Monday, June 28, 2010

T&K Food Market - Westminster

How long has it been since you heard the screeching wail of a band saw grinding through animal bone. If you've been only to Ralphs and Albertsons for your meat, I'm guessing never.

It will be a strange and disturbing din indeed, one reserved for horror movies with Rube Goldberg plots instigated by freaky puppets. To hear one is to be at an "ethnic" grocery store, be it Mexican, or Asian, where the dirty work of actual butchery takes place not behind closed doors, but in your face, full frontal and uncensored.

Though distant at first, you'll hear the unmistakable squeal when you walk through the sliding doors of T&K Food Market in the heart of Little Saigon, where traffic is hectic and parking scarce. Inside the store however, it's more serene, save for the sound of the saw and the PA system which will play some warbly Viet pop when no one is chatting up the specials in Vietnamese.

Above you in this airy, spotless warehouse with skylights and wide aisles like a mini-Costco, there are cameras pointed at you at every turn. You know this because directly in front of the turnstiles, three TV sets are tuned to two dozen closed-circuit camera feeds. It's a not-so-subtle message to shoplifters: "We're watching you and our band saw is sharp."

As you get closer to the butcher, your olfactory senses take over. A fog of death seems to settle around the area. The smell of fresh meat, of sweet blood and fetid offal is thick enough to wade through. These are scents typically locked away under Cryovac and cellophane. Here the odor is airborne. If you were in the African savannah, a breeze that carries it would surely attract predators.

I ask the butcher to cut my chosen pork spareribs into a size that I communicate by holding up the space between two fingers. He nods, and the bones are passed through the saw as though it were butter.

Later, I pay for my butchered bones at a checkout counter which looks like any other, complete with flat screen computer monitors that play commercials along with my tally. But with every beep of every barcode swipe, I still hear the blades wail. I know I'm not at Safeway anymore.

T&K Food Market
(714) 775-6678
9681 Bolsa Avenue
Westminster, CA 92683-5906

Chicken Maison - Santa Ana

Monday, June 21, 2010

KFC's Double Down

Much has been said, joked and embellished about KFC's Double Down.

If you already know about it or even had it yourself, this post will neither be timely nor informative.

I just felt the need to document, perhaps for my internist, that I ate it this week. The Double Down, as you know, has been called an abomination of marketing--a culmination of everything that's wrong about fast food culture and the latest in the kind of corporate one-upmanship that previously brought us Taco Bell's Crunchwrap Supreme™ and Hardee's Monster Biscuit™.

But first, a primer just in case you've been living in a grass hut the past couple of months: the Double Down is KFC's chicken sandwich where the bun is replaced by two deep-fried chicken breasts.

Inside, there are two slices of cheese, sauce, and of course, bacon. The bacon, I think, is a key ingredient, and not because it really brings anything to the party except more fat and salt (more on that later). No, the bacon is there because doing anything these days without bacon is like Lady Gaga without the bizarre outfits.

Bacon = Bras That Shoot Fire = Attention.

Yet despite it all (actually, because of it all) I wanted none of it. I avoided it as if it were a movie with live action animals that talk. I even turned down my editor's request to do a piece on it. My fellow Weekling, Das Ubergeek, was finally stuck with the task. His last words were to remind us that he took one for the team. (I haven't forgotten, Dave, I haven't forgotten).

But then with a product which seemed designed like a college fraternity dare (Dude, try this thing I made last night!), I finally tried one because someone dared me.

"Aw c'mon. You're a food blogger. It is your duty to at least try it!" a friend (and the soon-to-be, bunless-chicken-sandwich co-conspirator you see pictured above) goaded.

So I caved and went.

It's true what everyone's said. It's salty. Insanely and almost unbearingly so. That first bite is like a sodium shock to the system. Every pore of my tongue got immediately parched, robbed dry of moisture. I'm telling you, you can melt driveway ice or cure meat with the amount of salt that's in this thing. It's not just the breading either; every millimeter of the flesh is super-saturated with sodium.

But then a strange thing happened. On the second bite, and every successive chew afterward, my mouth became acclimated. Like the proverbial frog in hot water, I started building up a tolerance. It actually stopped tasting salty, and started being edible. And the bacon? Pretty soon, it didn't even taste like bacon, but a flavorless piece of nothing, which really says something about how overwhelming the salt content was.

