Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Echo Park Noodle Mama - A Bowl of Soul

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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.

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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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Monday, January 24, 2011

Dinner For the Newly Engaged

For those that have been through a wedding, not as a guest, but as a bride or groom, you probably remember how difficult it was to devote more than a handshake/hug and 30-second chit chat. You have anywhere from fifty to five hundred fifty people to say hello to and the clock is ticking. At our reception, we seriously had no longer than 15-20 seconds to greet our friends and family. And we felt horrible. We loved everything about our wedding. From having the private ceremony in Las Vegas to the chill, taco-catered reception in a quaint art gallery in Filipino Town. We wanted to be with our loved ones more than anything and it was simply impossible to hangout with our guests without disrespecting someone else. It's the one thing we regret the most but we decided that could at least make an attempt to hang out with our friends before their lives changed for the better as a married couple. We would simply invite them over for dinner and drill them with our wedding questions like they were in a smoky dungeon equipped with a swinging lamp.


In the last few months, three of our friends got engaged and standing on the other side of the fence, we couldn't help but be stoked for them. They are glowing like glow sticks at a warehouse rave. Since cooking for eight people can get a little crazy, we decided to split up the nights. And I apologize to MK & LY and YS & NS for not remembering to take photos. I was hustling and bustling as fast as I could. But I can assure you, you got the wilder, more inebriated D who wasn't afraid of taking bizarre photos. I've known MK and YS since college and it was comforting knowing they had found the one to move on with.

For them, I decided to go with a family style meal. Recently, Jeni and I have been eating weekly at Forage. Such a simple yet smart concept and Lucque's alumnus Jason Kim's cooking is homey and comforting. We also just got back from Fez, Morocco and were stocked up with some of the most amazing spices the world has to offer – for like nothing. I was dying to use these spices. If you haven't been to the Spice Station in Silver Lake or Santa Monica, it's a cook's paradise and you'll find yourself tossing out those spices that were there before you were even born. Here's what we had.

Moroccan Beef Stew with Daikon & Carrots
I got this one spice mix that contained cumin, cinnamon, coriander and all spice. It is amazing and used pre-dominantly in tagine dishes. I learned that cumin is used in Morocco both for flavor enhancement and digestion, so we bought a lot. I slow boiled some chuck roast for 5-6 hours in chicken broth, tons of the Moroccan style spices, a few shots of Maggi sauce (hehe) and a little bit of red wine for color. I used daikon versus potatoes because I like the sweetness daikon gives to a stew/soup. It's the same vegetable used to create that beautiful sweetness in Vietnamese/Chiu Chow noodle broths ("hu tieu"). You have to take out the veggies after 1.5 hours because you don't want them to turn into unrecognizable pulp. Garnish with freshly chopped parsley and serve over rice or cous cous. Everyone liked this but I was pretty annoyed by the beef, as it could've been more tender. I'd use short ribs next time.

Skillet-Killed Smoked Paprika & Rosemary Shrimp
This is a guaranteed shrimp recipe that will make you even eat the shells of the shrimp if you were that hungry. In a mixing bowl, I throw in peeled, headless shrimp (or keep the shell on, but cut the shell over the vein so the marinade can seap through), 2-3 cloves of garlic chopped, generous amount of smoked paprika and the sprigs of 2-3 rosemary leaves. Add olive oil and sea salt and mix it up. Refrigerate for no more than 5-6 hours. I call them "skillet-killed" because I crank the heat on my stove, which happens to have much higher BTU's than the average stove. I keep my cast-iron skillet on until it starts smoking, and then keep it going for at least 5 minutes. By now, your dead shrimp are shivering in fear for the unthinkable... a quick sear. The secret is to keep them cooking on one side and to start looking at flesh of the shrimp. If it's translucent it's not done, If it's white on the outside but the center is slightly grey, take it out. Once you take it out, it's still cooking. Like grilled/cooked meat, you have to let the shrimp's "juice" redistribute. Meaning, don't eat it right away you pig. If all is done right, you should have shrimp that has an unbelievable "crunch" to it. Eat the tail too, mmm.

