Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Vietnamese Banh Mi Sandwich + Panini Machine = Banhmi-ni


At least once a month, J & I will take her mom down to Little Saigon to go play. Our routine is usually to either eat:

Pork Lemongrass Soup Noodles at Bun Bo Hue So 1 (bun bo hue)
Rice flour crepes stuffed with ground pork at Tay Ho (banh cuon)
Grilled cured-pork spring rolls at Brodard (nem nuong)
Grilled dill & turmeric fish at Hanoi Restaurant (cha ca)
Rice vermicelli soup with tomato & crab at Vien Dong (bun rieu)

Decisions, decisions, decisions. Even when we're full to the brim from the food of Little Saigon, there's always one last stop: vietnamese sandwiches at Banh Mi Che Cali (Garden Grove location by the 22 freeway). The sandwich is decent, as I prefer it much over the ubiquitous Lee Sandwiches, but they do offer the 3 for $5 deal which even makes old frugal, asian people do a double-take and say, "Damn, that's cheap. how do you live?!"

For those new to the Vietnamese sandwich "banh mi", it's a mix of French and Vietnamese. During the French colonization in Vietnam, they brought the bread and pate. The Vietnamese completed the equation with their selection of meats, pickled vegetables and chili. And its a great snacky snack.

Banh Mi Che Cali is an interesting place. J cannot stand going here, so her mom & I do the work. But you know what, if you have the patience, it's actually fun to watch. At least for me. It's kind of like being in a DMV or a post office that dispenses Vietnamese food. The customers AND employees are sometimes irate and within a few seconds away from giving you a fist or elbow stamp. So you have to have patience here. The customers, will sometimes try and cut in the front, carefully watching the workers wrap up the sandwiches like hawks, making sure that they don't mess up an order or give it to the wrong person. 12 types of sandwiches, you're bound to get the same order as someone else. One time I was in line with J's mom and this lady started to nudge in like she was invisible, and I just looked at her. But she turned her head and gave me an "I'm old, hungry and not moving" look. BMCC can resolve all of this by creating something called LINES or offer service numbers. It usually takes about 15 minutes to make a transaction here, but when you get out with the goods, you're happy.

Back at home, I was about to eat my 3-for-$5 sandwich, and to tell you the truth, I immediately became uninterested in it. It looked so boring. Bread. Meat. Cilantro. Zzzz. Boring because I've been eating it for so long.

And then I thought about J's panini machine.

Hmm... I wonder.

I dressed up my sandwich with the usual pickled carrots/daikon, cilantro and jalapeno. Argh. Where's the Maggi sauce? They really skimp on the Maggi dosage so you're better off adding it yourself. As the self-appointed curator of the Maggi Museum in Los Angeles, I happily went to my cabinet and picked out my standard asian Maggi and doused it. *Sigh* The aroma.

I plugged in J's Krups panini machine and threw the sandwich in. Sorry buddy, time to get a tan. Is the panini machine not a monumental step in the culinary world and cure for those with mageirocophobia? The fine-engineered rivets that sink into the bread with a very faint sizzle. The ergonomic handle that allows you to either gently toast the bread or pulverize the sandwich to an unrecognizable pulp. The sweet timer that reminds you that bread can also cause severe house fires. I decided to smash the crap out of it b/c I wanted it thin. And right away, my maggi sauce and liver pate squeezed out of the sandwich and began to caramelize, creating an interesting smell. I held that handle down for a good 1 minute then let Mr. Krups do the rest of the work. After about 3.5 minutes, I had a new product that I proudly named with teary eyes... the "Banhmi-ni".


How did it taste? Quite good. It was all about the warm contents and the texture of the bread. As I bit in, I felt the warm headcheese, pork and pate coat my teeth. The maggi, daikon/carrots and cilantro were also warm which was bleh. Next time around, I'll add the veggies and jalapenos AFTER I've completed the "Banhmi-ni". If you're tired of Lee Sandwiches or any other joint, take it to the next level with a simple panini machine and experience the "Banhmi-ni" for absolutely no extra charge! Plus, you can buy a lifetime supply of sandwiches and pop them in the freezer, and resurrect them with the genius panini machine. You won't be cut off by old ladies or receive an elbow to the ribs any longer.

