Saturday, January 26, 2008

Thach Che Hien Khanh - Westminster

A thick encyclopedia could be written about Asian sweets and desserts. There are as many different kinds of treats as there are species of tropical flora. The Vietnamese dessert called che, by itself, has subphylums I have not yet begun to explore.

Dry and soupy. Slippery and sticky. Brightly-colored and dull. Cold and hot. These are just some contradictory word pairings I think of when trying to describe che. Most often, it will be sweet. But it can also be savory and salty. Starches like tapioca are used, but so will sticky rice. Fruits like banana will be stewed to a pudding consistency. Others will get a prodigious amount of coconut milk. Also, artificial food coloring isn't taboo, it's required in the recipe.

Thach Che Hien Khanh has all kinds of che. But one night, I just wanted something I can suck through a straw on the drive home. I looked over some sample cups -- provided in case a non-Vietnamese speaker like me just happened to wander in -- and pointed to the one with the brightest color combo.

I asked how much. "Three dollar," the lady answers.

Then she assembles the one I will drink. She ladles in onyx black tapioca pearls first, then slippery, slime green squiggles, followed by some crunchy, faux pomegranate seeds. Crushed ice goes on top, some syrup, and finally a nice, generous pour of coconut milk. The white liquid snakes down through the ingredients, and fills up the cup to the brim.

Before consumption, the drink must be thoroughly mixed to distribute the sweetener and milk (as I demonstrate in the before-and-after photos above). I have found that it helps to wait until the ice melts a little.

With the first sip comes a comforting surge of coconut milk. It's creamy sweet with the lightest touch of saltiness. Then as the solid pieces of the concoction travel up the straw, there's chewing involved. The boba has the bouncy bite-resistance of bubble-gum, the red bits are crunchy like water chestnuts, and the green stuff wiggles around like a worm -- wait, didn't I compare che to species of flora? Maybe I should include fauna too.

Thach Che Hien Khanh
9639 Bolsa Ave., #A
Westminster, CA 92683

To read Wandering Chopsticks' post
on Thach Che Hien Khanh,

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Layer Cake Bakery - Irvine

Psst! There's a new Indonesian bakery in town. No, not really. It's just a bakery owned by Indonesians. But it is a good one started up by two sisters; one of them a trained baker who makes everything "from scratch." Those are their words, not mine.

She makes cakes slathered in cream cheese frosting, flaky croissants, and true Parisian macaroons. The latter looks like pastel-colored mini hamburgers, with a thin layer of flavored filling in between. But I like that they have cookies in actual cookie jars. One of them is called "Chocolate Sparkle"; a fat, crumbly thing packing a potent dark-cocoa wallop.

A browned, bulbous brioche called "Monkey Bread" is bronzed with cinnamon and sugar. Why is it called "Monkey Bread"? Maybe because to eat it, you tear one apart like a primate discovering use of opposable thumbs.

Their butter-crumbed cheese puffs has a coarse, granulated sugar topping that crunches between your teeth like crystals. The center of it is as hollow as a cavern, save for a small amount of salty cream cheese smeared on the walls.

As if you haven't already guessed, Layer Cake Bakery does European-style pastries, catering to the same crowd that Panera Bread panders to. The difference is that I'd actually pay for Layer Cake's products. And for the plaza it sits in, that makes two Indonesian businesses that don't do anything remotely Indonesian.

The other? Why, it's the Thai restaurant down the way called Thai Kitchen. No one in Irvine would've suspected they weren't from Thailand. And for a while, neither did I. That is, until one night when I heard them speak to each other.

But it all makes sense. In Irvine, French bakeries and Thai restaurants sell. Indonesian food? Not so much.

It makes one wonder: What else based in Irvine is surreptitiously fronted by an Indonesian? A food blog, perhaps?

Layer Cake Bakery
4250 Barranca Parkway, Ste. 1
Irvine, CA 92604

To read Chubbypanda's post on Layer Cake Bakery,

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Vientiane - Garden Grove

If I may be given license to oversimplify, I'd say that the differences between Thai and Lao cuisine can be best described by the following trite movie analogy:

Thai food is like Tim Burton's Pee Wee's Big Adventure; Lao food is like Tim Burton's Nightmare Before Christmas.

The former -- a broad, brightly-colored, lighthearted romp -- put the director's quirky vision on the map, but it was still fully digestible to the general audience. By the time he created Jack Skellington, Burton's films were brooding, pitch-dark, and to some -- a little weird.

Lao food is the same way. It's complicated, and takes a second, even a third look to appreciate the genius.

The folks at Vientiane Restaurant in Garden Grove seem to know this. For those not quite ready for Lao food's eccentricities, the menu offers all the Thai staples (pad thai, et al). But those primed for funkier fare can dive headlong into Laos' home-grown cuisine -- one that, like other South East Asian countries not named "Thailand" or "Vietnam", is severely underrepresented in Orange County.

