Friday, April 28, 2006

Foodzilla Takes On Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto

I'll be leaving for Japan tomorrow and it still hasn't hit me yet. Maybe it's because I have to go through this last day of punishment called work. My last trip to Asia was Hong Kong last year and boy did I make the trip worthwhile. Well, in the food category. I ate nearly 5 times a day. So you can count on me to bring back a detailed report of Japan's good eats. I expect to gain a good 5-6 lbs in a week - no problem at all because I gave up on modeling a while back.

Thanks for reading... I'll try my best to provide updates on my trip to Japan. Read more!

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Don Antonio’s Tacos: An Escape From UCLA Dorm Food

In retrospect, college is truly a wonderful experience. You’re 18. Legal. No longer under your parent’s rule. And ready to unwind at any given moment. Some of us decided to stay near the parents, in fear of being homesick. Some of us applied to as many colleges furthest away from home. Either way, you were probably living in the animal house also known as the dorm. And dorms, particularly at UCI’s Mesa Court and Middle Earth, were known for punching out some of the nastiest food ever. TO this day, I still remember what was on the menu:

Tacos from Hell. This station served up tepid ground beef or turkey that had been discolored even before it was cooked. You know, the meat that’s always on sale for a $.25 a pound at your local market. This madness was held together by stale tacos even bums wouldn’t eat along with tomatoes, cheese, sour cream and lettuce.

TeriYACKi Chicken. Using an ice cream scoop, the server would lay down a soggy, mushy helping of rice. He would then use tongs to grab some soggy, minced carrots/cabbage and unused chicken parts and drizzle something that tasted nothing like teriyaki sauce. Not sure if anyone noticed that almost everything in the cafeterias were high in starch. Corn starch thickens food and gets you full quite fast, which cuts down on the university’s food expenditure. So they even added starch to the carrots/cabbage. Oh god, it gives me the shudders.

Baked Potatoes. These were strategically placed next to the taco station for one main reason: the toppings were nearly the same. Almost the same selection you’d get at Souplantation, only with Bacon Bits, not actual bacon. You had to put so much salt and butter for eat to even taste good.

Burgers/Hot Dog Grill. If these were considered burgers, then I have a new term for a ‘dry sponge’. It seriously doesn’t take a long time to grill a 1/16 lb. burger yet they would precook them and leave them in a pan. I remembered getting water from the tap and adding it on top of the burger with salt and pepper and throwing it in the bagel toaster just to make it ‘juicy’.

Deli Sandwiches. All I have to say is that nothing beats a peanut butter & jelly sandwich from Kindergarten. These fine sandwiches catered by Sysco had no flavor whatsoever. And all of a sudden, I'm craving a Subway sandwich. The roast beef was hardly beef – maybe some alternate form of red meat from like a zebra, wildebeest or dinosaur.

Pasta bar. Two kinds of pasta: spaghetti or spinach fettucini with red sauce or white sauce. These dishes made Olive Garden and Souplantation shine. Table for two please with this $5.95 endless pasta coupon!

And after 6 days of regular ‘food’, we were treated on Thursdays, otherwise known as “Premium Night”. There, we were served fabulous 9 course meals by Thomas Keller himself… righhhhhht. “Premium Night”, yeah, the day that contributes to the ‘Freshman 15’. Upon sliding your meal card, you were given a ticket to redeem a higher end piece of crap. You had the option of a rubber tire steak or chicken fingers. The steaks were all labeled with those wooden ‘doneness’ indicators. No matter what you ordered, it was going to be well done. The meat was so bad that they couldn’t risk some college student getting sick over. The strips, although dry, were decent because all the students would drown them in ranch or barbeque sauce. Sauce makes or breaks a dish.

Considering my experience with dorm food and probably everyone else’s, it’s no wonder why UCLA students flock over to Don Antonio’s Mexican Restaurant for “$1 Wednesdays” which starts at 5pm. All tacos are $1 are beers are $4. No tax. Last week, I met up with my friend BR, a former Bruin, for $1 tacos. I drove down Pico Blvd. expecting to find parking. Nope. There were cars lined up at the valet booth directly in front of the restaurant. I was about 8 cars back. After 20 minutes, the valet attendant drove off with my car and found myself in a crowd of college kids. Mainly fratboys and Asian kids.

