Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Homemade Carcinogenic French Fries!

Throwing caution to the wind, I made some carcinogenic food last night.

Yup, I made french fries.

In case you haven't heard, there was headline making news the other day about how our state's Attorney General is suing potato chip and french fry producers into warning consumers about a potential cancer-causing chemical called acrylamide found in their products.

The acrylamide warning sirens were set off a few years ago by the FDA, which basically makes a meal of burger and fries just about one of the deadliest things you can eat.

Wait a sec! What about the burger, you ask!? Well, as if you didn't have to worry about the fat and cholesterol already, there's a chance that you could be eating Mad Cow beef and that the chargrilled meat itself can give you rectal cancer!

Makes you want to eat just fish for the rest of your life, doesn't it? That is, until you remember that the fish could contain mercury, PCBs, dioxins, and pesticides.

This only reiterates what I've always thought: "Living is dangerous to your health".

Okay, well enough proselytizing from me about that subject, and more about how I made really good homemade fries!

How's that for lead-in!?

I started off with good old Russets. I peeled them, and then cut them into the classic french fry shape. Then I dumped them into a large bowl of water and left the tap running. Getting rid of the outside film of starch from each potato stick is key to a good and crispy crust.

Once the water runs clear, I extracted the potatoes and patted them dry on a paper towel. In the meantime, I heated a good bit of corn oil (enough to cover all the fries with ample room to float).

Once the oil was nice and hot, I slowly lowered the potatoes with a spider and cooked them for about five minutes or until they were still white and floppy.

As soon as it got to this stage, I extracted all the fries from the oil and let them cool in a waiting bowl. Once the fries were cool, I cranked up the heat on the oil and sent the fries back for their final fry.

After they got the golden brown color, I took them out and into a wide bowl lined with a paper towel (to wick away the excess oil). Working rapidly with the hot fries, I quickly sprinkled a few pinches of kosher salt onto the fries and tossed them in the bowl to distribute. I served them immediately because, as everyone knows, "hot fries = good fries".

These were so good, with a fluffy and faintly buttery interior contrasting that crisp and crunchy crust, that I wished I had a nice char-grilled, 'carcinogenic' burger to go with it.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Ebisu Mendokoro - Fountain Valley

I gotta tell ya...the Japanese sure know how to freak out a person with their food. When the okonomiyaki we ordered at Ebisu was placed on our table, I noticed that my friend froze. His eyes became transfixed on something, a look of terror on his face. I then saw that he was staring at the tufts of bonito flakes on top of the okonomiyaki, which were flailing and writhing like worms.

"Why...why is it MOVING?!?!" he stammered.

After I explained that the heat convecting off the hot pancake was causing the paper-thin fish flakes to billow, he laughed nervously.

I stifled a chuckle as we dug into the okonomiyaki. Darn, I thought, I should've made up something to make him freak out a little bit more. But being the man of science that he is, I figured the jig would've been up before too long anyway.

In any case, the okonomiyaki, which is a Japanese pancake consisting of shredded cabbage, batter, egg, and your choice of different meat mix-ins, was otherwise quite tame. The one I tried this time around had oysters in it; although they must have skimped on this ingredient since I only detected one or two small morsels in the entire pancake.

Instead, they compensated with a little too many squirts of the sweet soy sauce and the kewpie mayo. This overpowered the subtlety of the cooked batter, which by the way, wasn't as burnt as I would've liked it.

A plate of yakisoba we ordered, the Japanese version of chow mein, was good but unremarkable. The katsu don, which was a bowl of rice topped with scrambled egg and breaded pork was fine, but the meat needed to be more tender.

The standout of the night, however, was the dessert with the inexplicable name of "Chocolate Puffet" (which I am thinking of submitting to What I think they meant to call it was "Chocolate Parfait," because that was what it was; a dessert consisting of several layers of 'stuff'.

