Monday, March 28, 2011

Tempe House - San Bernadino

Two groups of people in the world know and appreciate tempe (pronounced "tem-pay"): vegans and Indonesians. The former have adopted what the latter has eaten for centuries. And as well they should. Tempe is a great meat-substitute, a soybean product that, unlike tofu, has the satisfying chew somewhere between a mushroom and a dense piece of meatloaf.

Though you can buy tempe frozen at most Asian markets, the best tempe is fresh. But to make it yourself is a dicey proposition. Though not as daunting as attempting to recreate Parmigiano Reggiano, tempe-making requires careful planning and the right set of conditions. Few even try. Tempe is, above all, temperamental. The climate has to be right before you can attempt the endeavor. To get the fermentation process going, it likes hot and humid surroundings similar to the balmy tropics from where the delicacy originated.

A good way to judge is to see if the room is comfortable for you. If it is, it is likely too cold and too dry for the spores of the fungus Rhizopus oligosporus that will to turn your soybeans into tempe. If a white fur develops, it would indicate the fungus spores have flourished and did its job.

But even before this, there's the laborious job of prepping the soy. You have to hull each bean, then cook them, acidulate them, add the specific kind of starter, stuff the whole thing in an aerated bag before you can let nature do its work. Since the process is left to the whims and fickle nature of microbes, it is fraught with pitfalls. If you don't know what to look for or what tempe should taste like (tangy but smooth), there's always the danger that your hours of labor will result in something that might make you sick.

Until now, there hasn't been a local producer of real Indonesian tempe so that you don't have to go through the trouble. Since it opened sometime last year, Tempe House is the only one of its kind I know of. Unfortunately for anyone reading this who isn't in the Inland Empire, to get to Tempe House takes at least an hour's drive almost to Palm Springs. But once you do find it in a deserted strip mall in a desolate part of town, you'll discover them selling the delicacy for $1 each--a bargain, if you don't consider the cost in gas. Each satchel is ready for what ever your culinary plans may be. The simplest way to enjoy them is soaked in garlic water and salt, then deep fried.

Of course, you can also just sample some of what the Tempe House has on offer in their turo-turo style set-up of ready-made dishes. They don't all have tempe in them, but there are more than a few that do.

The beef rendang has no tempe, but it is slow-cooked to tenderness, as sweet as it is coated in a reduced and intense spice paste. They have gudeg, the famous Yogjakarta sugary stew made of young jackfruit cooked with hard boiled eggs. You could get both as a $7 two-item combo that includes any rice (plain, turmeric-colored to yellow, or flavored with coconut-milk), piled to ample portions enough for two.

The kitchen prepares other things to order, like the ketoprak, tangles of rice noodle, tofu and rice cake drenched in a peanut sauce that you can request to be as scorching as you like. They have krecek sapi in baggies, a kind of chicharron made from cow hide and tapioca flour. Other items feature things wrapped in a sticky gooey substances, some fried and savory with tempe, other steamed and sweet with jackfruit and banana. And of course, there's tempe itself, covered in a crunchy batter and paired with a Thai chili garnish that is to be eaten in concert with it like a pickle.

Another item only available for order on some days is thick soup with tripe called soto, which on this trip is too heavy on the coconut milk and has bits of tendon too chewy to eat.

For dessert, there's tape (tah-pay), fermented cassava root that's actually mildly alcoholic, tangy and slightly sweet, served either in its unadulterated form or whirred up to bits in an icy slush with rose syrup and condensed milk.

Yes, we tried all these things. Since we didn't have to make the tempe, and we came all this way, we kinda had to.

Tempe House
24984 Third St.,
San Bernardino, CA 92410
(Closed Saturday)

Alessa - Laguna Beach

Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Candy Baron - Laguna Beach

Now here's the kind of candy store I didn't think existed anymore. If Powell's Sweet Shoppe represents the here and now, The Candy Baron seems like it was unearthed from a time capsule buried back in the 30s.

