Saturday, September 25, 2010

Shufeng Garden 8/13/10

Chung King (1000 S. San Gabriel Blvd.) is my overall SGV fav for Szechuan cuisine, which is sometimes problematic, because I inevitably take too long to try new Szechuan joints when they first open. I'd heard great things about Shufeng Garden when they were based in Rowland Heights (Jonathan Gold put their Dan Dan Noodles on his top 99 dishes of 2009), and was too lazy, and never made it out there. So when I saw on yelp that Shufeng Garden had moved to San Gabriel (closer to us folks living within L.A. city limits), I knew I had to give it a try. So with a merry band of feastmen, we headed east on the 10, in hopes of a wonderful meal (knowing that if it was a complete bust, we could hit up Noodle 101 Express for beef rolls and sliced Northern Sausage).

Szechuan food like other spicy cuisines can be a shamanic experience worthy of hyperbole, fist-pumps, and exclamation points. The Szechuan peppercorn is magical. Your lips go numb, the inside of your mouth tingles, you sweat beneath your eyes and combined with chiles/chile oil, delicious flavors are unleashed with a fury that stuns and delights. You'll leave a Szechuan dinner, stunned and shell-shocked, your compass spinning to find north again, walking tall, as though you're Big Mario for the first time in a long while, having finally eaten the mushroom you've been seeking since the game that was this fiery meal began. Ma la is the term for the tagteam effects of the Szechuan peppercorn and chili pepper.

Okay, enough about that. Onto Shufeng Garden, which is on the 2nd floor of a giant strip mall at Valley & Del Mar. The food at Shufeng Garden wasn't as intensely spicy as Chung King, or as teeming with peppercorns. But the flavors were wonderfully nuanced and complex, cooked with a precision that most other places in town just can't match. It's definitely good enough to warrant a spot in my SGV rotation for those nights you need your spicy fix but aren't in the spirit of setting off the 4th of July in your mouth at Chung King or Yunchuan Garden.

Spare ribs.
Fried chicken with chiles. The breading here is completely different than the one at Chung King, a more delicate crust than I've seen before with this dish.
String beans sauteed with garlic.
Mapo Tofu. Superb. An earthiness (from the Doubanjiang beanpaste) sometimes lacking in other versions of this dish. As excellent a Mapo as Chung King's and Tasty Noodle's.
Zhong's dumpling were spectacular. These steamed dumplings were topped with sesame seeds and what appeared to be cracked black pepper, and a sauce that was spicy but not straight chile oil like you'd see if ordering wontons at another Szechuan joint. These straight-up ruled the meal for me, but some of that may be attributed to it being a dish I'd never had.
Water-boiled fish slices tai-an style. This dish was good, but not the equal of Chung King's or the boiled fish fillets at Xiang Wei Lou. I'd consider ordering another fish dish next time.
I seem to remember being listed on the menu as "sliced pork with garlic sauce".

Twice cooked pork. This dish is a mainstay of Szechuan cuisine and is pretty similar at most places around town. But at Shufeng Garden, the pork itself is cooked with such care, that it felt like re-discovering the greatness of the dish all over again. Masterful wok craft.
The aftermatch of delicious. I neglected to try the dan dan noodles. Which means I'm going back.

Shufeng Garden
140 W. Valley Blvd.
Suite 211
San Gabriel, CA 91776
(626) 569-1815

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Mo Chica 7/31/10

Last night, I had dinner at Mo Chica in South Los Angeles at Mercado La Paloma. With both Mo Chica and Chichen Itza onsite, it's somewhat upsetting when Mercado La Paloma is a ghost-town on a weekend night. Mo Chica is making some of the best Peruvian food in town (Balcones Del Peru is great too), and should be packed every night of the week, considering the quality of the dishes. Seco de cordero (lamb shank) is the knockout dish I've had there, followed closely by the arroz con pollo. Neglected to photograph mains, but here's how we kicked off our meal.
The seabass ceviche.
Salad with poached egg and garlic toast.

Causa (a mashed potato terrine) topped with heirloom tomatoes, a basil sauce, a dollop of mushroom puree, sour cream, and an avocado sauce.

Mo Chica
3655 S Grand Ave
Los Angeles, CA 90007
(213) 747-2141

Monday, July 26, 2010

Four Cafe - Summer 2010 - Simple, fresh, focused

Lately I've been doing what I can to eat as close to home as possible. At least once a week, I grab lunch or dinner at Four Cafe on Colorado Blvd, which is a short walk from my apartment. Eagle Rock has a few more wonderful places to eat besides the ever-popular Oinkster and Casa Bianca Pizza. Four Cafe should be in that file. Using locally sourced and fresh ingredients, they have a deceptively simple menu of salads, sandwiches, soups, and desserts. Deceptively? Yep. Here's the thing, the kitchen staff isn't merely assembling food from Mise en place bins of well-procured produce. They're cooking at a level of proficiency you rarely see outside of a fine restaurant. Be it the steak in the salad or the mahi-mahi in your fish burger, the meats are excellent, well-seasoned, and cooked with care. The offerings rotate seasonally. Because the sandwiches and salads are made to order, you can omit items, make modifications, and they're always happy to accommodate. The prices might seem a couple bucks higher than you might expect, but for the quality of the ingredients and the lovely space itself, Four Cafe is a bargain. Apologies in advance, most of these photos were taken with my camera-phone. I'll be sure to bring my regular camera along for future Nuggets Au Jus outings. Four Cafe is the kind of place that inspires you to buy better ingredients for when you cook at home. If you're gonna eat fresh, might as well eat delicious while you're at it.

