I buy for tomorrow too. The lengua is so soft, and the smell of irresistible morsels of rich, juicy meat calls to me in my sleep.

I started with just the lengua, but I since then I have done so much. The Carne Asada Fries are a starchy plate of paradise, covered in chunks of marinated steak and melted cheese that drizzle through the layers of fries until they hit rock me.

I've even tried the Carne Asada Tacos, the Carnitas Tacos, and the Al Pastor as a distraction, but I can't lay off the lengua.

In trying to cut down, I've also stumbled upon the cheeky Cabeza Tacos filled with beefy, melty, gristly goo. No chewing required, and I order four without much thought.

I have tried to cut down, and I get annoyed when people ask me if I have a problem. My taco feasts are hardly guilt-free, and no back road, no highway, no hell or high water can keep me from one of these tacos. I suppose I could be addicted to worse.
Taco Sinaloa Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Love & Salt - Manhattan Beach

Love & Salt is, like all things in Manhattan Beach, NICE. Not the most memorable of experiences but more lovely and less regrettable.

Everything is pretty, from the open kitchen gleaming with stainless steel to the Cold Pressed Coffee in a rustic glass jug with a delicate mini-pitcher of milk. The neutrally bold cold brew is a blustery wake-up call, but it's hard not to resent the six-dollar price tag.

The Whitefish Dip is much more reasonably-priced, and boy, does it deliver. A cool puree finishes almost creamy on perfect mini-bagels. The dip highlights the whitefish, bringing out just the tiniest hint of fresh-off-the-boat fishiness. The dip may channel an ocean surf, but it's the bagels that steal the show. They're soft yet crispy, toasty and seedy and absolutely perfect.

The Duck Egg Pie is every gooey, hearty pizza ingredient I can think of, plastered on the best crust I've had in years. Mozzarella is a stringy, cheesy delight, while Parmesan makes a staunch statement. Rosemary adds the fragrance, and pancetta makes everything that much better. It is irresistibly decadent once you break the egg.

I should have quit while I was ahead. Everything was a hit until the Warm Italian Donuts turned a sweet finish bitter. They were very delayed and didn't arrive until everyone was done with their meal. Haste makes waste, and in their eagerness to serve our final dish, I don't think they let the donuts cook all the way through. The lemon curd finished acerbic and bitter, and the dough in the center was raw. The nutella was better, but the dough was overly dense, like it wasn't given a chance rise...and shine.

So sad to end on a sour note, but the rest of meal is worth a visit. The bottomless boozy brunch is a definite plus, and there is ALWAYS room for another pizza.

Love and Salt Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Sukiyabashi Jiro - Roppongi, Tokyo, Japan

"Is there anything you do not eat?" he asks, and I just stare. HE is Takashi Ono, head chef of Sukiyabashi Jiro, Roppongi Hills. He is the progeny of a prodigy, mirror image of his father in the kitchen and out. He is larger than life, and he appears to tower over his sushi counter, the second son of a national treasure, and a legend in his own right. I stare. "N-n-nooo," I stammer, trying to find my voice, "We like everything." 

My courage returns with my first bite of infallible Flounder, a light, wholesome splash. The tangy sting of vinegar is a punch in the face, a jolting wake-up call. My eyes water as I chew, but when the initial shock subsides I'm left with a cool, subtle notes of flounder; it seems the acidity amps up the flavor of the fish.

The Squid is next. It comes in several species, and this must be the one on steroids. I expected rubbery, slightly slimy, and slim. Instead it is shockingly soft like a steak, firmly fragrant, and thick through the middle like a bicep.

The Giant Scallop is sliced from a scallop the size of my fist, pried out of a shell the size of a small cocker spaniel. It's meaty and dense, leaner and meaner, skillfully scored with a knife to make it easier to chew.

The Lean Tuna is sleek sophistication, modern minimalist but bold. With each mastication, the tuna takes a different angle, as you taste the tun from every perspective.

The Chu-Toro combines the best of both, the bold, lean flavor interspersed with micro-globules of fat that fill every crevice of every taste bud.

The Otoro is FAT. The bacon of the tuna kingdom, it tingles as it melts, floating fat that that spreads throughout.

Gizzard Shad
is quite the contrast. It shimmers black and silver, dynamic duos of firm skin and chewy flesh, brazen fishiness and juicy savor.

