Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Japan Food Hunt #3 – Mayonnaise For Breakfast, More Octopus Balls and The Beef Tongue Hunt

I woke up at 6am today after our long day. The ‘lat pack’ was still asleep so I decided to go on a solo mission for morning ramen. I got dressed and headed for the concierge desk to ask about places to eat. I was greeted by a very, good-looking woman. She gained more points just because she spoke English well. In the 10 minutes she took to explain directions, I don’t think I even heard a word because I was in La La Land. “Uh huh, yeah, ok, right, ok, uh, yeah. Ok thanks.” I grabbed the three maps she had scribbled on and boarded the JR train. Within 10 minutes, I was back in Osaka (we were three stops from Osaka in Osakajokoen). I walked around the same area we were in last night and spotted a cyber café. Actually it was more like a Borders. It had computers, food, drinks, music, dvd’s and books! I paid 500 yen ($4.25) for an hour, which was cheap, considering all the food and drinks were complimentary. I helped myself to a cup of ice coffee from the food robot. As I sat there checking my mail, I noticed about 7-8 people in the same aisle as me… SLEEPING. It was 7:30 am. Someone had told me that since the trains and subways shut down at 1 am, people will just stay out all night until school or work starts. I mean, these people were passed the f*ck out and still wearing suits/uniforms. Weird. Ok time to get out of here… the smell of my own cigarettes in this cyber café was giving me a headache.

I was disappointed that I couldn’t find any ramen shops open. Isn’t there some sort of Norm’s of ramen around here. I walked into this mall and found a place called Pronto, which is Spanish for ‘quickly’. Again, I was blasted with the smell of smoke from the businessmen upon walking in. In front of me was a table set out with goodies. I was instantly appetized. They were thick-sliced pieces of bread with assorted toppings. You could choose from tuna, cheese or ham and egg. I grabbed the ham & egg and cheese toasts and brought it to the cashier to have her heat it up and ordered a cup of coffee. Mmmm, this looked so good. I love anything + eggs. I took a bite and my face immediately turned sour. What I thought was nicely laid out cream on the toast was KEWPIE MAYONNAISE. At 8 am, nothing can prepare your body for a jolt of mayo. It’s a complete shock to the system. Not only was there a 1/4 “ thick layer of mayo under the ham and eggs, it was also piped along the edges of the toast for decoration. Oh god, this was horrendous. I couldn’t even finish half of it and ended up tossing it. Great, I had to head back to the hotel for the trip to Kyoto with a growling stomach half-filled with Kewpie mayonnaise.

A. Pronto Coffee Shop - Serving up fresh roasted coffee and cigarette smoke 24/7.
B. Thick-Sliced Toast - If you were to slice up a 2x4, that would equate to Japanese-sized toast.
C. Mayonnaise with a Side of Toast - See that white stuff and square piping trail, that's Kewpie Mayo. *Shudders*
D. Death & Destruction - There was a war going on in my stomach.

***Check out Tuna Toast's pics of the breakfast toast I had. She also says there's too much stuff on it! And she loves japan.

From Osaka to Kyoto, it was only a half-hour ride on the train. We were there in no time and quite surprised to see the change in the area. I saw a lot of women wearing traditional kimonos and getas (wooden sandals). The streets in Kyoto were occupied mainly by shops selling fans and rice cake-surprises, which were beautifully crafted. I think a box of 8 rice cakes costed nearly $12-15. They were selling like hot rice cakes! My hot friend back at the hotel concierge hooked us up with a few Kyoto maps and we noticed that historical attractions were dotted all over. Ok guys, we are only doing one. You see one temple, you’ve seen them all. MK and I decided to head for the closest one and ended up working up a sweat. We hiked up stairs and slopes, only to see a cemetery, a giant bell and a house that creeped the shit out of me. The Buddha statues in there were constructed much like the Mona Lisa painting. No matter which angle you stared at it, their eyes would beam back at you. *Goosebumps. On the way back down, I noticed at least 10 people sitting around the temple sketching scenery and people. If I had brought my sketch pad, I would've been parked in front of a nice bowl of ramen, and attempt to capture its beauty with my pencils. Food is beauty after all right? After an hour, we were out of there. I know I didn’t get to see much of Kyoto, but in a few short words, I was bored to shit. I came to Japan to eat and party, not fall in love over the hundreds of temples. It’s just not on my agenda. We ended up eating beef bowl again and I found a place called Dumpling King that sold 8 pieces of gyoza for only $2, the highlight of my 3-hour Kyoto excursion. Very goohr! I was so happy sitting on the train back to Osaka. We had some business to take care of there, because Oishii Eats wrote out a list of places for us to try.

