Monday, March 22, 2010

Spice Station, Los Angeles - The Silver Lake Spice Trade

Spice Station, Los Angeles - Peter Bahlawanian

After watching Food Inc., Jeni and I thought a lot about eating better and following a more sustainable lifestyle. Well, the best that we can. For those that live in Los Angeles, particularly ones that enjoy cooking as much as we do, now is a VERY exciting time. We started utilizing our resources in Los Angeles first by shopping at farmer's markets, particularly the Hollywood Farmer's Market on Sundays. There, you can find pretty much everything you're looking for. From fresh oysters from Carlsbad, to English shelling peas and the tasty California chanterelle mushrooms. It's not a surprise that you would see Los Angeles chefs there. We would buy all of our vegetables there and then make a trip to McCall's Meat & Fish Company in Los Feliz to pick up our proteins. At McCall's, with the careful eyes and hands of two passionate chefs, you have access to free-range, non-hormoned meats and fish. And finally, there's the Silver Lake Cheese Store, for those that want to do some nibbling before the meal even happens. Chorizo from Spain, artisanal cheeses from allover Europe and a nice selection of wine and oils. But while charcuteries, fresh vegetables, meat, fish and poultry are great, where would you be without your proper spices? This is where an Armenian-Canadian by the name of Peter B. from Montreal, enters the Los Angeles culinary scene and completes the home cook's trinity. Hello, Spice Station.

We're all guilty of it. We have spices that probably date back 5+ years. I bet you have that Schilling's black pepper in the red and white tin. That Montreal steak seasoning that has become one block of dried out bits. Or how about the Morton's chemical-tasting salt box with the umbrella-wielding girl. I know I do. Yet I continue to use my spices on my food as though it's flavor is eternal. And when I visited the Spice Station, I knew it was time to leave all that baggage behind. I'm talking 30-40 plastic containers of spices.

The Spice Station is located down a quaint walkway in the Sunset Junction. When you first walk through, you get a sneak peak at Peter B's featured spices on a large chalkboard. The location is so perfect as it feels like a cozy house with fountain and patio furniture. And it's actually a good break away from the skinny hipsters that lurk on Sunset Blvd.

Spice Station, Los Angeles - Peter Bahlawanian

Spice Station, Los Angeles - Peter Bahlawanian

Spice Station, Los Angeles - Peter Bahlawanian

If you're into spices, then this would be considered nirvana. The Spice Stations is seriously spicy. In keeping with the theme, he can take it to the next level and have the Spice Channel running and play Spice Girls but that wouldn't be very good for business would it? And it's clear that what Peter B. began as a hobby, is an impressive exhibition of passion. There are jars everywhere with recognizable and mostly unrecognizable spices. If you think about it, the collection he has here is the result of centuries of trade and war. Back then, being a spice purveyor meant access into virtually any country within Asia, Europe and Africa. Spice was currency; currency meant power. It's hard to believe that a small aromatic spice controlled the way civilizations were run and the amount of blood bled into the soil. Thanks to Peter B., the modern day spice man, you're going to have all your limbs and pay for spices at reasonable prices.

Spice Station, Los Angeles - Peter Bahlawanian

It was fun watching Peter B. I stood there with my camera and just watched him buzz around like a bee pollinating flowers. He'd grab jars here and there and restock them as needed. I would ask him questions about certain spices and he'd have answers for me immediately. Without even really looking at me haha.

Spice Station, Los Angeles - Peter Bahlawanian

In addition to hundreds of spices, Peter B. offers 28+ salts. If anything, this is most important ingredient in the world. NOTHING will taste good without salt, even that iodized table crap salt. I went ahead and tried all of them. He's got sea salts, flaky salts, pink salt and even the ghost pepper salt. Peter B. warned me not to eat more than TWO GRAINS, and man, that was enough to get the point. I plan to buy all of the salts and start a Facebook group on salts. I know you want in on this.

