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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