Tonight (July 26th), Four was offering a dinner special. First off, a small bowl of salad, lightly dressed in a simple vinaigrette. (The sandwiches all come with this salad as an accompaniment unless you upgrade for a half-order of one of the entree salads.) Then came dinner itself, grilled shrimp atop lemon-y quinoa, and a fresh pesto-topped saute of haricot vert and thinly cut ribbons of zucchini. Marvelous meal for a summer evening.

Despite my initial worries, the fish burger is superb. A couple grilled pieces of mahi-mahi (not ground fish), a slice of one of those great tomatoes you can only find for a few weeks a year, and slaw, atop a light/airy/toasted bun that is as good as any you'll find in NELA (although probably most similar to the excellent burger bun at Westside Tavern).

The red curry chicken soup is probably my favorite soup so far.
The shrimp and fennel soup. The brandy glaze on the shrimp imparts the soup with the kinda magic that leaves a tingle on your palate that follows the initial flavor of the broth.
Mahi mango salad. Fair warning: the salads are immense. A half order is probably plenty enough for lunch, unless you're a big eater (a feastman, as DB terms such folk).
This is the bbq pork sandwich on a homemade hawaiian sweet roll. The mango bbq sauce makes the sandwich. While this sandwich might be a little on the sweet side for some, I've gone back for it twice. Be it tacos al pastor with pineapple, ribs with bbq sauce, or pig candy, pork tastes great coupled with sweet, folks. Always and forever. Hallelujah.
The steak salad. I had a full order, but neglected to take a photo until I was about 2/3rd's of the way through. I know it's hard to tell in the low-res, but that steak is perfect medium rare.
A side of beet salad. Which brings me to this: Sure, you could go to the farmer's market and get a lot of organic produce just as lovely and magnificent as what you're seeing here. But if you have the luxury of being able to eat out once in awhile, I have a theory that sandwiches always taste better when you haven't made them for yourself. The cheat around this is to make your sandwich for yourself the night before. It works wonders, I swear.

A spinach tart with edible flowers. A thin delicate crust.
The pork loin sandwich was one of their spring items I liked best. May start a petition to see if Corey and Michelle can put some variant of it on their fall menu.

I'm allergic to chocolate. But it doesn't stop me from eating dessert. Specifically, I gravitate towards fruit desserts. From pies to plum cake to poached pears, if there's cooked fruit involved, I'm usually on board, sight unseen. On a workout kick, I've only allowed myself to have Four's berry cobbler once. You know when something's so delicious, you shiver with joy? That's the case here. It's the thunderous collision of sweet and tart that does it, two freight trains colliding, and yielding 4th of July fireworks. As splendid as anything I've had at Huckleberry. Who wants to go halvsies?

Roast eggplant pita sandwich with kale, feta, and a mint yogurt sauce.

I've had hundreds of food adventures in Los Angeles. Sawtelle. San Gabriel Valley. K-Town. Thaitown. I've rocked them through and through, and will continue to do so in the years ahead. But man oh man, isn't there something to be said for having something stellar in your own backyard that you can champion to friends and strangers alike? There sure is.

Four Cafe
2122 Colorado Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90041
(323) 550-1988

P.S. Four Cafe is working towards offering a weekend breakfast/brunch, beginning in the next couple of weeks, if not sooner. If you go to their website, you can check out a preview of the menu.

P.P.S. Some other items from the spring 2010 menu:

Thin slices of giant tri-colored radishes.
Grilled chicken, green apple, cooked red onions and brie.
This was their kale, roasted chickpea and avocado salad.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

A note on ketchup - The Oinkster (Eagle Rock, CA)

As a kid, ketchup was quite possibly my favorite food. I could put it on pretty much anything. Spaghetti included. But any ketchup other than Heinz always tasted off. Heinz, to me then, up until now, was ketchup, plain and simple. As I grew up, and became interested in other foods and more subtle flavors, ketchup wasn't necessary anymore for eating steak or baked potatoes.

That said, I still love a great burger. And if there's ketchup on the burger, it's usually going to be Heinz. There's plenty of mustards out there, plenty of sodas, plenty of everything, but there's really only one Ketchup, Heinz. Or so goes my thinking most of the time.