A. 'Lat Pack' In Kyoto - Notice the change in rural architecture.
B. A Brown River - Even this river looked cleaner than Venice Beach.
C. Rice Cake City - Seriously, we saw a good 25-30 shops on this one street.
D. A Temple - Lord knows the name of this Temple. Seriously he does.
E. Skewered Bamboo Shoots - These were huge. The cook would first boil the bamboo shoots in a brown sauce and then transfer it over to the grill for the final touch. I didn't try this. I should've, but I was so set on getting back to Osaka.
F. Fresh Togorashi Pepper - These ranged from $5-10 for a 1 lb. bag. Back home, it's $3 for a 4 oz. container.
G. Candied Strawberry Skewer - Not sure how it tasted. My friend had a cold sore that day.
H. Haunted House - If only you could see the bored expression on my face. I felt a few cold drafts going by my arms inside the house - there was absolutely no wind outside in the hot, dry air! Yikes.

We were staying near the North end of Osaka, called the Kita district. All the good stuff was in the Namba district (South) near the Dotomburi Bridge. Anthony Bourdain tried out the Pizza Ball restaurant in this area as well, which was on Oishii Eats’s list of things-to-eat. As soon as we got to the Namba area, we got excited. We had to walk down this long street called Shopping Street (Shinsaibashi Suji) in order to get to the food district. I’d say it was a mile long, but I could be wrong. This area was totally happening, almost like one big circus/festival. I’d imagine the electricity bill to be as high as Vegas’s here in Osaka. The Namba area was by far the most crowded area we stepped into. The majority of the shops were serving up Japan’s favorite treat, you guessed it, the Takoyaki octopus balls. By now, I had eaten nearly 16 of them, but I had to at least give it a shot.

A. Japanese Vegas - We were hungry and blocking the packed road.
B. Dotonburi River - Thought it was so neat that this river ran through this popping part of town. I wonder how many drunk Japanese people go for a skinny dip in there.
C. Shinsaibashi Suji - Shopping street. Full of people, ugly clothing stores and people wearing ugly clothes they got from the ugly clothing stores.
D. Giant Ferris Wheel - No time for this, food was more important. Plus there were five of us guys. Not good for the ferris wheel.
E. Red Dragon Ramen - One of Namba's most popular ramen shops. I checked out the broth and didn't have the broth color of Tonkotsu ramen I was looking for.
F. Takoyaki Shop - This was by far the most popular Takoyaki joint. Almost 35-40 people waiting!
G. Kuiadore Clown - The Clown shown in Anthony Bourdain's Osaka episode of 'No Reservations'. This Kuiadore building was actually an amusement park for FOOD. $13 would get you in to this Ton of Fun.
H. Fugu Restaurant - 'Fugu' means blowfish. We should've tried this.

We were all hungry, and the four other guys joined me in my food hunt. The girls were shopping down on Shopping Street. We were stopped in our tracks by the wonderful smell and sound of things being grilled at this particular Okonomiyaki shop. With a line of more than 15 people, the four guys running this shop were definitely doing something right. Three guys were taking care of the Japanese pancake/pizza and another guy working the Yakisoba (Japanese-style fried noodles). Oh yeah. I sent my friends to go get takoyaki at another joint while I stood in the pizza line. It was so fun watching them cook everything. After about 30 minutes, we got our food and devoured it. This was just foreplay for the dinner we’d been looking forward to: All-You-Can-Eat Japanese Charcoal BBQ – Yakiniku.

A. Pizza Boys - This guy was laying out all the bacon.
B. Pizza Party!!! - Bacon, cabbage and noodles. Who knew love could be so simple?
C. Pizza Party!!! - These guys were like Tom Cruise in 'Cocktail'. All they needed were pink bowties, speedos and bad techno music and they would've made a fat tip. There were a good 20 people standing around spectating.
D. Tako Taco - 'Tako' means octopus in Japanese. This was Japan's tribute to our beloved food, tacos. Made with two crispy rice crackers, two takoyaki balls and some takoyaki sauce - this was the easiest snack to make.
E. Mayonnaise Topping - As soon as he pulled out that 64 oz. bottle of mayonnaise, I got queasy. To make matters worse, I noticed that there were not one, but FIVE spouts.
F. A-Choo!!! - Excuse me, yes look at the amount of snot, I mean, mayo Pizza Boy was using. It looked like Winter snow on the pizza.
G. Ohhhhh-Yeah - Our final product, after waiting nearly 20 minutes. Topped with mayonnaise, negi (green onions), tamago (fried egg) and katsuoboshi (bonito flakes), this kicked our asses. I knew we shouldn't have eaten this much.
H. Yakisoba - Some of the best yakisoba I've ever tasted and I've only had it twice in my life, if that means anything to you.

