Sunday, September 24, 2006

Com Tam Thuan Kieu - Garden Grove

Deep in the lush Mekong River delta, rice paddies are carved into mountainsides in serene terraces of green. In this bucolic setting, the work of a rice farmer was hard, back-breaking.

Threshing, the process which releases the rice from the stalk, was done by hand. The whole kernels, after being separated from those that have shattered, were sold for a meager profit, usually to the colonial aristocracy in what was French Indochina. The broken pieces, however, were kept for home consumption, or sold cheap to fellow laborers.

Because of this, broken rice, or com tam, became the day-to-day sustenance for the peasant class, steamed to humble platefuls, and eaten with simply-grilled meats, fresh cut vegetables, and a bowl of sweetened fish sauce called nuoc cham.

Here in present-day Garden Grove, deep in Orange County's Little Saigon, virtually every restaurant and pho joint has a version of this Vietnamese work-a-day dish, but few actually specialize in it like Com Tam Thuan Kieu, a plain-looking place located in a dingy strip mall indistinguishable from all the other dingy strip malls along Brookhurst Street.

Out front, toothless, chain-smoking old men sit and chat, no doubt reminiscing about a time in recent history when Ho Chi Minh City was still called Saigon. Inside, the menu -- which features broken rice and meat pairings in sixty-four permutations -- is dizzying.

The specialty of the house is #7 and #8 on the roster, two dishes which takes the name of the restaurant itself.

Com Tam Thuan Kieu 7 mon A ($7.95) and Com Tam Thuan Kieu 7 mon B ($7.95) are masterpieces of seven mouth-watering items heaped on top of a generous mound of rice.

It's a meal fit for a fat French Imperalist or a family of hungry rice planters. Seriously, it is enough food to feed two people at one sitting, or one person for two days.

I chose, for a recent lunch outing, a #7, which included the following:

Bi (Shredded Pork) - Wispy strands of translucent pork skin and julienned meat tossed with toasted rice powder.

Cha (Baked Egg) - A slice of something similar to quiche, with wood ear mushrooms, glass noodles, and pork cooked together with beaten egg.

Nem (Charbroiled Meat) - A mixture of pureed pork meat, aggresively seasoned with pepper, formed into racquetball-sized spheres, and cooked to a springy, bouncy firmness.

Lap Xuong (Sausage) - Sweet Chinese sausage, splayed on the diagonal into bite-sized sections, pan-fried to an oily sheen.

Tom Nuong (Charbroiled Shrimp) - Grilled shrimp skewered on a stick, basted with a sweet barbecue glaze.

Tau Hu Ky (Bean Curd Skin w/Shrimp) - A golden brick made of shrimp minced to a paste, wrapped with a thin sheet of bean curd skin, and deep fried crisp.

Suon (Charbroiled Pork Chop) - A grilled, marinated pork chop, cut to the shape of a baseball mit.

The rice, steamed perfectly to pleasingly-perky, pebble-shaped granules, acts as a blank canvas for the protein piled upon it.

The short stubby pieces form a matrix well suited to sop up the juices that leech out from the meats, the oil-wilted scallions, and Thuan Kieu's Nuoc Cham, a pungent sauce with vinegary, sweet, and fishy overtones, meant to be drizzled over everything you eat.

The Nuoc Cham -- garnished with pickled pearl onion bulbs -- is the heart and soul of the dish. Com Tam without it, is pancakes without syrup; cereal without milk; sushi without get the picture.

Palate cleansers in the form of thickly sliced cucumber and pickled carrot provide a fresh counter balance to the meal. But true com tam aficionados won't overlook the whole Thai chili peppers, offered on each table next to the spoon and fork receptacles.

For every spoonful of food, bite off a piece of the chili as you would a dill pickle. It's a scorching ordeal, but essential for the full experience.

Dissipate the resulting burn with a sip of the broth, served with every plate of com tam. Its flecked with chopped scallions and sweetened with deep-fried shallots. If you're lucky, the soup will also come with a chunk of gristly pork from the stock pot.