Spice Station, Los Angeles - Peter Bahlawanian

Spice Station, Los Angeles - Peter Bahlawanian

Spice Station, Los Angeles - Peter Bahlawanian

It's only fitting that the Spice Station would offer sets. These make great gifts for the home cook and are packaged nicely. I recommended Peter B. sell spice packets for things like Chinese Beef Noodle Soup (niu rou mian) and Vietnamese Beef Noodle soup (pho) since a lot of locals are heavily into Asian-style noodles. Being Armenian, he offers a nice shawerma/kebab rub.

Spice Station, Los Angeles - Peter Bahlawanian

Spice Station, Los Angeles - Peter Bahlawanian

Spice Station, Los Angeles - Peter Bahlawanian

Spice Station, Los Angeles - Peter Bahlawanian

Spice Station, Los Angeles - Peter Bahlawanian

Like I said before, I think right now is an exciting time for those that enjoy cooking. And even for those that have yet to touch a frying pan. Peter B. is not only knowledgeable about hundreds of spices but he is a cook himself and can help you make that boring grilled chicken breast into something sexier and remotely edible. Spices are charged by the ounce and it's a 1 oz. minimum. It is actually better to buy in small batches and get into the habit of labeling the date purchased. Thanks for reading.

Spice Station
3819 W. Sunset Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90026
(323) 660-2565
www.spicestationsilverlake.com
Read more!

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Saigon, Vietnam - A Morning Market

Saigon Market Morning Market

On the morning I went hunting for breakfast, I came across a morning market that was very much alive and kicking. It was now 7 am and life was going on here. People picking up breakfast, people shopping for groceries and vendors competing with their neighboring competition. A little more to eat wouldn't hurt I thought.

Saigon Street Life

Saigon Morning Market

While some locals run their businesses at a farmer's market or stall, there are vendors on wheels. Two wheels to be exact. Most of them sell fruit but I've seen something as wild as a guy riding with a hot deep fryer filled with oil on the back seat of his bicycle. I named him "Mr. Deep Fry-cycle". If the LA health inspection gets riled up over a taco truck on a street, imagine what they would say about the "deep fry-cycle". He would be sent to prison!

No matter where I am, the sounds and smells of a farmer's market are all part of the experience. Your senses are put to the test with each step that you take. In a sense, it is a bit of a sensory overload, but that of enjoyment.

Saigon Morning Market

Saigon Morning Market

Similar vendors are grouped together and although they are selling the same product and directly competing with each other, it's a friendly rivalry. I bought these freshly-fried fish cakes (ca chien) which I love almost more than anything. The fish was so tasty and full of that 'bouncey' bite that I look for in pureed/paste-like Asian products. Thai fish cakes for example, oh man.

Saigon Morning Market

Who doesn't like fried tofu. I didn't see anything that resembled Taiwanese stinky tofu, which I enjoy as well.

Saigon Morning Market

7 am, and the grill masters are out. Here's a Vietnamese version of yakitori. You've got various ground meat that are shaped into balls and chicken/pork organs. They served fish sauce dip on the side and the smell was great.

Saigon Morning Market

In addition to your standard seafood fare like fish and mollusks, you get beautiful blue-colored prawns fresh from the sea. These things were some of the largest prawns I've seen.

Saigon Morning Market

Most of the vegetables and seafood were all set outside. I then walked into a large depot that had something entirely different going on: meat. And to my surprise, there was not one single man wielding a sharp cleaver. Here in Saigon, the women are the Queens of the Kitchen and can very well chop up a pig faster than you can ever.

Saigon Morning Market

Saigon Morning Market

While most Westerners turn away upon the site of a completely butchered pig, it is actually more respectful and resourceful to use everything. I saw everything chopped up and ready for purchase. There were no putrid smells of death because everything was so fresh.

