Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Los Angeles and its ethnic foods

Los Angeles, California.

It's a foreign country for us residing on the east side of the Rocky Mountains--a sun-filled dream of exotic landscape and modern architecture.

But the one essential touch that makes LA the true wonderland for me is the thriving "ethno-burbs" (mainly around San Gabriel Valley), where the Asian--particularly Chinese--scenes can be, and are, loud, proud, and posh. 

The first stop for our LA ethnoburbs tour was Alhambra, CA, where we had very nice "garlic shrimp noodles" at Honey Badger Noodle Shop. This is a bit of a hipster joint with a touch of fusion (you can have French fries with bacon bits and aioli here), but it still maintains the Chinese grandmother's respect for the right way to prepare the food (the noodles were chewy, the fried egg was perfectly runny at the sunny center and crunch around the edge, and the string beans were wonderfully crispy). 

After the meal, we walked three minutes to 85°C Bakery Cafe for the sea salt coffee that I'd yearned for the last two years. "Sea salt in coffee?" you say skeptically? Try it, and you'll be surprised. (The salt is in the cream floating on top of the coffee. The trick is mixing just the right amount of the salty cream in the coffee so that the coffee gets enough taste of the salt without getting overly creamy.)

After the coffee, we drove across Monterey Park... San Gabriel, populated with large Chinese malls.

In San Gabriel Square, we shopped at Ranch 99 (the famous supermarket chain) and a Japanese Daiso store (where you can get all sort of things--from snacks, to cosmetic brushes, to stationery, to mugs and dishes--at $1.50 unless marked otherwise).   

Our biggest gratification came at the Westfield Santa Anita mall at Arcadia.

First, just look at this store called Wing Hop Fung. Here you can buy:

a bird's nest (see the sign up there)

wheels of teas

dried sea worms and sea cumbers, and many more...
The mall's food court features some good-looking Asian eateries. Among them, we chose to dine at Side Chick, a Hainan chicken joint favorably reviewed by the Pulitzer-winning food critic of the LA weekly. (Well, it was Hainan chicken alright, is our own verdict.)

But what truly blew my mind, and nearly brought me to tears, was Uncle Tetsu's cheesecake. The Japanese cheesecake from my childhood in Seoul is light and fluffy, with subtle flavor of cheese, nothing like the dense slap of sugar-loaded cream cheese that is the American cheesecake. And Uncle Tetsu perfected it. You wait in line for your cake to come fresh out of the oven, and it's well worth the wait. I recommend you taste some of it right then and there when it's still warm and light as a cloud (you almost inhale it rather than eating it), and then finish the rest later at home after it cools down.

Each cake is branded with the shop's logo.

The Force is strong with the Japanese food in LA. We were glad to find a few stores of Coco Ichbanya Curry in the area, including the one in Koreatown.  

From the of the savor of the sauce to the texture of the rice, this is the Japanese curry perfection. You can also add cheese to your curry for a different experience. It's fun (the ever stretching strings of mozzarella) and it kinda works. 

A bit north of Santa Monica, off highway 405, you can also find a thriving Japanese (and Asian) neighborhood.

One of the most notable restaurant here is a ramen place called, Tsujita. When I first tried it one and a half years ago, it fundamentally shook my conception of ramen. Beware, however, that the restaurant only accepts cash (as of June 2017) and was showing the sanitary rating of "B" when we visited the shop this time, which is why we skipped ramen and went to a Taiwanese restaurant two doors down the street. But Tsujita definitely is worth a try. Hopefully they cleaned up their act after the "B" rating.   

You cannot talk about ethnic foods in LA without mentioning the K-town. We had dinner at Chunju Han-il Kwan. The dol-sot bibimbob (rice mixed with vegetables and meat in a stone pot) was just what you'd expect based on the regular East-coast experience, but in this restaurant, you can also get what you can't in New England: the spicy crab soup.

Getting the meat out of the blue crab is a challenge, but even if you're lazy (or trying not to gross out your date), the flavor is in the soup.

Din Tai Fung, the Taiwanese dumpling franchise just invading the West Coast, is also worth mentioning. Each little precious pocket of dough holding ground pork and its soup (called xiao-long-bao) is handmade in front of the lustful eyes of the patrons waiting for their numbers to be called outside the shop. The dough here is slightly more matted than that of your average xiao-long-bao. You can also experience the truffle pork xia-long-bao at $4 per a bite-sized dumpling. 

Los Angeles, California.

It's a foreign country for us residing anywhere outside it--a delicious dream that haunts you between the meal times and reminds you how to be an Asian-American in a proper way.