With my shell-shocked tastebuds dulled, I actually found myself saying to my friends, "Hey, this isn't that bad. Stick it between two slices of bread and you get a $5 chicken sandwich. It's sort of anti-climatic actually."

...Which is when I got cocky. I decided that hot sauce was what it needed. So I opened a packet with a picture of the colonel on it and poured the entire contents over the remainder of the "sandwich". That, mi amigos, was a mistake. Now it was even saltier, and also soaked in sour vinegary-ness.

I must have drank 10 cups of water that afternoon to rehydrate myself.

So, doctor, if you're reading this, for the record, I only had one Double Down. It was my first, and I promise, it will be my last.

(949) 559-4240
15463 Culver Drive
Irvine, CA 92604-2850

Canyon Restaurant - Anaheim Hills

Monday, June 14, 2010

Shabu Shabu Bar - Santa Ana

If you have already made up your mind about shabu shabu, i.e. you don't buy into it because of one (or all) of the reasons below:

a) You're boiling meat in water.
b) You're paying through the nose for the privilege. no further. I agree with you: shabu shabu is, for the most part, expensive for what it is. I am not going to change your mind with this post. So stop reading now. You have been warned.

Are the rest of you still with me? Good.

Yes, even though I know I could accomplish the same thing at home (I even have access to an induction shabu shabu pot), I still occasionally find the need to go out to get it. Why? Well, making shabu shabu yourself inevitably results in an unwanted excess of raw food that lasts for days. There is only a finite number of dishes you can make with shabu shabu ingredients.

So when the itch to water-boil meat hits (which, fortunately, only happens once a year for me), it's usually laziness that brings me to restaurants like Shabu Shabu Bar.

This one, however, I'd been hearing about for months. It actually ups the ante on shabu shabu's DIY nature in that they provide a mortar and pestle for you to grind your own goma (sesame seed sauce). Call it silly, call it stupid, call it counter intuitive. It's the same reason why people do 1000 piece puzzles or climb Everest: just so they can say they did.

Anyway, the grind-your-own-goma bit is just for show. No matter how much elbow grease you put into it, the seeds will never turn into a paste. Instead, the waitress (who will pity your efforts) will pour in the real sauce from a bottle and then amp it up with garlic, scallions and a dash of chili oil. She'll do the same for the ponzu if you let her.

And that's another thing about Shabu Shabu Bar that endears it to its fans: for a DIY joint, you get more service than you would at a normal sit-down. It's like they're compensating. She'll skim the scum off from your pot, mix your sauces, serve rice, make conversation, and even prepare your noodle soup with the now flavorful water once you've finished cooking your meat.

For our meal, in the guise of being smart and savvy shoppers, we shunned the smaller plates (which go upwards to $20 for around eight to ten slices of meat) and decided to go whole hog, er, whole cow, on the meant-to-be-shared $50 Yokozuna Platter, which the menu said consists of about 40 or more slices of rib eye.

Only when it arrived did I realize what we had we gotten ourselves into! Sure, most of it was air, but this was sliced beef formidably stacked into a literal meat mountain, looking much like those giant paper-mâché volcanos kids make for their grade school science projects.

The Man v. Food enormity of the task ahead made me queasy. I'm not the kind of guy who relishes overstuffing myself. When I looked over at my lovely dining companion, and remembered how small her appetite was, I thought to myself: we're screwed. We're never going to finish this, even if I had fasted the whole day (and I hadn't).

At my first swish, the lightness and wispiness of it gave me confidence. The ponzu sauce really takes the edge off the richness of the meat, which, by the way, is planed to the sheerness of tissue paper, sliced against the grain to disintegrate on contact with your tongue--probably one of the best shabu shabu meats I've had.

Around the fifteenth slice, I started getting the meat sweats. I abandoned my rice, using it more as a resting platform to put my cooked beef before I can summon the strength to pop it in my mouth.

By the final two pieces I felt lethargic, drunk of beef and excess. I took the udon noodle soup our server thoughtfully made for us and took a few sips. I couldn't even make myself eat a single strand of noodle.

Later at home, I was doubled over on the couch, groaning and feeling guilty at how much I ate, and actually, so was she. Yeah, maybe leftover shabu shabu ingredients in our fridge wouldn't have been so bad.