Don Antonio’s was even more crowded. It was dark and really tight inside. I probably saw around 15-20 waiters running around with tacos and beer. I felt like I was in Rosarito on Spring Break minus the foam and little kids selling me Chiclets.

Don Antonio’s offers six different types of tacos, all for $1. The Asada, Chicken and Carnitas all come in soft shell tortillas, wrapped in aluminum foil. The Bean, Potato and Beef come in crispy, oily hard shell tacos – the way I like them. I ordered 3 asadas, 1 chicken and 1 carnitas. The Asadas were somewhat tepid and lacked flavor. Chicken was moist. Carnitas was the best IMO. The true savior, was the salsa roja because it was about the only thing that possessed flavor. After about an hour, my total damage after two Coronas and five tacos was $13. Not bad. If it weren’t for the $1 night, I probably wouldn’t be here. Well maybe, if I was forced to eat dorm food for a year straight.

Don Antonio's Mexican Restaurant
11755 W Pico Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90064
(310) 312-2090

I’d like to know:

(1) Where you guys went to school and how was the dorm food?
(2) What did you live off in college?

I lived off a lot of dumplings, Del Taco, canned corn and Sriracha Hot Dogs. I remembered I was so broke one time that I actually did the human vacuum for any spare change in my room. I managed to find like $1.95 and ran over to Del Taco to get three red burritos, valued at $.59 each! Haha, I totally scored. As for canned corn, it’s one of my secret good eats. I love microwaving the corn with some butter and garlic salt. Afterwards, I would drink the ‘corn broth’ which had the essence of aluminum. As for the hot dogs, I would just boil the dogs and slap them in a bun. Then I would lay on a nice glaze of Sriracha hot sauce for a nice ‘Asian chili dog’. God I’m glad I have a full time job now haha.

Thanks for reading and sharing. Read more!

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

On the Road to Japan #4: Gizzards & Hearts, Truly the best Chicken Parts

There’s nothing more frightening to a PETA-activist than driving down Valley Blvd. and finding the horrors served up by many of the Chinese zoos. Upon walking into a restaurant, a beautiful display of deep-fried and roasted animal carcasses stops you in your tracks. Platypus Soysaucekus: the soy-sauce duck hanging off hooks. Porkus Deepfriedae: the fat pig that’s been opened up like a big children’s book. Intestinae Sausagi: the flesh-colored garden hose dangling like sausages from Tom & Jerry cartoons. And the butcher/zookeeper who dices and slices up our poor farm friends without remorse. Oh the horror…

But what a delicious horror it is. Before I got into writing about my culinary and gastronomical experiences, I wasn’t into the inner workings of an animal. But I realized that the best food in the world comes from the genius of peasants, worldwide. The upper class were given the ‘delicious’ parts, such as filet, breast and ribs. The rest of the animal was destined for the trash bin, but was soon sought after by the impoverished. They were gonna have to make the unused parts edible if they wanted to live, and they were gonna make it damn tasty.

Take for example, Coq Au Vin. This dish was created by farmers who had a lot of cheap Charles Shaw wine and meat/veggies on the verge of becoming rotten. Rewind a few centuries. One day, Farmer Jean got a little too loaded after a long day of unearthing potatoes. He suddenly got the munchies and scurried around the kitchen for something to eat. Bottle in one hand, veggies in the other, he threw them in a pot with some old chicken meat and fresh herbs and set it on simmer. Two hours later, he woke up from the floor with an excessive headache and what did he find? A delicious dish of Coq Au Vin (Chicken with Wine).