This thing, which was served in a tall sundae glass, indeed fit that definition -- but just wait until you hear what is in those layers.

Starting from the top:

A Maraschino Cherry
Chocolate Syrup
Whipped Cream
Vanilla Ice Cream
Kellogg's Frosted Flakes
Del Monte Fruit Cocktail

"Frosted flakes, fruit cocktail and ice cream?!?!" my friend exclaimed, as he scratched his head for the second time that night.

Trust me, it tastes better than it sounds. Don't be surprised when I tell you that it's actually quite the winning combination.

Yup. Leave it to the Japanese to dare concoct such a dessert oddity and to make bonito flakes seem like its alive.

Ebisu Mendokoro
(714) 964-5993
18624 Brookhurst St # A
Fountain Valley, CA 92708

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Lucques - Los Angeles

It's not often that this O.C. troglodyte crawls himself out from Stepford country. Yes, life behind the "Orange Curtain" can be antiseptic, safe, and some might say, dull. But with a little bit of resourcefulness and the Internet, it's quite easy to find good grub and fun things to do here, without having to drive in traffic and troll for parking spots in L.A. proper.

So there usually has to be a compelling reason for me to drag my ass out to the City of Angels. This weekend, there were two. One; my friend, who is a chef at Lucques, told me it would be her last week there before she moved on. Two; Lucques was offering a prix fixe three course lunch menu for the 4th Annual U.S.A.Dine Out.

I finally had no excuses left.

And after enduring an hour of freeway driving, and a close call on La Cienega near the Beverly Center, during which I was greeted by the traditional L.A. greeting of blaring car horns and fist-shaking, this Orange County yokel finally made it to Lucques on Melrose and La Cienega.

What happened on La Cienega you ask? I don't want to talk about it. But I just want to say sorry to y'all whom I must have p.o.'d that afternoon, in that intersection. I gotta plead ignorance...but seriously, how was I to know that wasn't supposed to be a turning lane?

Anyway, I digress. So where was I? Oh yeah. We arrived at Lucques, and to my delight, it was surprisingly easy to find a parking spot close to a nearby kindergarden.

Opening the heavy double doors of the restaurant revealed a small but sumptous dining room which was dark and deserted. The hostess informed us that the patio was open too, if we chose to dine out there. We chose the patio, since that was where everyone seemed to be.

The patio, which is actually is at the back of the restaurant, was sort of like an open air bunker, with tall white walls from the adjacent buildings enclosing the space. But the bright sunlight poured in from above, filtered by a white fabric canopy. Our table was dressed with a crisply ironed tablecloth and spotless silverware. It was a pleasant way to dine. Very European, I thought.

Sliced rustic bread, butter, sea salt, almonds and olives in oil arrived as we perused the menu. We found the S. Pellegrino Dine-out Prixe Fixe which read:

$20.00 Three-Course Prix Fixe Meal*

First Course
Soupe au Pistou
With Amaranth and grana breadcrumbs

Fatoosh Salad
With tomato, cucumber, feta and crispy pita

Main Course
Torchio Pasta
With cherry tomatoes, chili, basil and anchovy butter

Grilled Chicken
With blue lake beans, fingerlings and tapenade

Chocolate and Pistachio Terrine
With pistachio lace cookie

Summer Sorbets
With brown sugar shortbread

Complimentary Bottled Water
Your Choice of Sparkling S.Pellegrino or Non-Sparkling Acqua Panna

We ordered so that we got a taste of all the choices under this menu.

The Fatoosh Salad was cooling and light. The lettuce, fresh and crisp laced with a tart dressing and accented with crunchy fried pita chips. These chips were a great textural contrast to the chilled cucumber, tomato, and crumbled feta.

The rustic Soupe au Pistou was tomato based; dark adobe red, perky, and chock-full of legumes. The tender white beans were soft and the cut haricot verts, crisp. The highlight of the soup, however, was the crusty, coarse chunks of homemade croutons. These lent a welcome sweet and buttery counterpoint to the slight acidity of the soup and the licorice flavor of the amaranth leaf garnish. This was a great soup; pleasantly crude and comforting.

