Friday, December 31, 2010

Tokyo 7-7 Coffee Shop, Culver City - Thank You for the 30 Years

Tokyo 7-7 Coffee Shop, Culver City

When I was working in Culver City, there was a place that kept me alive and kicking for almost nothing. I wasn't making much and over the 3 years, I frequented a place called Tokyo 7-7, a tiny, divey coffee shop run by a few Japanese ladies. Since 1980, they served breakfast plates as low as $2.50 and was consistently filled with loyal customers wearing suits, service uniforms and baggy jeans. It was a real mix of people that would otherwise never be found in the same building unless it was the DMV. At that time, Downtown Culver City was developing into a "foodie" district and was sarcastically dubbed as “CuCi” for its semi-pricey lunch and dinner spots. Amidst the transformation, this tiny alleyway gem continued to keep things real. Real cheap.

Sadly, on December 18, those that frequented Tokyo 7-7 would remember this quaint business as real soul food. The food is nothing to write about, but sometimes it doesn't have to be good to have an impact on you. Everyone out there has his or her favorite restaurant, but at the end of the day, I'm sure most will take a home-cooked meal with the family over any Michelin-star restaurant.

The same thing happened to a neighborhood izakaya in West Los Angeles called Terried Sake House. A place where you could find some of the lowest priced yakitori skewers, sushi and other Japanese-y food. It was a place my friends and I would meet up to feed on various chicken parts and drink atrocious sake. But it was fun and our. And after 25+ years of working the kitchen, I could see that the owner was tired. During its last week of business, we found ourselves waiting nearly 30 minutes for a table in a full house, with a good 15-20 people waiting outside. We did the same thing, got our gizzards and hearts, ordered cheap sake and even stole one of the menus which was taped to the sake box cardboard. When we were done, we all went to shake the owners hand and thanked him for his 25+ years of service. I asked him what his plans were in which he replied with a weary smile, "travel. I'm done here."

Tokyo 7-7 Coffee Shop, Culver City

As with Terried Sake House, it was now time for the sweet ladies of Tokyo 7-7 to move on. I drove down to Culver City on a weekday morning and found a line out the door. Because I was alone I was able to pull up on a 2-top easily. It was packed here at 8 am. I came here for my last Japanese American-style breakfast and to say goodbye to a great coffee shop.

Tokyo 7-7 Coffee Shop, Culver City

When you walk in you really get the feeling of being in someone's house with autographed photos of the forgotten – Pat Morita of Karate Kid, random Japanese MLB players and a signed photo of Bob Sagat and The Full House cast. This was Napoleon Dynamite's house.

The signs of this establishment being Japanese run are subtle at first, but one look at the condiments supplied and you can sense the Japanese influence. They've got the usual suspects, but there's also soy sauce and Japanese seven-spice pepper called shichimi togorashi.

Tokyo 7-7 Coffee Shop, Culver City

And then you see this sweet lady, Kazuko Ozawa from Shizuoka, Japan, who has owned this place for 30 years with the first 3 years at a different location. Even after so many years, she still buzzes around the restaurant with a warm smile. In one of the photos framed, you can see a younger Ozawa-san serving customers. It was definitely photographed in the 1980's. Crazy to think I was just a baby when she was setting up shop in Culver City.

Tokyo 7-7 Coffee Shop, Culver City

And then there's her counterpart, Chizuru Okumura of Kumamoto, Japan who has worked there for 20 years. She's like an Aunt to me and always knows that I like to add the shichimi togorashi and seaweed condiment to my food – scratching her head as I add seaweed on top of my fried eggs.

Tokyo 7-7 Coffee Shop, Culver City

When you order items like miso soup, which was at one time $0.80, you're given a pair of wooden chopsticks. Miso soup is good for washing down syrupy pancakes.

Tokyo 7-7 Coffee Shop, Culver City

Certainly an average bowl of miso soup that is missing a key ingredient like dashi no moto fish stock powder, but who's complaining at $1 a bowl.

Tokyo 7-7 Coffee Shop, Culver City

Tokyo 7-7 Hawaiian Royal
Anyone but Sandra Lee can make this, but why not let Tokyo 7-7 do it for you for a mere $4.50. Plus you don't have the essence from a 30-year old seasoned grill. It's something a college kid would make... unevenly scrambled eggs, your choice of meat, onions and scallions and served over warm Japanese rice. A little dash of soy sauce, shichimi togorashi and seaweed flakes and you're good to go. My friend who ate here 3 times during their last week of business ordered this every time.

Tokyo 7-7 Coffee Shop, Culver City

Tokyo 7-7 Coffee Shop, Culver City

Portuguese Sausage with Two Fried Eggs & Rice
Hawaiians eat this sausage like it grows off trees. It's slightly smokey and sweet and even served at the McDonald's in Hawaii. I love this stuff. Even more with nicely fried eggs and Japanese rice. Again, anyone can make this but there's something comforting about the way they do it.

Tokyo 7-7 Coffee Shop, Culver City

After I took a photo of Ozawa and Ozumura, I asked Ozumura what she planned to do after this. She said, "I don't know but I am happy. 20 years is a long time!"