The low demand for Lao food in O.C. seems to reflect itself in the few seats the restaurant has. To say that it's tiny is not sufficient. The dining room is literally no bigger than a child's bedroom, and can hold no more than four parties at a time. In fact, when I was there, nine customers occupied all available tables. If you were the tenth, your choice was to do take-out or wait outside.

In the food, you'll find depths of flavor with unmitigated intensity. And like my favorite goth-leaning film auteur, it's got a little bit of good, old-fashioned oddness. Some of this even bleeds over to the typical Thai restaurant favorite of chicken yellow curry ($6.99). In its murky, coconut-milk gravy, lurks layers of complex, coarsely-flavored spices and an indescribable jungle aura.

You eat it with some sticky, glutinous rice ($3.00), which is served in a stout basket of woven reeds. The starch has the adhesive power of a thousand glue sticks. But unlike regular rice, it's not pasty -- an essential property because you are supposed to ball it up with your fingers. As you do, it doesn't gunk up your digits, even as you dunk it into food. It will sponge-up sauce and grab onto other bits of the meal like a charged electromagnet.

Other dishes don't need rice, just your attention. Take for example, the green papaya salad ($4.99). At first whiff you'll smell something off-putting; the discernible stench of rot. But it's not the fish sauce (child's play for those familiar to nuoc mam), it's the shrimp paste -- a substance that apes the smell of sweaty feet and distills all the flavor potential of fermented crustaceans. It darkens the tart papaya shreds to a dirty shade of brown, and amplifies the eating experience like a Danny Elfman score to a Burton flick.

For nam ($6.50), think of the crispy, burnt rice that sticks to the bottom of the pot. Now think of it as the base for a salad that also has chopped peanuts, unidentifiable morsels of pinkish meat, jellied pork skin, cilantro, and green onion. Imagine then the whole thing dressed in lime juice, chilies. Finally, roll it up inside a lettuce leaf with more herbs like basil and mint. Tell me if your mouth doesn't water.

Same goes for the chicken larb ($4.99), which plays a lot like the Thai version, except that it has smokier notes and slices of something rubbery and gristly, which I can only guess is boiled beef tongue.

The prize for tastiest (and also scariest) item goes to the mok pa ($3.50), which features a curried fish that might have been trout or catfish, hacked to pieces, shoved and steamed inside a banana leaf. The skin has the gelatinous quiver of pudding and the meat feels alien, for no other reason than that it's still attached to bone and cartilage.

If a McDonald's Filet-O-Fish is a chlorinated, hotel swimming pool, this was like wading into a swamp; terrifying and thrilling at the same time -- just like the latter films of Tim Burton.

In case you're wondering, I haven't seen Sweeney Todd, but I haven't tried Burmese food either. I'll save that analogy until then.

Vientiane Thai Laos
(714) 530-7523
10262 Westminster Ave
Garden Grove, CA 92843

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Burrell's BBQ - Santa Ana

I ate my lunch under the shade of an old pine tree. A garden fountain trickled beside me. Leaves rustled with the passing breeze. Next door, a neighbor's dog barked. A postman made his rounds.

Where was I? In Fred Burrell's backyard, buried in the belly of Santa Ana, in a residential part of town.

The likes of it must exist around every street corner in The South. Hole-in-the-walls serving food out of someone's garage. Makeshift dives borne out of a grandmother's home kitchen. Burrell's is this kind of joint.

But in Orange County, it's an anomaly of zoning -- a treasured oddball in an area otherwise meticulously master-planned.

A rusty screen door creaks shut as you enter. Inside, you compete for wiggle room in a space crammed with a soda coolers, a hot meat display case, and an Igloo from which you are to scoop out your own ice. Autographed headshots of Michael Jackson, James Brown, and Tom Bradley hang, each with a shout out to Fred and his food.

Too bad I didn't dig the grub as much they did (or as much as others who have lauded Burrell's for years). The baby back ribs ($8.95 with one side and cornbread) were sopping wet. Not oversauced, but wet. It had been sitting and ruminating in its own moistness -- stewing its way closer to "boiled", farther away from "barbecued". The result was more like pulled pork, but still on the bone.

Otherwise, it was full-flavored, bolder than average, and ten times meatier than Kate Moss. Yet, I longed for the caramelized burnt edges; for that sticky, gummed-up, carbonized bits of sauce that gets wedged under my finger nails.

The collard greens were a different story; perfect in its crudeness. Bitter, sweet, and warm -- packed with chlorophyll and flavored with pieces of ham hock. The only thing more faithful to The South was the corn bread -- a crumbly, moist block cut from a cake pan. But really, I've never met a corn bread I haven't liked, especially when eaten with grass under my feet.

Burrell's BBQ
(714) 547-7441
305 N Hesperian St
Santa Ana, CA 92703