Sunday, March 26, 2006

Pondok Kaki Lima at the Duarte Inn - Duarte

On a crisp and clear Saturday morning, near the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains, in the sleepy city of Duarte, behind the low-slung archway of the Duarte Inn, on the grounds of its concrete parking lot, makeshift tents are erected, umbrellas are unfurled, picnic tables are unfolded, and food is prepared.

This is the weekly ritual for the vendors of the Indonesian food fair, known as Pondok Kaki Lima.

The phrase, loosely translated, means "Shack of the Five-Legged Vendor," in a quaint reference to what the residents of this island nation call their food hawkers. To explain the origins of the name: the two front wheels of the traditional food vendor cart, summed with the single wooden peg used for a kickstand and the hawker's own two feet, counts for the five legs in the colloquialism.

The owner of the Duarte Inn, himself an Indonesian, has welcomed a few enterprising home cooks and some ex-restauranteurs to his hotel's backyard to emulate these hawker stands -- in some part to bring the diaspora of Indonesians living in L.A. area together, and in another to share the bounty of the Indonesian kitchen to the general public.

The sense of community in the crowd is palpable, and like a church picnic, people greet each other with sing-song familiarity. And although comparisons will be made to the Wat Thai Temple's weekend food fair, Pondok Kaki Lima is a smaller and more intimate gathering, with only about a half-dozen vendor tents.

On this sunny Saturday morning, business was as brisk as the air. Each stall was swarmed with hungry customers, mostly ex-patriates eager for familiar foods.

One sate vendor, who had propped up three Charbroil grills in a row on his flat bed tow, was squinting behind ribbons of white smoke, feverishly turning the skewered meats over fire, trying to keep up with the orders. Behind him, the low frequency thumps of an unseen boom-box warbled out synthesizer-laden Indo-Pop, with too little treble and an excess of bass.

Another vendor called Kristy Kup, which was a Glendora restaurant before it shuttered its doors, was also particularly busy. They were nearly out of their best-seller, Nasi Gudeg ($6) when we swooped in and took the last order of the afternoon. Their chafing dishes were practically licked clean after our styrofoam container of food was assembled.

Gudeg (pronounced goo-dug) is simmered young jackfruit with a pinkish brown pulp that has the appearance of shredded beef but a flavor that is sweetly floral. Rice always accompanies the dish, but also included is a chicken drumstick, a hard-boiled egg, and a block of dense tofu, all cooked in the same pot.

Nasi Gudeg would not be complete without Sambal Goreng Krecek, a caustic stew of softened beef rinds and chili. Boiled down to a jelly-like consistency, this cooked cow-chiccarone moves and slips around in the mouth, spreading the latent burn of the brew like a mop. If that weren't enough, a dollop of homemade sambal is also served, in case you want to set your whole head on fire.

For snacking, Kristy Kup also sells Pastel Ayam ($1.25 each), the Indonesian version of the empanada. The homemade and braided pastry shell is stuffed which chopped egg, carrots, peas, ground chicken, and bean thread noodle. The parcel is then deep fried to a flaky, golden brown.

When I ordered mine, the lady directed her husband to fry up a fresh batch. He did so dutifully, taking a few pieces out of a tupperware cointainer, carefully lowering them into a wok, and tossing them in the hot oil.

An order of these Indonesian "Hot Pockets" includes a thick, spicy, and vinegary peanut dipping sauce tied inside a plastic baggie. I immediately took refuge under one of the dining tents and consumed the pastels while still piping hot. It's the perfect finger food -- crunchy, simple, and with every dunk in the sauce, dangerously addictive.

Nasi Rames ($6), bought from another vendor is a combination of four different dishes set around rice. I chose Sambal Telor, which is a deep-fried hard-boiled egg, covered in a sweet but stinging red sauce of tomatoes and chili. Empal, marinated beef fried crisp in oil, tasted like sweet and seasoned jerky, but much more tender and moist. To round out the meal, I also picked out a chicken drumstick, which was stewed in the same sauce as the egg, and simmered kale, a dish that's similar to Southern collard greens in Pot Liquor.

For dessert and to douse the fires now burning a hole on our tongues, we ordered Es Shanghai ($1) from another vendor. It's shaved ice topped with jackfruit, grass jelly, lychees, young coconut, and sweet beans, finished with a generous drizzling of flourescent pink rose syrup and condensed milk.

I took a plastic spoon to task, breaking up the shaved ice mound to distribute the syrup and ingredients into a slush. Slurp after freezing slurp, the dessert cooled my palate and soothed my lips.