Tokyo 7-7 Coffee Shop, Culver City

So thank you to Kazuko Ozawa and Chizuru Okumura for the decades of service and ridiculously cheap food. I'm sure I'm not the only one that is bummed about their closure. I will miss the simple yet comforting food and the mother-like service. Would love to hear your thoughts on this place if you were a Tokyo 7-7 enthusiast. You'll be overjoyed to find out that some ubiquitous American Italian joint will be serving up mediocre pizza and bland salads in its stead. But if they do happen to serve some miso soup and Portuguese sausage pizza, I may drop by the building for old times sake.

Send any of your photos to the Tokyo 7-7 website which plays a solemn instrumental song or "Like" them on Facebook. They've got a photo of the coffee shop completely gutted out. Thanks for reading.
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Monday, December 27, 2010

2010 Fuji Rock Festival Food Stalls

Here's 5:50 mins of pure food. The food alone at the Fuji Rock Festival is worth the trip. Simply press mute when the high-pitched, nasal-voiced people get on your nerves. Enjoy. Read more!

Friday, December 17, 2010

WonderTune Paris - Finally Going to Europe

After years of traveling all over Latin America and Asia, we are finally heading to Europe for our first time – and we're super stoked. Would love to hear your eating/drinking suggestions for Paris.

And here's the WonderTune Paris mix. Featuring chill/laidback songs from:

Arcade Fire
Bon Iver
Daft Punk
Massive Attack
Nightmares On Wax
Nouvelle Vague
Peter Bjorn & John
The Radio Dept.
The Shins
Yo La Tengo

Download WonderTune Paris. Enjoy. Thanks for reading.
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Monday, December 13, 2010

Ngu Binh, Little Saigon Westminster - Bun Bo Hue the Lonely, Distant Red-headed Relative of Pho

Ngu Binh, Westminster Little Saigon

When it comes to Vietnamese food, you can bet the first thing people will talk about is pho, a delicate soup noodle dish made from long hours of boiling beef bones, browned onions, fish sauce and various spices. Do not pronounce it like "foe" – all of your wrongdoings in life will be spilled over WikiLeaks and you'll be left to eat Costco samples for the rest of your life. I love pho as much as everyone does and enjoy eating it in whatever mood I'm in, but let's be honest, it's time it got off the stage like Leno. Of the hundreds of Vietnamese soup noodle dishes, it doesn't do much to the senses. There's definitely aroma, flavor and heat, but it is also one big bowl of boring. Zzzzz.

Believe it or not, pho will never go away. It's impossible. It's provided sustenance for Vietnamese people for decades and it fuels poor, starving college kids all over the U.S. It will not suddenly disappear off the face of this planet. As a suggestion for your New Year's resolution, may I suggest you start to veer off and try things like:

Banh Canh Cua - a thick, crab-based noodle soup with various seafood and meats
Bun Moc - a simple vermicelli soup with hand-made pork balls stuffed with wood-ear shrooms
Bun Rieu Oc - a dill & tomato flavored soup with snails or sometimes tofu & fishcake patties
Bun Thang - a soup noodle dish with thinly sliced fried eggs and Vietnamese meatloaf
Hu Tieu Nam Vang - an ode to Cambodian/Trieu Chau soup noodles also with various meats
Mi Quang - yellow rice noodles topped with shrimp, pork, peanuts and a side of broth

I can go on all day long about the various soup noodle dishes. When I was in Vietnam, they were everywhere. Cooked in restaurants, cafes, night markets and street stands. Each of the three main regions in Vietnam offer something delicious.

But the one soup noodle dish that I can never get enough of comes from the Central region of Vietnam known as Huebun bo hue. Literally it means "noodles", "beef" and "from Hue". The soup is made with beef bones, lemongrass stalks, ginger/onions/garlic and the key ingredient, chili oil. The result is a flavorful, fiery bowl of pure attitude. Look at it, it is the exact opposite of pho, it needs to attend anger management classes. My analogy: pho is the good catholic schoolgirl that never talks to boys, bun bo hue is the cigarette smoking, tatted-up bad girl destined to make a salary collecting $1 bills. Yes, raunchy but GOOD.

I'm sent to a place called Ngu Binh in Little Saigon by my friends MK and MT. It was about half-filled at 6 pm and in less than 10 minutes, J & I turned around to see at least 15 people waiting by the door for a table. I had also heard that the chef/owner of the restaurant is the only person with the responsibility of constructing each bowl of bun bo hue – no one else is allowed to. In English, that's called a "noodle Nazi" and its best to be out of the tornado's path. And on weekends, this place does sell out of bun bo hue. But on this day we were lucky.

Ngu Binh, Westminster Little Saigon

In a few minutes, our desired bowl of bun bo hue arrives and it is filled with all sorts of goodies. This is peasant food at its best. You've got slices of tender beef shank, a nice piece of skin-on pork foot, nuggets of Vietnamese meatloaf called cha and pork blood cubes. NO, thank god there is no tai rare steak! At many places I've eaten bun bo hue, the broth sometimes can have too much lemongrass or too much rock sugar. The soup here is delicious and very balanced. The chef leaves you with no choice but to handle the chili oil, and it is awesome. The vermicelli noodles used are thicker than pho, and a common noodle used in Chinese soup noodles – typically in Yunnan and Southern China.