This behavior transcends through all cultures, even to this day. The Chinese offer beef tripe, stomach lining and chicken feet at dim sum. The Vietnamese love to eat cubed pork blood in their soup noodles. The French sautéed snails with some garlic, herbs and butter. My favorite style of cooked animal innards is that of the Japanese culture. Known as yakitori, chicken parts are skewered and grilled over charcoal. Restaurants like Terried Sake House and Gyu-Saku serve up some good yakitori and make a killing. At TSH, you can get 5-6 pieces of chicken parts like hearts and gizzards on a skewer for $1.30. Sounds cheap? Not really, when you can easily eat 15-20 skewers and still want more. I dropped by 99 Ranch Market last Sunday and skipped the ‘regular’ meat section and headed for the ‘special’ meat selection. There I found one lb. packages of hearts and gizzards for $1.75 each!!! So for the fourth installment of “On the Road to Japan”, I present you with yakitori that I cooked over at my friend MK’s place. He and I will eat anything and everything. You can buy Yakitori sauce at a Japanese market and using a brush, add some of it to skewers while you're grilling it or after it's done. Squeeze some lemon juice over the Yakitori right before serving. Traditionally, Yakitori is done on a charcoal grill, but a regular grill will work fine.

The hearts came out awesome. MK put just the perfect amount of Yakitori sauce on the skewers. Juicy, tender and supertasty.

The gizzards are typically chewier, but if cooked right, should have a nice crunch to it. We overcooked these and didn't put enough salt on it.

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Monday, April 17, 2006

On the Road to Japan #3: Mmm, Junk-in-the-Trunk

Again, I’m doing my take on a great dish I had at Musha’s: Braised Pork Belly. Although it tasted nothing like Musha’s, it was still tasty. I went to 99 Ranch Market this past weekend and checked out the meat section. The pork belly was waaaaaaayyyyy too fatty and I just wasn’t in the mood to eat bacon, so I asked the butcher what he thought about pork shoulder vs. pork butt.

Me: (in Cantonese) “What’s the best piece of meat for braising?”
Butcher: (in Cantonese) “I like the butt. Butt is really goohr! Numma one!”

I kinda wish I heard him say that out loud in English. Most people wouldn’t have known that we were talking about a part of the pig. Anyway, I bought 1.5 lbs of this junk-in-the-trunk for like $4.

Party time:

(1) When braising any kind of meat, it’s always good to start off by searing/browning as much of the meat as possible. You’ll want to render out some of the flavorful fat and seal in the rest of the juices. Tie the pork piece with twine so that it stays intact during the braising process. If you don’t, the meat will fall apart and you’ll get a thumbs down for presentation. Salt and pepper the meat and sear on high heat till you get a nice brown color.
(2) Add 3-4 cloves of smashed garlic and two thumb-sized knobs of ginger (sliced) and sauté for a minute. Add 1 cup of Sake or Mirin and 1 cup of Chinese Shao Xing rice wine. Once the alcohol has evaporated, add about 7-8 drops of dark soy sauce to give the meat a nice color and about 1-2 cups of regular soy sauce for flavoring. Add water into the pot until the pork is submerged in the braising liquid. Use sugar to balance out the salinity, and add more for sweetness. You might even want to try some honey. This dish is typically sweet and the addition of one piece of Star Anise gives the pork a nice cinnamon-like taste.
(3) Bring this all to a boil and lower the heat to a simmer for about 2-3 hours with the pot almost completely covered by the lid. You can also do this in a Dutch oven and throw it in the oven for about 1.5 hours. Just make sure that you baste the meat with the liquid every 20 minutes to prevent the meat from burning.
(4) This dish was served with a marinated egg. To do this, just boil as many eggs as you like in a separate pot for about 10 minutes. Take them out and put them under running water to stop the cooking process. The eggs will think they’re under a nice waterfall in Maui. Remove the shells and throw them in the pot for at least 45 minutes.
(5) Serve the pork radish sprouts, red ginger and braising liquid. Mustard goes well with this dish. Just buy some mustard powder and mix it with water until you get a nice thick consistency. Enjoy.

Thanks for reading. Read more!

