Chirashi Bowl @ Musashi, Berkeley. Ahi, Hamachi, Salmon, Mackerel, Scallop, Octopus, Squid, Monkfish Liver, and Tomago. All served over sushi rice.
My iPhone said the temperature in Berkeley was 63F today, but I’m sure it had to have been pushing 80F. This weather report may sound a bit like bragging, but I’m actually complaining; California is in the midst of a megadrought, with the prospect of dead lawns and raging forest fires in our near future. At the restaurant where I cook, one of our produce purveyors already has asparagus on the radar, which is absurd for mid-February. At this pace, we could be enjoying heirloom tomato BLTs by May.
Although I did manage to eat some cassoulet at Bistro Jeanty while it rained last week, our otherwise warm weather this winter has deprived me of the opportunity to eat the braises and the broths that I usually associate with the winter season. With the sunny weather, sushi has been on my mind since last Friday, when I tried to visit Zushi Puzzle on my way out of San Francisco (I abandoned that mission when parking seemed too prohibitive).
This week, Berkeley beckoned and I set my sights on Musashi, which offers the tremendous price-value quotient that you would expect from a mom-and-pop-style restaurant. At just $18, the sashimi-laden Chirashi covers a broad spectrum of flavors, allowing the diner to sample the lion’s share of Musashi’s sashimi menu (the Chirashi also includes a small bowl of delicious miso soup to start, making it an even better value).
If you were to grade a sushi restaurant in just one sitting, a Chirashi bowl would give you the most insight by far. It encompasses an impressive amount of different proteins, and in the right hands, it can showcase the bounty of our oceans. The sashimi at Musashi — all 10 varieties — were impeccably fresh and delicious. This dish would cost you $50 in New York City.
April will mark the 10-year anniversary of when I first began attending the Culinary Institute of America, which feels difficult to believe. Has it really been that long? One decade removed, and I still lament my student debt each month, and I always try to discourage people, especially young line cooks, from attending my pricey alma mater.
I tell them to instead just keep working, and to push themselves to get into better and better kitchens while they’re young. If, at some point, they feel like they need to learn the academic and scientific side of cooking, then a junior college program can satisfy that requirement at a fraction of the cost.
The paradox to all of this sagacious wisdom is that deep down, I don’t regret my own decision to attend culinary school. I enjoyed the experience immensely, and I still have actual love for many of my CIA classmates, whom I still keep in touch with and visit from time to time.
I was lucky though. By beginning the CIA in April, I avoided having classmates who were fresh out of high school. All of those kids begin to arrive during the summer and fall. I got to observe their degeneracy from a distance, mostly anecdotally, and I couldn’t imagine having to spend six hours of class time with such knuckleheads.
Not that everyone in my class was great. Every now and then my group would be peppered with the occasional numbskull, usually some lost cause who had to retake our next block with us (and who then would be stuck in our “stream” until they failed another block, or got suspended for drinking the cooking wine during class, or whatever). But don’t get me wrong. The memories keep me entertained. I just hated dealing with some of those people at the time.
I find other people’s culinary anecdotes entertaining, so I’m always game for a CIA memoir. Jonathan Dixon’s “Beaten, Seared, and Sauced” is a pretty good one. In the micro-genre of culinary school memoirs, Michael Ruhlman’s popular “The Making of a Chef” is my benchmark, not that it’s perfect by any means.
My main issue with Ruhlman’s book is that he just attended the classes at the CIA, he wasn’t a true culinary student who had to take practicals and go on externship. I don’t think he took all of the classes, either (“The Making of a Chef” is one of the books I read right before I attended the CIA, so my memory has become hazy after 10 years).
In contrast, “Beaten, Seared, and Sauced” earns big points for the author’s willingness to take the first-person approach to a deeper level. Ruhlman does portray an entertaining and vivid portrait in his book, but Dixon actually becomes a student and completes the program, externship at all.