Saigon Morning Market

Saigon Morning Market

Ribs, chops, shanks, ears, offals, feet, tails and head. Nothing gone to waste. These were some of the most bad-ass women I've come across. And the irony of it at all, they still managed to look as beautiful as they could with jewelry, dyed hair, make-up and painted nails. Nothing will get in the way of good looks, even if it means dissecting a 250-lb pig on an early morning. Thanks for reading.

More postings on Saigon, Vietnam:
Saigon, Vietnam - Hello Saigon, Nice to Meet You and Eat You
Saigon, Vietnam - Banh Xeo 46A, a Taste of Vietnamese Crepes
Saigon, Vietnam - Bun Bo Hue, An Afternoon with Nguyen Thi Thanh
Saigon, Vietnam - Saigon Seafood Stalls Read more!

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

McCall's Meat and Fish Company, Los Feliz - A Tale of Two Butchers

McCall's Meat & Seafood Company, Los Feliz

It's 6 am and a husband and wife wake up and begin their morning routine. But unlike most people that put on a shirt and tie or a dress, carry a laptop or a messenger bag and head out for their commute, Nathan McCall and Karen Yoo are doing something entirely different than most married couples. Instead they are putting on their chef coats, grabbing their knife bag and walking out together for work. They are on their way to one of Los Angeles's newest culinary-related business, their very own McCall's Meat and Fish Company located right in Los Feliz.

McCall and Yoo both did not intend for this to happen in their lives. Nor did they know that they would ever fall into cooking, and that it would bring them high regard on the Eastside.

Hailing from Fresno, McCall was pressured to find a job right out of high school and found himself at a local restaurant as an expediter. He then had the option of staying with the 'front of the house' or going into the 'back of the house', otherwise known as the kitchen. He took the latter and the next thing he knew, he found himself drawing inspiration from the French Laundry book. He then enrolled in Le Cordon Bleu in Pasadena (CSCA) and eventually worked at Cafe Pinot, Sona and various kitchens throughout Europe.

Yoo was a web designer from UCLA that wanted a way out of the corporate world. In a leap of faith, she enrolled in the pastry program at Le Cordon Bleu with virtually no interest in cooking and soon found herself working at places like Campanile and Sona, as the head pastry chef.

At David Meyer's Sona, they met and later on got married and moved to NYC to work at Daniel Boulud's "Daniel". With plans to open up their own restaurant, they decided instead to take a genius turn in their career path and open a much needed boutique meat and seafood shop in Los Angeles.

McCall's Meat & Seafood Company, Los Feliz

On an early morning, I decided to photograph them both during their morning routine. I knocked on the window of McCall's and was greeted by Nathan and Karen. It was 7:30 am and they were looking extremely sharp in their chef gear. Right off the bat,I knew they were serious and passionate about what they do.


When I first walked in here, I was immediately reminded of a painting done by one of my favorite painters, Mark Ryden. A strange man that has a penchant for painting meat and sausages with famous figures. But if you like to cook as much as I do, McCall's will give you the feeling of being in a candy store again.

McCall's Meat & Seafood Company, Los Feliz

And from a design perspective, you know that Yoo hasn't lost her touch. They both have done a great job of making you forget that you are in a butcher shop, but rather in a "meat boutique". I've been to many butcher shops and the common denominator is that white ceramic tile in morgues and the chemical smell used to abate the smell of meat and blood. Possibly old meat. And I think a lot of people are intimidated by butcher shops because of the smell and sound of large buzzing bone saws. But at McCall's, all the 'dirty work' is done before you've even stepped in the store.

McCall's Meat & Seafood Company, Los Feliz

One thing chefs pride themselves on is cleanliness and presentation. Working in a restaurant, you're either cooking, cleaning or getting your ass kicked by the head chef verbally. Sometimes all at the same time. Because it is so true that good food comes out of a clean kitchen. I watched Yoo put out these beautifully manicured lamb racks. Was it bizarre to crave some nicely seared lamb ribs this early in the morning?