Ngu Binh, Westminster Little Saigon

Here's the Google Earth view of the bun bo hue soup noodles. Amazing technology by Google. How funny would it be if you can zoom in on a restaurant. As you can see, there are a lot of things going on and its what makes this dish to me, quite a unique one.

Ngu Binh, Westminster Little Saigon

But what I love most about Vietnamese food is the customizing that you're encouraged to do. How many of you like to alter the color of your pho from a boring color to something orange from Sriracha sauce or dark brown from the Hoisin sauce? Or do you like to overflood the bowl with huge handfuls of bean sprouts? With bun bo hue, the party doesn't stop. Here's a tip for you to spot out an authentic bun bo hue restaurant. If you are served purple cabbage versus banana blossoms pictured above, you aren't getting the real deal. Banana blossoms don't have a strong taste but texture-wise, they add a nice touch to the soup noodles. I recommend adding a ton of torn mint to this dish – it takes it to another level.

Ngu Binh, Westminster Little Saigon

Pork blood cubes, aka, Chinese Chocolate. Love it or hate it, but don't dismiss the whole dish because of it. Made from congealed pork blood, this add another interesting texture that I really enjoy. The Chinese, Thai, Filipinos and Koreans also use this quite a lot in their cooking. Instead of freaking out, you can simply take it out. It's that easy.

Ngu Binh, Westminster Little Saigon

Another thing that separates this place from other bun bo hue restaurants is in the way they serve the Vietnamese meatloaf known as cha. I've noticed that the Chinese/Trieu Chau-run Vietnamese restaurants will use thin slices cut from a larger loaf – usually 3-4 slices. Cheap! 100% Vietnamese-run restaurants will usually offer nuggets or "logs" of cha. What in the world did I just mean by that? There are Chinese EVERYWHERE. The ones that have migrated to Vietnam to work are usually of Trieu Chau (Chiu Chow) descent. Although they do speak Vietnamese, the are in fact, more in touch with the Chinese side. If you've been to Hanoi, you can definitely notice Chinese influence since it borders China. When I had it at the famed lunch lady Bourdain visited in Saigon, she offered HUGE pieces of cha in her bowl of bun bo hue. Her bun bo hue was definitely on the punchy, lemon-grass heavy side as opposed to Ngu Binh's. Anyway, the cha here is the best I have eaten in the U.S. I tried to buy some to go but I got denied because they wouldn't have enough to complete their orders.

Ngu Binh, Westminster Little Saigon

At a Hue restaurant, you will hardly find egg rolls. But that's okay. Instead, you will see a lot of delicious rice-flour based dishes such as this, banh beo, steamed rice cakes topped with ground shrimp, fried shallots, scallions and my favorite, fried pork skins (chicharrones). Here at Ngu Binh, they certainly don't skimp on the toppings but the rice cake itself is a bit too thick. I actually prefer the thinner, translucent ones found at Quan Hy and Quan Hop.

Ngu Binh BBH7

Thanks again to MK and MT for the suggestion. A lot of versions I've tried either have too much MSG, too much sugar, too much fish sauce or simply lose their flavor at first sip. Ngu Binh is easily my favorite bun bo hue at the moment. Yet another stop in the wonderful Vietnamese food court known as Little Saigon.

Here are some other bun bo hue places I've tried/heard about:

Bun Bo Hue So 1, Westminster, CA
I used to frequent this place but the taste went down over the years. Very punchy lemongrass flavor. I like the mi quang here though.

My Linh's Bun Bo Hue, Garden Grove, CA
A friend told me about this place but I have yet to try it.

Pho Cong Ly Saigon Deli Restaurant, Garden Grove, CA
Another place I hear a lot about. Anyone try?

Brodard, Garden Grove, CA
The mecca for charbroiled pork rolls (nem nuong) offers a plethora of Hue food and is always packed. I've had several dishes here and they all seem average to me, including the bun bo hue.

Kim Hoa Hue, South El Monte, CA
A very balanced bun bo hue is offered here in what I refer to as Mini Saigon – all on Garvey Avenue. I love ordering the banana-wrapped goodies like nem chua, aka Vietnamese Roulette due to its "raw-but-cooked" look and cha hue. If you don't want to drive far, this will do you just fine.

Nem Nuong Khanh Hoa, Rosemead, CA
Run by a very nice Chinese/Trieu Chau (see I told you they exist!) family for a few years, they offer good nem nuong rolls but unfortunately I think the bun bo hue itself can use a little work. All I remember from is being very thirsty from the MSG used.

Nem Nuong Ninh Hoa, Rosemead, CA
This place has been here since the 90s, maybe even earlier, and located next to In & Out and Rosemead High School. Very punchy, lemongrass flavor. Sometimes a bit heavy on MSG. I recommend their nem nuong platter for an appetizer.

Mien Trung, Rosemead, CA
Run by a nice family, they offer various Hue dishes. It's not bad but there's a quick flavor fallout. I'd give their other dishes a try though. I would rather continue driving east to Kim Hoa Hue in Mini Saigon.

Nha Trang, San Gabriel, CA
This is a new spot run by a Chinese/Trieu Chau (ahem!) lady. She runs out of her Hue-style food pretty much on the weekends so you'll have to go here earlier in the day. Unfortunately, I came on a day they were sold out.

