Monday, February 28, 2011

Goodbye Blogger, Hello Wordpress. Eat Drink and Be Merry - New Site, New Direction.

Hello. I'm finally moving over to Wordpress. Hope you'll continue reading over at

It was five and half years ago that I started my food blog out of pure boredom as a bachelor. I wasn’t making much money thanks to the American advertising dream so I had no choice but to eat at home most of the week. I started to document the food I cooked at home much like many others all over the world. From there, I found a deeper relationship to food and cooking and I was always reminded of the importance of food within my family. My parents and sister are all solid cooks and enjoy eating more than anything. We never went on camping/road trips but one thing we had for sure was good food – thus my enjoyment for cooking and eating. I then met Jeni, my wife, who had also been writing her food blog, Oishii Eats. With Jeni, I found not only an eating partner, but companionship through our love for food. The turning point in our relationship happened when she gave me a Gregory backpack as a birthday gift one year. It was her invitation to join her on her travels and I was flattered. I had never really traveled before because of financial drawbacks but we started out slowly and cheaply, by backpacking wherever we could and staying at hostels. It was then we learned to work with whatever we could and make the best out of any moment. We learned a lot about ourselves and cultures simply through these travels. And we’re still going…

The decision to shift my site here is fueled simply by my love for storytelling, traveling and photography, not about being the first to write about the latest and greatest restaurant out there. I learned a lot about food and culture through the writing of food, and it is my true intention to pass on all knowledge to my readers. Jeni and I are both on our second passport book and can’t wait to share the rest of our travels with our readers. In addition, you’ll be reading less about the food I eat but more about the people that bring you the food. Because food is something we revolve around socially and culturally, everyone has a story to tell. Thanks for reading and I promise you new experiences and perspective.

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Monday, February 21, 2011

1st Choice Noodle House, Alhambra - Heavy Noodling Chiu Chow Style

1st Choice Noodle House, Alhambra - Mi Sate Egg Noodles

It's rare that I'll find myself craving something a bit on the heavier side. One of my pet peeves is the doze that seems to happen after lunch around 2 pm. Thank god I haven't had the pleasure of crashing my dome into my monitor. But occasionally during cold weather, I'll enjoy something a bit more comforting and rich. If you're into Korean-style Chinese black bean noodles jja jyang myeon ( 자장면 / 炸酱面 ) or Burmese-influenced Northern Thai curry noodles called khao soi (ข้าวซอย), this featured noodle dish may be your next new thing. This is a Chiu Chow-Chinese noodle dish called satay egg noodles. Can you tell I love copying and pasting Asian language characters from Wikipedia?

For the 100th time, a brief background on Chiu Chow Chinese ( 潮州; mandarin: Chao Zhou; vietnamese: Trieu Chau; thai: Teo Chew). Jeni loves to clown on me when I talk about this particular cuisine, which originates in Southeastern China near Fujian and just west of the island of Taiwan. Historically, they are some of the smartest, fastest-moving, hardest-working merchants and sojourners of China. Their footprints can be tracked in Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Indonesia, Malaysia and even the Philippines. In short, they are everywhere, and so is their food. How do you identify Chiu Chow food? Have you ever had wonton soup? Have you ever eaten flat rice or egg noodles in your soup? Have you had beef, chicken, pork or fish balls? Oyster omelettes prevalent in Taiwan? Satay BBQ dipping sauce for Chinese hot pot? Pork and duck egg congee? Those are a few of the notable dishes in Chiu Chow cuisine. When you walk into a restaurant that offers 3-4 different languages on the menu, you're in a Chiu Chow establishment. It will usually be Chinese, Vietnamese and Cambodian. Sometimes Thai. Also, when you hear of say a person that is Chinese-Vietnamese, it is very likely that they are Chiu Chow-Chinese born in Vietnam. In Chinese, we refer to that as 越 南 華 僑 (yue nan hua qiao) which literally means "overseas Chinese person in Vietnam".

One of the things highly prevalent in Indonesian cuisine are peanut-based sauces – satay being one of them. According to Wikipedia, peanuts were brought over to Indonesia by the Spanish and Portuguese. Satay is made of peanuts, dried shrimp, fried shallots, lemongrass and turmeric - with dozens of variations in other countries. There are nearly 7.8 million "overseas Chinese" in Indonesia. And it is very likely that this dish satay egg noodle dish is inspired by Indonesian cooking.