For a less gut-busting lunch, opt for the #22, Com Tam Bi Cha Thit ($4.95) which includes the familiar trio of "baked egg cake", "shredded pork", and Thit, charbroiled pork marinated to a deep shade of rouge. The pieces are as tender as they are flavorful.

But whatever you order at Com Tam Thuan Kieu, heed the first two words on its name and don't ask for pho.

Com Tam Thuan Kieu
14282 Brookhurst Sr., #2
Garden Grove, CA 92643

Post-script: Read Chubbypanda's review of Com Tam Thuan Kieu here!

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Gabbi's Mexican Kitchen - Orange

In a county dominated by corporate franchises with interior designers on the payroll, Gabbi's Mexican Kitchen isn't another boilerplated, adobe-ladened, focus-grouped vision of an El Torito or Chevy's. Instead it has one of the most genuinely gorgeous spaces in Old Towne Orange, itself an area rich in history and steeped in the heritage of a bygone America.

The design choice made by the owners, Gabbi and Ed, was to keep it simple. Strip the walls clean to unearth the original brick masonry. Expose the awe-inspiring century-old timber trusses overhead. And finally, install wrought iron lanterns to warmly highlight it all. The result is a room both inviting and airy, brimming with timeless appeal.

Despite the fact that Gabbi's is so brand new it bears no signage, the place was hopping on a Wednesday evening -- a rare sight anywhere in O.C. With the din of conversation and the clatter of silverware on china, it felt like Saturday night in Pasadena.

You can blame O.C. Weekly's Gustavo Arellano if you can't get a table. But it was like this even before his excellent piece on it ran last week. From the moment it opened, good old fashioned word-of-mouth spread faster than an Internet rumor. And the grassroots support of fellow food-blogger Christian, of Orange County Mexican Restaurants, who got the scoop and wrote the first reviews, only compounded its popularity.

So when Christian invited me to dinner at Gabbi's with Joy, and Omar from Squeeze OC, I took my camera along, anxious to see what the commotion was all about.

We started with oozy Quesadillas ($7) served with a scoop of chunky guacamole. The silken slobber of queso mingled with fruity chunks of mango, wrapped in a flour tortilla gently griddled to a wafer-crisp.

Corn tortillas, which rode along with a pork dish, was made from scratch from a coarse masa crumb and tore apart with a slight flick of my thumb. Floppy thick, and a pallid white in appearance, it ate like polenta pancakes -- spongy, hearty, and substantial.

My main course of two white-meat chicken enchiladas, draped in mole, was called Mole Oaxaqueña ($12). Mole is sauce culled from dried and roasted chiles, concocted from a recipe Gabbi and Ed were able to procure from a peasant family in Oaxaca.

It has a smoky heat, but not spicy in the strictest sense of the word. Gabbi's mole is light on the tongue, but piercingly direct, like a backstage exposé on the flavor complexities of Mexican chili peppers. It's also pulpy, with the gritty seeds and flesh of the fruit milled into the consistency of apple sauce and slow-simmered to the color of soot.

Although chocolate is mentioned as a main ingredient, none was detected in the sauce, and in that regard I was both disappointed and relieved. The mole didn't need more flavor, and certainly not from a Hershey bar.

The only complaint was that I need more of it. Gallons more. More to enliven the tortilla-wrapped white-chicken meat on which it was poured. More of it to mix into the Spanish rice and refried beans.

I think the only way I could've been satisfied is if they dropped off a boiling cauldron of it next to me so that I can dunk stuff into it like fondue. The quesadilla. The tortilla chips. My napkin. My face.

For dessert, we sampled the Churros ($6) after Ed mentioned that he had just hired a guy who specialized in making this South-of-the-Border donut. But judging by what we had that night, the churro guy needs a few more weeks to get used to the deep fryer.