I pulled out a printed email from Oishii Eats. She recommended that we try finding this one particular place that served all-you-can-eat beef tongue for $30! If you’ve been to Gyu-Kaku in LA, you’ll know $30 doesn’t get you much – so I hear.

Oishii Eats: “Start at the crab, turn right and go towards the Red Dragon. At the Red Dragon, walk towards the creepy Kuiadore Osaka clown. From there, turn into the shopping street where there’s a bunch of Pachinko parlors and ugly clothing stores. Go down the alley and it should be to your right.”

Very cool. This food hunt had become a Treasure hunt. We were dying just thinking of the chewy, fatty taste of the thinly-sliced beef tongue. Back at Musha’s in Torrance, $8 would only buy you 6 small pieces, leaving you wanting more. But all-you-can-eat? This was taking it to another level. The problem with the Treasure hunt was that every street had Pachinko parlors and ugly clothing stores. Pretty soon, we find ourselves tired and frustrated from searching for this mysterious restaurant. We were about to give up and eat whatever. No guys, one more time. I know Oishii Eats hasn’t been to Japan in a few years, but I’m sure you know what you’re talking about when you’ve lived here. How would we ever forget where Monterey Park was? I carefully looked at the email and went back to the starting point. After a few minutes, we were able to find this place that had all-you-can-eat yakiniku for $25. We didn’t think it was the same place, but that was ok. It was time to eat. For $10 we added all-you-can-drink alcohol to our tab. $35 for all-you-can-eat and drink is a blessing from the Food Gods. Thank you Gluttonous ones. I think we went for 12-14 rounds of beef tongue. The waitress was totally annoyed by us because we drank and ate like barbarians. Similar to the time my Mongolian clan and I conquered Manna Korean BBQ in K-Town.

A. Conan Going to Work - Mmmm.
B. Korean Style BBQ - Yakiniku was influenced by Koreans, so of course there will be Korean food.
C. Beef Tongue - Thinly sliced with a nice chewy texture. My stomach just growled.
D. Beef Tongue - Looks like bacon.
E. Korean Style BBQ - The waitress kept bringing us this so that we'd stop eating the Beef Tongue.
F. Yoshinoya Beef Tongue Bowl - Not available in the U.S. anytime soon.
G. Hide & Seek - Because we couldn't finish the Korean bbq the waitress kept bringing us, we had to find a way to discard it.
H. Now You See It. Now you don't. - Salads aren't meant to be eaten. I think of them as culinary camouflage.

Thanks for reading. I am full and content. Read more!

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Japan Food Hunt #2: Oh-Osaka! Yoshinoya, Double Dinner and Octopus Balls

Yesterday, we stayed up for nearly 19 hours. I don’t even want to add the hours I was awake on the plane. I was lucky enough to have three vacant seats next to me… but it was impossible for me to sleep in a plane with 90 degree seats. Well maybe 95 if you want to count the economy class’s idea of reclining seats. Bastards. I love it when you get on a plane and have to walk through the Coach and business class. Everyone in there is holding a fresh copy of their Wall Street Journal and giving you the “maybe you should’ve worked harder” look.

When I woke up this morning, I was exhausted and surprisingly hungry after a big day of eating. If it weren’t for the jetlag, we wouldn’t have been able to live through such a long day. We all got up and met outside our 30-story RV at around 8am. A pachinko parlor next to us blared sounds synonymous with Vegas. Business men, all dressed in black, walked in quiet herds. Occasionally, a business woman would walk by, also dressed in black – completely focused with a stoic expression – like a robot. Mini trash trucks humming down the streets. So this is Japan in the morning. We took a deep breath and began to forage for breakfast. We needed something to get us going because we had a long train ride to Osaka and Kyoto ahead of us today. It’s what I’ve been waiting for, in addition to the long list of ramen places I wanted to try out. Before I left, I caught an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations” filmed in Osaka. I wanted to do everything he did - takoyaki octopus balls, okonomiyaki (Japanese pancake/pizza) and Hanshin Tiger (baseball) sports bars. I wanted all of it. He is after all, someone I highly respect.

