It's 6:30 pm on a Friday in June. Jeni stands in front of me with a bewildered look. And I just stare at her. Rewind 2 years back.
When I first started my blog nearly three years ago, my intentions were simple. I was bored and the idea of writing a blog interested me. The one thing I did know a lot about and could contribute to others was a knowledge of food. My parents had raised me on the staples of Chinese food, which was basically your on-sale vegetables, noodles and soups made with bones that would normally be fated in a trash can. But what they passed on to me, was more than a simple appreciation for food and the sustenance it provided – no matter what shape or form it took. I wanted to express my appreciation for their love and care by writing about my experiences with food. And measure how much of a pig I actually am.
Three years of writing about food. Obsession. Too much time on my hands. Sure. Both if you would. As you can probably tell, I love food and I have the pounds to prove it. Just look at my profile photo. Ugh! In four years, my weight jumped nearly 15 lbs. and you know what, please give me some more because I am nowhere near done exploring the food of all cultures. I won't be done until the day I have to be forklifted out of my bed just to go to the bathroom. *beep* *beep* *beep* Dylan coming through.
During the three years of writing, I have learned a lot about food, cultural differences, myself, friends, family and mostly, respect. I have learned to never say the terms "the best in the world". I have learned that you cannot please every one in this world – no matter how good of cook you are. I have learned that denying a culture's food because of ignorance and unfamiliarity is the most insulting thing ever. I have learned that what you may not understand may be the key to another culture's survival. I have learned that food sets the stage for everything involving social interaction. And as you'll read in a few paragraphs, I've learned that food can even change the course of two people's lives. One thing remains important, food revolves around everything we do or feel – home life, work, birthdays, dating, weddings, funerals, reunions, etc.
When I first started writing, there were no more than 10-12 Los Angeles food blogs that I was interested in reading. And maybe 3-4 outside of the area. It was much easier to keep up with everyone's eating. Even within that group, the best ones were more than reviews about food; it was those that offered storytelling which made it compelling. Writers that simply said "this was good" or "this was bad" really didn't generate solid readership. Food had been such a big part of my upbringing and I was interested in seeing what/why food was important to someone. After the first year, I developed 'friendships' with many of these bloggers. Though I had never seen their photo (anonymity is a big thing) or met them in person, I could tell a lot about someone by the way they ate.
Especially with a girl named Jeni, who ran a blog called Oishii Eats.
For a few months, I read her postings. I was attracted not only by her looks, but by the food she ate. She ate everything. Low end... high end. Hole in the wall... paintings on the wall. On the street... on sticky-elbow tables. She was in a sense like me. But what I liked most about her was her open-mindedness and respect for a culture's food. We were both from the same college and had mutual friends, but we never crossed paths once.
Less than a year later, I decided to set up a long-overdue meetup between the stomachs and minds of the LA blogosphere at Musha in Torrance – and everyone was stoked. Jeni and I had already been talking to each other over IM and in a sense, we were friends that had never met. It was an exciting day for everyone that attended because not everyone had met in person. I had met Jonah of LA Foodblogging, Pam of Daily Gluttony and Kristy of Best of LA previously (my friend's fianceé). That night, I was late due to traffic on the good ol' 405. I found my group, all 16 of us, waiting outside. I said Hi to everyone, and saved the best for last... Jeni. I was interested in her and I think we could both tell that it was a long overdue meet up. I smiled at her and she waved back. She handed me Japanese books that I needed for my trip to Japan the following week. We had decided previously that we would sit next to one another because we already 'knew' each other. Everyone had a great time. The food was good and the drinks went around. But what I wanted mostly was to talk to Jeni, but I was so busy trying to play host. At the end of the night, I said bye to everyone and hugged Jeni and told her we'd talk when we get back. We ended up talking on the phone till about 4 am that night. It was just wonderful putting a face over a voice finally.
It wasn't long after when we had our first date. I knew it was a date because I could feel it. Instead of the usual nice dinner, we decided to go to a club and get stoopid. And for dinner, we ate tacos from a taco truck in Echo Park. We sat on red crates, eating tacos and drinking Jarritos. For the first time in a while, I was comfortable on a date. I didn't worry about eating properly or keeping my volume down. I didn't worry about impressing her. I was myself – dropping cilantro and onions on the ground, using like 80 napkins for 5 tacos and even broke the Jarritos bottle. We took photos of each other stuffing our faces and it just felt very natural. It was truly good times. Very Wonder Years-like. In a sense it was somewhat of a secondary coming-of-age. Jeni let me be who I wanted to be. And I hoped that she had felt the same way.