Another vendor sold Indonesian groceries, with various items laid out haphazardly on a fold-out table. Krupuk, crunchy fried chips made from tapioca flour, and dark bottles of Kecap Manis, a thick soy sauce sweetened with palm sugar, were in high demand.

This same stand sold Teh Kotak, which literally translates to "boxed tea," and comes $2 for a pack of six. We bought it as our beverage for the lunch, sucking down the sugary brew through the small straw as chasers to our dessert.

For those who might be interested in experiencing Pondok Kaki Lima but are intimidated with the potential language barrier, I've compiled a small crib sheet with some basic Indonesian to English translations:

Ayam = Chicken
Babi = Pork
Bubur = Rice Porridge
Es = Shaved Ice
Gado Gado = Salad with Peanut Sauce
Goreng = Fried
Kambing = Goat
Lontong = Compressed Rice Cake
Mie = Noodles
Nasi = Rice
Sambal = Chili Paste
Sapi = Beef
Sate = Satay
Siomay = Dumplings
Soto = Spiced Soup
Telor = Egg
Udang = Shrimp

Saturdays from 10 a.m–2 p.m.
Duarte Inn Parking Lot
1200 Huntington Dr
Duarte, CA 91010

Monday, March 20, 2006

A Tale of Three Soft Tofu Restaurants - Irvine

In Irvine, where Koreans constitute only 5.3% of the city's population, there are six Korean soft tofu restaurants. Serendipitiously, three of the six are clustered together like mushrooms in the same sprawling neighborhood shopping center.

Figuring out how and why this happened might be a good subject for a graduate thesis on free market economics. But whatever the reason, one thing is clear -- you can't just tell a friend to meet up at the Korean restaurant at the corner of Culver and Walnut. Unless, that is, you intend to play a hilarious prank.

Whether planning mischief or making legitimate dinner plans, for your convenience I've diagrammed the locations of the three restaurants in the satellite photo above.

A. Koba Tofu Grill (formerly BCD Tofu House)
B. Korean Dae Myoung OK Restaurant
C. Kaya Tofu House

Although each restaurant is unique in look and atmosphere, all feature the beloved sundubu jjigae -- a bubbling hot cauldron of soft tofu soup served table side.

This dish is comfort food to Koreans, but enjoyed by all hungry people alike. It is especially satisfying during this time of the year when the air is bone-chilling and heavy rain dampens the spirit.


The newest of the trio of restaurants is Koba Tofu Grill, which until recently was the Irvine outpost of the popular soft tofu chain BCD Tofu House.

As BCD, it gained instant popularity when it opened for business not more than a few months ago. It was the new bride in white and stole all the attention away from the other maidens, if not only on the merits of the BCD name.

But the honeymoon between the owners of the Irvine restaurant and the parent company was short-lived, and the divorce was final even before I got a chance to try the restaurant under its BCD moniker. By the time I finally stepped through its glass and chrome doorway last Friday, the restaurant had severed all ties with BCD and rechristened itself Koba Tofu Grill.

All traces of its former life as a BCD concubine was erased form the menus, the marquee, and the placemats -- not unlike it went through a brain wipe a la Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

Unchanged was the restaurant's modern interior. Utilizing stark white, grey granite, and brushed metal motifs, the end result was an environment as cold and sterile as a hospital operating room.

The utensils provided on each table push this theme to an uncomfortable extreme. The chopsticks were made of polished stainless steel rods, making them so awkward, slippery, and dangerous to handle that even the most dexterous will abandon them for a spoon, for fear of chipping a tooth or poking out an eye.

And although I cannot compare its food to what was served during its halcyon days as BCD, the dishes I consumed Koba Tofu Grill remains by-the-book and traditional. Sundubu jjigae is the featured entree of choice -- a boiling soup of custard-soft tofu, diced beef, unshelled shrimp, and a clam served in small cast-iron cauldron.

For the two of us, we ordered one Combination ($14), which included the soup, rice cooked in a stone-pot, several small side dishes, and our choice of a second entree. We picked the ubiquitous Korean BBQ short ribs, called kalbi and asked for an extra order of stone-pot rice for $2, so that we could each have our own.

Upon bringing the stone-pots of rice, our kind server scooped out its contents into a second bowl. Almost immediately afterward, he poured a pitcher of liquid into the pot, submerging what remained of the crisped, stuck-on rice under hot water. For those unfamiliar with this practice: he was making rice soup.