Curried Cauliflower
This is about the simplest side dish you can make. It's tasty and healthy. Break up a cauliflower into manageable florets. Too small they become crumbs, too big they won't cook through in the middle. In a foiled, baking sheet, add a lot of olive oil over the cauliflower and a generous amount of curry powder – depending on how curried you want it. Add sea salt, mix and throw in 400 degree oven for about 20 mins. Check for your desired doneness. Mix in some chopped parsley or even dried cranberries and toasted almond slivers.

Pedro Ximenez's Lentils
I don't know who Pedro Ximenez is but I do know that he makes a killer sweet sherry vinegar that will set you back a whopping $25. But don't shrivel in cheapness just yet, this stuff is magnificent on salads, fish and probably knife wounds. If you had to invest in two things that would take your cooking to another level, it would be that $35 can of extra virgin olive oil and $25 P.X. sherry vinegar. Again, we ate some great lentils in Morocco and we're all about it right now. I boiled some green lentils and added some pickled red onions and parsley. From here it's about finding the right balance of sea salt and Pedro Ximenez. This was really good. I vote for Pedro.

Saffron, Dried Cranberry & Garbanzo Mint Cous Cous
I love cous cous because (A) a stoned college kid could make this and (B) it's light and healthy. Cous cous are basically larger granules of semolina flour and can be cooked in less than 6 minutes. From there, it's up to you to get creative. I added some really nice $35 olive oil, mint, saffron, dried cranberry and garbanzo beans.

Turkish Oregano Quick Pickles
I bought some Turkish oregano at the Spice Station and decided to make some quick pickles, aka "quickles". I think Josef Centeno of Lazy Ox Canteen does a great job of pickling, as do the Animal guys. You have to have vinegar to cut through your food and cucumbers, radishes and onions are the best pickling vessels. In a bowl of water, I added some white wine vinegar, sugar, a tiny bit of salt, crushed chili arbol and a few tablespoons of the Turkish oregano. I threw them in the fridge for a good 2 hours and they came out really well. This cut through the richness of the Moroccan stewed beef and lentils.

After we ate, the real damage started to happen as we whipped out more wine and desserts from Porto's. And then the absinthe came out. Then the whiskey. Then the rum. Then the impromptu backyard "dance" party and photo shoot. Please do not post those on Facebook, thank you. Good times.

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For the second night, our friends TP and EY came over. After seven years of dating, they decided it was time. For their wedding coming up, they've been doing the Insanity Workout. Just how insane-in-the-membrane is it? TP told me that he burns about 870 calories in 30 minutes. Hey, did you know that's equivalent to one bread stick at Olive Garden?

So for this dinner, we decided to go light and stick with seafood. We couldn't do two nights in Morocco and went with an Asian theme. With great wine from Jill Bernheimer's Domaine LA, we began the dinner party journey.

Salmon Sashimi & Quail Egg over Yam Noodles

Salmon Sashimi & Quail Egg Yam Noodles
Salmon sashimi is about 40 calories per piece and high in Omega 3 fatty acids. But the best part of this dish is the usage of yam noodles made from the konjac plant known as shirataki. They are ZERO calories. Don't me ask how that is possible. They are somewhat bland but with a little bit of soy sauce, Japanese soup stock or ponzu, and you're good to go. I served the shirataki with salmon slices, raw quail egg, pickled cucumbers and a few pinches of powdered Sichuan red peppercorn. For the sauce, I simply bought a bottle of udon/soba soup stock and fixed it up with some water and mirin. If you're really into textures, I'd suggest adding salmon fish eggs (ikura), sea urchin (uni) and Japanese mountain yams (yamaimo). This is one of my favorite quick-fix dishes to eat.

Seared Scallop with Yuzu Edamame Puree

Seared Scallop with Yuzu Edamame Puree and TINY Piece of Nueske Bacon
Scallops are about 200 calories per piece and simply one of the best types of seafood out there. It tastes good pan-seared, "cooked" Ceviche style or simply eaten raw. I can't live without scallops. Versus doing a potato or parsnip puree, I decided to use edamame beans which are super tasty. In a blender, I combined one pack of already-shelled edamame, a few dashes of soy sauce, salt and a tiny pinch of sugar. I added a little bit of water to help the blender out. This will take a few minutes to finish as you have to gradually add water to create the puree. If you are impatient and add too much water right away, you can turn this into a watery soup. Taste as you go along and make sure it has a velvety consistency. I like to heat the puree in a small frying pan over low heat to keep it hot. You have to make sure not to burn the puree so you may need a little water to replace whatever evaporates from the heat. Optional: a tiny slice of butter can be used to give the edamame puree a slight sheen. Before placing the seared scallop over the puree, add a few dashes of Yuzu juice. This adds a nice citrus taste that wakes up the scallop and puree. Yes I know, you see a piece of bacon there. Well I didn't say the WHOLE meal was healthy.