Fast forward two years to the present. It's 6:30 pm on a Friday in June. Jeni stands in front of me with a bewildered look. And I just stare at her. With a smile.
D: "Are you ready for your birthday surprise?"
D: "Go to your closet and look under the blanket."
She runs over and lifts up some blankets.
J: "It's my brother's traveling backpack."
D: "No, it's mine. And it's packed."
D: "You've got 2 hours to pack. We're going somewhere."
J: "What do I bring???"
D: "The more questions you ask, the less time you'll have. I'm going to get us some food."
I watched her run back and forth like she was on some stupid gameshow with a $200 grandprize. It was hilarious – I wish I had a camera to videotape it. I left her place and headed over to Yuca's to grab a cheeseburger and cochinita pibil for dinner. She only had two hours to pack and would probably forget to eat! I came back half an hour later and found her still running back and forth. This was great. She tried to ask me questions to narrow down the possible destinations. But I shrugged every time. She didn't know that we would be flying anywhere.
It was now 8:30 pm and time to go. I had texted her brother to meet us in the carport and surprise her. We packed the stuff in the car and Jeni naturally headed for the driver side door – only to be freaked out by her brother, who was driving us both to LAX. Jeni screamed!
The next annoying question any one can ask besides 'are we there yet' is 'where are we going?" I heard this a good 30 times by the time we arrived at LAX. She kept naming off places in the U.S. and got cold shrugs from me. I told her brother to drop us off at Terminal 6 which is where Virgin America is. She screamed, thinking we're going to New York. We said bye to her brother and walked out. I stared at her and watched her puzzled looks.
J: "Are we going to New York?!"
J: "Where are we going then? There's only a flight to New York at this time!"
D: "We may need these."
I reached into my pocket and pulled out our passports. She shrieked in joy. At this time, I took out my camera and started recording her on video.
J: "Where can we be going?"
D: "Look at my shirt and you may get a hint."
I watched her eyes go down to my red 'Carne Asada' shirt and her eyes grew. I then pulled out some pesos and handed it to her.
J: "We're going to Mexico City!"
Jeni & I went to Mexico City (D.F.) in December and fell in love. For months on end, we dreamed about the delicious pastor tacos sliced thinly like pork belly – not the chopped up version we get here in LA. I knew there was nothing more she wanted than to be in Mexico City again. A birthday trip out here would simply be perfect. We stayed in an area called Condesa which many people compare to the East Village/Soho area of New York City. Tree-lined streets, cafes with young couples and delicious taco vendors made this a very special place for us. D.F. was only 3.5 hours away, yet worlds apart.
We had missed so much on our previous trip. We were on a tight schedule and coming back from an exhausting and emotional stay in Tulum, Mexico. We got our lovely Nikon D70 stolen on a bus when we fell asleep. We were angry and frustrated upon arriving in D.F. – we didn't want to do anything. But nothing cheered us up more than the vibrancy of the city, warmth of the locals and of course all the delicious antojitos (small meals; snacks). This is why Mexico City is so special to us; it was a turning point in our trip. And this trip was a makeup for everything we didn't get to do – such as eating at the popular restaurant, Contramar. Contramar is regarded as the hip place for young people to eat. I could care less how hip it is, I just want the food. Our friend Tokyo Astro Girl had eaten here twice and spoke highly of it – her word was reason enough to eat here!
Pickled onions and peppers. I have never had such a fresh version of these. All the ones I've eaten at taco trucks or at restaurants seemed to be reserved from last year's quinceañara . It was to our advantage to come here right when they opened to ensure freshness. I could've made a meal out of all these elements – tortillas por favor! And some water to abate the spiciness.