You imagine Alfalfa, Buckwheat and Spanky with their faces stuck to the window drooling at the sugary bounty. This is a novelty candy shop where you believe the black and white photos of celebrities on the walls were hung when those people were still alive. Everywhere around you, there are relics that would be unknown to the target audience of kids who wouldn't know Woody Woodpecker from Richard Nixon.

The front half of the store is dedicated to that beach-side treat, salt water taffy, stocked in barrel after barrel, each morsel tied up in wax paper, sold by the pound, and in flavors you didn't expect of taffy. I tried a banana split and it kind of tasted like one. The dulce de leche was a spot-on impersonator.

The back half of the store has every conceivable permutation of teeth-rotting sweets. If it's made of sugar or HFCS, they have it. If you're in the market for an edible candy bra and panties, they will sell you a matching pair along with Pez dispensers galore, Squirrel Nut Zippers, Horehound Lumps, and candy cigarettes. Ah what I wouldn't give to have a pack of candy cigarettes when I was in elementary school. I'd act all cool until teacher took it away. Wait. I think that actually happened.

The Candy Baron
231 Forest Avenue
Laguna Beach, 92651
(949) 497-7508

Battle of The Dance - Anaheim

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Elbows Mac n' Cheese - Cerritos

In a world where cereal bars and an all-waffle restaurant can exist and sometimes thrive, an all-macaroni-and-cheese restaurant is an inevitability. Elbows in Cerritos and the others around the country that have taken up the idea figures that if people would actually patronize places like Cereality and Bruxie when they can pour themselves a bowl of Cheerios or pop an Eggo into the toaster, they'd also come and eat at a restaurant that serves nothing but mac n' cheese.

And why wouldn't they? It could be argued that no other American foodstuff comforts more universally than mac n' cheese. What household doesn't have a blue box of Kraft or Hamburger Helper in the pantry? What finicky kid would refuse a bowl of tube-shaped C's all covered in orange goo for supper? What is more inextricably linked than macaroni and cheese that it allows for the use of n' as conjunction?

More importantly, what diner hasn't been tempted by lobster mac n' cheese at all the high-end steakhouses? The proliferation of the dish to restaurant menus proves that people are willing to pay for something they can conceivably make at home.

To walk into Elbows is to realize the place is tailor-made for franchising. There is no doubt the restaurant has this as its ultimate goal. Though it's obviously family-run at this point, it's slick, sleek, and has its identity and mission statement hyper-realized down to the clever fork and macaroni logo that makes the "E" in Elbows.

They've also got the finer details of mac n' cheese clearly thought through. All mac dishes come in ceramic skillets. A crispy dusting of breadcrumbs tops each cheese-slicked tubular pasta entree--a simple finishing touch that, in my opinion, separates the good mac n' cheese from the bad. Flavors range from the time-tested (Cheeseburger Mac and Lobster Mac) to those that seem made up on the spot (Fajita Mac and Masala Mac, which has an Indian bent).

It didn't take much to convince my lovely dining companion, a self-professed mac n' cheese fiend who will order mac n' cheese anytime the opportunity should present itself, to try it with me. We shared one regular-sized bowl of their Spinach and Artichoke Mac, a play on the popular appetizer dip, which had three slightly crispy corn chips driven through the mound like shovels.

Though the skillet was just for show, the pasta tubes came hot and billowing, every forkful we lifted out saw stringy, melted webs of cheese trailing behind. The macaroni's texture is toothsome and the sauce is not left for want of the tangy presence of four distinct species of cheese. This was a gouda bowl of mac n' cheese. Sorry, couldn't resist.

If I had only one quibble it is that the ceramic vessel is just another serving bowl. As far as I can tell, the skillets never saw an actual broiler. However, this, like everything else about the concept, makes perfect sense. Keeping the bowls cool to the touch has no doubt saved a lot of children and careless adults from third degree burns and the restaurant unwanted lawsuits.