Pan Roasted Black Cod with Bun Shimeji Dashi

Pan-Roasted Black Cod with Bun Shimeji & King Mushroom Dashi
I've made this dish many times for J and my family, it's just a simple comforting dish and its very light. For my picky Chinese parents to ask for seconds, speaks volumes. For details on this dish, click on the previous link. The only thing different about this dish was not having Nathan McCall's usual black cod. So I ended up finding some pretty fresh whole black cod at the new Woori market in Little Tokyo (formerly Yao-han/Mitsuwa). They scaled and quickly filleted the black cod for me. At home, I got to play with my sashimi knife and clean up the fish more as there were still bones and blood lines. FUN FUN FUN. TP & EY ended up with a second round of this and ended up taking whatever I had left home.

Like Friday night, we kept going after the wine. Desserts. Whiskey. Rum. 90s music. It was a great night. To MK & LY, YS & NS and TP & EY, I'm glad we all got to spend 4-5 hours eating and drinking – you guys are great friends. And we look forward to seeing you for 30 seconds on your wedding day! Thanks for reading.
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Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Cocktail Revival. A Photographic Essay on the Talented Bartenders of Los Angeles.

Cocktail Revival Joseph Brooke

About a year and a half ago, J and I fell in love with the cocktail scene in Los Angeles and Portland. We loved it so much we built our own bar. We removed dozens of books from the shelves and made room for spirits. How many bottles? At least 50, plus your smaller bottles of aromatic bitters. To most people out there, it's hard to get past the visual of a blue, artificial-sugar liquid topped with a pineapple and cherry. To some people, cocktails are typically for women and not "manly" as say a glass of fine Scotch. I guarantee you that if you paid a visit to any one of Los Angeles cocktail bars such as The Varnish, La Descarga or Rivera, your perception of a cocktail will dissipate the second you take a sip. Bartenders right now, for the last few years, have started up a revival and it is a very fashionable and exciting time in the restaurant industry.

One night as we were at one of the bars, I watched a bartender meticulously construct a drink like a chef working on plating. He never stopped once to think about the recipe but followed through gracefully with exact measurements, numbered stirs and a final taste. It was essentially art in a glass. I decided that I wanted to capture a few of the bartenders during this revival that have really re-introduced the enjoyment and sophistication of drinking a cocktail.

This is the fruit of a laborious 6 months. Would love to hear your thoughts.

www.thecocktailrevival.com

Cocktail Revival Steve Livigni

Steve Livigni

Cocktail Revival Eric Alperin

Eric Alperin

Cocktail Revival Francois Vera

Francois Vera

Cocktail Revival Joseph Brooke

Joseph Brooke

Cocktail Revival Julian Cox

Julian Cox

Cocktail Revival Matt Wallace

Matt Wallace

Cocktail Revival Raul Yrastorza

Raul Yrastorza
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Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Sriracha Cookbook


Thoughts on the new Sriracha cookbook? To be honest, it's like selling a book called "Food You Can Add Hot Sauce To". I don't really know many things that would taste worse with the addition of Sriracha. But the truth is, Sriracha is a universal and magnificent sauce and I love the story of the Tran family. In some restaurants, you'll find this on the table instead of ketchup. It's THAT mainstream. Even Latino restaurants use this as a "quickie" salsa. Growing up in college, I added Sriracha to my beef franks and called them "chili dogs". To really make your "Italian" food taste better, a few shots of Sriracha really boosts up your tomato/pasta sauce. And my favorite, Sriracha and Maggi sauce on fried eggs - amazing. That'll be the day when I publish a book on Maggi sauce. Read more!

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