We spotted the familiar orange sign of Yoshinoya. Yes, the real Yoshinoya. Why not. It wasn’t like it was really breakfast time because we were in a warped time zone. At least there was rice in the bowl. I’ve seen people back at home eat full burger combos at 7am. These people are also not in the best shape and usually drive a tow truck to work. So we walked in and found the place to be quite packed with businessmen and schoolgirls. A friendly frontman greeted us and asked us to wait a few minutes. This Yoshinoya, like many others in Japan, only needed 2 people to run the place. One person to take orders and bus everything. The other to skillfully slice the beef (???) on a deli slicer. I put question marks after beef because people were telling me that Yoshinoya didn’t use beef because of mad cow. Back at home, we joke that Yoshinoya uses zebra meat. Or something from a real obscure animal. The food came out really quickly and was smaller than what we got back at home. About 75% rice, and maybe 10-11 thin slices of mystery meat and sautéed onions. Mmm. I also ordered miso soup to go with it. The beef bowl was really good! Flavorful, super tender and just the right amount. It’s hard to believe that I used to clean out the large beef bowls with extra juice. This meal cost less than $4.

We walked to the Shinjuku station and headed over to Tokyo. Once we got to Tokyo, we were ready to board the Shinkansen bullet train to Kyoto. These mothers average 140 mph. The trip to Kyoto would take about 140 minutes. By local train, it takes 7 hours! Screw that, I’m glad we spent the $230 for the rail pass (Kyoto and local train access for one week). For lunch, we raided one of the many food courts. All of the places had my favorite plastic menus laid out on tables. Damn, everything looked so good and shiny. MK, his gf and I hit up a katsu place. Once we walked in, we were blasted by the smell of smoke emanating from the smoking section, occupied by businessmen of course. I ordered pork katsu with curry and MK ordered a ‘hamburg’ steak. The waitress signaled for us to pick up our own drinks. Mmm, coffee and curry – a combo that’ll make your stomach hate you. The meal was heavy, but good. You can get the same thing anywhere in LA.

A. Fake Plastic Food - Yes, my favorite. If I moved to Japan, I would apply for the companies that produce these fabulous works of art. Who knew glue could be so fun.
B. Gum Syrup - The Japanese love to use sugar in a sticky, liquid form. I didn't think it would taste too good, but the coffee was definitely enjoyable. I kept a few of these in my backpack with me in case I wanted to f*ck around with my friends. Hehe.
C. Katsu Curry - Nothing special here but the fact that I can taste small chunks of apples and pears, which takes curry to another level.
D. Hamburg Steak - MK, give me your tots! This meal almost looked like it was taken from the outside display tables and thawed out. Japanese eggs for some reason have really golden yolks.

We boarded the Shinkansen and found our assigned seats. Each train was about 25% full, so we were free to move about. So spacious. I had a good 2 feet of foot space in front of me. If I had a Wall Street Journal, then would I be able to experience Coach and business class seating. I fell asleep as soon as the Shinkansen started moving. Although it averaged 140 mph, it really felt like 80 mph. Same feeling you get when you sit in a luxury car, like a Lexus. It was that comfortable. A woman came around with a cart full of refreshments a few times. I was too full from Yoshinoya to eat. I got up a few times to move to the ‘smoking’ trains. Ashtrays were built into the armrests like old school cinemas. I saw this guy reading one of those adult manga books, drinking a beer and smoking a cigarette. Thought it was so bizarre that he was totally in his comfort zone. You’d get double looks back in the US. As we sped further away from Tokyo, I noticed a drastic change in the architecture and geography of the towns and villages of outer-Tokyo. Most of the houses were built like apartments, with most people drying their laundry outside the balcony. Civilians mostly on mopeds or bicycles cruising along the small roads. Most of the land was used for farming and fishermen were dotted along the rivers. Truly a beautiful look at rural Japan. Why couldn’t the 909 area look like that? All you see there is dirt and Meth labs.

Once we got to Kyoto, we took the train to Osaka, where we were staying. Oh I loved the city… so much calmer than Tokyo. Definitely looked less Westernized. We checked into the New Otani Hotel, which we have here in Little Tokyo. Way nicer than the place back in Shinjuku. Most of all, we had a beautiful view of the Osaka Castle. Whew. After a few hours of resting, we met up and headed back into the city for some you know what. I noticed that there were a lot more places to eat and drink in Osaka. The city was really bubbly and vivid. As I stood outside the station, I noticed a small food stand that people were lined up for. “Be right back guys.” I walked closer to the stand and noticed that they were cooking food in round molds. Oh no, could it really be??? I had finally gotten my first glimpse of real Japanese takoyaki, the fried octopus balls. Watching Bourdain’s show and hearing about it from fellow bloggers, Oishii Eats and Diet Chili Cheese Fries, I was dying to try one of Japan’s favorite snacks.

