Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Momofuku Noodle Bar - Manhattan, New York

Have you had an experience that made you say, “Oh my God. This is everything I thought it would be?” There are few things that can, especially when that thing has been hyped to excess like Momofuku’s pork buns have been.

But not only did it meet my heightened expectations, it blew my mind and overwhelmed my mouth and brain with sweet, sultry piggy bliss. It also confirmed David Chang’s badass-ness and became the one thing that I will remember from this, my third New York trip.

A week before, I said to my officemates that I was going to the Big Apple for my birthday to eat something expensive and fatty. At $5 a pop and the fact that I was essentially eating hog blubber, Momofuku’s pork buns certainly met both criteria.

It didn’t melt. No, that would be too easy. The pork belly is cooked in such a way that it retains a texture close to a falling apart brisket, soft and moist, but also still holding onto its meaty integrity.

Meanwhile, the fat has turned into something close to jelly—firm, warm, insanely good jelly that kind of fills your senses with the savoriness of pork fat and that gets wiped clean by the pillowy fluff of the bread, the crunchy-cool pickled cucumbers. It was…un-friggin-believable.

The bowl of ramen I had as a main course afterward didn’t have any hope of competing. This piggy foreplay was way better than the noodle intercourse.

Momofuku Noodle Bar
171 1st Ave
(between 10th St & 11th St)
New York, NY 10003
(212) 777-7773

Pier 76 Fish Grill - Long Beach

Monday, September 23, 2013

Shake Shack - Manhattan, New York

When I first heard of Shake Shack so many years ago, I thought it looked like an East Coast version of In-N-Out. I stumbled upon it today, not because I was necessarily looking for it, but because in New York, things of interest are usually not more than a few hundred feet of each other. The Shake Shack is Madison Square Park, which is next to The Flatiron Building, which is near Mario Batali's Eataly.

It's an idyllic scene--an actual shack in the middle of a park, shaded by trees, and surrounded by a rickety chairs and tables to sit, breathe, and eat a burger.

I liked the burger I ate. It's thick-pattied and juicy, hugged tightly by a bun that's as sweet as a brioche. They use one single leaf of frilly lettuce, not iceberg, and a ripe tomato. Is it as good as an In-N-Out burger? Well that depends on what you define good.

An In-N-Out burger has texture--the cool crunch of lettuce, the snap of the onion, the perk of tomato, and the crisp-toasted edges of the bun. Shake Shack's burger has a uniformly soft squish to it. Eating it feels like tucking into an almost a homogeneous mass that leads you to the flavor and softness of the ground beef. It has almost no texture.

But the fries are delicious and golden, crinkle cut and crunchy; and the hot dog split down the middle to sear so that the sugars caramelize. I sipped a house-made lemonade and sat back as the city noises were muffled by the green buffer zone that was the park.

I'd heard the lines for Shake Shack used to wind itself around the pathway and lasted hours. And then I thought about how long the lines might be if In-N-Out opened here. And then I smiled.

Shake Shack
Madison Square Park
E 23rd St & Madison Ave
New York, NY 10010
(212) 889-6600

Papa Hassan's Grill - Anaheim

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Anchor Bar - Buffalo, New York

The Lonely Planet guide described Buffalo as a Rust Belt town. It was right. Driving through downtown, we saw shuttered buildings, ghosts of what once was, a sobering reminder of what can become of a vibrant city when the jobs dry up and people leave.

But then we turned a corner and saw life, a crowd, a pulse. What we saw was Downtown Buffalo's still beating heart: Anchor Bar.

If you don't already know this, Anchor Bar is the place where Buffalo Wings were invented back in the sixties. The story is on the front flap of the menu, but it pretty much boils down to this: it was late, they ran out of food, but someone came in hungry, so the owner whips up something from what ingredients she had left over--wings, butter and hot sauce--and fifty years later, the wings are everywhere, an indelible part of American cuisine.

The restaurant, which seemed to have built around an actual bar as demand for the wings increased, has old, rusty license plates tacked up on the wall, real motorcycles and various bric-a-brac that has been copied as a design element in places just like this.

My first visit was almost twenty years ago and I only remembered that I thought the wings tasted like, well, wings. So I prepared my lovely travel companion not to expect something life-changing. They're still Buffalo wings after all, a dish everyone already knows and thus, have formed their own biases and requirements.

Mine is simple: it must be well-fried, and served seconds after being lifted from the oil. And these were. The first few wings I sunk my teeth into singed my upper palate, and cooked in oil so hot, the skin crackled and smelled almost burnt.

But then we over-ordered. We opted for the 20-count tray. "Yeah, we could finish 10 each!" we said. "No problem!" we said. But then, five wings into it, she looks at me sheepishly, a look with which I'm all too familiar by now--she had hit her limit.

"No! Really? I have to finish fifteen wings?" I said, looking at the pile and suddenly feeling very queasy. Luckily, I ordered them Medium hot, which doesn't even register on any sort of scale. So mild were the wings, they might as well be plain. But this still didn't make that twelfth wing any easier to swallow, especially because we'd ordered their house potato wedges and gulped down a bowl of Buffalo Wing soup (a creamy sort of chowder with a Tabasco tang) before this whole thing started.

As we were leaving I said to her: "If I see another Buffalo Wing this year, it'll be too soon."

1047 Main St
Buffalo, NY 14209
(716) 886-8920

Surfas Culinary District - Costa Mesa

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Ramayani Westwood - Los Angeles

You know how many LA restaurants can say it's been around 30 years? Not many. You know how many LA Indonesian restaurants can claim the same thing? Even fewer.

Ramayani is one of them, if it isn't the only one.