M Delivery, San Gabriel, CA
I had high hopes in this place that now takes over the old Banh Mi shop next to Popeye's. The place was screaming bun bo hue but unfortunately, it was less than average and strong on MSG. They do a lot of take-out/catering orders here.

Thanks for reading. Give bun bo hue a chance and hopefully you'll understand why I crave it so often.
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Sunday, December 05, 2010

Soo Rak San House of Noodles, Koreatown Los Angeles - Sujebi Korean Hand-Torn Noodles

Soo Rak San House of Noodles, Koreatown Los Angeles

The Koreans have quite a number of different dishes that are served on special occasions, seasons and holidays. I read on a Korean tourism site somewhere that bi bim bap is a typical New Year's day dish, same with rice cake soup, tteok. Or when a child is born, colorful rice cakes dusted with various bean powders are served to the family. I remember my good friend Immaeatchu telling me how she had made a beef and seaweed soup in celebration of her mom's birthday. Whatever the case, it seems like everyday is a party for Korean people. And for sure kimchi is that one dish that is celebrated everyday.

But for the not-so-glorious non-Holidays and special occasions that involve too much soju and watered-down Crown Royal, Koreans are also prepared for that department with the many 24-hour joints in Koreatown. A bowl of haejang kook (hangover soup), yu kae jang (spicy beef soup) or shul lung tang, white beef bone broth, always seems to do the trick. Although Korean soups and stews may not be glamorous enough to graze the cover of Food & Wine, they do serve their purpose in satisfying hunger and even providing bodily warmth. I recently found a place that serves Korean hand-torn noodles known as sujebi (soo-jeh-bee) and as I've heard from many of my Korean friends, a perfect dish on a rainy day. This dish may even be perfect for those "just got dumped by my girlfriend who started poking some guy who kept on poking her over Facebook" kind of day.

Sujebi refers to "noodles" that are hand-torn from a ball of dough and boiled in water. The texture is similar to Korean knife-cut noodles known as kal gook soo, but a bit more rough and chewy. In my opinion they are not as chewy as the standard rice ovalettes you see in dishes like dok pok ki and I actually prefer sujebi over those. Due to the hand-tearing technique, you'll never get the same noodle shape which adds a nice homeyness to the food – something I feel best represents Korean food.

Soo Rak San Noodle House - Koreatown, Los Angeles

I was first introduced to sujebi at the wonderful crab hot pot restaurant known as Ondal 2 (pictured above) – a delightfully ludicrous, four-part dinner that almost always requires a gurney to exit the restaurant. It is Part Three of the dinner and quite fun to watch. For those that have never been to Ondal 2, a waitress unravels a ball of dough out of saran wrap and rips pieces of "noodles" into the boiling crab soup. And they are tasty.

At Soo Rak San Noodle House, their specialties are sujebi and kal gook soo, with at least 5-6 versions of each for you to choose from. When I walked in, it was quite clear that I should stick to the sujebi based on the number of diners eating it as well.

Soo Rak San Noodle House - Koreatown, Los Angeles

For only $7.99, you are served quite a large portion of sujebi in a typical clay/stone pot, to maintain the hot temperature of the dish. The seafood sujebi came with shrimp, a piece of crab body and legs, clams and mussels. The sujebi broth consists of dried anchovies, seafood and kelp and really has a nice umami taste – more than your typical bowl of kal gook soo. The waitress came with the bowl and I parted the fruits de mer to the side... ah, there you are, my little gems of starch. There were two colored sujebi noodles: white and green. Turns out the green is not made of vegetable (squash noodles) like the ones served at LA 1080 Noodle House on Western. Instead, the chef uses chlorella powder to enrich with vitamins and enhance the color. Chlorella, not to be misread as cholera, is a type of green algae first incorporated into food to curb global hunger during the 1940s. Due to its high protein properties, it was used heavily in Korea during the war, when nutritious food was hard to come by. Don't you love it when you're eating something delicious AND nutritious? Double win.

Soo Rak San Noodle House - Koreatown, Los Angeles

I devoured the sujebi faster than I ate the seafood. In fact, the seafood was getting in my way. If you can handle the heat, this is one dish you want to eat when its spicy – so good. Compared to the other sujebi places I've eaten at – Ondal 2 and Olympic Noodle, this definitely holds up. But they are all pretty equal in my opinion. I don't think that Ondal 2 serves them separate from the crab hot pot. I have to go back and check out the kal gook soo soup noodles to make a better assessment. For now, both Soo Rak San and Olympic Noodle will do you just fine if you are interested in trying sujebi.

Soo Rak San Noodle House - Koreatown, Los Angeles

I also ordered a basket of their steamed dumplings and they were definitely tasty. I think I still prefer the dumplings over at Olympic Noodle and Myung Dong Kyoja over these. My only problem with these steamed dumplings is that they got dried out like a Hollywood celebrity's botoxed face. So you have to eat these quite fast. Flavor is there though.

Thanks for reading.