Thanks for reading. I also recommend the $3 'hu tieu' noodles available for take-out. Good price!

Banh Mi Che Cali Bakery
13838 Brookhurst St.
Garden Grove, CA 92843
(714) 534-6987 Read more!

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Carlsbad Aquafarm - An Oyster Purveyor

Carlsbad Aquafarm

My first encounter with a raw oyster was about eight years ago and I remembered feeling curious and anxious as I stared at this soft, slimy-gray creature that resembled a bodily organ. It was peacefully floating in a bed of salmon roe and fresh uni, and drowned by a nameless sake. It wasn't on the half-shell but it was definitely a real oyster. My friends passed the glass to me and we all held it up in a strange, gratuitous toast to friendship and whatever oceanic concoction brewing in my glass.

First, the taste of the cheap sake. Gross.
Second, an avalanche of salty salmon roe and mushiness that is uni. Mmmmm.
And finally, the soft foreign object that feels like an oblong egg yolk. *Gag*

This is the point in time where your brain has the finger on the gag reflex switch in your body. It will either project the foreign object as your eyes well up in tears, or it will let it go down smoothly like a fat kid on a water park slide. But instead of swallowing it all, I sank my teeth into that creature as though I hated it. And to my surprise, my eyes lit up in sheer happiness. This. Was. Delicious. I watched as my other friends uttered their enjoyment for that same oyster. The next question I asked was, "can we do some more?" We ended up ordering oysters on the half shell, not that circus bullshit in the glass. And it was that day that I developed an appreciation for one of the world's most unique, pure and delicious foods – the oyster.

To me, there is nothing hotter than a raw bar. Unadulterated food, tasty beer and good company – that's all that's needed for a good time. As an oyster predator, I love eating at Swan Oyster Depot and Bar Crudo in San Francisco, Grand Central Oyster Bar in New York City and of course, Los Angeles's Hungry Cat. I also heard that Anisette in Santa Monica has a decent raw bar. But the problem is, eating oysters outside can prove to be a bad move during this recession. J wasn't too happy with my $90 tab at Grand Central Oyster Bar... a place that touts over 38 types of oysters and nearly 200 types of wine. Bad bad bad!

But I found an economic solution to one of my many bad habits. J and I were checking out the Hollywood Farmers Market for the first time a few weeks back and like a person seeing Machu Picchu through the sharp, jungle brush for the first time, I found what I was looking for: a vendor selling fresh oysters on the spot.

Carlsbad Aquafarm
, located in uh, Carlsbad, comes to the Santa Monica Farmers Market on Saturdays and Hollywood Farmers Market on Sundays. Rob of Carlsbad Aquafarms drives up each day at 5 am with a van full of seafood candy. On this day, Rob had four types of oysters on display: Catalinas, Lunas, Carlsbad Blondes and Endless Summers. In addition to oysters, CA offers California Ocean mussels, Sunburst clams, medley mixes and live scallops (call in advance and he'll bring the following week).

Carlsbad Aquafarm Catalina Oysters

The going rate for a half dozen oysters on the half shell is $15. Not good considering I can do at least 18 on my own in a single sitting. But thanks to candyman Rob, you can bring home a dozen oysters for only $9.99. That's $0.83 a piece vs. $2.50 a piece outside. For $2, you can sample any of CA's oysters.

Carlsbad Aquafarm Rob Shucking Oysters

Carlsbad Aquafarm Rob Shucking Oysters

Carlsbad Aquafarm Rob Shucking Oysters

Shucked Oysters

That day, I ended up buying 3.5 dozens of oysters and threw them in a cooler. I immediately called my oyster friend/ramen whore friend, Rameniac, and explained to him the deeds that needed to be done today. 2 hours later, Rameniac and his friend showed up. We headed over to Silver Lake Wine for something to pair with the oysters. George, formerly the sommelier at Campanile, immediately knew what to recommend. I told him the oysters were briny with a cucumber finish. He suggested these.