It opened in 1983. To put that into perspective, when it first served its first plate of nasi goreng and satay, Return of the Jedi was in theaters. Not the remastered and redigitized crap with Hayden Christensen inserted between Alec Guinness and Yoda, but the original old school film. On celluloid. In 2D.

Since that time, LA has seen a lot of Indonesian restaurants come and go like so many failed sitcoms. I remember a few. There was a restaurant called Ratu that specialized in a mahogany-hued and sugary-sweet Indonesian fried chicken. In Irwindale there was a place that made one of the best renditions of gudeg outside of Yogjakarta. There was once even an outlet of Bakmi Gadja Mada somewhere in the San Gabriel Valley, though its affiliation to the Jakarta noodle institution was unconfirmed by me before it, too, went belly up.

Why such a high failure rate for Indonesian restaurants? The same reason why this post will be one of my least read--there just aren't enough Indonesians to keep Southern California's few Indonesian restaurants afloat.

Ramayani, on the other hand, is a rock, sustained through the ages by people like me but most likely college exchange students who probably heard about it back when they were still in Indonesia. ("Psst, if you want Indonesian food while you're there, there's this place in LA.")

Though this was my first visit, I get the feeling the dishes haven't changed in at least a decade, if ever. The Nasi Rames, the usual starter dish for those new to the cuisine but also one of my favorite gauges of an Indo joint, is exactly as I expect, and tastes like a sampler platter, with a curried chicken drumstick, long-simmered beef rendang, sambal telor (hard boiled egg topped with a chili-tomato sauce), and a few other dishes piled around a dome of rice.

Ramayani does the dish well, but also remains one of the few places that offer rijsttafle for about $30 per person, which probably brings in the ex-pat Dutch people more than anything else.

For these reasons I expect Ramayani will last another thirty years. If not that, then certainly longer than this blog, which will reach its 10 year mark in about a month and thus the perfect time for its retirement. If I do decide to shut this sucker down, fewer people will weep for it than if Ramayani were to close tomorrow.

Ramayani Westwood
1777 Westwood Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90024
(310) 477-3315

Lark Creek - Newport Beach

Sunday, September 08, 2013

Vishnu - Irvine

Vishnu is one of those places you want to keep to yourself for as long as you can. It is, without question, the smallest, most inconveniently located Indian lunch buffet in OC with barely enough room for a dozen people. And it's only open until 3 p.m. on weekdays.

If you know about it, it's because someone else brought you here or tipped you off to its unlikely existence in a business park underneath the landing path of John Wayne-bound planes.

No matter what, when you finally find it, you feel as though you are one of a select few humans lucky enough to know the secret. And once you're there, you immediately feel protective of it. If there were a map, you'd swallow it.

But then again, Vishnu is just too good not to share. Brekkie Fan tipped me off and, in turn, I paid it forward--I told the person who has a column dedicated to spreading the word on places like this: my editor Gustavo Arellano.

As he said in his This-Hole-in-the-Wall-Life review, the place is a gem and the food is unexpectedly and unapologetically authentic, even if it were found in the center of Artesia's Little India instead of Irvine.

The base of the $7 lunch buffets are the biryanis--there are two kinds, one with chicken, another vegetarian, both shotgunned with spices. There are curries, some creamy, some spicy, some both. There are nuclear-strength chutneys that burned a hole through my esophagus; others that cooled it off like salve. There are vadas, crispy golden-fried fritters that are similar to falafel. There's baigan barta, a thick eggplant curry that I scooped up with some crispy-bubbled naan.

And of course, because the owner used to cook at Dosa Place, there are dosas, delicate Indian crepes filled with spiced potato, made fresh and served scalding hot , one-by-one to everyone dining in.

When I looked up after feasting, I discovered the line had snaked out the door. The place was now standing room only. Some secrets, it seems, are too good to be kept secret for long.

Vishnu Restaurant & Catering
17945 Sky Park Circle Ste. J
Irvine, CA 92614
(949) 752-0358

Coconut Rabbit - Los Alamitos
Summer Food Issue - Sausage Party in OC!

Sunday, September 01, 2013

Bread Basket - Tustin

If you live or work where you can see the Tustin blimp hangars from your window, you've probably passed by Bread Basket and thought nothing of it. Like most work-a-day mom-n-pop sandwich shops you've patronized before, this one is in an industrial/office complex. As such you might already have a preconceived notion of what it looks like inside and you don't expect this one to be any different.

But you'd be wrong.

In there, as I found out, is enough space to accomodate a Trader Joe's, except the whole room is hardly lit by a few flickering fluorescents. Buried in the back is an honest-to-goodness pool table, a hanging light fixture dangling above it. There are a few framed pictures, but they're all on the floor, propped up against the far wall behind the pool table. It's as though they painted the walls but never bothered to rehang the artwork. And there's Bread Basket's most defining feature: a long bar that has its regulars saddled up to it, nursing beer bottles at noon on a weekday while they bite into egg salad sandwiches served on foam plates

On the menu, a big thing behind the cashier that looks like it was printed in the era of disco, there are about what looks like over a hundred variations of sandiwiches with turkey, tuna, ham, pastrami, and roast beef. My favorite so far: a Philly cheesesteak made with not a drop of Cheez Wiz but a slathering of marinara and hot melted Provolone--two things that might disqualify it that Philly part of the name. But the results are glorious--a cheesy sauce combo that scalded my tongue on that first steaming bite. Every bite thereafter is full of beefy meat shreds, punctuated by tang and held together by a pillowy hoagie roll.

I don't know how old Bread Basket is, but looking at it, I'd guess it's been around since at least the Carter administration but certainly well before the Tustin Marine Corps Air Station across the street was decommissioned. Ah, if only those bare walls could talk.

Bread Basket
15471 Red Hill Ave, #D
Tustin, CA 92780
(714) 259-9266

Ritter's Steam Kettle Cooking - Santa Ana