Although favored by some, I've always thought the product of this impromptu demonstration looked and tasted like dirty dish water. I much prefer scraping off the crunchy rice with a spoon at the end of the meal, eating it up like crackers.

Next to arrive was an array of small side items called banchan, served in small saucers. Kimchi, napa cabbage pickled in a fiery red Korean chili paste, is a staple for any Korean meal and it was good here. Along with being tart and crisp, it harnessed a slow but hot pepper burn.

Another favorite was the whole yellow croaker, a small fish the length of two pinky fingers, deep fried golden with a crunchy batter. I relished picking up each morsel of its moist flesh and saved the salty skin for last.

The rest of the banchan consisted of different marinated vegetables and a tuft of black seaweed, none of which were very memorable, unfortunately.

The soft tofu soup was standard issue. Good but not great.

Although we always order it "white", meaning "hold the gochujang", the broth lacked soulfullness and body. The soft tofu curds, however, readily melted into a mouth-filling blanket of warmth, making for a wholly satisfying sensation.

A point of minor disappointment was the kalbi. Being cut too thickly, it was far too chewy to be pleasant. What I did manage to masticate and swallow lacked flavor. A longer soak in the marinade might have allowed it to pick up more of the requisite sweetness of sugar, the nuttiness of sesame oil, and the saltiness of soy.


The oldest and most no-nonsense of the bunch is Korean Dae Myong OK Restaurant.

Residing in the middle of Heritage Square, its marquee is unceremoniously stenciled with the simple phrase "Korean Restaurant". Inside, the tabletops are worn from thousands of elbows, and the walls are barren, save for a few stock posters of the old country.

This is a dive which ignores trends and sticks to what works -- good food, cooked by people who've done it forever. And although I haven't revisited this establishment in a few years, I am sure that nothing's changed.

Rice will be served in metal bowls, and the generous variety of banchan offered will cover the table like a quilt -- a dizzying patchwork of colors and textures.


Kaya Tofu House is tucked away in the northernmost corner of the plaza and is my current favorite out of the triumvirate.

Inside the cozy restaurant, dark hued woods added warmth and wallpaper made of aged parchment was scribbled with cascading patterns of Korean script, suggesting a reverence for tradition.

Coupled with this, a call button was glued on the wall next to each table. When we pushed it, our table number lit up on a LED display above the kitchen doorway while an audible 'ping' reverbed through the tiny restaurant.

Even more beguiling than the elaborate paging system is the fact that most of the waitresses seem to ignore it, responding more readily to a raised hand or just a slight nod.

As for the food, it's great in every way. We ordered the sundubu jjigae combo which was also priced at $14 and included all the side dishes, and one stone-pot rice. An extra order of rice was also $2 here.

The soup contained all the components of those served at Koba and Dae Myoung, but was richer and deeper in character. It's the sort of soup that soothed as much as it satisfied, like coming home to a place that's familiar and warm.

The banchan served by Kaya was one of the most varied and innovative I've had in Irvine. Stewed potatoes crumbled softly after a long simmer in a soy and mirin broth. Dried anchovies were fried to a crisp and paired with sweet green pepper pods. Chilled potato salad was dressed in cooling mayonnaise. Even the green salad and pickled cucumbers had a brightness of flavor that surprised and refreshed my palate.

The bulgogi, tender ribbons of cooked beef served on a sizzling hot plate with softened onions, was pitch perfect, without being too sweet or cloying. Dusted with sesame seeds and sprinkled with chopped scallions, this was a dish that begged for hot steamed rice.

All differences aside, each of these restaurants offers a complete and hearty Korean meal that nourishes the body as much as it delights the tongue, and for no more than $10 per person on average.

So pick one and tell a friend to meet you at one of the three below:

Koba Tofu Grill
(949) 262-0261
14370 Culver Dr
Irvine, CA 92604

Korean Dae Myoung Ok Rstrnt
(949) 651-1177
14250 Culver Dr # B
Irvine, CA 92604

Kaya Restaurant
(949) 726-9424
14120 Culver Dr
Irvine, CA 92604

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Mr. Baguette - Rosemead

Thanks to the likes of Jonathan Gold, Gustavo Arellano, and the countless food sages of, most people are now well acquainted with the banh mi -- the Vietnamese sandwich made with a crusty French roll and filled with meats from all manner of creatures which swim, graze and cluck.

The undisputed mecca of all things banh mi in America is in Orange County's Little Saigon, which I am blessed to live near. There, amidst the chaos of Bolsa Avenue, one can't drive two feet without spotting a banh mi shop. The sandwiches at these places can vary from mediocre to great, with the best coming from the shops that bake their bread in-house.