Shabu Shabu Bar
1945 East 17th Street
Santa Ana, CA 92705-8603
(714) 954-0332

Summer Guide - Angels Stadium Food

Sunday, June 06, 2010

Loving Hut - Orange

I like vegan restaurants like I like magic shows. They entertain me in the same way: wonderment through trickery. Even though I know I'm being fooled, in the end, I'm happy to be left scratching my head and asking "How'd they do that?"

Take for example the chicken in Loving Hut's orange chicken, though it squeaked, it chewed and tasted like chicken. I knew it wasn't chicken, but gosh darn it, how did they make it so uncanny. It tasted more like chicken than other things that are supposed to be chicken (ahem, McNuggets).

But it is also because of this that being a vegan chef is actually easier these days than being a magician. Think about it: Movie special effects, Penn and Teller, and that masked guy who gave away all the secrets have left audiences jaded and expecting more from their illusionists. Poor David Blaine's resorted to sitting atop lightpoles and such to get attention.

Vegan chefs, on the other hand, just have to do a little better than the lowest common denominator of processed foods and things that masquerade as meat.

For instance, have you tried real maple syrup after you grew up with Aunt Jemima? It's the maple syrup that tastes fake. That's the world we live in.

I think that if we continue on the path that we're on, someday, when we're forced into eating paste pushed out of a tube by our robot masters, we won't know any better.

That's not to say Loving Hut folks don't strive to overachieve with their cuisine. This worldwide vegan chain seems to be hellbent on turning us into happy non-meaters. And yes, they're doing it with more than a little bit of culinary alakazams and abracadabras (not to mention some purported video propaganda that I've yet to see.)

The sauce lubricating the tofu and eggplant stir fry tastes like oyster sauce, but has no oysters. The nuoc cham dip for the deep fried egg rolls made my head spin. How did they make fish sauce that smacks of fish without fish? Magic, that's what.

Their deep fried shrimp is sort of close to the real thing (complete with shrimp stripes), but its the diversionary tactics that make the dish. The breading, the salt and pepper, and the bright mix of onions coalesce to become a vegan dish that exceeds the sum of its (non-animal) parts.

But perhaps the most daring trick Loving Hut's managed to pull off is the pricing. It is, quite possibly, the cheapest vegan food joint in O.C. The entire meal pictured totalled about thirty dollars and sated me and my normally carnivorous dining companions.

Tada! Flash! Bang! Curtains down! Thank you, I'm here all week. Try the veal...or not.

Loving Hut
237 S. Tustin St. # A
Orange, CA‎
(714) 464-0544‎

JuJu Pocha - Irvine

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

SamSoonYi Bakery - Tustin

I needed bread. Some simple, cheap, factory-baked wheat sandwich slices would do. I was inside Freshia, my local Korean grocer, one afternoon when I realized I did. But after weaving through aisle after aisle and coming up empty, I asked the stock guy, a Latino man who was unloading a box of ramyun, "Where do you keep your Wonder Bread?"

"Oh, we don't stock bread here. But you should try the bakery up front. They have excellent bread!"

So I did. And boy, was he right. SamSoonYi, which rents out the space in the market, bakes a moist, flavorful sandwich loaf that we loved so much, we've bought nothing else since. Sara Lee, Wonder, Roman Meal, you can all kiss off. This bread, this simple half loaf, costing $2.75, has become my pantry standard.

Like I said, it's ultra-moist. So moist, in fact, that if you stand it on its side, the slices fall under the dampness of its own weight. Touch the surface and you can feel the moisture. And the flavor? It's unlike factory brands in that it has it. The taste is bright, salty, evocative of something homemade.

It makes great breakfast toast. To tell you the truth, I haven't tried using it for a sandwich, since I like it plain with a pat of butter. I had it the other day with Spam and eggs.

I would imagine other local bakeries, 85 Degrees C, for instance, would have a similar product. If you're reading this and you're not within three miles of the Freshia in Tustin, I wouldn't go out of the way to get it. Find your own local Korean or Asian bakery.

Besides that, SamSoonYi seems to only bake a half dozen or so at a time. Last Sunday, I got the last of two loaves. So I'm saying this last part more as selfish plea than anything: if you do end up here and find they've only got two left, leave me the last one, will ya?

SamSoonYi Bakery (Inside Freshia Market)
14551 Red Hill Ave.
Tustin, CA 92780

Harry's Deli - Irvine