The main course of tender Grilled Chicken thigh meat rested on a bed of pureed potatoes (not the fingerlings in the menu I transcribed) topped with a pungent tapenade and flanked with cooked romano beans and caramelized onions. The romanos, flat and long, looked similar to snow peas in shape, but were more subtle and less grassy in taste. A liberal drizzling of olive oil pushed the Mediterranean flavors further into overdrive. I loved this dish, even the unidentifiable green leaves that were ten times more astringent than radicchio.

The Torchio Pasta dish was also perfect. Although it had more olive oil than I'm usually used to, this main course was surprisingly light. The pasta, resembling unfurled conch shells, were tender but still had bite. The cherry tomatoes and basil added a splash of bright color to make this a dazzling summer meal, while the dusting of seasoned breadcrumbs, anchovy butter and pesto gave it an unmistakable character.

The Summer Sorbets dessert had a feather's touch to the palate. Not too sweet, not too sour. If you could distill the essense of a perfect summer day into a dessert, this would be it. The brown sugar cookies were the perfect complement; buttery, crisp, just like you enjoyed in the innocence of youth.

The Chocolate Terrine, however, was too dark and rich for me. The consistency was firm and dense like the nougat in a Three Musketeers bar. I am no choco-holic, so perhaps that's why I didn't fall head over heels for this one. After a few bites, I could feel the pangs of a chocolate headache coming on. Though the lacy cookie that came with it was delectable. It was like a cross between a waffle cone and hard caramel candy.

Yes, my trip to Lucques in L.A. may have been long overdue. But the food that I had made me realize that it's all worth the drive, and even the threat of violence from passing L.A. motorists.

Next time I won't wait so long...and I'm going to have someone else do the driving.

(323) 655-6277
8474 Melrose Ave
Los Angeles, CA 90069

Monday, August 22, 2005

More Asian junk food

You know how they put stuff at the checkout line so that a product you normally wouldn't think of buying catches your eye? And isn't it funny that it's almost always junk food? So someone who's been good enough to commit to tofu, veggies, wheat germ ends up buying a Snickers bar too.

Since marketing spans all cultural boundaries, it's no different at Asian supermarkets like 99 Ranch in Irvine.

This flat parcel of peanuts inticed me with its bright lettering and colorful photo. And the picture of the contents as seen on the packaging indeed looked promising. The mass of peanuts, dried shrimp and spices, all glazed with a sticky, candy-like sheen engendered a Pavlovian response in me.

But alas, what I actually got when I opened the snazzy packaging was much different. First of all, it contained smaller foil packets within it. I was expecting to just dive right into the peanuty, shrimpy goodness as soon as I tore it open, but damn, what is this stuff? Airplane peanuts!?

Then I discovered that each of these pouches contained about half a handful of loose dried roasted peanuts, teeny tiny brine shrimp, and dehydrated seasoning. At first I was disappointed. I was expecting something more unhealthy; more substantial; more junk-foodish. Not this parrot food.

But after emptying a few of these single serving bags down my gullet, chased with a cold drink, it's kinda grown on me. Once in a while, I encounter a searing hot pod of dried chili pepper in the mix. Another time it's a small crunchy chunk of fried garlic, which packs a pungent punch while also rendering my breath lethal to vampires.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Fruit Tart from Le Croissant Dore - Westminster

When it comes to desserts, I prefer subtlety to the overly sweet. Recent expeditions to a much heralded place for "Extraordinary Desserts" in San Diego yielded nothing but a chocolate and sugar-induced headache. Their heavy-handed use of sucrose in all of the desserts made everything one-dimensional and just plain sickening.