And what bakers they are. The baguettes churned out by some of these Little Saigon mom-and-pops, I dare say, can rival any produced by the best boulangeries of Paris.

But LA County's San Gabriel Valley is hot on its heels in becoming a banh mi destination of its own. One bright and shining example is Mr. Baguette in Rosemead, an eatery that's already been lauded by both Mr. Gold, the LA Times and Mr. California's Gold himself, Huell Howser since its opening four years ago. And yes, the baguettes come out hot and fresh from their own ovens.

These long and golden loaves exhibit a crackly, crumbly crust and a soft pillowy interior. It's baked in perfect form and lovely when eaten with just a slathering of butter. But don't stop there. The folks at Mr. Baguette pride themselves in offering a dizzying variety of fillings (over 58 permutations) to transform their baguette into a banh mi -- a sandwich that best demonstrates what good things can happen when Asian flavors meets European.

As I placed my order, I took in the surroundings -- the store gleamed with glass and neon, and was as sleek as a new car showroom. This was definitely a far cry from the worn-out grime of some joints in Westminster.

Mr. Baguette, it seems, is the rare example of a mom-and-pop which operates with the efficiency, organization, and cleanliness of a corporate franchise, without losing the soul of being a family-run establishment.

In the back, a busy staff of uniformed women in white hats assembles the banh mi, which comes in two primary styles; traditional (with cilantro sprigs and daikon/carrot pickles) or Western (with lettuce and sliced tomato). For this visit I decided to try the latter.

The Grilled Chicken Sesame Sandwich ($3.95) was the first one I sunk my teeth into. For this, a baguette was stuffed full of chunked dark meat chicken morsels the size of quarters. Full of peppery flavor, the chicken was as tender as the bread was crisp. A few slices of American cheese added some tang and body. The sesame seeds, which decorated the baguette crust like jewels, provided a nutty contrast to the sandwich -- something that a McDonald's sesame seed bun could never do to its burgers.

The Smoked Bacon Sandwich ($3.75) put a new spin on the classic BLT. Yes, there's lettuce and tomato, but instead of the usual long strips of pork belly, the cooked bacon was cut into a julienne as thin as match sticks. The sandwich was practically bursting with this bacon confetti, which had a smoky, briny flavor and a hearty chew like a good bacon should. But the result was more bacon per square inch than your average Denny's Grand Slam Breakfast. Better consult your cardiologist before you decide to feast on this fatty and porky indulgence.

Me? I was in still in denial about the cholesterol count as my fingers greedily searched and picked up any stray pieces left behind after I polished off my sandwich.

Next was the Pork of the House ($3.75), usually called Thit Nuong. This is one sandwich that I usually avoid, even in my favorite dives in Westminster. The reason being was that more often than not, the pork is overcooked to the point of jerky. Gnawing on such a sandwich filling can be a good workout for the jaws but was not necessarily appetizing.

I'm pleased to report that Mr. Baguette's pork was worlds away from those dry, mummified pieces of meat that I've encountered in the past. The pork here was marinated with a touch of lemongrass and sugar, and grilled to a mouth-meltingly tender and moist consistency similar to a fine filet mignon. A generous heap of it comes in each sandwich -- more than enough to satiate a hungry carnivore like myself.

If Mr. Baguette's banh mis didn't already impress me, I still had to try the pastries. And again I was pleased. Each delectable creation utilized a butter-based pastry crust that flakes and crumbles into paper thin sheets. My favorite were the Mini-Pies filled with Custard ($0.75). Just like donut holes, I ended up eating far more of these than I should have. My beer gut would have been better off if I had only eaten just one of the bigger Raisin Rolls ($1.39) or even the Strawberry Danish ($1.39).

But alas, I wasn't finished getting myself fat. To wash it all down, I tried the Avocado Smoothie ($3.25), which was a beautiful and milky green concoction of ripe, smooth avocado blended with ice cream. As it turned out, this unctuous fruit was perfect fodder for the blender, pleasing my palate with a fresh, grassy, velvety, and creamy sweetness with each sip. It's surprisingly addictive and light.

If more people gave this dessert drink a chance, they will find a new appreciation of the fruit that most only enjoy in guacamole. For me, it was avocado, rediscovered.