I first came here as I fell for the bait on the outside banner advertising various noodles. Originally looking for wontons, I found the menu to be a bit overwhelming - like looking at an Asian version of Jerry's Deli menus. Instead I cut to the chase and asked the server what I should eat. Without hesitating, she took the menu and said "satay noodles". Is it better with egg or rice noodles? She insisted on the medium-cut rice noodles, linguini width, as it "holds" the sauce better.

1st Choice Noodle House, Alhambra - Mi Sate Egg Noodles

Within a few minutes I was brought the noodles and it smelled damn good. I was liking the colors, the tomatoes, beef and the golden satay sauce. It looked completely heavy but took the plunge regardless. The best way to describe this sauce is: uniquely delicious. There are hints of dried shrimp, garlic and shallots, lemongrass and a bit of fish sauce. In addition to the pieces of cooked beef, cucumbers and tomatoes, fried shallots are added for a nice texture.

1st Choice Noodle House, Alhambra - Mi Sate Egg Noodles

I'm glad I went with the rice noodles as they held the sauce nicely and provided a nice slippery texture. Thin egg noodles would be too thin for the thick sauce and appear like goop. About half way into this bowl, I was full. Like muffin-top full. I fished out the last pieces of rice noodles and just thought about how I was going to handle the rest of the sauce. I came back another 3 times and each time I told them to give me less satay sauce. I love these noodles but sometimes find myself adding a little lime and fish sauce to kick it up. I'd also recommend asking for 1/2 the amount of sauce. I've eaten over a dozen versions of this popular Chiu Chow dish and I find the one at 1st Choice Noodle House to be in my top 3. If you're willing to handle a heavy load, that monitor-bashing, food coma you get may just be worth it. For the ladies, a bowl can be shared amongst two people. I recommend sticking with this dish and not the pho or wontons. Thanks for reading.

1st Choice Noodle House
1124 W. Valley Blvd.
Alhambra, CA 91803
(626) 457-1888
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Friday, February 11, 2011

The Bammy - Subway's Take On A Vietnamese Classic

Subway Bammy MAIN

For as long as I can remember, the Vietnamese sandwich known as banh mi, has been a part of my life. Even as a Chinese American, this stuff would always be around my family and friends. It was cheap, easy to sell/make and tasted better than most American sandwiches. For $5, you can get at least four – one for each person in the typical 4-person Asian family. It was the go-to fill-up snack because it was cheaper than anything at McDonald's. Even if we didn't have a store-bought sandwich, we'd have some variation of the banh mi. As a kid in elementary school, I'd have my mom's mutated version which consisted of thick slices of the Vietnamese meatloaf known as cha, liverwurst (American pâté) and mayonnaise – smacked between two pieces of Wonder bread. On fishing trips with family friends, there'd be an endless supply of Capri Sun and banh mi in the cooler. Hungry? Have a banh mi! We'd pick that sandwich up with our fish and worm-flavored hands and go to town. My Lao aunt in Fresno also ran a small sandwich business right out of her kitchen and guess what we got to eat every time we were there - banh mi. Banh mi was seriously around so often it was like a brother to me – always there to wrestle and play video games with.

So you can understand why one would take a hiatus from the beloved sandwich. I was tired of it. After I graduated from high school, I don't think I touched banh mi unless I had to. As a college student, I made quick trips to Little Saigon to satisfy my broke ass. To me the food was nearly forgotten as I found love in other things such as noodles. Then around 2006, Vietnamese sandwich shops started popping up like the current food trucks as more Vietnamese residents and immigrants moved out of Rosemead and El Monte. On Valley Blvd. alone, you'll find at least a dozen places selling banh mi, including chains like Banh Mi Che Cali and Lee Sandwiches. This was the mainstream for the people of San Gabriel Valley and certainly not earth-shaking news.

Then earlier this week, my friend sent me a link to a New York Times article titled "The Vietnamese Sandwich. Banh Mi in America" by a Jordan Michelman. This was published after last year's banh mi craze in New York City which left me and I'm sure many others, scratching our head. Interesting considering most people look to New York as the pioneer of trends, especially fashion and food. This isn't the first time an article on banh mi has been published. But it was the first time I realized how long it has taken Vietnamese culture to be recognized in the history of America – especially since the Vietnamese have been here as early as the late 1960s. A few decades for New York Times to "discover" this sandwich? You don't see Jonathan Gold writing an article every 6 months on banh mi to remind us that it exists. Does something have to go through the New York "fad machine" before it gets any attention? Even in Los Angeles, the banh mi mutant can be found at places like Six (banh mi burger), Mendocino Farms (pork belly banh mi) and Nom Nom Truck (banh mi tacos). But I thought to myself, this is indeed a great time to really advertise the shit out of this delicious, Vietnamese sandwich... and really aggregate the credit it deserves.