Tostadas de Atún y Cangrejo
¿Que recomiendes? Tuna and crab tostadas! You can't go wrong with a server's suggestion especially if you're in another country. When we travel, we usually try things we've never tried or can't get in the U.S. Screw the safe food. The tuna tostadas are the big seller here and I know why. 1/8" slices of tuna are marinated in soy sauce and orange juice and placed on top of freshly-fried tostadas with a spicy mayo, avocado and crispy-fried whites of scallions. A simple dash of lime and PacMan-sized mouth and you're good. Mmmmm. So fresh! The crab I loved as well, but this was the wife-stealer. For all the labor involved in removing the meat from crab, this isn't a bad deal at all. $14 for 4 tostadas.
Ceviche de Contramar
Next we had Contramar's ceviche special. This was not what we thought it would be. I prefer ceviche in smaller chunks and less sour. All I could taste was lime juice and mushy fish.
Pastor Fish Tacos
I like fish tacos. I like pastor. Can I have both? Si señor! From afar, this really looks like al pastor meat and even smells like it! The fish was moist, flavorful and delicious. The addition of the smoked pineapple adds the much needed sweetness to this spice-ful dish. I should have eaten more of these but at this point, I was STILL thinking about those tuna tostadas.
Caldo de Camaron (Shrimp Soup)
I fell in love with Mexican-style shrimp soup back in Tulum at this drive-by restaurant called La Bamba Jarocha. Because some f*ckface took our camera, our only evidence of that delicious soup can be found here. Our soup arrived in a small coffee cup with 2-3 pieces of shrimp. But what I was most stoked about was the use of Maggi seasoning in the broth. Oh how I love Maggi seasoning sauce. The soup was beautiful. I saw the rays of the sun breach through the clouds above and cupids hovered above with trumpets and harps. Absolute harmony.
Full as hell, we decided to eat even more because that's what vacation is all about. While Jeni was getting her Mexican-style ice cream (helado) at Neveria Roxy, I checked out this red truck across the street. There were about 5-6 people hovering around it like vultures. Could only mean one thing: food. I remembered this truck being mentioned in the Lonely Planet: Mexico book.
We all love taco trucks, except for Gloria Molina, L.A. Count Board of Supervisors... but have you seen a taco truck, literally? This guy had his truck parked up on a sidewalk with a blue tarp connected from this truck to the nearby fence creating a portable 'roof'.
Here you can see that an Asian vulture has arrived at the crime scene awaiting the grisly fate of its target.
A cleaver, broken piece of wood, plastic plates w/ waxpaper, meat and a truck. Simple yet beautiful.
And to add some extra flavor, a juice-drenched hand tattered with spices.
Some of the moistest carnitas I've had.
But the party doesn't stop. After we took a nap, we were out and about again in search of our favorite pastor tacos within D.F.
Tacos al pastor is a dish that originates in Puebla, Mexico, by way of Lebanese immigrants. Which is why the use of the spit seems familiar – shawerma!
On top of all the spits sit large pineapples like a star on a x'mas tree. The rising heat from the flames and roasting of the spit meat help cook the pineapple. After the cook slices off the meat, he does a quick flick of the wrist near the pineapple and lobs it on to your taco. Awesome. The spiciness of the pork and sweetness of the pineapple make for Mexican yin yang.
I have a favorite new cut of meat and it's not your typical ranchera steak; it's called costilla and is the rib section of the cow. Thin slices of rib meat are thrown onto an extremely hot griddle and cooks within 35 seconds. I topped these tacos off w/ some fresh onions, salsa verde and a few dashes of my favorite sauce, Maggi.
In a course of 6 hours, we had eaten at one restaurant and 2-3 taco stands. Full right? No. It was time for Jeni's birthday dinner at one of D.F.'s most popular restaurants, Pujol.
We rolled up to the restaurant in a cab and the first thing Jeni said was, "beautiful". I had done my research on this place and considered places like Aguila y Sol (closed) and Izote de Patricia Quintana. But I was interested in Pujol mostly because it was headed by a chef from the Culinary Institute of America in New York – Chef Enrique Olvera. Sold.
Contrary to reviews I had read about Pujol's service, we were given excellent service. From the beginning, we didn't have to raise our hands very often. The waiters came by quite frequently and checked upon us. The Chef de Cuisine even came out a few times for some tableside service – which was awesome. You would think that because we are foreigners that we might get neglected, but this wasn't the case. It also helps if you know a little Spanish and understand that there are no such things as burritos in Mexico City.