As a former culinary student, I find this entire approach much more entertaining, and having walked in those clogs, I’m also convinced that one must go “all in” to fully understand the CIA experience (you should also have to start off in the dorms, if you really want to view the entire circus — neither Ruhlman nor Dixon ever lived on campus).
With the anniversary of my own time at the CIA in mind, I purchased “Beaten, Seared, and Sauced” in hope of reading some familiar names. It didn’t work out that way; I only shared one common chef with the author (and that was Chef Smythe from Cuisines of Asia). But even though Dixon encountered different instructors during his time at the CIA, his book remains rife with familiar archetypes: the arguments about doing dishes, impetuous know-it-all know-nothings, hoarding equipment and ingredients, and much of the rest.
Despite his successes, it remains a shame that Dixon couldn’t complete the entire program with the same core group whom he began with (the author must delay his externship to take a writing assignment, and thus falls off pace with the students in his original stream). Of course, there’s no saying for sure, but this separation may have cost the book some dramatic tension.
From a simple narrative perspective, I feel that story lines have better opportunity to emerge when the bonds, alliances and rifts have ample time to become fully fleshed out. As a result, the book lacks recognizable secondary characters. Regardless, if I had to recommend either “The Making of a Chef” or “Beaten, Seared, and Sauced” to a potential culinary student, I’d probably recommend “Beaten,” just based upon its externship chapters, which I found by far the most compelling.
But before I recommended either book, I’d first recommend that they don’t go to culinary school at all.
Third Course: Kurobuta pork chop with apples, kale, whole-grain mustard spaetzle, cipollini onion, and apple cider sauce. Kurobuta is Japanese for Berkshire.
Here in the Napa Valley (and I believe in other parts of the country as well), January is Restaurant Month. There’s quite a few deals being offered throughout the area, but the best, by far, is the two-course lunch at Auberge du Soleil. This year, lunch at Auberge in January will cost you $20.14 — just a penny more than last year.
I will admit — at the risk of over-populating California — that today was another 70-degree day, not a cloud in the sky, with a slight breeze. Sorry if you’ve been trying to catch a flight out of New York; I’ve been trying to figure out whether or not to drop the top on my convertible (full disclosure: I don’t own a convertible).
As long as I’m being honest, I should also admit that I used to cook at Auberge. I can never review a current or former workplace with complete impartiality, so I don’t even try to do so. I will just say that from a professional standpoint, I left Auberge today feeling really proud to have worked there. I was lucky.
Every course today was spot on, right down to the last vegetable, right down to the two kinds of freshly-baked bread, and right down to the complimentary chocolate biscotti. Of course, I did receive a few extras beyond the norm — not bribes, and not for this blog — but just because I’m in the industry, I’m an Auberge alum, and I have friends who still work there (my friends at Auberge are actually the ones whom I’ve known the longest in the Napa Valley).
So don’t consider this a review. Think of it as my food journal from today. The pictures should speak for themselves (but I’ll write a few captions anyhow). As for the wine, I chose a Leitz Rüdesheimer Rosengarten Riesling Kabinett 2012 (offered by the glass) — perfect with the scallop and the pork chop, and perfect for another pseudo-Spring day in wine country.
First Course: Beet salad with arugula, frisee rosemary croutons, and sherry vinaigrette. This salad, along with the pork chop above, comprised the $20.14 lunch for today.
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Second Course: Seared diver scallop with blood orange supreme, Brussels sprouts, diced carrots, pomegranate seeds, miso-butter sweet potato puree, and black garlic vinaigrette. The scallop was cooked to perfection. I have an interior shot in my Instagram feed.
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Fourth Course: Deconstructed key lime pie with coconut ice cream. The little cubes are coconut gelee.
Dust jacket for “The Treasury of American Wines” by Nathan Chroman, 1976. Please click to enlarge the photo to full resolution.