Banh mi may be big in New York and Los Angeles right now, but it isn't big until it goes national. And when it comes to sandwiches, there's no one more sandwichy than Jared Fogle's Subway nation. Not sure why I even linked to Subway... you've got to be from space if you haven't heard of it. I like to have fun when I eat – especially with corporate places like Hometown Buffet, Souplantation and Yoshinoya. So I decided to have some fun with Subway and find out if I can actually make the Vietnamese sandwich an American favorite. But what do you call this new potential menu item?

Well, if a sandwich is a "Sammy", then a banh mi must be a "Bammy"!

On a random weeknight, I find myself standing in the most depressing line ever at Subway. There are five of us, heads tilted up 45 degrees staring at the menu of bland food. Is this what we as Americans resort to? A life of 9-6? 2 hour commutes? Buying goods by bulk at Costco? Lunches at Subway? Do I want to pay $5, $6 or $7 for a foot long blandwich? Should I have the blandwich with teriyaki sauce or the ham & bland sandwich ? The menu is simply comprised of words put up to disguise the word "bland" and there is no difference in what you order because it won't have any taste period. When a "sandwich artist" asks me what else I'd like to add to my sandwich, I usually respond with, "flavor."

But actually, as I'm standing in line with the other customers waiting for toasted boredom to be served, I smile a little. I have an advantage over the other customers and employees - and they don't even know it. I'm equipped with an actual banh mi sandwich from Chinatown's Buu Dien, some Maggi sauce, fresh jalapeno slices, scrambled eggs from home and some real Vietnamese pate. Yes! And tonight's challenge is to see whether or not I can make an actual Subway sandwich edible and dare I say, as tasty as a Vietnamese banh mi.

Subway Bammy Vietnamese Sandwich

It's now my turn to order and I order a toasted black forest ham and turkey Foot Long for $6, which by the way is equivalent to five banh mi sandwiches at your average Vietnamese joint. I wanted to keep this as authentic to Subway's ingredients and build. I picked the black forest ham because it is the closest in color and taste to the pink, headcheese (gio thu) and BBQ pork (xa xiu) used in banh mi. I picked the turkey because it is the closest in color and taste to the grey meatloaf known as cha. For the toppings, I added cucumber, cilantro, pickled jalapeno slices, salt & pepper and a thin line of mayonnaise. No oil, vinegar or whatever liquids they offer. I asked the "sandwich artist" not to fold the sandwich over and F up the innards. They even kept it served open face for me and placed it on a tray. I'm pretty sure they considered me crazy. Love it. Haha.

Subway Diagram1

I then drew an imaginary DMZ line to distinguish the Northern and the Southern region of the sandwich. On top is Subway's Sammy using original store ingredients plus pate and Maggi Sauce vs. SaigonWay's Bammy with the traditional fixings.

Subway's Bammy
- plain bread
- ham
- turkey
- cucumber
- canned, pickled jalapeños
- cilantro
- mayonnaise
- pate
- Maggi sauce

SaigonWay's Banh Mi
- plain bread
- ham
- turkey
- cucumber
- fresh jalapeño slices
- cilantro with stem
- pickled radish & carrots
- mayonnaise
- pate
- Maggi sauce
- fried egg (optional, it's what I love adding to my banh mi)

Subway Bammy Vietnamese Sandwich

Subway Bammy Vietnamese Sandwich

Subway's "Sammy"

For the first time in a long while, I felt fear. The last time from a serving of deep fried insects at a food stall in Cambodia. I had prepped myself with a few neck cracks and got my gag reflexes ready. I grabbed the sandwich... crumbs from the shitty bread landed on the tray. What am I doing? I took a bite and not to my surprise... there was absolutely no flavor. There was so much bland matter due to the sawdust bread and processed meat - I couldn't taste anything! Maggi Sauce is used to PROVIDE flavor. But yet it could not provide this time – it let me down. I put this sandwich down after the 2nd bite. Even a foot long of Cambodian fried insects had more flavor.