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

On the Road to Japan #2: Chicken Karaage and Cold Tofu

If you’ve been reading my blog over the last two weeks, you’ll notice my sudden trend for all things Japanese. Why? I got a killer deal on American Airlines for $499! I’ll be going to Tokyo and Osaka for the first time and I couldn’t be more stoked. To prepare myself for my trip at the end of this month, I decided to whet my appetite by cooking all things Japanese. A few days ago, I attempted to remake a favorite at Musha’s over in Torrance. Tonight, I made the Japanese chicken McNuggeturu: Chicken Karaage. This heavenly delight is most commonly served at Izakaya-style restaurants. An ‘izakaya’, as defined by Wikipedia is a Japanese bar that was originally catered to businessmen who wanted to drink and eat after work. We all know that as ‘happy hour’. They typically serve skewered food that’s grilled over a charcoal pit. Yakitori, grilled chicken + extraneous parts, is most commonly served in ‘izakayas’.

Anyway, I checked out a few recipes on the eGullet forums and wanted to try my hand at this. This came out sooooo good. I had to stop myself from eating the whole batch after 6-7 pieces. I was like a monster. Here’s how I made it:

(1) Using chicken leg meat, I chopped them into 2” x 2” pieces. I threw them in a large Ziplock® freezer bag with soy sauce, mirin, Chinese Shao Xing rice wine, grated ginger, chopped garlic, scallions (the Japanese use a leek called ‘negi’ – expensive), sugar and a few drops of sesame oil. I let them make love in the fridge for about an hour, flipping the bag over every 15 minutes.

(2) I then made the batter mixture by mixing a bowl with 50% flour and 50% corn starch. Added salt to season.

(3) I got the pan hot at around 130-140 degrees and added ONE DROPLET of water in it to see if it was hot enough. Be careful with this, you could look like an entirely different person the next day if it splashes on your face. Once ready, I battered the pieces of chicken in the flower/corn starch mixture – shaking off the excess.

(4) I then fried the chicken pieces, flipping them over every few moments, for about 1 minute and took them out. Why? Because if you want to achieve that extra crunchy texture, you have to do the Double Fry. Skip this if you have high cholesterol like me. After about 5 minutes of resting, I threw the chicken back into the oil for a 30 second fry to harden the batter.

(5) Make sure you don’t fry more than 5-6 pieces of chicken in your pan/pot. The more food you add in, the faster the oil temperature will go down. The batter will not be fried quick enough and will crumble. No goohr.

(6) Serve with tonkatsu sauce, Japanese mayonnaise or with a simple squeeze of lemon. Serve over chopped cabbage and enjoy. I had to eat a box of tofu just so I wouldn't feel so guilty about the Japanese McNuggeturus. I simply added soy sauce, sesame oil, sesame seeds, scallions and katsuoboshi (bonito fish cakes). Light, delicious and devoid of guilt.

Thanks for reading. Read more!

Sunday, April 09, 2006

On the Road to Japan #1: Okonowhathehellisthatshitmiyaki

Once again, I paid another visit to my new favorite restaurant, Musha in Torrance. This time, I sat at the 'bar' in front of the chefs and got to see what they were brewing. Chef totally knew I was trying to sneak out with some recipes haha. I was asking him questions left and right about each dish that we had. Each time, he would look over at his coworker, to make sure he wasn't listening in on the top-secret conversation. Anyway, I looked at the menu and saw that this dish was described as Musha's most popular dish. The chef said it was kind of like okonomiyaki, but served on top of soba buckwheat noodles, which he called Hiroshima Okonomiyaki. Hell yeah.

Okonomiyaki means 'as you like it' in Japanese and is a mixture between a pancake and pizza and includes shrimp, eggs, katsuoboshi (the bonito fish flakes that look like pencil shavings from a No.2 Ticonderoga pencil). And served with brown sauce or mayonnaise. Love Japanese mayonnaise.

Musha's adds sauteed octopus in their version. I love watching bonito flakes dissolve over hot food. Gives a feeling that it's alive haha. The dish was excellent and here's my version of it, which looks almost exactly like Musha's. Here are some other links regarding okonomiyaki:

Party time:

(1) Boil soba noodles till al dente and shock in cold water. Strain and set aside.
(2) In a pan, start boiling some chicken broth and add a little soy sauce, sake and some instant dashi stock powder (dashi no moto). Once it's hot, add 6 scrambled eggs in there and cook till they are done.
(3) In another pan, pan-fry the soba noodles in hot oil over medium heat. It's ok to get them crispy if you like that. That's how i cooked mine.
(4) Once the noodles are crispy on both sides, carefully slide the egg omelette on top of the noodles. Add a nice coating of teriyaki/brown sauce (recipe to follow) and throw it in the oven for about 10 minutes on 350.
(5) Garnish with red ginger, green onions and bonito flakes. Add more sauce if you like it to be tastier.