I’m a geek when it comes to food history, but I’m especially nerdy about California’s wine history. Old wine books are often fascinating to me because they’re like time capsules, snapshots from a bygone era. The California wine industry has evolved so dramatically over the last four decades, it’s interesting to be reminded of past trends and early beginnings.
To place “The Treasury of American Wines” into historical context, this book was published in the summer of 1976, perhaps just weeks before California’s triumph at the now-famous Judgment of Paris. I thought it was prescient (and perhaps just coincidental) that the very wine that won the Chardonnay category in Paris — the 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay — is actually pictured on the dust jacket above, eighth from the right.
The dust jacket for “The Treasury of American Wines” offers a great look at the wine labels of yesteryear, and it was the main reason why I shelled out $6 for an otherwise outdated book. With vintages ranging from 1969 to 1974, some of these labels remain familiar and unchanged, while others represent varietals that have now fallen out of favor.
I’ve scanned and stitched the dust jacket in four different pieces. Please click the image above to see the photo at full resolution. Enjoy!
“Ekiben: The Art of the Japanese Box Lunch,” Chronicle Books, 1989.
I’m convinced that used bookstores offer much more than any big box book retailer (what’s left of them, anyway). The problem with Barnes & Noble, or Borders when it existed, is that these stores don’t offer any old out-of-print books in their inventory. The large book retailers deal exclusively with new books, or new versions of old books, whatever the case may be. But as time goes by, there are so many interesting books that go out of print, our only chance of discovering them (if we missed them the first time around) is when they cycle back through a used bookstore.
I suppose that I’m the ideal used bookstore patron. First of all, I’m an old English major (not the normal prerequisite for becoming a chef, I admit). Second of all, I was born with the collector’s gene. I used to collect bottle caps and baseball cards when I was little; I still own about 1,000 vintage funk and soul records (acquired mostly during my 20s), though my pace of vinyl consumption has tapered off; I still collect vintage pulp paperbacks, lots of California wine, and of course, vintage cookbooks.
When I wander into a used bookstore, I never know what I’m going to buy, but I do know that I’m going to be able to justify buying something. For $9, I couldn’t pass up “Ekiben: The Art of the Japanese Box Lunch,” which I found at Green Apple in San Francisco a couple weeks ago. Published by Chronicle Books in 1989 (25 years ago now), “Ekiben” is a thin paperback, but with ample dimensions. The book is comprised mostly of photos, which document several dozen of the ekiben found in Japan.
According to the book, the word “ekiben” is derived from “eki” (train station) and “bento” (the familiar Japanese boxed lunch). Thus, these are the boxed lunches offered at train stations in Japan. But here’s the thing, most Japanese train stations offer their own, unique boxed lunch for travelers or commuters. These lunches usually encapsulate some sort of theme that is relevant to the area, and each ekiben is different from station to station.
For mass-produced meals, these ekiben all seemed insanely clever. I wonder how much their aesthetic has changed over the years, or if they still look the same today. Here are a couple scans from the book. Enjoy!
Tooge No Kama-Meshi @ Shinetsu Honsen Yokokawa Station. Served in pottery, this ekiben is arguably the best in Japan (at least back in 1989). Rice is served with chicken, shiitakes, burdock and apricot.
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Nagoya Zanmai @ Tokaido Shinkanshen Nagoya Station. Some ekiben have two or three compartments. Click photo to read the full caption.
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Masu No Sushi @ Hokuriku Honsen Toyama Station. This photo is the interior of the box on the book cover. Masu is a type of river trout, which is served over rice.
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Saba Bou Sushi @ Kansai Honsen Tennoji Station. Yes, that’s a piece of fish, straight up. Click the photo to read the caption.
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Kuri Okowa @ Sanyo Shinkansen Okayama Station. Kuri is Japanese for chestnut, which are prevalent in Okayama. Okowa is sticky rice.
Back during my early culinary career, long before I ever really knew anything about cooking, I once found myself in Cher’s kitchen, helping to prepare Christmas Eve dinner at her lavish Malibu estate.