Me: (Pointing at the takoyaki.) “Takoyaki ikura deska?”
Takoyaki Girl: “Six for 250 yen.”
Me: “Hai!”

I watched her pour a battered mixture into the circular molds. Her coworker then came by and carefully placed a chopped tentacle into each mold. After a few minutes, she would use two metal sticks to flip them over. This process took a good 5-7 mins. She then took out 4 and put them on a small plate. She grabbed some mayonnaise and gave me a generous amount. I shuddered. Didn’t matter. I had to try it. Finally, she topped it off with katsuoboshi (bonito flakes) and green onions and popped in two toothpicks. I turned around and walked back to my friends. I had the look Charlie had while he opened up his lucky chocolate bar. I then took a stab with my toothpicks to open them up to let out steam. Whoa. These were really hot! I took a bite of one and scorched the roof of my mouth. So did my friends. The batter was slightly mushy and almost watery. I was somewhat disappointed. It really didn’t taste that great. I ate it anyway. Oh well, this was the first place, maybe I found the lemon.

A. Me & Takoyaki Girl - See that peace sign she's throwing up. It came up faster than lightning as we posed for a photo. Even I was throwing up that peace sign. It just felt right to do it in Japan.
B. The Finished Product - Good from far, far from good. I mean, if I had 'munchies', I'd probably enjoy it.
C. Takoyaki Girl - Going to work!
D. Takoyaki Boy - Here he's carefully adding pieces of octopus tentacles in each circular mold.
E. Batter - Making more takoyaki.
F. Takoyaki Girl - Going to work and doing the peace sign. She was really enjoying herself.

Our next stop was this Yardhouse-like restaurant called Beer Company. The inside of it even felt like Yardhouse. Loud music, booths and tables and a woody appearance. We called it the ‘Meterhouse’ in respect to Japan’s unit of measurement. After loading up at the ‘Meterhouse’, we decided to do Japanese Idol. We asked our server where the closest karaoke bar was. She gestured for us to go upstairs. Very nice!

A. The 'Lat Pack' - All seven of us in front of The Meterhouse.
B. Kirin Kegs - These barrels made drinking that much more fun. I wanted to steal this.
C. Spare Ribs - Oh man, some of the best ribs I've ever tasted.
D. Pasta - A break from Japanese food was definitely nice.

Yes, after singing, we asked our server where we could get izakaya-style food. We were headed for Double Dinner. She gestured for us to go downstairs. Again, we stayed in the shopping center all night. This place was happening! People were all seated on the mats and drank/ate the night away. The food here was EVEN better than the Meterhouse.

A. Grilled Squid - Smoked/Grilled nicely with a light soy sauce and scallions. Dericious!
B. Chicken Karage - I think these were the spicy version of Japanese McNuggets... awesome.
C. Chicken Wings - Deep fried perfectly... the skin was perfect and full of great taste.
D. Okonomiyaki - The Japanese pancake/pizza! I loved this. This also contains octopus parts and tastes way better than takoyaki IMO.
E. Kampai! - Going to work!
F. Me Rove You Rong Time - The embarrassing aftermath of going to karaoke and having Double Dinner. I could care less, life's short.

Part 3 coming up next... more Osaka and Kyoto! Thanks for reading. Read more!

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Kitchen Confidential #6 - That's What Friends Are For

My sous chef and good friend CK hooked me up with a great lead this past weekend. His friend’s sister needed catering for her baby shower in Orange County. 25+ people. I hesitated a little, but knew someday down the line that I would have to handle larger scale events. So we stepped it up with the addition of another good friend, LL. There was no way in hell CK and I would work an event for 25+ people. We would DIE. It was a lot of work even for Best of LA’s event, and there were only 8 people. In my short career as a caterer, I’ve learned that larger events are much easier because they have a set 4-course menu. You cook no more than 4 dishes and have several people working different stations. The events we’ve been doing have required more detail and presentation since they are hors d’oeurves. Most of all, it was repetitive work, making sure that there were at least 25-30 items on each platter.