Soo Rak San Noodle House
4003 Wilshire Blvd. #1
Los Angeles, CA 90010
(213) 389-2818
Everyday 10 am - 10 pm

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Sunday, November 28, 2010

WonderTune Honduras

I wasn't able to post this prior to our trip to the Bay Islands of Honduras, so here's the WonderTune Honduras mix. We had an amazing time on Roatán, one of three islands off the Honduran coast. Stand by for our experiences with scuba diving, a delicious Honduran snack called baleadas and an African island with no more than 75 friendly people. Thanks for reading... and listening! Mix includes artists like Arcade Fire, The Radio Dept., Twin Shadow, Shit Robot and Toro Y Moi.

Download WonderTune Honduras
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Tuesday, October 26, 2010

A Dinner for My Uncle - Braised Lamb Shanks, Black Cod with Mushroom Dashi, Poached Octopus and Seared Scallops

A Dinner for My Uncle

It was 1983 and I had just woken up from a long nap on the plane. My mom quickly tapped on my shoulder and pointed out the tiny window. I was groggy and disoriented from my first airplane flight (Pan Am!) – but my eyes grew wide open. To this day, I can vividly recall the yellow lights of Hong Kong's harbor and Kowloon City. I could see large junk ships sprinkled all over the green water and cars cruising the streets like fish swimming in a two-way stream. My mom was from Macau, now the Las Vegas of Asia, but had moved to Hong Kong to work. She then moved to the United States in the early 70s to pursue a more opportunistic life as many Asians did. She got married a few years later and had me and my sister. It was now eleven years since she had left her father and brothers and she was happy to come back to Hong Kong now with her own family.

For first time visitors to Asia, it is usually quite a disorienting, stimulating experience. Like life on fast-forward. We filed out of the airplane, picked up our luggage and proceeded through the long hallways towards the exit. As we got closer, I could hear indistinct chatter from people and cars honking. I was taken aback by how many people were waiting to pick up their friends and family. The lighting was a bit dim and casted behind the crowd. At my age and size, everyone seemed like a giant silhouette to me. It was daunting. But all of a sudden, my mom sped up ahead of me and my dad, who was holding my baby sister. We could see a man behind the rail waving vigorously with a huge smile on his face. This has to be the Uncle my mom had spoken about so often. "Kow-fu", as I would learn to call him, which means "mom's younger brother" in Cantonese Chinese. I didn't know him but I knew I liked him the second he picked me and my sister us up for a hug. It was 1983 and I was now in Hong Kong with my new family.

The details of the trip were blurry after the day at the airport. I can only be reminded of the activities we did through pictures. A lot of photos of us at restaurants with "lazy susans" on the tables. Photos of us on random park slides. Anonymous old people holding us. Anonymous people with terrible 1980s fashion holding us. But one thing we'll never forget is the feeling of love that my Uncle gave us and that constant smile that could only come from a good relationship between him and my mom.

In the next 27 years, we had visited and seen my Uncle at least 8-10 times. But this time, he was coming back to Los Angeles to visit my family. I had grown a lot since then and I am now married myself. He had met Jeni before but this time he would be stepping into our house. It was now my turn to make him feel the way I felt when I met him that day at the airport in Hong Kong. If I had to write about the impact of my "Kow-fu" on our life, it would be a long series. But what do you give someone who pretty much has everything, has seen a better part of the world and indeed lives a life rich in so many ways. And as I've learned and preached throughout my time writing this blog is the importance of food, friends and family. In almost everything we do, food does bring us together. As children, we all hated being force-fed by family. They weren't trying to make our lives difficult, they were just trying to provide sustenance and love.

With that, I decided to show my appreciation for my Uncle and Aunt visiting from Hong Kong with a home-cooked meal. With Nathan and Karen McCall's wonderful offerings, local farmers market and great wine from Jill Bernheimer's Domaine LA, I was able to prepare a California-ish menu.

Kowfu Dinner Scallops

Seared Diver Scallop with Piquillo Pepper Sauce & Spanish-style Green Beans
Recently, the scallops at McCall's have almost been as large as a hockey puck. The bigger ones are obviously meaty yet can be challenging to cook since you stand a better chance of undercooking it or "cracking" the scallop - a HUGE pet-peeve of mine. In that case, less is more theory comes in to play. If you don't think you can handle the large size scallop, get two smaller sized ones. If you haven't had piquillo peppers before, you may want to start using them over red bell peppers – they are so sweet and subtly smokey. You will usually find them jarred with olive oil and water. I recommend Bajamar, which McCall's and La Española (Harbor City) has. If not, Trader Jose will work just fine.

Diver or Dayboat Scallops
Roasted Piquillo Peppers
Wax beans
Whole Dried Peppers (I like Thai, spicier than Mexican and Italian)
Heavy whipping Cream
Chicken broth (optional)
Smoked paprika
Olive Oil

(1) Blanch the wax beans prior to cooking them in the pan, it'll make your life much easier. Bring the water to a rigorous boil, add two tablespoons of salt and a shot of olive oil. Add the beans and cook for about 3 minutes, strain the beans and shock them in an ice bath to stop the cooking. Remove from water and dry with paper towels. These should have a nice crunch to them, but not a raw taste.

