Sunday, February 23, 2020

Colombia's Arepa de Huevo

France has the baguette. Italy has the pizza. This past weekend, on a trip to Cartagena, I learned Colombia has the arepa de huevo. The street food is so ingrained in the country’s culinary DNA that at my Hilton hotel breakfast buffet, it literally stood apart from the other items--the arepa de huevo was featured on its own table in the center of the dining room. It even came with a sign indicating its significance to Colombia.

But first, to understand what an arepa de huevo is, I must tell you what an arepa is. An arepa is essentially a pancake made of corn or maize flour. I became familiar with this indigenous delicacy from pre-Columbian times at Mil Jugos, a Venezuelan restaurant in Santa Ana. But as it turns out, Colombians also count arepas as a staple food. An arepa in its basic form is usually griddled and then sometimes split like an English muffin to be used to sandwich a variety of fillings.

An arepa de huevo, however, is an entirely different subspecies. It is distinctly Colombian. And the preparation involves a double fry.

The cornmeal dough is first flattened to a disc in a tortilla press. Then the disc is deep-fried in oil so that it puffs up like a Whoopee cushion. After it’s lifted out of the oil and drained, a small slit is cut into the side. A raw egg is then poured into the cavity and the arepa immediately goes back in the oil to fry again. The second dunk cooks the egg inside its cornmeal cocoon while the arepa’s outer crust gets even crispier. What results is the South American hybrid of a Hot Pocket and a McMuffin crossed with a beignet. It’s best eaten when it’s piping hot

As I sunk my teeth into my first arepa de huevo, dabbing lots of salsa and sour cream, I realized that although it resembled all the things I mentioned in the previous paragraph, it was unlike anything I’ve had before--it was a totally new sensation and experience. It’s as if someone managed to isolate just the crunchy outer corners of a freshly baked cornbread muffin and impregnate it with a hard boiled egg.

It was delicious.

After my first piece, I ate a second and a third, knowing that no such thing exists back home, even in OC’s two Colombian restaurants.

Monday, February 10, 2020

A Comparison of Two BCD Tofu Houses

I would argue that no other cuisine on Earth has as many hearty, spicy, full-bodied soups and stews at its core than Korean. Galbitang. Samgyetang. Kimchi-jjigae. There are more soups and stews in the Korean cook's repertoire than the movie Parasite has Oscars.

And soondubu-jjigae, soft tofu soup, is perhaps the most popular one of all. It's the best cold-weather antidote I know: a hot metal cauldron of silken tofu pudding simmering in a spicy broth with meats and seafood.

Whole restaurant chains are built to serve it. BCD, the biggest of them all, does it at nearly all hours of the day. But like Denny's, there can be variability between the branches. I noticed this after I tried the same soondubu combo at two BCDs a week apart.

The BCD in Artesia, which also happens to have relocated to a newer building on South Street, stacked the bulgogi that came with my soondubu combo order so high on its sizzling platter that it was twice as much meat as what I got at Irvine's BCD a week later. Irvine's rendition was also soggier, tasting more as if it were boiled rather than griddled. And the sliced onions that formed the base had practically turned to mush.

The Artesia branch also boasted one more banchan than Irvine, putting its spread of side dishes at seven while Irvine only offered six. Six infinitely refillable sides may already sound like a lot, but when you had Artesia's offering of vibrant broccoli florets just a week before, the omission at the Irvine becomes glaring. The broccoli not only added color but a refreshing textural contrast to the meal.

But the biggest difference was in the tofu soup itself. BCD Irvine's was a little less savory, a bit more flat than the soup served at the Artesia location. And as they say: the proof is in the pudding.

BCD Tofu House
2700 Alton Pkwy #135
Irvine, CA 92606

BCD Tofu HOuse
11710 South St #101
Artesia, CA 90701

Monday, February 03, 2020

My Top 5 Favorite Restaurants: Sushi Noguchi - Yorba Linda

To start the new year and a new chapter of Monster Munching, I am counting down my top five favorite restaurants in the next few posts. And when I say "favorite", I mean it. Over the last year, I ate at these restaurants more than I can count. In fact, not only are they in my regular rotation, I visited all five again within the last two weeks of 2019. The last on the alphabetical list:

Sushi Noguchi

The Japanese word omakase means “chef’s choice,” giving sushi masters a free license to serve you whatever they think best. But lately, the word has come to mean something more: an ultra-expensive, multicourse meal that can tick up to the triple digits. This is certainly the case at a certain Costa Mesa sushi restaurant that recently earned a Michelin star. But at Sushi Noguchi, the prix-fixe meal called “Jun’s Omakase” has always retailed for under $60.

There’s a seared albacore salad to start, then a carpaccio of the day. Next is a sampler plate with a trio of cooked items; among them may be a fish-stuffed shishito tempura, a braised pork belly with hot mustard, or a crispy-fried shrimp katsu on a stick. After that, expect another raw fish dish to precede a four-piece nigiri. This might then be followed by a baked blue-crab hand roll so sweet it could double as dessert.

Since what’s served varies according to the season, you're almost guaranteed not to get the meal I described above when you visit. But one thing remains constant: Jun’s Omakase proves not only that you don’t have to pay a premium for a quality experience, but also that omakase can mean “bargain.”

Sushi Noguchi
18507 Yorba Linda Blvd.
Yorba Linda, CA 92886
(714) 777-6789