On Friday night, LL and I loaded up his truck and drove down to CK’s place in Orange County. We prepped from 10-2 am and threw in a few beers during our breaks. Drinking while working… awesome. We got up around 9am the next day and packed up all of the food and equipment. As soon as we left the cookie-cutter homes of Irvine into South OC, we noticed a drastic change in the communities. Wow, looks like we lucked out again... we would be blessed with a nice kitchen!

As soon as we walked in, I knew this would be a tougher event. The baby shower was also a pool party and the kitchen was right next to the backyard entrance. Meaning there would be a high amount of traffic and possible distractions. The stove was merely a glossy black top: oh no, electric stove!!! I was hoping for a Viking 6-burner. I haven’t used an electric stove since my college days in Irvine and HATED using them. You were gray and old and wearing Depends diapers by the time those irons heated up. And heat control was far from instant. This would pose some problems because we had to deep fry one of the dishes.

At around 2pm, people started pouring in. We were hammering away for the last 4 hours. I couldn't believe how fast time went by. Everyone gave us a surprised look because they obviously didn’t expect three guys in chef coats to cook for the party. About 30 minutes later, I started to freak out because we weren’t finished and more people just kept on coming in. I seriously need to get a headband. If you saw me, you would’ve thought I just beat a Kenyan in a marathon. I have to thank my two sous chefs for being there…. If not for them I would’ve jumped over the ledge of the beautiful house we were in, leaving 30 people angry and hungry. Such an intense and stressful experience that’s guaranteed to cut my life even shorter. With speed and diligence, the three of us were done with the first round. We laid out the seven dishes we prepared on a dining table and couldn’t help but smile and give each other fives. It was truly nice saying, “Ok, lunch is ready!” As soon as I said that, people attacked the table… going for the “tater tots of the sea” first… CK’s delicious crabcakes. We took a breather for a few minutes and watched as people ate. I really wanted a beer or a glass of wine, but we were only on round one of four. After the first round, everything was just set on cruise control. Here’s what we served:

A. Warm Korean Pear Salad - This was served with roasted Korean pears and a lemon & honey vinagrette. A lot of people were surprised that a 'warm' salad could actually be edible. I forgot to add in the candied walnuts and goat cheese. Oops!

B. Prosciutto di Parma-Wrapped Asparagus - Garnished with lemon and parmigiana reggiano. These went pretty quickly because they were fun to eat. Name one thing that doesn't taste good wrapped with bacon or prosciutto. I was tempted to steal some from the platter as I was cooking. I slapped my own hand... "bad dylan."

C. Trio di Bruschetta - We initially baked some crostinis cut from La Brea Bakery bread... but they hardened up like rocks. I took a bite into the bread and felt my teeth shift. We used fresh French baguettes instead. One was Smoked Salmon and Dill, another was your traditional basil/garlic/tomato bruschetta and the last was Duck Pate with Caramelized Pears. The duck pate was definitely more experimental and I'm sure I saw a few people eating them with strange expressions.

D. Hawaiian Tuna Poke Crisps - Lightly topped with spicy, avocado mousse. The three different textures made this a fun and tasty snack.

E. Double Citrus Grilled Shrimp with Thai Sauce - Anything on a skewer is good. I think of these as shrimp lollipops. Mmmm.

F. Crabcakes with Roasted Red Pepper Remoulade - We did four rounds of these. People gobbled them up like tater tots.

G. Duck Wonton Purses with Spicy Mango Sauce - I made the filling with duck, leeks, shitakes and water chestnuts. We baked these in the oven and served them with a spicy mango puree. These were gobbled up pretty quickly.

H. Final Spread - 7 dishes...almost 10 hours of total prep time.

As we cooked, it was weird watching the people partying. I was like "i wanna party too!", but no, we had a job to do. At one point, I saw them filling up baby bottles with beer and having chugging contests. Another time, I saw some people bobbing for something... like some kind of Double Dare challenge. We finished around 6 pm and packed up our stuff. The event was a success -- everyone was happy with the food.

As soon as we got back home, we all cracked open beers. There's nothing better than having a beer after a hard day's work. As I sipped on my bottle of Stella Artois, I looked over at both of my weary, yet happy friends. Not once in the two days of work did they complain about peeling and skewering shrimp, zesting lemons and limes, making wontons and crabcakes, lifting heavy stuff around, taking orders and working under pressure. This event was not only a stepping stone for future events, but a moment I would remember for a long time. It's nice to know that you'll always have friends to help you when you need them. We were successful today because we were there for each other. They worked their asses off and expected nothing more than a thank-you dinner. Good job CK and LL, you guys rocked. Can't wait for the next event.