(2) In a blender, add about 3-4 pieces of the piquillo peppers, one clove of garlic and a little cream. Blend it and add cream and stock as needed for a nice consistency. Add sugar for some sweetness. Don't worry about it being too chunky. Upon service, you will heat the sauce up in a pan with some butter and smooth it out. Salt and pepper to your taste. If you want, you can blend it for another few minutes. Set the sauce in a pan on low heat as you'll be serving it right away over the scallop.

(3) In a skillet or iron pan, keep the heat on high. Make sure the scallops are COMPLETELY DRY before seasoning them with S&P. The more moisture your scallop has, the more difficult it is to get a nice caramelized "cap". The heat must be high but not to the point it is "cracking" your scallop open. You have to babysit scallops or they will lose control. They'll drop out of school, starting doing drugs and you'll never hear from them again. 3-4 minutes per side depending on the size of your scallop. Set aside.

(4) Sauté the beans on super high heat. They have already been cooked but you want that last kiss of heat from the skillet. Add olive oil, toss in the beans. Add garlic, dried chili peppers, smoked paprika and S&P to taste. When I cook this, it takes no more than 1 minute because my skillet is smoking hot. Squeeze a little lemon juice over the dish and serve. The sweetness of the scallop blends really well with the smokiness of the piquillo peppers and spiciness of the sautéed green beans.

A Dinner for My Uncle

Poached Polipolata Octopus with La Quercia Pancetta and Baby Potato & Celery Salad
This is inspired by one of my favorite Italian dishes in Los Angeles. Both Osteria Mozza and Osteria Mamma (ex-Chef of Osteria La Buca) offer a tasty, poached-octopus salad. The former cooks the octopus with the "fabled wine cork method" and finishes it off on the grill. The latter poaches the octopus in water and offers a lighter, delicate version of this famed Italian dish. I chose to follow the latter because I didn't have time to do a final char. And since an octopus lacks bones and sinews, there is no need to do excessive braising. The preparation of my 4 lb. octopus took no longer than 1 hour 15 mins. After all, you are not serving the whole octopus, only the tentacles.

Baby potatoes
La Quercia pancetta (any will do, even Nueske bacon)
Special occasion olive oil
Regular olive oil

(1) Wash the octopus, touch its eyeballs and say "sorry". You don't want to submerge the octopus in hot, boiling water because it will curl up really quickly and tighten all the tentacles. Instead, add the octopus to a pot and fill it with cold water. Add 2-3 tablespoons of salt. Bring the octopus to a boil (probably 10-12 minutes) and immediately cook on low heat. The key here is to check Mr. Octopus every 15 minutes. You do not want a mushy, overcooked octopus – it's gross. Cut a piece of the tentacle off and try a piece from the wider part of the tentacle. If it tastes soft yet still meaty, you're good to go. Cut off all the tentacles at the base and add them to an ice bath. Discard the head. Remove the tentacles once they are cold and pat them dry. Mix some olive oil with the tentacles in a bowl and keep it refrigerated. You are prepping them for sautéing or grilling.

(2) Boil the potatoes til they are in between hard and fork-tender. Shock them in ice. You will be cutting them into small pieces and want a somewhat nice bite to them - not mashed potatoes.

(3) If you are grilling the octopus tentacles, make sure they have a nice char on high heat. You want that nice grill taste. If you are sautéing, cut the tentacles up into 1/4" - 1/2" pieces. Sauté on high heat in a skillet with garlic and a little white wine if you'd like.

(4) Cook pancetta until they are slightly crispy. Pat them dry with a paper towel.

(5) Mix the tentacles, potatoes, celery, pancetta and chives in a bowl. Cough it up, and use the SPECIAL OCCASION olive oil since this will make or break the dish. You use cheap olive oil, it will taste like styrofoam. People will know you're cheap, delete you off Facebook and never speak to you again. S&P and lemon juice.

Kowfu Dinner Black Cod

Pan-Roasted Black Cod with Matsutake and Bun Shimeji Mushroom Dashi
The black cod at McCall's is intensely fresh and fatty. It is almost impossible to overcook this fish but the most desired part of this fish is a nice crisp skin. I've messed up on this in the past. If you overcook the skin it'll be blackened. If you undercook it, you'll get this soggy, scab-like texture which can be undesirable. In this dish, the moist fish is combined with the earthiness of Japanese mushrooms in a light dashi stock. Dashi is a key Japanese stock that is made with fish powder, bonito fish flakes, sea kelp (kombu), sake or mirin and salt. The result is a broth that can be sold as a soft drink. I've cooked this dish many times and my guests have always been happy. If you don't want to make your own broth, you can just buy a bottle of udon/somen/tsuyu sauce. From there, add shitake mushrooms, bonito flakes, soy sauce and sugar and just achieve the taste you're looking for. It should be slightly sweet and salty and match the milkiness of the black cod.

Black cod (skin-on)
Your choice of Japanese mushrooms (I used Beech, King, oyster, Matsutake)
Shichimi Togorashi (Japanese 7-ingredient chili pepper mix)

Dashi Ingredients
Dashi-no-moto fish stock (comes in large box or packets)
Shitake mushrooms
Bonito flakes (katsuoboshi)
Soy Sauce
Sake or Mirin

(1) I am very bad at measurements and just eyeball everything – tasting as I go. Start out with some water in a pot and add soy sauce. Throw in about 4 dried shitake mushrooms and a handful of bonito flakes and lightly bring water to a boil. Then add about 2-3 tablespoons of the dashi no moto fish stock powder to get that 'fishy' taste you have in good miso soup. From here it's a game of adding sugar and more soy sauce to achieve the final taste. Again, the result should have a nice hint of sweetness, fish, mushrooms and smokiness from the bonito flakes. Set on the side on super low heat. Bring to a boil upon service.