My Ghetto Teriyaki Sauce
(1) In a small pan, start reducing soy sauce and sake.
(2) Add a few drops of Worcestershire sauce and balance out the saltiness/tanginess with sugar.
(3) Add corn starch to thicken. If there are starch lumps, pour the sauce threw a small sieve or strainer.

If anyone knows where I can get good okonomiyaki, I'd love to try it out. Thanks for reading. Read more!

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Musha, Torrance - The $435 Dinner: Tax, Tip and Traffic Violation Included

Besides going out for food and drinks, I have to say that a large proportion of my paycheck-pesos go to concerts, which is also spent on food and drinks before, during and after the show. I am a huge concert-enthusiast. Just last week, I went to three shows - The National, We Are Scientists and Sia of the wonderful UK-based, Zero 7. And by default, my partner in crime for all shows is KY, my college friend. Before we even tell each other about a potential show coming up, we’ll buy them and automatically assume that we’ll be going. We just have an understanding.

KY: “Hey, I always come up to West LA from Torrance to meet you up for a show. When you coming down here?”
Me: “Well that’s because there are no concert venues in Torrance.”
KY: “Still. I always come up. You should come down and eat with me in the 310. There’s tons of excellent Japanese restaurants. You’d love Musha’s in Torrance.”
Me: “I really hate the 405 though.”
KY: “Now you know how I feel you selfish bastard.”
Me: “Haha.”

I trust her taste in music, so I should trust her taste in food. After 7:30, I headed down the 405 to the South Bay towards Torrance. I was born in Gardena, yet I’ve never really hung out there. I always wonder how different my life would be, had I grown up in a pre-dominantly Japanese area. Where I grew up, it was mainly Chinese, Taiwanese and Vietnamese. Instead of playing soccer all my life, would I have been into the Japanese basketball association, J-League? Regardless, one thing’s for sure - my love for food would’ve remained stet.

I picked KY up and before dinner, we headed over to the 98-cent Marukai store. Ever been here? It’s like a Japanese Pic n’ Save and it’s a riot. You can buy all kinds of Japanese dinnerware, cups, glasses and kitchen utensils all for 98-cents, or ~5,000 pesos. Whatever your company pays you in. I needed to buy a few sushi plates for future dinners. Definitely check it out if you’re in the South Bay. Good time-killer.

We left and headed towards Musha in Gardena. Here’s how I started the night out on a bad note. With no rush at all, I saw an intersection I needed to make a left on. I’m used to running yellow lights and usually cautious about photo-enforced intersections, but this was Gardena – a new territory. Just as I passed the crosswalk into the grid, I was suddenly flashed by immensely bright lights. First flash. Second flash. Third, and final flash. I thought I was in a techno club. I looked over at KY who looked like she was dancing under a strobe light as she turned to look at me. What the hell? Shit, I’m fucked. After we crossed the opposite crosswalk, we looked at each other and I immediately sighed in disbelief.

Me: “How much you think that’ll be?”
KY: “I don’t know. Few hundred.”
Me: *Sigh. “My fault. That’s it, you’re drinking with me.”

We got to Musha’s, which was located in a shopping center. It was one of those shopping centers that had uniform business signs. There’s really no way of telling if the restaurant is good by judging it from the outside. You just have to try it. The owner of this shopping center obviously liked green. Even if it was a McDonald’s, it would’ve had to follow the strict ordinance of having green business signs. This would be ideal for piece-of-shit restaurants like the Green Burrito or Souplantation.