It started well enough. The dusting of cinnamon sugar was caked-in so densely that the accompanying chocolate and caramel dip didn't even stand a chance. And the rippled ridges of the hard outer shell crunched and crumbled like the best graham cracker crust in the world.

But disappointment set in when I reached the still raw and pasty churro core, which clung stubbornly to my teeth and upper palate like peanut butter. If you were the kind of kid who licked off cookie dough from the mixing bowl, you'd love this churro, but I didn't.

My dining companions also echoed Gustavo Arellano's earlier dissection that the salsa accompanying the obligatory basket of chips was tame, tasting more like vinegary gazpacho. But misfires are to be expected as the young restaurant calibrates itself. As it matures, Gabbi's is poised to become one of the best upscale Mexican restaurants in O.C. El Torito be damned.

Gabbi's Mexican Kitchen
(714) 633-3038
141 S. Glassell
Orange, CA 92866

Monday, September 11, 2006

Jollibee - Cerritos

It's been said before: Jollibee is the Filipino answer to McDonald's. And their answer to Ronald McDonald is a giant bumble-bee with pie-shaped eyes larger than Sailor Moon's, wearing a bright red tuxedo, a bow-tie, and an unwavering grin.

State-side pre-teens may kowtow to Ronald and Chucky Cheese, but in the Philippines, this insect is queen of the hive with stingers to match. Jollibee's homegrown empire has bested the American clown and even The Colonel to emerge as the number one fast-food chain in that country, thanks to American-style marketing and a menu offering both U.S. fast-food staples like fried chicken (re-branded "Chickenjoy") and traditional Pinoy favorites.

Now, with a few strategically positioned outposts centered near Filipino communities here in the U.S., Jollibee is the only Asian chain to cross the Pacific that I know of that isn't Yoshinoya.

The Cerritos branch is probably one of the first to open in California, and it's still spotless. A statue of the bee stands outside in a John Travolta disco pose. Inside, pimply Filipino teens with hairnets serve food, while a DVD of the dancing and singing Jollibee himself, loops on a tiny TV.

While most of the food is accessible to non-Filipinos, some items will probably be more than a little strange to those unfamiliar with the culture's peculiar predilections. One such example is the Filipino version of spaghetti.

This is pasta and marinara for the sweet-toothed -- a concoction which tastes like dinner and dessert rolled up into one -- with cut up hot dogs thrown in for good measure, a melted layer of grated taco cheese on top for tang, and draped in a sugary tomato-sauce which could prove lethal to diabetics.

It's called Jolli Spaghetti ($2.95), the product of a partnership between Chef Boyardee and Willy Wonka.

I swear I've seen something on Nickelodeon resembling this dish, which might explain why little kids love it as much as I do. But before you pooh-pooh how it bastardizes the Italian classic, just remember that the California roll and barbecue chicken pizza were invented in America.

Instead, I think of the dish as fusion fast food; a continental meal adapted to the Filipino tastebud. And besides, if it's wrong to have a hot dog and cheese on the same plate as spaghetti, then I don't want to be right.

Fiesta Palabok ($3.95) is a more traditional dish -- Jollibee's version of the popular Filipino street food, pancit palabok. As with all renditions of pancit palabok, the secret is in the gravy, a delicate balance of briny shrimp and fatty pork. This thick pink sauce is poured over a bed of light-as-air, jiggly-as-jelly, rice vermicelli noodles, then topped with cooked ground pork, spring onions, bay shrimp, toasted garlic, flaked smoked fish, pork cracklings, and a few slices of hard-boiled egg.

Lemon juice from a small plastic packet has to be drizzled over the dish for zing and before everything is mixed together with a fork. Once it's good and ready, it will look like pad thai, but taste nothing like it. Palabok is more complex, with porky leanings and a distinctly Pinoy soul.

The Chickenjoy ($4.75), however, was a standard issue fried-chicken, indistinguishable from KFC, Pioneer and the like, served with a similar but less salty version of KFC's gravy. But instead of mashed potato, it's rice.