Subway Bammy Vietnamese Sandwich

SaigonWay's "Bammy"
Now, on to the real test. I opened the sandwich and made sure everything was evenly distributed. It was the moment I've been waiting for. Actually the moment every American slave of the corporate lunch cafeteria known as Subway was waiting for. If I succeeded, I knew that I have done something for my country. I had at least provided ONE item on Subway's menu that actually had something called flavor. I took a bite, and I have to say, it was a familiar taste. Even though the meat wasn't the right kind, the balance of Maggi Sauce, fried egg, pate, fresh jalapeno, fresh cilantro and fresh daikon and carrots made so much sense in that sawdust bread. I actually ate half of this and partially enjoyed it. All Subway has to do is offer a few more ingredients that really don't cost anything! But you say the words pate or liverwurst and you'll lose customers. And what in the world is Maggi sauce?

Subway Bammy Vietnamese Sandwich

My work wasn't finished tonight though. This is my palate, and I know what I'm looking for in a sandwich. The true test though was finding out whether or not the actual Subway sandwich artists would eat my fixed-up version of their blandwich. I wouldn't go in peace until I had them try it. I waited for the right moment when the customers parted with their foot longs and approached this young man. We'll call him Justin. Within a few minutes and persuasive words, I had him sitting down at the table with the "Sammy" and "Bammy" in front of him.

Justin: "What am I eating?"
Me: "You're going to eat a Subway take on a Vietnamese sandwich."
Justin: "What's in it?"
Me: "Oh nothing really. Just your meats and veggies and a few extras."
Justin: "You sure?"
Me: "Dude, I'm not trying to kill you man. Even if I was, you've got cameras rolling."

Subway Bammy03

Justin actually went in and took a big bite, making sure his gums made sweet love with that sandwich. He took a few bites and then looked at me.

Me: "And?"
Justin: "Nothing. It's bland man!"
Me: "Of course it's bland. It's Subway."
Justin: "..........."
Me: "Last one, try my version."

Subway Bammy04

Like a good employee, Justin looked to see that there were no hungry patrons queuing up. With a reluctant look, he picked up the "Bammy" and sank his teeth in once more. But this time, to my surprise, he raised his eyebrows slightly and his eyes widened. And there was a slight bob of satisfaction.

Me: "And....?"
Justin: "This is actually pretty good. I like the taste. What's in it?"
Me: "Subway's ham and turkey, fresh jalapeno, fresh cilantro, pickled radish and carrots, fried egg and the special Maggi Sauce."
Justin: "It tastes fresh. Oh man, that egg is real nice."
Me: "Yeah that's key man."
Justin: "Alright man, are we done? I gotta get back to work."
Me: "Thank you."

One down, and a whole nation to go. Is there hope for the American palate? Whether or not Subway actually decides to put this on their menu, I may not live long enough to see the revolt against bland food. I threw away the food and started packing up. As I headed out, Justin said:

Justin: "Hey man, what's that sauce you put in that sandwich?"
Me: "It's called Maggi sauce."
Justin: "What is it?"
Me: "Flavor."

Subway Bammy Vietnamese Sandwich

Subway, dreams of flavored food can come true. Look I've done the POP (point-of-purchase) displays for you! Yes, I'm an ad guy! We can also start rolling your new Jared spots right away.

Subway Bammy Vietnamese Sandwich

"Hello, I'm Jared. Remember me? I used to weigh 450 lbs. I'm over in the Far East to advertise Subway's new sandwich, "The Bammy". I've cut out the 14 hour flight for you and endured some of the roughest conditions to bring you Vietnam's delicious sandwich. We use only the freshest, greenest cilantro. Guys.... can we cut. I feel some leeches in my pants."

Subway Bammy Vietnamese Sandwich

"Hi again, it's me Jared. I've also cut out the vicious Saigon traffic for you by riding helmet-less with my buddies Tuan and Huan. I almost wet my khakis like a little girl trying to cross the streets of Saigon! Where we going guys? My mom's expecting me home for dinner."

Subway Bammy Vietnamese Sandwich

So, if you saw "The Bammy" on the Subway menu, would you eat it? The truth is, you'll never see this on the Subway menu just as you'll never see a delicious shawarma, torta, cemita. Even if it was on the menu, you know it wouldn't be good haha. I would take any of those ANY DAY of the week over anything from Subway. But surprisingly, as diverse as America is, the Subway people of Milford, Connecticut still feel that their current menu is a good representation of what the American palate craves. So Subway, would you like your "Bammy" toasted or not toasted?