For lack of a better term, it was one of those typical “Hollywood moments” — a common person’s brush with celebrity — that Angelinos tend to be so proud of at first.
At the risk of sounding jaded, I will admit that I did feel a sense of pride at the time. Not that I really cared that much about Cher in particular. As a film buff, I can admire the fact that she has won an Oscar. I also respect her longevity; maintaining a career in youth-driven Hollwood is inherently difficult.
But really, I could’ve been cooking for any celebrity. I was just proud of the fact that I was actually cooking somewhere professionally.
For the past several months, I had been working nights as a short order cook in West Los Angeles, basically struggling to keep pace with a small, yet bustling dive bar called the San Francisco Saloon.
My nights at the Saloon were often long: the kitchen was open late, and my mornings usually began with a full day of prep work at Houston’s (now Hillstone) Santa Monica. I used to catch a half-hour nap between gigs, and then somehow battle through a marathon dinner shift at the Saloon.
My work schedule was relentless, but back then, I was eager for any kind of professional cooking experience.
Sometime during my hazy tenure at the San Francisco Saloon, the bar’s owner introduced me to a caterer who occasionally worked for a handful of the B-list celebrities.
Every once in a while, this chef’s modest network of celebrity clients would foster a somewhat lucrative catering job, and I would gladly enlist my services, hoping to earn a little extra income.
In those early days of short order cooking, a catering gig was a huge step forward for me: easier, better hours, better food, more money.
• • •
Knowing what I know now, I suspect that I landed this Christmas Eve gig because no one else was willing to work during the holiday, but that didn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things.
The dinner itself was well within my skill set, since it was just a basic turkey dinner for eight, complete with all of the requisite trimmings. Even as a novice cook, fixing mashing potatoes and making cranberry sauce was rudimentary work. And really, all things considered, my most valuable contribution to the meal was probably unloading the catering van.
Given the fact that I was cooking for Cher, you might assume that I would remember more about the dinner than I did. But it was a long time ago — I barely remember anything about the day, except that it was raining and overcast, and that Cher had a stunning hillside view of the Pacific Ocean from her kitchen. Of course, the kitchen itself was also beautiful in its own right, with a giant professional stove that could’ve easily been mistaken for brand new.
As for the other details, I also remember that Cher’s name was mentioned dozens of times before she ever appeared. I wouldn’t say that her employees seemed fearful or unhappy, but clearly, everyone in the house wanted to make sure that she was having a happy holiday.
When Cher did finally appear in the kitchen, she exuded a commanding presence, although I expected her to be much taller than she actually was. Cher had an aura about her that was completely unique and unmistakable, and it took me by surprise, to be honest.
Before becoming a chef, I had encounters with all sorts of celebrities during my days producing radio. I dealt with talent ranging from Andy Dick to Christian Bale, and even before that, just living in Los Angeles provided the inevitable brush with fame.
I was once walking through a parking garage when I saw a girl coming towards me wearing a pretty cool vintage ski jacket. I was just about to compliment her when I noticed it was Drew Barrymore. I seized up and said nothing, a moment that I still regret.
I’ve pretty much had a lifetime crush on Drew Barrymore, so that particular encounter has humbling, not that it would’ve mattered. She was into Tom Green at the time. But I still feel sheepish for having been starstruck.
Moments like that one have proven to me that “star quality” is definitely a palpable trait, an attribute that transcends mere charisma.
Standing in Cher’s Malibu kitchen, I had to assume that Cher had carried this trait with her for her entire life, even long before she ever became famous. Her presence was undeniable, regardless of what you thought of her movies or her music. No wonder she was the basis for so much chit-chat around the house: She may as well have been the Queen.
After her one brief appearance in the kitchen, Cher retired to a separate part of the mansion for the rest of the day.