It's now 8 am, and they've got three hours to make everything look shiny and new before the first customer swings that door open. With Blackalicious blasting through their speakers, and on another occasion Bone Thugs n' Harmony, they both grab their knives and do a quick run-through on the sharpening steel. I grab my camera, step back and watch the two butchers go to town.

McCall's Meat & Seafood Company, Los Feliz

There's nothing more beautiful to me than watching a fish being filleted. McCall grabs a black cod by the deep eye sockets and checks out both sides of the fish to make sure it looks good. He then lays the fish gently down on the cutting board. McCall is completely focused, more so than Daniel-san from Karate Kid doing his Crane Kick. With a few swift moves, the black cod is halved and without a head.

McCall's Meat & Seafood Company, Los Feliz

He tells me that the Black Cod is really an ugly fish, but tastes so good. I add that the Chilean Seabass (aka Patagonian Toothfish) is even uglier and that actually doesn't belong to the bass family. It was a clever marketing plan to sell the fish that is tied for first in the annual ugly pageant with the evil Angler fish. Warning: you are about to see the true meaning of ugly. Speaking of the Angler fish, I'm surprised it is still a surviving species based on its looks.

McCall's Meat & Seafood Company, Los Feliz

McCall is finished with five Black Cods in a matter of twenty minutes, with nice fillets placed on a tray like freshly baked goods. He immediately brings out a container of sanitizing solution and cleans up the mess from the Black Cod. I told you good chefs pride themselves on cleanliness. He pulls out a tray of sashimi-grade Salmon that he had already cut up. But he goes through them once more to make sure that everything is cut neatly. He then cuts me off a piece of the belly (toro) - so good.

McCall's Meat & Seafood Company, Los Feliz

I've always wanted to buy a block of Salmon and go to town on it with nothing else but soy sauce - eating it like a sandwich. But that would be a very expensive sandwich ha.

McCall's Meat & Seafood Company, Los Feliz

My mom traumatized me with the canned Sardines she used to eat over rice. I remember the sound of the lid being popped open and right then, terror would ensue. That stench would send my sister and I running for the hills. But when you've eaten fresh Sardines, maybe lightly battered and fried with an aioli, it's a different thing. Yoo assures that they are anything but fishy because she herself cannot stand fishy fish.

McCall's Meat & Seafood Company, Los Feliz

I move over towards Yoo's prep table and in front of her, lay one of the most beautiful racks of pork. Kurobuta to be exact. In Japanese it literally means "black pig", but you may know it more by its Western term, "Berkshire" pork due to its provenance in Britain. Because of its particular farm feed and shortness in muscle fibers, you are rewarded with meat that is extremely juicy and heavily marbled. Basically it's the 'kobe beef' of the pig world. I feel really bad for these black pigs.

McCall's Meat & Seafood Company, Los Feliz

With a small paring knife, she takes off the main lid of fat on the outside of the rib rack. She goes in between each rib and cuts out a block of fat which I immediately asked if it will be used in hopes of getting some freebies. Those are simply flavor bombs and you may have seen some Korean BBQ places grease up the grill with some pig fat.

McCall's Meat & Seafood Company, Los Feliz

And finally, you've got your final product. Look at the marbling and Yoo's craftsmanship.

McCall's Meat & Seafood Company, Los Feliz

I follow McCall back to this walk-in fridge and he shows me yet another tasty addition: live spot prawns. He opens up a Styrofoam box with about 30-40 live spot prawns from Santa Barbara, sitting calmly. The second he grabs one, it's splash city. Yes, they are fresh! When you've got a smaller pool of shrimp, it's much easier to tell which ones may be weak and on the verge of death. At 99 Ranch, it's hard to distinguish that.

McCall's Meat & Seafood Company, Los Feliz

He puts the shrimp back and then smiles as he points to his blocks of dry-aged Angus beef, like a man showing off his hunting trophies.