Good thing we made reservations, there were a few people already waiting for tables. Musha’s holds about 60 people and has nice solid-wood tables. The kitchen/sushi bar is open and the place is well-staffed. I liked the warm ambiance: people were talking, drinking and eating and the servers were running around. A good sign of course. We were immediately seated and given the menus. Pam was right, the menu was truly difficult to look at. Like a hieroglyphic tablet exhumed from 400 B.C. Egypt. KY even warned me, the menu is busy. Good thing she was there. I told her to just order whatever. She ordered five dishes and I was concerned because my pre-conception of an izakaya-style restaurant involved very tiny plates. I was wrong. Musha's was definitely more than I expected.

To start off my unwinding of stress from the previous disco-ball moment in the intersection, we ordered cold sake which came in a baby bucket with ice. Forgot what it was called – all I know is that it was $14 and dammmmn good. For once, I actually drank it like a cup of tea versus throwing it down. With that, we ordered a large Sapporo and some sochu/tea drink. FYI, sake is made of rice and sochu is made out of barley. Koreans also have a barley drink, known as ‘soju’. In any case, both will cause major damage in the morning. Take a test drive by putting your head in a vise and keeping it locked in that position for a good 8 hours. Funlicious right?

The food came in after about 15 minutes and my eyes lit up. I busted out my camera and did the usual. It was funny because the table next to us spotted me 'working' and asked if we were 'Chowhounders'. No, just a human pig. Here’s what we had:

A. Sapporo, Sochu and Sochu/Tea
- What can I say? I really can't turn down any drink.

B. Yellowtail Sashimi Salad
- A nice way to start a meal. Cold, melt-in-your-mouth pieces of Yellowtail, radish sprouts and cold, crisp lettuce with a nice dressing.

C. Kabocha Croquettes
- My last experience with Japanese croquettes was at Blue Marlin on Sawtelle Blvd. They were ok, but these Japanese-pumpkin tater-tots were excellent. Crispy breading with sweet Kabocha. Surprisingly, the center wasn't cold and nicely fried. Two sauces were offered: a teriyaki-like sauce and what I thought was some kind of Miso-mayonnaise dip. Goohr goohr!

D. Musha's Fried Chicken
- I'm not a big fan of fried chicken. If I do have to pick a place, it would be Mrs. Knott's Restaurant outside of Knott's Berry Farm. The chicken pieces had nice crunchy batter and were moist inside. They probably marinaded the chicken in yogurt and lemon to tenderize it. This was served with some kind of soy-sauce/caramelized onion sauce. I thought it tasted fine with just a twist of lemon juice. Another goohr goohr!

E. Musha's Braised Pork Belly
- I wasn't too impressed that this was served on a Chinese dish. Did you guys run out of dishes? I stabbed my chopsticks into the pork cut and with ease, pulled the meat apart. Very nice. This was similar to the Chinese braised pork cooked in soy sauce, rice wine, star anise, ginger and five-spice powder. I'm gonna try to make this. This was my favorite dish of the night.

F. Pork Tongue
- This was my first time trying beef tongue and using the mini-charcoal pit you'd probably find at places like Gyu-Kaku. I was afraid that the meat might have a 'bumpy' texture to it but it didn't. It was chewy, somewhat fatty and absolutely delicious. I just wished they hooked it up with more pieces. This was my 2nd favorite.

Besides getting the $351 ticket, this was truly a complete dining experience with good food, good drinks and a good friend. KY, you DO know good food. It's rare that you'll like the food from beginning to end. Musha's was immaculate. Buzzed and full of goodness, KY and I then headed over to the karaoke joint and sang the night away. A week later, I was back at Musha's. After my last catering event, I treated my friend CK to Musha's for helping me out - he loved it. There's also another location in Santa Monica, but I heard that the Torrance location is MUCH better.

And that's why I'm suggesting Musha for our first, long-overdue meeting of the Los Angeles foodbloggers. It will definitely be a night of good food, good drinks and good company. See you all in a few weeks.

1725 Carson St., Suite B
Torrance, California 90501
(310) 787-7344

Thanks for reading. Read more!

Monday, April 03, 2006

Random Food Stuff #2

Next time you're on Sawtelle Blvd. for some ramen, don't forget to bring a pair of these suckers to cool down your piping-hot bowl of Chashu ramen. This is one of many hilarious clever and not-so-clever devices known as 'Chindogu', from the book Useless Japanese Inventions. Read more!

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