Mr. Baguette
(626) 288-9166
8702 Valley Blvd
Rosemead, CA 91770

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Cafe Hiro - Cypress - Lunch and its Fourth Anniversary

If you read this blog regularly, you aren't a stranger to my enthusiasm about Cafe Hiro, a cozy restaurant in Cypress which fuses flavors from Japan, Italy and France. But if you have no idea what I'm talking about and you'd like to catch up, here are links to my previous posts.

Post Number 1
Post Number 2
Post Number 3

...leading me to this entry, "Post Number 4", which happily coincides with the restaurant's fourth anniversary this week.

To mark this milestone, Chef Hiro Ohiwa and crew are offering a discount: When you come in to dine between March 7th to 12th, you'll receive a coupon for 50% off on lunch or 20% off on dinner for use on your next visit. (Thanks to bottomlesspit and whowantscandy for the scoop).

This is a tremendous offer because even without the discount, the prices at Cafe Hiro are already reasonable. Dinner, complete with soup and salad* normally ranges from $10 to $20. Lunch is an even better deal at around $9.

Lunch, just like dinner, starts with a velvety smooth, pureed vegetable soup of the day. Some days it can be carrot, other days it's white potato touched with a hint of curry. My favorite is the sweet potato soup, an addictive elixir with the color of muted adobe. Each warm and silken spoonful envelops the tongue in a comforting embrace of starch and sweetness.

The soup is quickly followed by refreshing salad of greens, served on a chilled plate. The fresh cold crunch of butter lettuce and baby greens is dressed with a pulpy concoction harboring the sharp bite of ginger, the acidic tang of citrus fruit, and the salty funk of miso. It's a brisk wake-up call to the palate, like a dunk in an ice cold bucket of water.

Next is the entree, which includes roasted potatoes and a cold noodle salad. The chef likes to be creative with the spuds, giving it an unexpected dimension of flavor. Some days, he glazes it with a candy-sweet coating of caramel. On others, it's dusted with the spicy wallop of curry powder. The spaghetti noodles, on the other hand, are always dressed in a tangy cream sauce and studded with sesame seeds. After these two mainstays, all that is left for us to do is to pick the main entree. For this, we're given the choice of a few constants that appear on the regular menu and one special item of the day.

One entree, which is always available on the lunch menu, is the Pork Katsu. This cut of lean pork is prepared in the classic style, breaded with a Panko crust and deep-fried until golden. Although I sometimes find it chewy and bland, the accompanying vessel of homemade tonkatsu sauce makes up for any shortcomings. This dark, gloopy brew has the consistency of tar and a taste similar to steak sauce if it had soul.

For the Sauteed Jidori Chicken entree, Chef Ohiwa takes a tender piece of the thigh meat and cooks it on a hot saute pan until the skin is rendered of fat and transforms into a shiny and crisp jacket. The finished chicken steak is then lacquered in a sweet and sour reduction, with echoes of pineapple.

On the day that I had my camera, the special item was Korean BBQ Beef -- his rendition of bulgogi. Tender strips of marinated steak is cooked on a griddle with onions and finished with soy sauce, sugar, and sesame oil. The bold flavor of this dish demands steamed rice, which, of course, was provided.

After our lunch, we can never skip dessert, no matter how stuffed we are. The Panna Cotta is strikingly presented in a martini glass and garnished with fresh berries. This cold, creamy delight is the offspring of a happy marriage between Jell-O pudding and Jell-O gelatin. It quivers and jiggles like the latter, but fills the mouth in a dream-like ooze like the former.

The most intriguing dessert however is the Green Tea Blanc Manger. The usual first impression upon seeing it is fear. What is that dark and dangerous liquid anyway? It looks like swamp sludge.

In reality, it's just a thin layer of matcha -- Japanese green tea. Directly beneath is a soft custard. Then, buried deep below the custard, on the bottom of the vessel, is a dollop of sweet red bean. The trick is to dig in, through the different strata of ingredients, and get a taste of everything in each spoonful.

Thanks Chef Ohiwa and staff, for four wonderful years of great food at an incredible value!*

Cafe Hiro
(714) 527-6090
10509 Valley View St
Cypress, CA 90630

*UPDATE 1 (March 10, 2006): After my most recent dinner visit on March 10, 2006, I'm disappointed to report that now an entree comes with either a soup or a salad, not both. In addition, it seems that prices have increased slightly by as much as two dollars on some dishes. However, service and food quality remains unchanged -- spotty and excellent, respectively.

*UPDATE 2 (July 14, 2006): I'm pleased to report that Cafe Hiro is back to including *BOTH* soup and salad with its entrees.