One piece we bought with what I thought was meringue on top of a fruit tart turned out to be a solid glob of compacted sugar! I kid you not! I could've broken a chunk of it off, dissolve it in coffee, and it'd have the same effect as a sugar cube. The four of us couldn't finish more than half of this small serving.

Sadly, this cavity-inviting calorie fest seems to be the norm at most American bakeries. Which is why I seldom buy any cakes or pastries from my local Ralphs or Albertsons. I am thinking that if they only just held back on the C&H a little bit, the desserts might actually be edible. But alas, this will never happen as I discovered when I bought an Angel Food Cake from Ralphs on a lark last week, and against my better judgment. The cake was so sweet, it tasted like cotton candy! C'mon! Desserts are meant to cleanse and tickle the palate after a meal, not beat it into submission!

This is the reason why I usually purchase my dessert pastries from Asian bakeries like J.J. Bakery or Assal Pastry in Irvine. The cakes I buy there are delectable, subtle, and sublime. And after finishing one, I don't have to chug a jug of water to revive my sugar-shocked tastebuds.

As far as fruit tarts go, my favorite is the one made by a small bakery in the heart of Little Saigon called Le Croissant Dore. I like their tarts for two reasons; they aren't overpoweringly sweet and they are ridiculously cheap! The tart you see above, which is I think about 15 inches in diameter, set me back only $18 (tax already included)! Just try to get one at that price at Champagne French Bakery! I dare ya!

The cheap price tag for that flaky crust, perfect custard, and luscious fruit has a catch though. If you are foolhardy enough to come in the hours before or during lunch, you'll have to brave the traffic and parking on Bolsa, which, I can tell you, can be hazardous to your health; physical and mental.

And, once you're inside the store, if you are not used to the Vietnamese way of queueing (hint: there is none), you will leave angry, incensed, and sometimes empty-handed. You will notice that in the clutterf#$% of people, they will pay no attention to you, even if you are at the front of the so-called line. While you stand there with a finger raised up, meekly muttering "but...but, I'm next," dozens of native speakers will have come and gone with possibly the last fruit tart in their hands. Here's my advice: Don't be a pussy! Speak up! Assert yourself! Only then will they respect you and sell you your damned tart!

Le Croissant Dore
(714) 895-3070
9122 Bolsa Ave
Westminster, CA 92683

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Tempeh - The Amazing Fermented Soybean Cake!

Europeans have cheese, San Franciscans have sourdough bread -- Indonesians have tempeh, an everyday food made from fermenting soybeans in a plastic bag (or banana leaves) with yeast in a hot, humid room.

Typically you buy tempeh ready-made, even in Indonesia. And if you live there, buying it is like hunting for a loaf of bread; it is widely available, cheap, and most importantly, freshly produced. And since it has a savory taste and dense texture, it easily replaces meat which is typically very expensive.

Here in the states however, you'd be hard pressed to find fresh tempeh anywhere. It's only available in a frozen state at Asian markets like 99 Ranch or DiHo. These frozen blocks are a decent substitute, but only until you've had a freshly made batch of tempeh.

The one pictured above was produced at home by my parents after a few failed attempts. It is a painstaking process, which from what I can tell, involves carefully peeling the skin of each individual soybean after a good overnight soak in a water bath. Then there's the fermenting process, which needs to happen in a hot, humid environment. Recently, we have been blessed with hot weather, rendering our garage a perfect breeding ground for the microbes that go to work in making our tempeh. But previous attempts in the dead of winter yielded nothing but rotten-smelling soybeans after hours of labor.

Whether you make your own tempeh or buy it frozen, you have a myriad of ways to prepare it. It can be used in stir fries, stews, or grilled like a hamburger patty. My favorite way is deep frying after marinating in mashed garlic and salt.

The flavor is probably unlike anything the western palate has tasted before. It is chunky, with an alarming soft pebbly texture. The flavor is meaty with a little bit of tartness -- somewhere between a ripe mushroom and tofu. When deep fried, the outer skin gets crunchy and harbors the full intensity of the seasonings you put into it.