A Clam comes up next, and I eat it immediately, expecting to be bowled over by brine. Except there is no brine - this one is seamless, and a more neutral flavor leaves room to appreciate all the texture.

Horse Mackerel sandwiches slices of ginger, a jolting burn beneath a meaty morsel.

They are very proud of their Ikura, and they let us know immediately. Where others have failed, they have succeeded, annihilating the unpleasant fishiness in both smell and taste, and eliminating the unpleasant briny finish. Their ikura burst in delicate, viscous bubbles, and there is truly no odor - nothing reminiscent of a fish market sidewalk. As they burst one by one, there is a rapid crescendo that ends somewhat savory, with only the slightest essence of salty sea.

A huge Shrimp is served with a smile, the first of many. "I recommend you eat the tail end first... Please do not eat the tail," he instructs. Takashi had to add the second line in recent years, and there is mirth behind his guarded eyes as he recounts numerous people stuffing the hard tail-shell into their mouths, a feat as unpleasant as it is impossible. The whole bar laughs, and a wave of relaxation sweeps through the bar. Even the apprentices relax enough to crack a smile, and soon everyone is smiling thank to the tender, still-warm shrimp. The tail side is robustly sweet, and the brain side is a bit more bitter, with the texture of buttered roe.

The Geoduck, or the gooey duck is all viscous cartilage, a tender clam that's not the least bit gooey.

They say that Santa Barbara has some of the best Uni, but Hokkaido is hardly second place. The generous scoop of roe is as creamy as the best creme brulee and finishes just as sweet.

Takashi speaks fluent English, but it's his clever senior apprentice who does most of the explaining. He outlines their unique process of grilling Smoked Bonito over charcoal and grass. The junior apprentice holds up a photo on cue. But even his illustrative description doesn't set the stage for the experience you undergo. The bonito is firm around the edges, with smoky char that saturates every sense. You can smell it immediately when you start to chew, and you can practically see the smoke drifting upwards, as you feel the fire smolder.

The Hard Shell Clam is harder and sweeter, smooth and gooey with soy.

I don't even like Mackerel, even I can't resist the moist, silvery sheen. The vinegar marinade eases in with the rice, a far less jarring experience than most.

The smaller Scallops are slide-down sweet, less gamey-meat, a smooth mouthful of tender morsels.

I've had a lot of Sea Eel, but this is something else entirely. It's as creamy as the uni, and every tiny sliver-shred falls apart when it floats upon the tongue, so melty you could spread it like pate.

We paid extra for a Mantis Shrimp, plump little spawn-prawn of shrimp with the texture of lobster and the flavor of crab, full of hard orange roe.

Worth it for the mantis shrimp, and even more worth it for the Abalone. The feather-light, soft-as-down slice is still warm on the tongue, and it releases a cascade of fragrance.

We finish with Tamago, a cake of egg, sugary fluff all the way through. They achieve the texture with shrimp and mountain potato and not a single grain of flour.

And just like that, the meal is done. I am left sipping, clutching my green tea, contemplating the life-altering experience that will forever change the way I see my sushi. 

My appreciation for Japanese culture comes to a head here, as I savor the shokunin, a breathtakingly beautiful concept of their culture. It signifies the art of getting lost in one's profession. It is an endless quest to master of one's craft, a boundless sense of purpose, breaching the boundaries of better, refusing to accept the words, "I can't".

And words do not begin to describe the sushi shokunin experience. It is as if sushi were a solar system, and every planet aligned upon my palate. It still tastes like sushi; no more, no less, and I've had my share of the good stuff. But this is like being satisfied with a simple portrait, only to accidentally stumble upon the Sistine Chapel. It is not a single delicious plate, but rather, the perspective of an entire life.

People always ask if I"ended up" in Roppongi because I couldn't get a reservation in Ginza. The answer will always be no. Jiro may be a legend well-established, but Takashi is far more interesting. The Roppongi location is his own creation, and he dares to be different. He defies the rigid and frigid atmosphere of Ginza, creating a more relaxed, more informative eating environment. He embraces the foreign customers, explaining his work in fluent English and chiding me to eat faster in Chinese. I do not regret bypassing Ginza, and it was the greatest privilege to dine in Roppongi. I was constantly and consistently awestruck by Takashi Ono, and I can only hope he didn't judge me too.