(2) Keep your oven on at 450 degrees. Sear the black cod in a oven-safe skillet (meaning no plastic handles) on medium to high heat and carefully watch that skin. You'll know the skin is being cooked on too high of heat when your smoke alarm goes off and you'll know the skin is being cooked on too low of heat when the fish starts sweating out the water. It has to be in between. I'd say 5-6 minutes on the skin side and then toss it in the oven for about 4-5. Keep checking the fish by jiggling it. It should be done when it's not like jello, and not too firm.

(3) Sauté the mushrooms of your choice on high heat and add a little bit of the Japanese 7-spice pepper mix.

(4) Now you're ready to serve. You want to add piping hot broth AROUND the fish. Pretend your black cod is a castle perched on top of mountain of mushrooms, surrounded by a mushroom broth moat and garnished with microgreen trees. Make sure the broth does not touch the fish. Protect that castle. Enjoy.

Kowfu Dinner Lamb Shanks

Braised Lamb Shanks with Serrano Chile Salsa Verde and Lazy-man Lentils
I felt a braised dish would be a great way to end a dinner. To me, a braised dish is the epitome of a home-cooked meal by a loved one. It's comforting, tasty and very tender. There aren't too many things that would suck as a result of a braising in a Le Creuset pot. Instead of doing the usual wine-braise, Nathan and I had discussed a beer braise with veal stock instead of chicken stock for that extra shot of slight "gameness". Often times, red wine can make a dish too "heavy" and this new plan offered an escape from food coma. For the salsa verde, I searched high and low for a good recipe. Many suggested either boiling the tomatillos, blending the tomatillos raw or roasting the tomatillos. Boiling would take away from the taste a little. Blending raw tomatillos would result in a super sour taste. I went with roasting because I like the taste. As for the lazy-man lentils, what I mean by that is use Trader Joe's pre-cooked ones – it'll save you so much time. Upon service, just wake it up with some chicken stock, garlic and butter.

Ingredients for Lamb Shank Braise
Lamb Shanks
Mire Poix (onions, carrots, celery)
Bay Leaves
Veal Stock Demi-glace (available at McCall's, if not use chicken stock)
2 cans of lager/light beer (I used Sapporo)
Red Wine (for color)
Chicken Stock
Whole bulb of garlic

Ingredients for Salsa Verde
8-10 Tomatillos (green tomatoes)
1 large onion
2-3 cloves of garlic
cilantro bunch
lime juice (if needed)
Chicken broth (optional)
Serrano or jalapeno chiles

Lamb Shanks

(1) In a dutch oven (Le Creuset), brown the shanks over high heat. The browner they get, the more flavor and better looking they'll be. Use salt and oil freely since you want to get a nice browning. This takes about 10 minutes. Remove shanks and place in a bowl. Keep the oil in the dutch oven.

(2) Sweat the mire poix for about 8 minutes and add 4-5 sprigs of thyme, 2-3 bay leaves and a beheaded bulb of garlic (don't bother peeling the garlic).

(3) Add shanks back in and add about 1 cup of red wine for color, 2 cans of beer, 3-4 tablespoons of cumin and chicken stock until the shanks are submerged. Add 2-3 scoops of veal demi-glace. Cover the pot and bring to a boil. Have your oven on at 500 degrees and move the pot inside once it has come to a boil. Braise for 2.5-3 hours and check at the 1.5 hour mark to make sure the liquid has not evaporated too fast. You'll want to add more chicken stock and flip the shanks upside down to "repair" the dried out side of the shanks.

(4) Salt to taste, or add water if it's too salty. Keep this in the oven on the lowest setting or on the stove at simmer until service. You'll want to use a fork to pull the meat off the bone and make sure you suck that marrow out of the lamb bones while you're at it – so good.

Salsa Verde
(1) In a mixing bowl, toss the tomatillos, chiles, garlic and onions with some olive oil. Roast them at 350 degrees for about 20 minutes or until they are tender. In a blender, toss them in and add salt to taste. It should still be sour enough, but have some lime juice on reserve just in case. I also used some chicken stock and extra pieces of raw onion to "kill" off the sour taste. This was tasty.

After four courses, some ice cream and ample wine, I could see that my Uncle and Aunt were ready to fall asleep. I didn't cook the fish as nice as I wanted to because I had to cook for 7. I knew some of the dishes were too different for them being from Hong Kong. But at the end, my Uncle assured me that there is nothing better than a homecooked meal. He has eaten everywhere in the world but would pick a meal with family over anything. And I couldn't agree more. All of the effort Jeni and I put in was worth it. I then looked at my little 4 year old nephew and thought about the day he would hopefully cook for me and I then understood how my Uncle felt at that moment. So to my "Kow-fu", thank you for being a great Uncle and for everything you've done for my family. Thanks for reading.
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Monday, October 18, 2010

McCall's Meat & Fish, Los Feliz - Nathan McCall and the Pig

Nathan McCall and the 350 lb. Re Ride Pig

"One man's junk is another man's treasure."