If you are intrepid enough to try to make tempeh on your own at home, here's a guide which pretty much tells you anything and everything about the process. Otherwise find a package, post-haste, at your local Asian grocer!

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Childhood Memories

To me, no memory from my childhood is more vivid than those that are related to food. But of course, since I lived in Indonesia until I was eight, all of my childhood memories of food involves nothing but those from my native cuisine.

So to Kirk from mmm-yoso, who tagged me for this meme, just a warning: the food I will write about might be a little foreign to you (as it will be for anyone not from Indonesia), but oh well, I had fun writing it anyway!

And oh yeah, here's another set of rules and disclaimers by the initiators. I feel like the stuff in quotes below should be read by the guy who-talks-really-fast-at-the-end-of-over-the-counter-medicine-commercials-so-that-you-don't-actually-listen-to-it:

"The rules of this meme are simple. Write about five foods from your childhood that you miss...what's the catch? There is none, really. AND so that the people that started this darned thing can keep track of it, here's something else that you need to do:

Remove the blog at #1 from the following list and bump every one up one place; add your blog's name in the #5 spot; link to each of the other blogs for the desired cross-pollination effect. Then tag three people and you're over and done with it all."

1. BeautyJoyFood
2. eat stuff
3. 'Ono Kine Grindz
4. mmm-yoso!!!
5. Monster Munching


1. Martabak Telor

Sold only at the night markets on the streets of Semarang, by the flickering flame of a gas lantern, this pan fried snack starts out with a pliable dough. Expert hands then stretch and work the dough into a thin membrane as wide as a bed-sheet. It is slapped onto an oiled griddle and then a curry-seasoned mixture of minced meat (usually goat or beef), green onions, and beaten egg is spread thinly on top. The excess flaps of the dough sheet is quickly folded over and after a few minutes of cooking, this flat mass transforms into a crispy melange of goodness. It is then cut into rectangles, perfect for finger snacking. Not quite an omelette; not quite a pancake; not quite an egg roll; but exhibiting the characteristics of all three. You might have seen Tony Bourdain trying and loving a similar dish during the Singapore episode of A Cook's Tour.

2. Sate Gule Kambing

This is actually two dishes made from goat ("kambing"); one is a soup and the other is grilled. Eventhough both dishes are unique in and of themselves, these two distinct preparations are meant to be eaten together. Like "fish and chips", you simply cannot have one without the other. Unlike fish and chips though, the soup is the "yin" to the sate's "yang". The whole meal becomes a perfect balance of asymmetric flavors and textures. The soup, called gule (pronounced 'guh-lay'), is curry-based. Made from simmering the bones and fatty, gristly meat of the goat in a big pot, it is rich and unctuous. But the consistency is surprisingly thin, with a subtle creaminess coming from coconut milk. The sate (pronounced "sa-tay"), on the other hand, is simply prepared. To make it, the most tender pieces of the goat is cut and threaded onto bamboo skewers. Then the skewers are cooked quickly over a charcoal fire. As soon as they are done they get brushed with a glaze made from a mixture of kecap manis, lime juice, and white pepper. The two dishes are enjoyed in concert with hot rice. I alternate between tearing a chunk of meat from the sate with my teeth and then taking a sip of the hot soup.

3. Soto Ayam

This is probably my favorite Indonesian dish of all. The best version, in my opinion, comes from my hometown of Semarang. In a ramshackle structure built of spare aluminum siding and tattered fabric, the family that owns this street-side "warung" wakes up every morning before dawn preparing simmering vats of soto, a shredded chicken soup seasoned with turmeric and other spices. Order a bowl and you see them assemble your breakfast. Rice, bean thread noodles, celery leaves and diced green onion go in first. Then it is doused with the clear, hot soup, garnished with crumbled fried garlic and shallots. But no bowl of soto is complete without some sort of side dish. The most common one is perkedel, a deep-fried mashed potato fritter. My favorite side dish, though, is a bowl of stewed bloody-clams and boiled egg. The kecap manis it is steeped in imparts a deep, sweet flavor and a dark, brown color; the perfect accompaniment to the bright yellow of the soup.