But today, I found another ketchup, and it works on its own terms. I'm 31 years old, home sick with the flu. And sick of soup, I felt like a reuben and some iced tea. Too lazy to drive downtown to Langer's for the #19, I drove to the Oinkster in Eagle Rock. They have a homemade ketchup there, which I tried with my fries. Wowzers. There's vinegar in their ketchup, and the tartness complicates the flavor, adding a punch of sour to the traditional sweet&salty alchemy of regular ketchup. Most homemade ketchup stinks. You know it. It doesn't taste right, like the target's been missed. But here, it's far enough away from your expectations of what ketchup is supposed to be, that the Oinkster's ketchup stands on its own.

Anyway, go have a chicken salad sandwich or burger there and an order of fries. Don't miss the ketchup.

P.S. I'd recommend their Reuben if it were consistent but it can be a hit-or-miss in my experience, all dependent on whether the Rye bread ends up crisp or soggy when it's served to you. If the bread's soggy, it's a greasy mess (still tasty, but a fork&knife affair). If the bread's crisp, it's superb. Oinkster's pastrami is Langer's influenced, but strikes me as overly peppery in their regular sandwich. But in a reuben, coupled with other ingredients, the pastrami sings.

The Oinkster
2005 Colorado Blvd
Eagle Rock, CA 90041
(323) 255-6465
Mon-Thu 11am-10pm
Fri-Sat 11am-11pm
Sun 11am-9pm

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Dumplings I miss... Noodle House (Arcadia)

Back in 2006, Jonathan Gold wrote about Noodle House's fried dumplings. For those of you outside of LA, Jonathan Gold is not just a food critic. He's a divining rod, who leads you to eye-opening food adventures. He bats about .950 with his food recommendations. Zelo Pizza in Arcadia is really the only place I can think of that he loves that I don't understand.

As soon as read about this place, I knew I had to go. PG and I both realized the greatness of Linda's pan fried bao as soon as we tried them. The dumplings arrive at your table in a connected ring. You aim your chopsticks and tear a pillowy dumpling away from its comrades. You dunk the the dumpling into the garlic/chili/scallion accented soy sauce, and then bring it to your mouth. And if pot-stickers are all you've ever known of fried dumplings, you were in for an eye-opening experience. The dumpling dough on this dumpling itself is a soft pillowy casing wrapped around dense rich pork filling. But the thing is, it's been pan fried, and that crisp edge gives it another textural dimension. Against the soy sauce, the airy angelfood-like dough is powerless and collapses into something delicate yet chewy, like moist cake dunked in milk. And then the tender minced pork stabs your tastebuds. And as flavors and textures fight for your attention, just for a moment, you have bliss. Food elevated to something beyond mere fuel, and you're tempted towards hyperbole. You close your eyes, and just try to enjoy what's going on in your mouth as you work your way through that first dumpling. And lo and behold, the 2nd dumpling was just as sublime.

Our last time there, I went with PG and JL. Linda told us they were closing the next week. Sad to hear the news, we began ordering everything we'd always been curious about and never tried. Linda threw up her hands at one point to stop us, and said, "Okay". On our way out, Linda chased after us, refusing to take a tip, and giving us bags of food treats to take home.

Anyway, Dumpling House closed last year, and reopened under the name Kingburg Kitchen, and I think I may just have to go to take a look to see if the dumplings there are anything close to as exceptional as Linda's. -

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Cafe Bravo - Today's Lunch

One of my regular lunch spots in the neighborhood is Cafe Bravo on Hyperion in Silverlake. I used to frequent their original location in Glendale, but this is closer. It's been open for under a year and it's a great addition to Eastside Middle Eastern/Armenian eats. Cafe Bravo specializes in kebabs. I've had the chicken breast, regular chicken (thigh meat), and lamb, and can attest that all are superb. They grill the kebabs to order, so it can be a little bit of a wait if you're starving. But well worth it for a healthy meal under ten dollars.

Chicken breast overcooks easily when grilled, so it's a testament to their technique that every time, it arrives at the table tender and moist. Today, I ordered the vegetarian plate. I chose tabbouleh, hummus, ikra (eggplant spread), and shirazi (a diced tomato & cucumber salad). With that, I got a grilled chicken breast kebab, a grilled tomato, a grilled green pepper, and a side order of their garlic sauce (as good as Zankou's). All kebabs come with warmed pita bread. I assembled my food into one very tasty sandwich. Fair warning: the portions are quite generous, so you're likely gonna end up with leftovers.

Cafe Bravo
2662 Hyperion Ave (at Griffith Park Blvd.)
Los Angeles, CA 90027
(323) 912-1111

1st Post - October 1st, 2009

The first of October, 2009. And I begin a journey.

The Los Angeles Metropolitan area is a mecca for lovers of cheap eats, an incredible place to live for those of us with an adventurous palate.

Some people treat food as fuel. After all, we have to eat to live. I am not one of those people. I seek out greatness in meals. And I thought I'd share my thoughts.

Hope you enjoy, Eric

P.S. As soon as I can afford it, I'll be getting a new digital camera, as out of focus photos of kickassingly wondrous eats such as the superb chile en nogada at La Casita Mexicana in Bell, CA, will not suffice.