By now in Los Angeles, it's not uncommon to see the words 'pig ears', 'jowels' or even 'trotters' on the menu. With this current dining trend, it's almost bizarre to find a restaurant that doesn't offer a beautiful offal. Just wait for the wonderful people at Olive Garden to offer the braised pig tongue ravioli with pig blood tomato sauce for $8.95 with coupon. Based on a ritual practiced for nearly centuries by almost every race in the world but Americans, a pig is finally consumed to the last piece of meat and thankfully it does not die in vain. When I had heard that Nathan McCall of McCall's Meat and Fish was offering a whole butchered pig that had been milk and acorn fed, I had to go in and see the butchering process. We've all tasted animals that had benefited from being milk-fed or acorn-fed. The latter being best exemplified through the mastery of Spanish charcuterie chefs – jamon Iberico de Bellota (Iberico ham). I had never tasted anything better than that.

On Thursday, I received a text from Nathan and I quickly drove over to meet him. The pig had made its way from the Sandberg Ranch in Lake Hughes, California – about an hour outside of Los Angeles. Nathan told me the 18 month old pig weighed in at 350 lbs., and had to be sawed in half in order to be carried by TWO people. I remembered vividly the scene in Food Inc. where a man in protective gear took a chainsaw down a carcass in less than 2 seconds. Just like that, it was halved.

I've known Nathan and Karen for about 7 months now and on this day, he showed me his true skill and passion for what he does. On top of waking up everyday at 5 am to go to the fish market almost everyday, ensuring that his customers get super fresh seafood, he works until about 10 pm, only to experience Groundhog Day again. He says that he and Chef Nozawa of Sushi Nozawa are homeys. Nathan has also done a lot for me as well.

I walked in with my camera and he had already been working on the first half of the pig – we'll name him "Benny Hill". He didn't even bother saying "hi" to me, he was at work. And one look at his focused face, I knew I shouldn't get near him and his hacksaw. If you happen to see Dylan's Ranch whiskey-fed, taco-fed, noodle-fed pork belly for sale, you'll understand my fate.

With a hacksaw, he cut through the limbs as far as he could, and then finish off with his meat knife. Before each incision or cut, he moved around his worktable like he was on a billiards table. He'd lean to the side and eyeball, murmuring to himself different measurements. I, along with two other gentleman stood and watched him go to town – the town of Porksville. The color of the flesh was a very light pink, yet deep and rich. The same richness you see from the Iberico ham... almost a crimson red. If trichinosis didn't exist, we might've jumped upon the pig like one of those freaks from Twilight and taken a bite of the meat to taste that milk and acorn. In about 20 minutes, he had finished off the first half. And still had the rest of the pig to go.

All I could stare at was that long rack of light pink rib meat. The pig was so fresh that the marrow was oozing out of the ribs, almost looked like vaseline. I took a few photos of the head. The eyes ever so resembling that of a humans. It was clear and stared at me, and I could tell it was only dead for about a day or so. I grabbed one of the trotters and it felt like human flesh. Bizarre but beautiful. I reserved a nice section of the belly.

Nathan McCall and the 350 lb. Re Ride Pig

Nathan McCall and the 350 lb. Re Ride Pig

Nathan McCall and the 350 lb. Re Ride Pig

Nathan McCall and the 350 lb. Re Ride Pig

Nathan McCall and the 350 lb. Re Ride Pig

Nathan McCall and the 350 lb. Re Ride Pig

Nathan McCall and the 350 lb. Re Ride Pig

Nathan McCall and the 350 lb. Re Ride Pig

Nathan McCall and the 350 lb. Re Ride Pig

Nathan McCall and the 350 lb. Re Ride Pig

Nathan McCall and the 350 lb. Re Ride Pig

Nathan McCall and the 350 lb. Re Ride Pig

Nathan McCall and the 350 lb. Re Ride Pig

Nathan McCall and the 350 lb. Re Ride Pig

Nathan McCall and the 350 lb. Re Ride Pig

Nathan McCall and the 350 lb. Re Ride Pig

Nathan McCall and the 350 lb. Re Ride Pig

Nathan McCall and the 350 lb. Re Ride Pig

10/14/10 - McCall's Re Ride Pig from dealinhoz on Vimeo.

Over the weekend, I went into McCall's to pick up some fish. The first thing Nathan did was show me a photo on his iPhone – a line about 15 deep before the shop had even opened.

Me: "Did you sell everything?"
Nathan: "Look down. Only one trotter left."
Me: "Nice. I love that nothing goes to waste."
Nathan: "Nothing."

Nathan doesn't know when he'll get in the next pig from Lefty Ayer's farm. But you can bet it'll be gone faster each time. This time, I'm going for the 'buche' and pig jowls. Thanks for reading.

ReRide Ranch (Lefty Ayer's)
32633 Pine Canyon Rd.
Lake Hughes, CA 93532
661) 586-7411

McCall's Meat and Fish
2117 Hillhurst Ave
Los Angeles, CA 90027-2003
(323) 667-0674
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