4. Nasi Pecel

This dish I remember because I ate so much of it one day on a trip to Surabaya that I was literally rendered motionless with a food coma. My mother chided me for gorging myself to this state, but I didn't care. Heck, I ate the same amount the next day. How could I resist this salad of boiled kangkung (Chinese watercress), bean sprouts, and string beans, dressed in a peanut sauce that was spiked with chilis, tamed with coconut milk, and made addictive with other unknown spices. This dish harnesses the non-translateable Indonesian word "SEDAP!". The closest I can get to an English translation is "lip-smacking, mouth-watering, refreshing, and savory." And even that doesn't do it justice! And oh yeah, no plate of nasi pecel is complete without kripik kacang, a typical accompaniment; a thin sheet of fried crunchy batter dotted with peanuts.

5. Nasi Ayam

This dish holds a special place in my heart because I remember eating it outside my grandmother's porch in Semarang. The nasi ayam lady would come around with her wares dangled on a long stick slung over her shoulder. After taking a seat on a portable stool, she'd peel a single banana leaf, tuck one side over the other, making a cone. Inside this cone, she would scoop a little rice, pour on some opor ayam, which is a thick soup made with coconut milk and chicken, quarters of boiled egg, and stew of julienned chayote, tofu and chilis. Then I'd eat the dish with a "spoon" improvised from a strip of banana leaf, folded and creased into a rudimentary scoop.

Pam of Daily Gluttony, MealCentric (he's on vacation), Diamond Dog, "Tag. You're it."

Friday, August 05, 2005

Zesty Thai - Irvine

Nothing demonstrates the drudgery of everyday life for the corporate drone better than a trip to one of the many food courts in Irvine. Situated strategically near office parks or warehouses, everyday at noon, Irvine's food courts lure the bleary-eyed cube farm denizens like insects to a venus-fly trap.

One example is the food court on Barranca and Von Karman in the Sam's Club Plaza. There, in a poorly lit space, three (Count them! THREE!) out of a half dozen stalls hawk the SAME tired orange chicken as well as other mass-prepared concoctions with gloopy gravy from old, crusty steam trays. The food, made from cheap ingredients is slopped onto rice and sold as "Specials". Sometimes they include a watered-down soda and sometimes not.

Regretfully, a while ago, I tried food from an Indian stall there. Their chicken tikka masala, which looked like vomit, also tasted like it. I also think that it was their saag paneer which gave me food poisoning that night. Fortunately, the Indian place has gone out of business since then, but unfortunately I have a feeling that an equally horrid replacement is on the way.

So it came as a surprise when I got a tip from a fellow Chowhound named Curt, that the Thai stall at this food court does a good cooked-to-order Pad See Ew. Had I heard it from anybody else, I would have dismissed it as bunk. But Curt is a Chowhound who knows his Thai food, so I couldn't resist going back there to investigate.

Zesty Thai, as it is officially called, wasn't one of those that sold the orange chicken, but it did have its own steam trays with equally bleak-looking offerings. Something labeled as Chicken Satay looked suspiciously like buffalo chicken fingers with nary a bamboo skewer in sight. And behind a sheet of glass under a glowing infrared heat lamp was...broasted chicken?! What the?

Okay, so far this place wasn't getting my hopes up, but admittedly I haven't tried any of the steam tray stuff, so it could all taste better than it looks.

So with gritted teeth, we walked up to the counter and ordered the Pad See Ew. The server looked at us and frowned.

"That will take about 15 minutes. Are you sure?" she warned us ominously.

"Yes, we'll wait for it," I said with confidence, trying to hide my trepidation.