However, she did deliver my chef an old, hand-written recipe card for stuffing. It was the very recipe that her grandmother had used for years, and Cher wanted us to prepare the dish.
Instinctively, I had my doubts from the get-go.
For one thing, I knew that Cher’s grandmother had probably stopped using that recipe card years ago, and if she was like most grandmothers, she most likely made that entire dish from memory. Grandmothers cook from the soul. Who knows what sorts of adjustments or additions she had made over the years?
Or maybe she did use the card.
Regardless, the original plan was that my chef would cut and prepare all of the mise en place for the stuffing. Then, once everything was ready, Cher would come in, assemble the dish, and put it into the oven.
Many of my readers (especially those who fancy themselves gourmets) may dismiss Cher for this rather detached approach to cooking. But let’s face it, this scenario is the classic celebrity chef move. I could easily understand how Cher, as someone who has been in show business for several decades, would prefer to just swoop in for the glory.
Except that she never did.
As the ingredients sat waiting on the counter, someone on Cher’s staff instructed us to assemble the stuffing ourselves, and to go ahead and bake it off.
Although this stuffing had seemed very important earlier in the day, we were told that Cher was occupied with something else. We double-checked to make absolutely sure that Cher did not want to be involved, and then we mixed the ingredients and slid the glass baking dish into the oven.
We set the timer, and began turning our attention to other projects.
When the stuffing was about halfway cvooked, one of Cher’s assistants arrived and asked for a sample of the stuffing from the oven. Although it wasn’t finished yet, we were told that Cher was curious about how it was coming along. We obliged with a heaping spoonful of our work-in-progress, which was whisked out of the kitchen to another part of the house.
After a few minutes, the assistant returned to the kitchen with the spoon and a verdict: The chicken livers were not diced small enough.
• • •
I once had a chef-instructor at the Culinary Institute who said that professional cooking has a lot to do with recovery: How well can you fix the situation on the fly when the unexpected happens?
Unfortunately, in the case of the stuffing, we didn’t have the time nor the ingredients to start over. Recovery, in this case, presented only one option: We were soon collecting bits of chicken liver from a steaming dish of half-baked stuffing, then piling the tiny liver scraps onto a cutting board for further mincing. It certainly wasn’t ideal, but it wasn’t impossible, either.
After some effort, we returned the finely chopped livers to the stuffing mixture and continued to bake it. About twenty minutes later, the same assistant reappeared to procure another spoonful of stuffing, which was again hurried out of the kitchen.
A couple minutes later, we learned our next bit of troubling news: The stuffing had too much liquid in it. This information was a bit more dire.
Aside from possibly rolling the mixture in a giant piece of cheesecloth and somehow wringing it out, there really wasn’t much that we could do about an overly-moist stuffing. Sure, it would lose a little more moisture through baking, but the dish was just about done. It was golden brown and puffy, and we had reached our point of no return.
There was simply no viable recovery in this scenario. From a chef’s perspective, this can be somewhat defeating. In our business, a great deal of pride and worth is tied to rising up to meet the challenge. Cooking, for the most part, is a series of challenges.
But despite being slightly demoralized, my chef and I tasted the stuffing and decided that it was actually pretty good. It was a perfectly competent version of stuffing, and we weren’t just being overly optimistic and positive.
Objectively, it was fine.
Look at any two recipes for stuffing, and there are so many stylistic variations on this dish, to claim that one is “right” while another is “wrong” has more to do with personal taste than anything. Some folks like their stuffing slightly dry and crumbly, while others may prefer it more moist and adherent.
Personally, I could do without the chicken livers, but that’s just me.
• • •
Although this incident happened almost 10 years ago now, I’ve recalled that dinner many times since then, usually every time I make stuffing, and I have decided one thing: That day, we were simply doomed from the very beginning.
Given the origins of the dish — a cherished family recipe — there was simply no possible way that a couple of caterers were going waltz in and duplicate Cher’s grandmother’s stuffing, whether or not we had the original, hand-written index card or any other specific set of instructions. The odds were simply stacked too heavily against us.
