Wednesday, January 30, 2013

King's Hawaiian Bakery & Restaurant - Torrance

Ah Hawaii! On days where I need to be lulled into a tropical vacation mood, I'll put on some slack-key guitar music so I can revert to a trance-like state, my mind going back to memories of time spent eating sweet Hawaiian bread flavored with lillikoi at Punalu'u Bakery, egg breakfasts with Portuguese sausage and sticky rice at random mom n' pops we found on the way to the beach, and poke, lots and lots of poke.

This is why I wish King's Hawaiian is closer to me than Torrance. The sweet rolls it produces, the one everyone and their mother uses for sliders, you already know about: it's everywhere. But actually eating there, at the restaurant, is another thing entirely. It is one of the closest things I've found in California to eating in the Big Island.

King's Hawaiian is a diner, pure and simple, but the cheerful plucks of the ukelele soundtrack, the aquarium, the palm frond motifs, the yellow and green paint scheme, makes it more than a diner--it's the next best alternative when you don't have a Star Trek holodeck.

Instead of hash browns next to your eggs, they serve domes of rice, plunked down from an ice cream scoop. Instead of bacon, the preferred breakfast meat is Spam and Portuguese sausage, beveled coins seared on the griddle and the kind of thing you actually need rice to eat.

And oh, their French toasts. It's made from the same sugary dough they use for those rolls, ten times as sweet as a brioche that it's practically dessert, especially if you drizzle on the coconut syrup.

Ah, Hawaiian food. What is it about you that makes me happy?

King's Hawaiian Bakery & Restaurant
2808 Sepulveda Blvd
Torrance, CA 90505
(310) 530-0050

Scraps - Huntington Beach

Monday, January 21, 2013

Pacific Fish Center & Restaurant - Redondo Beach

This was an expensive dinner. A delicious one, but, man, did it cost a lot. Such is the nature of seafood. Three steamed Dungeness crabs. A spicy Korean fish soup served in a huge pot. A bottle of soju. Rice. A few raw oysters. The bill? Something around $150, if I recall.

In truth, most of the investment went into securing those lovely crustaceans. They were the reason we came. They come pre-disassembled, so I dumped a spoonful of rice to soak up the yellow fat that puddled on the bottom of the hollow skulls. I scooped it out, ate it while wondering how much bad cholesterol I just ingested.

I cracked, sucked, and dipped my way through the rest of the carcass, fingering the joints for that precious, precious meat, doing math in my head to guess how much every little white speck cost per ounce. I concluded it’s probably less costly than cocaine, but what do I know? Food like this is my drug of choice.

We were fortunate enough to not shell out (pun intended) any dough for this meal. We were being treated; and what a treat!

The Korean element is what I liked most about the joint. You’d never guess that with the other tourist trappy restaurants here, there’d be a Korean mom-and-pop that served mae-un-tang, a seafood stew brimming with hunks of fish with bones still attached, simmering in a gochujang-powered broth that burns your esophagus the same time it tickles it with sweetness. The soup would be a great hangover cure if it weren’t also the kind of dish you want to eat with never-ending shots of soju.

Nevermind that the place looks like a mess hall, and the utensils you use are made of plastic. With all due respect to Quality Seafood, this restaurant is where I think I’ll return the next time I’m in Redondo Beach with a few bucks to burn and a hankering for shells to crack.

Pacific Fish Center & Restaurant
131 Fishermans Wharf
Redondo Beach, CA 90277
Neighborhood: Redondo Beach
(310) 374-8420

Earl of Sandwich - Anaheim

Monday, January 14, 2013

Meow Meow Cafe - West Covina

It’s friggin’ freezing. As such, this is the absolute worst time to get addicted to an ice slush drink. Yet, there we were yesterday, driving up to West Covina for the second time in a week to a barren shopping mall where no one seems to shop, to Meow Meow Café—a boba purveyor that looks like a cat-loving, Asian teen’s bedroom—just to get another fix of “the slushy stuff”.

This is not boba milk tea. In this drink, Meow Meow Café (as well as others like Half & Half) has done away with the tea as much as Apple did away with the phone part on the iPhone to make the iPod Touch. The old iPod Touch joke goes like this: they came to a point with the iPhone where there was too many extra doodads, there was no room for the phone.

The same thing happened here. There was no room for tea. If you’ve tasted the so-called milk teas at Tapioca Express and Lollicup, you’d know there was barely any tea flavor there to begin with. This drink takes away the pretense that tea was anything anybody actually wanted.

There is the chewy, choking-hazard of boba. There is wiggly milk pudding. There is some sort of slush. There is milk. And in this drink, there is also sauce.

Yes, sauce.

Drizzled over the top of the slushy mound is a dark concoction made from brown sugar that snakes its way through the milky layers like a creeping oil leak. When you’re ready, you move your oversized straw in a churning motion through the hole in the lid to mix the sauce so that it incorporates into the slush.