McCall's Meat & Seafood Company, Los Feliz

We walk back out and Yoo is on to her next thing: cutting up the house-made sausages. They offer two flavors, pork-fennel and garlic-paprika and both are very nice.

McCall's Meat & Seafood Company, Los Feliz

For poultry, they offer already-trussed whole chickens from KenDor farms of Van Nuys, which is named after the owners, Ken and Doreen. Why is it better? If you were free to roam, ate feed mixed with grasses, seeds, grains, vegetables and olive oil, you would be very happy. I asked Yoo if the chicken would be tastier if it was fed bacon.

Yoo: "Okay that sounds delicious and wrong at the same time."

McCall's Meat & Seafood Company, Los Feliz

I look back and McCall is now working on a huge block of sashimi-grade tuna. Yes, I retouched the image but I did not add any red to make the fish look better – it was naturally rich in color and quality.

McCall's Meat & Seafood Company, Los Feliz

Yoo working on skirt steak with precision. This cut of meat can be fairly thin and easily "butchered". Mmm.

McCall's Meat & Seafood Company, Los Feliz

What I like about McCall's is the access to the same types of beef you would find at any fine dining establishment. You can get flat iron cuts, tasty short ribs, hangar and kobe beef by request. For me, the opening of McCall's is further proof that the culinary industry will never be out of trend because it is a breeding ground for the most passionate and creative people out there, who make it an exciting and dynamic career. While most people believe that becoming a chef is the only career out of culinary school, this proves to be a successful deviation from the norm. I think what McCall and Yoo have done is more than offer a resource for good food, but they've also inspired people to return to cooking.

McCall tells me that his business plan is about providing only the best ingredients as any fine-dining establishment would, only in an uncooked form. You walk into McCall's, pick your protein, throw down some white table cloth, candles and Cheesy & Sleazy, and your minutes away from your meal. It's not that you couldn't get the same thing at Whole Foods, which does sell good meat as well, but I prefer the opinions of two chefs that have worked at reputable restaurants. It is what they would serve at their own restaurant. On top of that, you don't need to look up any recipes online, instead you can simply ask either McCall or Yoo what to do with that kurobuta pork you have in your hands. The pricing is on the same level as Whole Foods, but if you care about what you put in your body and respect the hard work and detail put into their business, as I have seen, then you'll understand.

I have to add that when asked what their favorite restaurants are. They replied, "We have no time. Sometimes it's Rick's Burgers over in Silver Lake. People are shocked that we have all this good food in front of us, yet we have NO time to even cook it at home." I thought chefs didn't eat fast food!

McCall's Meat and Fish Company

On another occasion, I couldn't help myself and ran home with two Kurobuta pork chops. I stared at it like I was receiving my first $100 bill. I asked McCall if I needed to brine this and he just looked at me. "Why? It's already the juiciest pork out there." Okay sorry Chef!

McCall's Meat and Fish Company

Are you like me when it comes to Salmon? I only like it raw versus cooked. When it's cooked it takes on this new flavor and taste that isn't very appealing to me. If I had to cook it, I think poaching would make it most edible for me. But man, McCall was kind enough to give me the belly section only (toro). Jeni isn't into Salmon sashimi and she devoured this.

McCalls Meat and Fish Company

Skillet-Seared Kurobuta Pork Chop with Roasted/Curried/Creme Fraiche Cauliflower and Sauteed Garlic Kale
McCall was right, it was so tender. When it comes to high quality meat, you don't need anything more than Kosher salt and fresh black pepper. I cooked it to medium as I like it slightly pink. With better quality meat, you run a smaller chance of acquiring trichinosis, so go ahead and make it a little juicier.

Thanks for reading and say hi to Nathan and Karen.

McCall's Meat and Fish company
2117 Hillhurst Avenue
Los Angeles, California 90027
(323) 667-0674
www.mccallsmeatandfish.com Read more!

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