Ravioles de Aguacate (Avocado Ravioli)
I expected to see a ravioli and was actually craving one, but I forgot that at any haute cuisine, familiar names for dishes are used quite loosely. This 'ravioli' consisted of shaved shrimp that's been lightly sautéed with spicy mayonnaise and sandwiched between two thinly sliced pieces of avocado (aguacate). Wow, so delicate and delectable. J wouldn't stop talking about this dish.
Ensalada de Nopal Curado En Sal (Salt-cured Cactus Salad)
I tried cactus for the first time in the previous trip to Mexico – in Oaxaca specifically. If you haven't had cactus, it has a sliminess that is inherent in japanese mountain yams (yamaimo) and okra. This was served with a lemon sorbet, thinly shaved cactus, tomatoes and grated Mexican cheese. This dish was nice, and if it weren't for the ice cream, you'd be left with a slimy texture on your tongue.
Chapulines al Sartén
This is another delicacy I tried in Oaxaca – clay-toasted grasshoppers known as chapulines. This was Chef Olveras deconstruction of a grasshopper taco. The foam on top was made from tortillas, there's guacamole, radish and the protein. This wasn't our favorite.
Lengua de Res (Beef Tongue)
But this was my favorite. I love beef tongue. Braised beef tongue over olive tapanade and fried onion ring. J gave me hers and I couldn't be more happy.
Trucha (Fish in Mushroom Broth)
This was J's favorite... sous vide fish swimming in a pool of rich, earthy mushroom broth. The fish was unbelievably moist and went very well w/ the consomme.
Pie Cremoso de Limón Verde (Fresh Yogurt & Green Lime Sorbet)
This was good as well. I've never had Mexican style yogurt.
After this 3.5 hour meal, J and I sat there looking at each other with comatosed expressions. I really needed to be forklifted back to my place – this was just too much food for us, on top of 5 different wines. The servers were very nice and hailed a cab for us as we paid for the bill, and because it was raining. I thanked the servers and told them I'd be back again, for this was truly a meal worth the money and dining experience. What I liked most about Chef Olvera's dishes was that he remained true to Mexican ingredients. It's easy for any chef to take the common items found in haute cuisine like pork belly, foie gras, diver scallops, etc. and add your own twist to it. But none of that was found on the menu.
As we sat in the cab, Jeni sat back with a tired gaze and she was about to get her last birthday surprise. And she didn't know it. We got back to our place and greeted the owner of the guesthouse and said good night. We walked up the stairs to our place. But before we could head towards the room, I took off my sweater and turned to Jeni.
D: "Are you ready for your last birthday surprise?"
J: "What?! There's more? No more, D! I'm tired."
D: "It's nothing big, come on."
I handed her my sweater and did my best terrorist-style blindfolding job. It looked like she had a black turban, which actually went well with her dress. I told her to stay there as I ran into the room. I opened the door, and what I saw, took me aback. I went back to the hallway to grab my lovely hostage and led her with one hand. We walked in slowly, hearing the creaking of the hardwood floor, and I shut the door. I took one more look at Jeni and the room we were in and asked her one more time.
D: "Are you ready for your birthday surprise?"
D: "... Take off your blindfold, Jeni."
As she unraveled her sweater-blindfold, everything turned into slo-motion. I thought back to the time we met over 2 years ago and how we grew from two single people into a couple who could never be separated. I thought about the first time we ate on crates in front of a taco truck. And how we laughed and talked into the night. I never told her that she had a piece of cilantro stuck in her teeth the whole time, but it was okay because I didn't want to kill the moment. I thought about the sporadic weekend getaways to Santa Barbara we would take. I thought about the first time I met her parents and her brother. I thought about all the fights we had had. I thought about the time we rode on a scooter DRUNK in mainland China. I thought about how she never denied any type of adventurous food I ate. I thought about everything that happened in the 2 years that we've been dating and that it all came down to this particular time of the day in a guesthouse in Mexico City.
Jeni took off the blindfold and her eyes immediatly lit up to a room lit solely with candles, ridden with flowers on the floor and a man kneeling on one knee with something shiny in both of his hands. It took her almost 2 seconds to realize that I was on my knee and before I could speak a word, she started to cry. This was more than a birthday surprise for her, it was our engagement. And the best way to tell her that I love her.
And she said, "yes".
Read Jeni's story.
Thanks for reading.