Thanks for reading.
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Friday, February 04, 2011

La Descarga, Koreatown - Scenes from La Descarga's 1st Anniversary

La Descarga, Koreatown - 1st Anniversary

On Wednesday, J and I stopped by La Descarga's 1st anniversary party and it was a full house. For those that haven't been, rather than a cocktail bar, La Descarga promises an experience the second Charles the doorman walks you in. From there, you are greeted by a hostess and led through what appears to be a closet. Once you walk in, you're immediately transported to a place known as Havana, Cuba. A live band is in effect, a woman dances along the railing to the music and the cocktails are being shaken. In the back room, you can have one of their many choices in cigars to go with your shot of fine, Central American rum. What I love about this place is that it is high energy and really keeps you on your feet. The bartenders, Steve Livigni, Kenny Arbuckle and Pablo Moix are well-versed in the art of the cocktail and enjoy guessing what you like to drink. The drinks here are made with fine sugar, not simple syrup – so there is no watering down of the spirit.

I love this place. Happy 1st anniversary to the people of La Descarga. You can see photographs I took of Steve Livigni and Kenny Arbuckle in my Cocktail Revival project. Thanks for reading.

La Descarga, Koreatown - 1st Anniversary

La Descarga, Koreatown - 1st Anniversary

La Descarga, Koreatown - 1st Anniversary

La Descarga, Koreatown - 1st Anniversary

La Descarga, Koreatown - 1st Anniversary

La Descarga, Koreatown - 1st Anniversary

La Descarga, Koreatown - 1st Anniversary

La Descarga, Koreatown - 1st Anniversary

La Descarga, Koreatown - 1st Anniversary

La Descarga, Koreatown - 1st Anniversary

La Descarga, Koreatown - 1st Anniversary
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Thursday, February 03, 2011

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Cookbook, Echo Park - A Unique Concept for a Quaint Neighborhood Grocery Shop

Cookbook Echo Park

The Echo Park I first stepped into during the 1980s was very different from what you see now. I remember sitting in my mom's 2-door Toyota Corolla sans A/C (just to give you an old-school reference), slowly crawling up the steep hills to visit her great uncle. The streets were cracked, walls were tagged up and teenagers "kicked it" out by their cars with loud, bassy music. I'm not going to lie, it wasn't the most ideal neighborhood. In fact, our visits there were short and fueled with a purpose. We often urged our mom to drive through the streets a bit faster. To some people in the neighborhood, this Chinese family really had no business hanging out in their area. A friend of mine who grew up here as a teen recalled it a tough and cautious time in Echo Park – he is Chicano.

Echo Park was once the center of the film industry before it moved to Hollywood before WWI. But in the 1970s and 1980s, it became a largely Latino and Chicano neighborhood with a few sprinkles of Chinese, Filipinos and Vietnamese. With a large population of immigrants in an impoverished area, there's bound to be a large presence of gang and drug activity. Echo Park had quickly earned its name as a gang city.

But things changed after 2000, as a lot of musicians and artists started moving into Echo Park because Silver Lake, Los Feliz and Atwater Village were experiencing a high demand and increased real estate value. As a result, the rent in Echo Park began to increase as well. This is both a fortunate and unfortunate situation for the people of Echo Park. Although the gang and drug violence decreased substantially, this movement also affected hard-working Latino families, hippies, blue-collar workers, musicians and artists that had nothing to do with violence. Some have lived in the same residence for decades and were now forced to pack up their bags and move South towards the Rampart area and even East LA. Naturally, there is resentment for the gentrification. To this day, there are still signs of the "old" Echo Park, with the occasional shooting and "homeboy" meeting outside a liquor store. If you've been to the Echo Park grocery store on Echo Park/Duane or Chango on Echo Park/Delta, you're standing on what was once a big gangster hangout.

Before moving to Silver Lake, I had checked out a few places in Echo Park as I was one of the many that wanted to move into Silver Lake, but could not afford it. Jeni had moved there and I was getting tired of driving all the way from West LA to see her. I love Echo Park though. It feels rich in diversity and has a lot of character to it. Even with the tagged up walls and pot-hole ridden streets, it is a real icon of what urban Los Angeles "is". What's interesting is that Echo Park still maintains a very neighborhood-like vibe. With exception to a Walgreens, three or four fast food chains, American Apparel and an Autozone, the area is still dominated by mom and pop shops along Sunset Blvd. – old antique and furniture stores, bargain stores, boutiques, eateries and small grocery stores. A lot of the residents are of Latino heritage and many rely on their feet, bicycles and buses to get around.