Watching the lone cook behind her, who was working feverishly with a single wok which was obscenely warped from years of use, I thought to myself, "This will take longer than 15 minutes."

And I was right, as she had a few orders to complete before ours. At one point, she had to cook up more pad thai to refill an empty steam tray container.

Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, I saw her assemble our Pad See Ew. With a flourish she threw a bowl of chicken meat into the sizzling wok, then cracked an egg into it. Before long, the rice noodles went in, and then a flurry of seasonings and soy sauce. The long spatula she held moved in quick circles around the wok. And then shortly thereafter, she swept the contents into a waiting styrofoam container.

We paid the $4.65 (plus tax) and took the food to a table.

Upon opening the box, the aroma and breath of the wok wafted into our nostrils. The dish was still piping hot and we dug in. Tasting the first short, stubby strand of noodle we immediately remarked "this was worth the wait."

The flavor was spot-on perfect. The seasonings of soy, fish sauce, sugar, and who knows what else, permeated into every corner of the noodles, also giving it a rich, brown burnish.

I concede that a typical restaurant Pad See Ew is traditionally made with beef and Chinese broccoli, not the chicken and American broccoli that were used in this dish. And I've never seen carrots used in Pad See Ew either. But indeed everything that made this dish non-traditional was trumped by its authentic flavor and execution.

The American broccoli, in fact, functioned like a thirsty sponge, sopping up and concentrating the deep and penetrating essence of the seasonings. Also, the morsels of chicken were springy and light.

I've had the Pad See Ew at Zesty Thai twice now, and the second time, the same cook went a bit too far with the seasoning and the dish came out saltier than before. But for take-out Thai, the Pad See Ew served here is probably still better than most places in Irvine and definitely of higher quality, I think, than the stuff offered at the other stalls in that food court.

Post-script: Zesty Thai has been sold to new owners.

Monday, August 01, 2005

Phuong Trang - San Diego

Vietnamese food is easy to come by here in Orange County. The city of Westminster (and parts of Garden Grove), or as it has become more popularly known, Little Saigon, has what I hear is the biggest concentration of Vietnamese people outside of Vietnam. So it should come as no surprise that the choices for food are authentic and abundant.

Is it pho that you want? Twirl a stick on the ground on Bolsa Rd. and where ever it may stop, chances are good that it will point at a Pho joint.

As non-Vietnamese local, I've enjoyed all the culinary pleasures that this wonderful area has to offer, as well as the other Vietnamese restaurants that dot the landscape outside of this Green Zone.

It is a fact that I just love Vietnamese food. Curiously enough, however, I even love the restaurants that my Vietnamese friends seem dismiss as "not authentic".

"That's NOT Vietnamese food," they'd scoff when I expound on my latest foray into their native cuisine.

One example of this is an institution in Fullerton called Kim Loan. I've been coming to this place since I was a wee lad, and I've grown up with their bowls of pho, rice with BBQ pork, and chow mein. I've stuck with them through two devastating fires and as their prices climb ever so slowly. So have others diners as the place does a steady stream of business. If you're there on a typical night, look around and you'll surely notice nothing peculiar. But listen closely to the conversations taking place and you'll probably realize that while most of the diners are Asian, only a small percentage are actually Vietnamese.

The same, I think, is true at my local Vietnamese joint in Irvine.

Pho Bac Ky has been the subject of consternation of my Vietnamese friends who proclaim that there is no good Vietnamese in Irvine. While I agree with them in general that there few decent choices in this city for good Vietnamese, I bristle when they chide me for liking Pho Bac Ky.

While they think of it as the prime example of their argument, I think Pho Bac Ky is the exception. I find their food fresh, good and reasonably priced. Plus, I tell them, I avoid the 405 and the hell that is traffic and parking in Little Saigon when all I want is to relax and have a cool plate of bun.