Cher, like so many of us who treasure family recipes, was in search of nostalgia, craving a certain taste that might elicit fond holiday memories. But for someone else to recreate that dish would have certainly taken a Christmas miracle.
Family recipes are just that way.
They are unique, and at the same time, comforting and familiar. In fact, these dishes are very much like celebrities themselves: They seem to have their own aura and their own star quality, never to be captured by others, and never to be duplicated.
One of the last morsels from Pacific Books and Arts…
I’ve been rediscovering San Francisco’s Richmond District lately because, well, I feel like I’ve probably devoted most of 2013 to eating through the East Bay. My epicenter for this exploration has usually been 8th and Clement, a locale that places more than a day’s worth of attractions within easy walking distance.
The five-block stretch of Clement between 5th and 10th includes such noteworthy restaurants as Good Luck Dim Sum, Clement Restaurant, Burma Superstar, Halu, Cherry Blossom Bakery, Pizza Orgasmica, and many others. There’s also a fantastic bookstore in the mix — Green Apple Books — which easily boasts the city’s best used cookbook selection.
I noticed today that another bookstore in the area, Pacific Books and Arts, was closing down. I hate to see mom-and-pop bookstores disappear, but Pacific Books was liquidating its inventory as part of a “retirement” sale, which is bittersweet.
I talked with the elderly gentleman who owned the shop, and he said that Pacific Books has been open for 20 years. The small curated store sells Chinese-language books exclusively, all of which were discounted at 40% to 70% off.
My heart sank a little when I noticed the large gap of empty shelf space in the cookbook section, which was marked with a 60% discount. Clearly, the cookbooks had already been pretty well picked over, but there were still about 100 remaining, so I scoured through them for any remaining gems.
Of course, I can’t read Chinese, so my goal was to simply find the books that featured inspiring dishes and great photography. After a half-hour of flipping through paperbacks (and becoming accustomed to having the spine on the right-hand side), I only found one title that I really wanted, a large-yet-slim volume that featured Japanese vegetable carving (mukimono).
Sadly, I couldn’t tell you the actual title of the book, but the color photos at the front are exquisite. From what I can tell, the original Japanese version of this book was published in 2006. If any Chinese-speaking readers would like to offer any translations, please feel free to comment.
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Turnbull Wine Cellars has long been one of my favorite Napa Valley producers, although the winery’s portfolio has evolved in ways that make me somewhat ambivalent, if I can be honest. There was a time, not too long ago, when Turnbull produced its Old Bull Red, an inexpensive (around $20) catch-all blend with plenty of terrific Oakville pedigree. Unfortunately, Turnbull ceased production of the Old Bull Red with the 2009 vintage, thus ending the availability of one of my staple “pizza” wines.
At the other end of the spectrum, Turnbull has developed an amazing single-vineyard program over the last several years, showcasing the winery’s four Napa Valley properties. These are delicious wines, to be sure, but they definitely command single-vineyard prices. With that in mind, I am thankful that Turnbull still produces its Napa Valley Estate Cabernet, a wine that ranks as one of my top 20 Napa Cabernets for under $50.
I had the pleasure of tasting a handful of the Turnbull wines last week, and my overall assessment of the portfolio is that the wine-making has headed in a decidedly elegant direction with finesse to spare. Although I miss the Old Bull Red, I suppose that evolution is a good thing.
2012 Turnbull Old Vines Sauvignon Blanc, $34 • This wine is crafted from 40-year-old vines from Turnbull’s Fortuna Vineyard. The oak regimen is subtle, with 12% spending 2-3 months in French barrels. The main thing that struck me about this wine (aside from the atypical Burgundian-style bottle) is that it’s more mellow than crisp. I would classify this wine as a Chardonnay drinker’s Sauvignon Blanc.