On Echo Park Avenue, the once gang-ridden area has become sort of its own hipster street with a salon, coffee shop, pet store and various boutiques. I've driven by so many times with Jeni and asked her why there weren't more small businesses. The area was obviously very chill and low-key – it really just needed a restaurant or bar. We had even dreamed of running a noodle joint in the area but that quickly dissipated. I knew someday something interesting would be opened up on the block of Echo Park Avenue and Delta.

And then that's when we heard about Cookbook, a unique concept by Marta Teegen and Robert Stelzner. Every small neighborhood has a grocery store, but Teegen and Stelzner's offers responsibly grown organic produce and even offers food cooked fresh daily. The food itself comes with purpose. As you may get a hint from the name, Cookbook offers dishes each week from a different featured cookbook. For the hipsters that live off Echo Park Avenue, finally... a place to pick up quality goods and even a bite to eat when they want a break from writing their screenplays or figuring out that one song that will grant them a beeline to the Echoplex stage.

A lot of good things happened last year for the residents of Los Feliz, Silver Lake, Atwater Village and Echo Park. Especially if you're one that adores food. You've got McCall's - a husband and wife-run meat and fish shop that has everything you'll need. You've got the Spice Station - an amazing shop that basically bridges you to spices from every possible country. Even herbs and spices from Space! You've got Jason Kim's Forage - the hip cafeteria that serves comfort food and side dishes for a great price. And now you've got Cookbook, your everyday grocery store that carries great butter, milk, cheese and bread. You can easily plan your whole dinner for the evening without having to ride your "fixie bike" more than 2 miles.

The idea for Cookbook didn't happen overnight. It's actually been 'baking' for quite a while. Rewind back some 12 years. Marta Teegen finds herself leaving a PhD program in Art History to study Politics. That eventually fell through after 7 years and she remembered what it was she always enjoyed being around: food. Growing up on a farm was one thing she knew well and for some time, her father's family had supplied tomatoes to the Campbell's soup people. She then enrolled at the New School of Cooking in Culver City for the chefs training program and mixed both her love for cooking and farming into a business that offered kitchen and garden design, known as Homegrown LA. And if this story couldn't get any better, Teegen published her first book in April 2010, titled Homegrown A Growing Guide for Creating a Cook's Garden. And here we are at her latest venture, Cookbook LA, which took them nearly 3 years of waiting to secure. Hang on, let's all download that information slowly.

Cookbook, Echo Park

Jeni and I dropped by on an early Saturday morning to check out Cookbook. We were stoked to see a food-related boutique on that street finally. We immediately felt as though we were in San Francisco. Big windows, wooden benches and a slightly weathered look – it was all very welcoming. Those that have a love for Tartine Bakery know what I mean.

Cookbook, Echo Park

Cookbook, Echo Park

Cookbook, Echo Park

Cookbook, Echo Park

Right when you walk in, you're flanked with today's farmer's market vegetables that Marta and Robert sometimes handpick. To the right, you can hear the buzzing from the fridge that holds some of the best milk I've tasted. It's straight up cream! The butter and cheese are very nice as well. To the left, you've got your dried goods including pasta and my favorite roasted piquillo peppers. And straight ahead, you've got the food from the featured cookbook.

Cookbook, Echo Park

Cookbook, Echo Park

Cookbook, Echo Park

This isn't just your standard bread. This is called "Amazing" bread and its baked by a place called Bread Lounge in Downtown LA. Teegen is a woman with patience, as this bread took her nearly 5 months to find. We tried the olive bread out and it is some of the best I've eaten in Los Angeles. Baked beautifully but still moist, almost damp, inside. The olives are not too salty either. I think we ended up taking home 4 pieces of bread.

We came to Cookbook the week they were featuring a 5-book series called Canal House Cooking, which I had never heard of. But we took at the food in the display case and knew it was totally our style of food we liked to eat – much like Forage. Teegen is also good friends with Chef Erin Eastland of Cube (aka Divine Pasta Co.) on La Brea and prepares a lot of the food freshly in their kitchen.

Cookbook Echo Park

Roasted Vegetable Medley

Cookbook Echo Park

Cabbage Slaw with Bacon and Red Wine

Cookbook Echo Park

Pesto Pasta with Pecans and Parsley

Cookbook Echo Park

Beef & Pork Meatballs

Cookbook Echo Park

Cookbook Roast Chicken

Cookbook Echo Park

Sauteed Zuccini and Feta Cheese

Cookbook Echo Park

Roast Garlic with Balsamic Vinegar

Cookbook, Echo Park

This was just one week of food. Cookbook has been open since September and I feel as though I should walk in weekly just to see what they're featuring. I love that they keep things interesting with a different cookbook each time. I believe the week after we had photographed the store, they were going to try out some Asian food which I'd be interesting in trying.