The brown sugar flavor reminds my fellow addict of her childhood and particularly of the Filipino drink called sago gulaman. Me, I just like the deep resonating sweetness it adds to the slush that without it would’ve been kind of insipid.

We left Meow Meow Café with our body shivering more than ever and our teeth chattering, “T-t-t-that was a g-g-g-good i-d-d-d-d-dea!”

Meow Meow Cafe
3646 Nogales St., Ste. A
West Covina, CA 91792
(626) 965-9789

Soy Tofu - La Palma

Sunday, January 06, 2013

Mo-Chica - Los Angeles

What you’re about to read is an account of the last meal I had in 2012. Yes, it was one of those prix fixe New Year’s Eve dinners. But take a look! There’s a total of eight courses if you count the bread at the beginning and the shot of pisco sour in the middle. And for how much? $55! Pretty damned reasonable if you ask me! It's even better when you consider that this is at one of LA’s most buzzed about restaurants, Mo-Chica by Ricardo Zarate, one of Food & Wine Magazine’s Best New Chefs 2011.

Even still, we opted for the earliest seating available. The cost of the meal got progressively higher the later your reservation was. For every two hour block your seating time was closer to midnight, it increased $20, and all you got for the price hike was an extra added cocktail. We weren’t about to go over that fiscal cliff if we could help it. So it was with a unanimous bipartisan vote that dinner would be at 6:00 p.m. for us!

The bread was indeed good enough to consider it a course. It wasn’t just bread, but a bonafide foccacia--thick, studded with all sorts of vegetable matter baked into it, and buttery like a brioche but with a crunchy burnt bottom. I knew it was house-made even if the menu didn’t say so. How? We sat in a booth with a direct view of the kitchen. I noticed sheet pans of the stuff stacked everywhere, fresh from the oven and ready to be sliced and served with a slice of aji amarillo rosemary butter that made me forget momentarily that this Peruvian restaurant does not supply any squeeze bottles of aji to squirt. It's not that kind of Peruvian restaurant.

Soup was next. Or to be more exact, chupe de papa, which had an object floating on top that we all initially thought was some sort of baked mussel. It wasn't. It was actually a creamy dollop of Dungeness crab riding a piece of toast--a surprise that became immediate justification for the trek that took us on 5 North to the 91 West to the 110 North to the heart of LA’s downtown.

Uni and scallop tiradito was a shared plate. What you see in the picture is actually a serving meant for two; but it was plenty. The acidic punch of the leche de tigre overpowered the nuanced sweetness of the sea urchin roe a bit, but my what a bite it was! If it were possible to safely eat a mild electric shock, it would feel like this.

Then came what my friend decided was the best dish of the night: a baseball-sized cocoon covered in panko breading that hid barely cooked tiger shrimp and other squiggly seafood in a mirepoix. You cut into it and the filling spilled out like candy from a burst piñata. It was a satisfyingly crunchy dish, sort of like a Japanese korokke crossed with a Mexican coctel that's been possessed by the soul of a Maryland crab cake.

At the midpoint of our meal, the a shooter of pisco sour arrived, and it was a classic and faithful rendition of Peru's national drink, properly made with an egg white froth leading to a brisk gulp of bitterness, citric sourness and an alcohol burn akin to weak tequila.

The least successful dish was a quinoa breaded fried chicken. Despite the Pop Rocks texture of the crust and the moist-tenderness of the chicken, the coating slipped off as soon as we touched a fork to the boneless, skinless breast pieces. We ate it all anyway, dipping it to spicy mayo-based sauce while spying our final savory course of beef tenderloin being assembled in the kitchen.

It was a multi-step process. The cylindrical lobes of beef were first immersed in vacuum packed bags to simmer in a sous vide machine kept at exactly 121 degrees. Then came a quick sear in a hot pan before the meat was sliced to individual portions. Was it done? Not quite. A disc of solid sea urchin butter was then laid down on top. A roaring blowtorch melted it to a creamy liquid that ran off the sides and dribbled onto the puddle of mashed potatoes. The completed plate is decorated with drops of pepian sauce, a sort of cousin to chimichurri with big grains of sea salt that energized every bite I took of a steak soft and pink.

Dessert was a dense square of chocolate cake topped with shattered cancha, the crunchy Peruvian corn snack that I wouldn’t have thought could sub for peanuts in a dessert...that is, before that night. Also on the plate along with some ice cream was a strawberry slowly stewed to become something almost savory, slightly spicy, and briskly tart. It wasn't quite a preserve, and it wasn't quite a compote. Heck, I don't know what it was, except that I wanted a bowl of it. Whether it was even Peruvian is not known since Zarate isn't just about Peruvian food--he's about good food.

514 W 7th St
Los Angeles, CA 90014
(213) 622-3744

Wild Goose Tavern - Costa Mesa