Thanks for reading. Read more!

Monday, May 08, 2006

Japan Food Hunt #1: 6am Sushi, Orgasmic Ramen and Chicken Butt

On Friday, the night before my trip to Japan, I started to pack. “Don’t over pack, don’t over pack”, I kept telling myself. Six shirts, four pairs of jeans later, I was pretty much done. I made sure that my camera was fully charged and also brought along my Holga Camera that I got for $14.99. These cameras are known for producing super-artsy, over-saturated photos, so the colors are truly vibrant. I brought this along for photos of Kyoto’s cherry blossoms. I then packed all my books on Japan that I had borrowed from Oishii Eats and a co-worker. I was good to go within 45 minutes.

I dreaded the long flight to Japan, and made sure that I had my goods with me. I recently subscribed to Food & Wine, Gourmet and Bon Appetit and packed those with me, along with my iPod. The battery life had diminished over the years, and I knew that I was guaranteed at least two hours of music. I perused my tour books and picked out all the common phrases i’d be using most frequently in Japan. Like, “I think you’re cute, wanna come back with me to America?” Or “Can I have more beer please?” While I was doing that, the stewardess came by with drinks and I gladly asked for a few bottles of Gin and Vodka to start my iPod/drinking party. My friends looked over at me and gave me the “You’re such an alcoholic” headshake. So what, it’s my vacation!? Then came the 'Japanese' airplane meal. Picture should say enough.

11 hours later, we landed in Narita International at around 6 pm Tokyo time. What a great feeling to know that your co-workers are talking shit about you while you’re vacationing. All of their sentences starting out with, “Fucking Dylan…”. I smiled after that thought. But this wasn’t all about play. I had my own job to do: to seek out the good eats of Japan for myself and for the foodblogging community.

We dropped off our stuff at our shack called Washington Shinjuku Hotel, courtesy of Expedia. A piece of shit I don’t recommend anyone experiencing. I stepped into the bathroom and thought I was in a Winnebago RV bathroom. Yes, that small. We were hungry and didn’t feel like foraging for food and ended up at this 24 hour joint. It was my first time seeing a menu on a vending machine. On the outside of the restaurant, plastic replicas of food were stored in glass displays. You then went in to the restaurant and selected your food from a machine that accepted cash and gave you a receipt. You would then bring the receipt to the cooks and voila, food was out in less than 5 minutes. I thought this was pretty cool b/c you could very well run these types of restaurants with just three people. No servers/hostesses or any other tip-hoggers to deal with. The food was less than satisfactory, but we expected that. We were in for a bigger deal tomorrow, so this meal was just foreplay.

A. Monumental achievements in the world of plastic and ceramic. I can look at these funky displays all day long. I think it's so interesting that the Japanese invest all that time in making everything look so real. Even the bread crumbs on the katsu look real! I'd love to work for one of these factories.
B. The Ramen Robot. I wish we had one of these for mexican food. Instant carne asada tacos!
C. Instant crap! Gross.

It was now 4:45 am, and we had gone to sleep about 5 hours before. We didn’t have a hard time waking up because of the jetlag and this was the best opportunity to catch the action over at the Tsukiji Fish Market in the Southeast side of Tokyo. I was so stoked about this. How much fresher can the sushi be. We’re like a ¼ mile from the sea! We took a taxi over to the fish market and already saw quite a lot of tourists heading into the warehouse district. My friend’s coworker warned him to be careful at the fish market because it was pure chaos. He was so right. Fishermen in trucks, forklifts and carts buzzed around the lot at pretty fast speeds, lugging huge flash-frozen fish, Styrofoam crates and other creatures of the sea.

A. Fisherman selling packaged goods like sea urchin. Maybe even drugs. Nobody knows.
B. Fresh packaged tuna. That is the epitome of freshness.
C. Tuna cemetary. You can't see the other 100 flash-frozen tunas there. Inspectors carried fish hooks with them and hacked away at the tail area of the fish to determine it's grade and marked them with paint. Truly an amazing site.
D. The Fish Market raceway. Vehicles were moving a good 15-20 mph in there. Look out!
E. Tuna bidding auction in progress. A bell was rung, and the auctioneer read out bids.
F. Fresh tuna. Each one of these mothers was a good 3.5-4 feet long and probably atleast 200 lbs. I couldn't imagine how strong those fishnets were.
G. Snow crabs enjoying their last few shots of oxygen.
H. Fisherman filleting eels (unagi). He would nail a stake into the head of the poor bastard and with one swift motion, fillet the whole eel. This guy was a pro. Anyone who can work while puffing away on a cigarette definitely knows what they're doing.
I. Sea eels taking a bath in their own blood. All they needed were bubbles, Champagne, candles and Kenny G.
J. Flash-boiled octopus. I took my first Holga photo of these octopi. The reds should show beautifully in the photos.