Teegen and Stelzner's story is yet another story of people that followed their passion for food and we wish them the best luck. We are truly stoked to see a food-related boutique on that street finally. That block on Echo Park Avenue and Delta Street for some reason, feels more complete. The amount of skinny hipsters have not decreased since Cookbook's debut, but at least they can't complain about being so stylishly anorexic. Now, if only there was a place to grab a beer or cocktail. Thanks for reading.

*Note: Cookbook is in the process of developing a range of food-related classes, tastings, and readings, including kitchen garden basics, still life painting, ikebana, food history, backyard baking, and more!

Cookbook LA
1549 Echo Park Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90026
(213) 250-1900
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Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Echo Park Noodle Mama - A Bowl of Soul

EchoPark NoodleMama01

Last year was a great year for me and J. We traveled to Asia, Central America, Canada and Europe. We photographed some beautiful weddings and contributed some work to notable food and travel publications. I re-ignited my love for cooking because of a butcher shop owned by a husband and wife. We earned our scuba diving certification. I moved on from a painful layoff and discovered the joys of being a freelancer. Jeni left her hell-hole school and found her love for teaching at another institution. But most importantly, we started some friendships with people we would otherwise never meet, simply through the writing of food. I could write a whole posting, and I will one day, on the important people in our lives that continue to inspire us to write our blogs. But for this posting, I'm introducing you to a gentleman known as JD. Some of you may know him through his Twitter handle as Tricerapops – yes, he is a proud father of three adorable triplet girls. Completely decked out in Hello Kitty mafia gear. And he enjoys ranting about football and wine, wine and more wine.

Knowing how much J and I love noodles, we received an email from Tricerapops one day, inviting us to come over to his mom's house for some Vietnamese soup noodles. We didn't know him really nor have we met him in person and due to some conflicting schedules, we ended up postponing. But he continued to send us emails over a few months and finally one day, I gave him a call.

Me: "So your mom makes Vietnamese soup noodles?"
JD: "Yeah, she does it every few months and just opens up her house to anyone."
Me: "Anyone?"
JD: "Yeah, she's been doing this for a long time?"
Me: "For no charge?"
JD: "None. This is what she enjoys doing. And today she has pho."
Me: "We're in there like swimwear."

So on a summer Saturday, J and I headed out to Echo Park to finally meet Tricerapops and eat some soup noodles. Not knowing what his mom likes, we stopped at a Vietnamese bakery and grabbed whatever looked tasty as a pre-thank you. I thought about durian since it's basically a Vietnamese narcotic, but my car would reek. We showed up to the house and we were greeted by JD. From his comments on past postings, we had a pretty good idea of his personality and character and, at that moment, it all came together. Jeni and I knew he was a good guy. Course he is. Who else would invite complete strangers to eat soup noodles at his own mom's place?

For me, there are two categories of pho. The first being the pho most of us will have – which is in a restaurant. We all have our favorite places and pretty much have a set drill on the customization of the perfect bowl of pho. The second being the pho I actually cherish the most – in a kitchen cooked by the hands of a Vietnamese woman. The pho will never taste the same from these categories as expected. At the commercial level, I've seen some kitchens with at least a dozen 3' x 2' stock pots that can serve a good 250-300 bowls. When you're boiling hundreds of pounds of beef bones for 8-10 hours overnight, you're extracting a deeper flavor unachievable at home. I've made pho before a few times and it is a long and arduous process that can still cost around $50-60 for a mere 6-8 bowls. Cough up the $5 elsewhere – it's not worth it if you're going for restaurant quality. But more importantly, the commercial pho will never be as "good" as the home-cooked pho because it misses the one ingredient that varies in every household: a mother's soul.

Growing up, my mom would make soups for us. The most popular being a borscht. Go to any Hong Kong-style cafe and you're likely to be served a watery, tepid version of the Eastern European staple favorite. But my mom added oxtail to it and it was homey. We of course ate it so often it was a staple. But I had a childhood friend that would ask for it every time he came over to our house. My mom never thought twice about making it. I then realized that he had also grown up with no father nor mother – raised only by his old grandma. He saw my mom as his. The last time I talked to him was in high school nearly 15 years ago and he asked if he could have a bowl of my mom's oxtail soup. He left for the Marines and I never heard from him again.