Muscadet Sevre Et Maine
What's interesting about this wine is that, like oysters, these grapes are grown in the area where the rivers meet the oceans. This is an area that is not too cold nor too warm, and for oysters, this is the optimal condition for proliferation. According to George, this is a favorite with shellfish.


Paco & Lola Albarino
I don't know why he picked this one. Maybe because the label is kind of cool and the fact that it's from the Basque Country. This one has a strong floral aroma which would be good with an oyster that is delicate in taste.

Before moving on, I wanted to talk about the 'process' of eating an oyster. I learned about this from the wonderful book A Geography of Oysters: The Connoisseur's Guide to Oyster Eating in North America by Rowan Jacobsen, and it changed the way I eat oysters.

There are three things that happen as you eat an oyster.

(1) As you hold the oyster, you taste the liquor first. And it'll either be sweet or briny.

(2) You then use a fork to push the oyster into your mouth and then you chew 2-3 times. The second your teeth come down on the oyster, you'll experience a nice pop like the yolk on a sunny side up egg. You want the internal fluids to spill out and you want to feel its texture. And it'll be a sweet or creamy taste.

(3) Once the fluids mix with the liquor, there will be a final finish.

If you completely down the oyster and liquor without chewing, you've missed the whole point of eating an oyster. And the usage of lemon juice and mignonette is most ideal for eating oysters because saltiness/brininess is cancelled out by citric acid. Horseradish and hot sauce will mask the integrity of the oyster.

Endless Summer & Luna Oysters

Endless Summers
Rob remembered me and immediately offered this to me because he didn't have it last time I was there. If you go up to the photo with Rob holding the oyster shell, that's the Endless Summer. And it's huge. They are typically deep cupped meaning the oyster has more room to grow and has a lot more liquor, which people love or hate. Upon opening this, you can't help but back up a little. Although it's not as big as a Belon (shell the size of a hand!) or European Flat, this would definitely be in the 3-bite tier. I got the oyster ready for the 3-step process.

(1) Very briny liquor.
(2) Fresh, crunchy texture. Like a very weak bamboo shoot.
(3) Strong cucumber finish. Wow. The reason a lot of oysters will have a melon finish, according to Rowan Jacobsen, is that the starches produced in the oysters have the same molecular build as that of a melon.

Like the popular Kumamoto oyster grown in California and Pacific Northwest, these are mildly fruity and sweet. These are very easy to eat and usually considered the 'introductory' oyster. Lunas have a similar taste and to me, they are almost thinner and smaller than Kumamotos.

(1) Mildly sweet liquor.
(2) Soft texture. Not much bite.
(3) Light, sweet finish. These are small and have a very delicate taste.

Carlsbad Blonde & Catalina Oysters

Carlsbad Blondes
These oysters are called 'blonde' because their shell is more yellow vs. the green/brown shells you usually see.

(1) Mild, briny liquor.
(2) Soft texture.
(3) Very light metallic taste. But right away, a soft cucumber finish that isn't as pronounced as that of the Endless Summer.

These are similar in size to the Carlsbad Blondes.

(1) Mild, briny liquor.
(2) Medium texture.
(3) Soft cucumber finish.

Extinct Oysters

After an hour and a half, we had 39 oysters and 2 bottles of wine. And we could've had more. Much more.

Say hi to Rob and his candy of the sea on Saturdays at the Santa Monica Farmer's Market and on Sundays at the Hollywood Farmer's Market.

What are your favorite oysters? And if you're from outside of Los Angeles, please share the names of your local oyster goldmines.

Thanks for reading.

Carlsbad Aquafarm
4600 Carlsbad Blvd
Carlsbad, CA 92008
(760) 438-2444
Tours offered from M-F 8am - 5 pm Read more!

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