After going through the warehouses, we were hungry and had to have some fresh sushi. Most of the restaurants were either too small to contain our group of seven or were just too crowded. We found an empty shop, which was a sure sign that they didn’t know too much about sushi. Who cares, let’s go. We ordered the 1800 yen special ($16.35) which came with like 10 different things and a few beers. The sushi was good, but not the best that I’ve had. While we were eating, I took a peak over at the other restaurants – still people waiting outside. I kinda wish we had tried those joints but we didn’t have the patience to wait another hour. By 7 am, my friends and I had a nice buzz going.

Next we headed over to Akihabara, also known as Electronic Town. There I expected to see some electronic products from the future. We were disappointed because most of the stores only sold cameras that we could get back here in the U.S. we did find a really cool Sony product store. Nothing was for sale, only for viewing purposes. I saw some of the nicest looking TV’s and laptops. Just wait a while, we’ll get it here soon.

For lunch, I decided it was time to finally have a bowl of ramen. My friend MK and his gf went along with me for the search for good Tonkotsu ramen. We found this one place that advertised its pride and joy on a large photo. There, I was confronted by a 5’ x 4’ photo of a glistening bowl of white-broth ramen. Ansel Adams would have shot a photo of this if he had been alive to see it. We headed down the stairway into this underground ramen joint and heard the quiet, yet socially-accepted slurps from the patrons. Again, we got to choose our food from the vending machine. Fun. A few minutes later, I saw our waitress carrying our bowls of ramen. The steam violently rising from our bowls of goodness. Wow. Arigato gozaimas. I had my chopsticks ready, spoon ready, condiments all in front of me. Togorashi chili pepper, sesame seeds and a huge container of freshly pureed garlic. This was what I was waiting for. The ramen was awesome.

A. Ramen haven or secret 'massage' parlor?
B. Good ramen robot! They ran out of rice though. How do you run out of rice?
C. True food porn: lovely ramen and mosaic-censored eater.
D. A bowl of heaven. Thick, white broth. Not overly salted. Super tender pork that pretty much broke when I picked it up with chopsticks. A perfectly boiled egg, with the yolk still runny. A 36-24-36 bowl of ramen.

For dinner, we checked out an area called Roppongi, known for their nightlife. Amidst all the strip clubs and dance clubs, there was a wealth of good food. Nearly every alley had a nice selection of restaurants. As we were walking, I got foodsmacked right in the nose. It was something superfamiliar... ah, yes, yakitori! Before I consulted with the friends, I was already walking towards the entrance. I gave them a look like a kid asking his parents for a toy at the store. We walked in and found the place kind of dead. And the 55 year old waitress didn't make things anymore exciting in Strip-Club City. The food was good and we walked out. Unsatsfied, two of my friends joined me as we went to look for another yakitori restaurant. After 5 minutes, we were successful. This place was a little bit more happening. We got a bar seat right in front of the yakitori 'master': the one responsible for meticulously flipping the skewers over and over and over again, for the whole night. I thought to myself, what a shitty job! The food here was EVEN better.

A. Yebisu: a popular Japanese beer. I thought it was nasty.
B. Sake waterfall. My first time drinking sake in a wooden box. I know they do it here though.
C. The best yakitori wings I've ever tried. This puts any California yakitori place to shame. Crispy, juicy and flavorful.
D. Bacon-wrapped asparagus and chicken butt. Chicken butt is tasty!
E. Yakitori popsicle. This was made out of ground chicken, cartilage and leeks. This was grilled and served with yakitori sauce and a raw egg. The waitress told us to swirl the egg yolk into the sauce. Goohr goohr!
F. The yakitori 'master', turning sticks for a living at 600 yen an hour.

Yes, that was a lot of food for one and half days. 6 restaurants total, 2 uncounted for! I couldn't wait to get to my RV and sleep normally. For tomorrow, we would be heading out to Osaka, the land of good eats.

Thanks for reading. Day 3 Osaka is up next! Read more!

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