From the doorway, I could see JD's mom in the background peacefully gliding across the kitchen with her own "moves". Every cook has his "moves". Mine happens to involve crashing, bumping and possible injuries if you get too close to the stove and cutting board. And JD was right about this being a dining room turned cafeteria. The table had settings for eight, wine glasses that commemorated JD's numerous wine tastings and a mound of fresh bean sprouts and herbs. And of course, the usual suspects: Sriracha, hoisin sauce and chili sauce. This was basically a pho restaurant without the restaurant. No bean sprouts garnishing the floor, balled-up napkins or bad Karaoke videos blaring in the background. Which I actually like.

We greeted JD's mom and within a few seconds she did what most Asian mothers do - politely cut out the chit chatting, tell you to sit down and get ready to eat. JD poured us some wine. I looked over at Jeni and whispered to my wife: "J, she's the Noodle Mama!"

Indeed she is. Noodle Mama is Mrs. Dang and she grew up in Saigon cooking soup noodles for family and friends whenever she could. Her mother came from Hanoi and handed down the pho legacy. When she moved to Echo Park with her family, she continued to do her thing. On any given weekend, you would find friends, family, family friends, co-workers and even neighbors. At one point, she had be-friended a few people from the local Dream Center, which houses up to 500 people in need of rehabilitation, counseling and protection from the mean streets. JD told me she once blocked out a whole Saturday for his co-workers and had them make reservations anywhere from 9 am - 6 pm. Ha! I asked her if she wanted me to buy her one of those $150 neon pho signs to place in her window, in which she declined with a laugh. I actually thought about buying one to put in my front window just to see how many people would knock on my door. Jeni killed that dream pretty quickly.

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I loved everything about the way Noodle Mama ran her "shop". She had her cilantro and onions chopped up nicely and stored in one of those Asian cookie buckets.

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A take-out box filled with some beef meatballs (bo vien). One of my fave pho toppings.

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A container of sliced beef brisket and shank (nam and chin) she made from hours of boiling – my go-to pho toppings.

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I believe she had two large pots of beef broth going, enough to serve a good 18-24 bowls. Look at the color of the broth from nicely roasted bones and yellow onions.

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Versus using a pot of hot water, she dipped the noodles in a separate pot of beef broth for that extra shot of beefiness.

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And the final touch, a large scoop of soulful broth. I loved how she used a clear Pyrex microwave bowl. Made me feel like I was at the underground viewing level of Sea World, face and hands pressed tightly against the window for a closer look. You could see everything happening in the bowl. Jeni, look at the piece of rare beef being cooked – awesome!

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Then she started to compile a bowl in this huge mixing bowl. I looked at the dining table. Okay, JD, JD's dad, JD's brother and sister all have one. Jeni has one. Except for me.

Me: "Mrs. Dang, that's not for me is it?"
Noodle Mama: "Yes! You eat!"
Me: "JD, she's kidding me right?"
JD: "Naw bro, that's all you. It's your first time here. Welcome to our house."

All of a sudden, I'm taken back to a posting I had written on the ridiculous pho challenge up in San Francisco, by a restaurant called Pho Garden. Read if you dare as I get nauseous just looking at the photos. I could wash my face in this mixing bowl if I wanted to. I sat down and Noodle Mama put the finishing touches and carefully walked the bowl over. She set it down and everyone laughed.

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And how was it? Very tasty and homey, exactly the way I imagined it to be. There was no skimping going on as some pho restaurants will do. If you wanted more meat, you knew you could very well help yourself to it. All the fixings were there at your disposal. You know the food is good when everyone around you is busy eating and not saying a word. I had barely dented my noodles when Noodle Mama, as any mother would say, reminded me that I had to eat a second bowl. Jesus. This may be the place I lay to rest. In gluttonous happiness.

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I've been to Noodle Mama's three times and have tried her pho and JD's favorite, bun rieu. She also makes bun bo hue, hu tieu and according to JD, a mean bowl of banh canh. Unfortunately, J and I may be seeing Noodle Mama less now that she is moving elsewhere and closing down her Echo Park "shop". Thank you to JD and Noodle Mama for the warm hospitality, noodles and friendship. It means a lot to us. It's my turn next to offer you a bowl of Chinese beef noodle soup.

Question: What is that one dish that you can't refuse when offered by your mom, aunt or grandma?
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