For an appetizer, we had to try something called a Chipstix, another product of fertile minds. A Chiptix is the bastard kid of a curly fry and a potato chip. It's mesmerizing as a Mobius strip and made from one whole potato spun through some sort of spiral cutting tool. The helix that results is then threaded through a long wooden dowel and then deep-fried and dusted with either salt, seasoned salt or chili. I told my lovely dining companion it reminded me of the bisected cross sections on one of the cadavers I once saw at Body Worlds. She did not appreciate the association.

Though the first piece is as crispy as a chip should be, the last few down the line tend to get soggy once you get there, some of them adopting the limpness of an In-N-Out French fry. Still, the thing tickled me just as the restaurant does.

The whole kooky yet simple idea of Elbows recalls episodes of Seinfeld, where some character on the show thinks up a wild but not entirely far-out scheme, such as the all PB&J restaurant or the muffin-top store. But unlike them, Elbows is grounded in reality, and already seems to have garnered a following. You might say Elbows has legs. Sorry, couldn't resist.

Elbows Mac n' Cheese
11405 South St
Cerritos, CA 90703

Habuya - Tustin

Monday, March 07, 2011

Mick's Karma Bar - Irvine

Michael Schepers is Austrian and Dutch. Megan, his wife, is Persian. They lived in England for a while. Then they moved to America and now own a Thai restaurant in Irvine called Kitima. They bought the place from a Thai family around a decade ago. Next door, at a coffee and juice counter they've called Mick’s Karma Bar, they make a fine burger from meat they grind themselves.

So who is Mick? Well, that’s just the nickname an Australian friend gave him. It stuck. I admit, “Mick’s” has a nicer ring to it than if it was “Mike’s Karma Bar”.

You’ll hear their story yourself when you sit at the counter as it will be Michael or Megan who’ll serve you. The counter, actually, is the only place to sit. Or more accurately, it’s the only place you want to sit, for as good as the burger is, their hospitality is even better. During our conversation, we found out we knew a few of the same people. A neighbor of theirs used to be a co-worker of mine. We shook our heads in wonderment. It is indeed a small world.

The burger, made in the same kitchen that produces the beef panang next door, comes from the same sirloin. They tested out other cuts, Michael said, but found sirloin worked best. He’s right. It’s probably one of the leanest burgers I’ve had, but it’s still beefy, smoky and satisfies as a good burger should. In every bite, sauces and juices mingle, the bread soaking in it, but never turning soggy.

If you asked me to make you a burger, this is what it would taste like. Just like Mick’s, I’d form the patty to order just before grilling. Just like Mick’s, I’d use a leaf lettuce instead of iceberg, red onion instead of brown. And I’d find a bun that has some integrity in the crust, the way their brioche bun does.

Yet, there’s still some mystery to this burger. The “karma sauce” they’ve spread onto the bottom bun is not unlike the secret sauce other places guard as if we didn’t know it’s actually Thousand Island. This one isn’t Thousand Island, but it aims for the same sweet spot. There’s just a slight suggestion of spice. You see the red flecks, but it doesn't overpower. And there’s a little bit of shredded cabbage involved, which is worked into the mix to contribute additional texture.

Alone, the burger is $5.50. The price is just right for a burger this size and this caliber. For a few bucks more (a total of $8.75) comes an icy glass of refillable Coke (or any soft drink of your choice) and a pile of properly fried-to-golden steak fries. Should you devour your lunch and leave no speck left like I did, the need for dinner will be eliminated.

What I like most about this burger is how it doesn’t really fit any existing burger categories. It’s not fast food. It’s not The Counter. It isn’t over-hyped like Charlie Palmer's DG Burger or retails dangerously close to the $10 price tag like theirs does. Most of all, it seems unique to here. It’s burger made for you by a guy another guy nicknamed Mick.

Mick's Karma Bar
2010 Main St # 165
Irvine, CA 92614-7267
(949) 851-6316

Hapa J's - San Clemente