For a dollar extra, you get a shake to accompany the chicken, like the ube (purple yam), which I found to be chalky, especially since I waited too long to finish the brew. The flavor powder used separates rapidly from the melting ice slush. The tapioca pearls also tend to be brittle and get progressively harder the longer they stay in the drink.

Jollibee's might not conquer the U.S.A. in the near future, what with the vice grip our own corporate chains have on young, impressionable minds. But one look into Jollibee's cartoon eyes, and this impressionable mind thinks of Fiesta Palabok and a trip to Cerritos.

17312 Norwalk Blvd.
Cerritos, CA 90703

Monday, September 04, 2006

Meme: Things to Eat Before You Die

I've been tagged by fellow foodblogger friend, Passionate Eater for the Things to Eat Before You Die Meme, started by Traveler's Lunchbox.

The concept is simple, name five food items or experiences that you "know and love and couldn't imagine not having tasted".

So without further ado, here are my five.

1. Soto Ayam - Indonesian Chicken Soup

This is one of my favorite dishes. What is it? Chicken soup, Indonesian style. The best version (other than my mom's), 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 chicken broth, garnished with aromatic golden fried crumbled 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 soy-stewed bloody-clams and a hard-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.

2. Aged Steak

Remember the scene in The Matrix when one character decides to betray his friends, Neo and Morpheus, in exchange for a return to life inside the Matrix where he could be blissfully unaware of reality, and occasionally enjoy a dinner of rare steak? Besides the fact that he's a backstabber, can you really blame him? Is life worth living if you have to eat gruel everyday, never able to indulge in a melt-in-your-mouth, tender-as-silk, carnally-satisfying, bloody-as-hell, flavorful-beyond-words piece of aged beef steak?

3. Nigiri Sushi

And I don't mean just any nigiri sushi. It must be prepared by a sushi master, like Shibutani of Sushi Shibucho in Costa Mesa or Urasawa in L.A. These chef-owners have a vested stake in their establishments and a reputation to uphold, so they take it upon themselves to trek out to the dockside seafood supplier every morning at the pre-dawn hours to claim the freshest, most vibrant specimens to bring back for their patrons. These guys know as much about buying fish as they do about the craft of making sushi. And when you do them the honor of requesting "Omakase", they will reward your trust with one of the most not-to-be-missed food experiences of your life.

4. Durian

It's been called the vilest fruit on earth. Its aroma is likened to decaying flesh, rotten onions, dirty gym socks, fetid cheese, and not just individually, but together. Hotels in South Asia forbid the consumption of it on their premises. At the sight of splitting one open, Tony Bourdain said the durian lobes looked like premature human fetuses. Hyperboles aside, it really isn't that scary. Stinky yes, but is it delicious? Absolutely! The taste, look, and texture of it, to me, is similar to soft, yellow egg custard that's been permeated with methane gas. The smell of it does travel into your sinuses when you eat it. It snakes down your gullet and up into your nostrils, enveloping your entire head in a durian-induced haze.

5. Sate Gule Kambing - Indonesian Goat Satay and Goat Curry

This is actually two dishes made from goat ("kambing"); one is a murky soup and the other is the grilled meat skewered on sticks. 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 the fatty, gristly meat of the goat in a big pot, it is rich and unctuous. But the consistency is surprisingly light and thin on the palate -- more like a finely tuned broth than curry. The subtle creaminess of coconut milk balances and tames the complex spices at work. 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 smoky charcoal fire. As soon as they are just about done they get brushed with a glaze made from a simple mixture of kecap manis, lime juice, and white pepper. As soon as the goat satay is plucked from the fire, the two dishes are enjoyed in concert with hot rice. I alternate between tearing a chunk of meat from the sate stick with my teeth and then taking a long sip of the hot soup.


Now, customarily, I would tag five other bloggers to continue this meme, but then I thought, why should bloggers have all the fun? If you are reading this, then you should have five items of your own to add. The comment board is always open.