So, when it came to a recent trip down to San Diego, I was eager to try Phuong Trang after reading Kirk's review of it on his blog, mmm-yoso.

In the review, Kirk remarked that more non-Vietnamese patronize this restaurant than Vietnamese.


This sounds like my kind of place!

Upon first entering the restaurant, I was pleased to see that it was larger than the exterior made it look. It felt more like a Chinese banquet hall than Vietnamese joint. Big round tables for family style dining were in the middle of the room, while smaller tables lined the walls. The crowd was predominantly Asian, but as there was a steady murmur of voices, the distinct cackle of the Vietnamese language was all but drowned out.

Our food came out shortly after we ordered. But it took a while for the waiters to realize that since we had five people in our party, we needed five glasses of water and five sets of utensils, not just the four that they had given us.

The first to come out was the Pho Tai. Served with generous bowl of fresh herbage, the soup was sweeter than most of the pho's that I've had the pleasure of tasting. However, this was a spot on twin of the pho that Kim Loan serves, which is a good thing in my book. Though I suspect that this is the type of pho which will turn a Vietnamese diner against Phuong Trang. "Sah mooee! Too sweet," I can imagine them moaning.

The Thit Nuong, or BBQ Pork with rice was excellent. At first I was afraid that the server got our order wrong, because instead of thin slices, the pork was in some sort of a compressed block. It looked more like Nem Nuong (the grilled Vietnamese ground pork patty) than Thit Nuong. But upon a little gentle prodding with my spoon, this meatloaf-looking mass fell apart to reveal smaller chunks of pork, which had a deep, marinated sweetness. I liked it better than the rest of my party, however, who were undoubtedly expecting a more familiar execution of the dish.

The Combination Crispy Chow Mein was the most intimidating dish on our table. Not that it had anything exotic or scary like writhing octopus tentacles on it. It was just huge, with a bulbous bouffant of fried noodles acting like a nest to the chop suey veggies and meats. The noodles, while crispy, weren't nearly as satisfyingly dense as I am used to. The gravy was tasty, but could have been more savory; maybe a little more MSG would've done the trick. Despite all outward appearances, the dish was actually quite light to the touch. The chunks of protein, which included squid, fish balls, shrimp, fish cake, and scallop were fresh and pleasantly squiggly.

Eventhough I didn't get to sample the restaurant's version of Chow Fun, it looked like the gravy component was the same as the Chow Mein. I would guess that it probably worked better with the soft, wide rice noodles.

The Beef Salad was the probably the only disappointing dish we ordered. It functioned more like pickles than salad for the duration of our meal. The thickly sliced beef in the dish was fibrous and chewy. It appeared that it was blanched quickly in hot water and had the pallid, white appearance of pork. The rest of the julienned roughage consisted of what I think was young mango, daikon, onion, carrot and cucumber. The dressing was the deciding factor on this dish's success and unfortunately it fell flat. The overriding flavor was the sweetness of sugar and the tartness of white vinegar. Imagine a sweeter version of the daikon/carrot pickles they put in Banh Mi, and you've got it. A fine palate cleanser, but a poor salad.

Moving from my least favorite to the best dish of our lunch; the Deep Fried Shrimp. This dish was simply other-worldly. Never before have I had such a magnificent plate of fried shrimp. These plump crustaceans are served with the shell and head still attached, just as you would see it done in Chinese seafood restaurants as Salt and Pepper Shrimp. But this dish trumps anything I've tasted before. The secret lies in the light crust used on the shrimp. Along with providing a nice textural crunchiness, it packed a salty, sweet, and garlicky punch. A sprinkling of diced red bell pepper and green onion rounded out this masterpiece of a dish.

San Diego may be far away from Little Saigon, but with dishes like these, I doubt they'd miss out on the wonderful food the culture of Vietnam has to offer.

Phuong Trang Restaurant
(858) 565-6750
4170 Convoy St
San Diego, CA 92111