2012 Turnbull Rosé, $22 • Ostensibly, this is the wine that “replaced” the Old Bull Red (both wines being by-products by nature). The 2012 Turnbull Rosé is 65% Syrah and 35% Cabernet, and I’m not sure how much these components will dictate future blends. I found the wine enjoyable, although my favorite California rosé (non-sparkling) is produced by Unti Vineyards.
2010 Turnbull Oakville Cabernet Sauvignon, $60 • Three of the winery’s estate vineyards (including the tasting room property) exist within the Oakville appellation, and this wine encapsulates each of them. The majority of the blend (55%) is derived from the Leopoldina Vineyard and the wine itself is 89% Cabernet, with the balance coming from other Bordeaux varietals. It’s pure velvet on the palate.
2010 Turnbull Leopoldina Cabernet Franc, $70 • An elegant wine with an exquisite nose, this Cabernet Franc is bolstered by 4% Cabernet Sauvignon.
2007 Turnbull Amoenus Cabernet Sauvignon, $120 • Located in Calistoga, the Amoenus Vineyard is Turnbull’s one non-Oakville property. A terrific wine all around, the 2007 Turnbull Amoenus certainly captures the excellence of this particular vintage. The wine is 92% Cabernet Sauvignon, 7% Petit Verdot, and 1% Malbec.
2010 Turnbull Leopoldina Cabernet Sauvignon, NA • This wine is available only through the Turnbull wine club, and even then, is only available as part of a three-pack. I’m not one to advocate joining a wine club just to purchase a wine, but if I was already a Turnbull club member, I would definitely splurge on that three-pack. It was my favorite wine of the tasting; I bought Turnbull’s 2010 Oakville Cab just to have another glimpse of it.
The Double Cheeseburger @ Solbar, Calistoga. The fried pickles are an indulgent touch.
There’s a lot to like about Solbar’s double cheeseburger, including the signature fried pickles that send this dish over the top. All of the other elements hold their own nicely: The cheddar cheese is sharp and beautifully melted, the Bibb lettuce is impeccable, and the patties always arrive in pairs (the option for a single cheeseburger, or even a simple hamburger, is not featured on the Solbar menu). I appreciate the fact that Solbar offers a double cheeseburger as its default burger option, though. There’s no half-stepping with this decision. If you feel like having a burger for lunch, then be prepared to fully conquer your craving. Of course, the two planks of fried pickles will play a strong supporting role in this endeavor.
Tonkotsu Ramen @ Daikokuya, West Los Angeles. This bowl of ramen contends for the best bowl of ramen that I’ve ever tasted. I still have a strong allegiance to Ramen Dojo in San Mateo, but Daikokuya is equally sublime, if not a bit more simple. The perfectly-cooked egg reveals a keen attention to detail, and the broth is amazingly good. I ate ramen almost every day when I was in Los Angeles, but this bowl (my first of the trip) really resonated with me, and it continues to do so.
I’ve finally uploaded my photos from my trip to Los Angeles earlier this month. It’s a little strange to go back to a place where I once lived for about 10 years, now that it’s also been about 10 years since I’ve lived there. Though the city’s main infrastructure remains familiar, the details have become a bit different over time. Sure, I still know most of the workarounds and shortcuts when it comes to L.A. traffic, but I don’t know any of the newer restaurants. It’s like knowing how to get places, but not knowing exactly where to go.
Before my trip, I had outlined a list of about 10 old favorites that I couldn’t bear to pass up, must-eat destinations like Roscoe’s House of Chicken & Waffles, Paco’s Tacos and Chili John’s. Initially, I thought this list would prove to be a daunting agenda for a five-day trip, and I figured that I might become so consumed with nostalgic visits that I probably wouldn’t have much time to investigate any new restaurants. Of course, I had been underestimating myself. As it turns out, with five full days in Los Angeles, I can eat plenty. And I did.
If you follow my Instagram feed (or if you follow my Facebook page), then you’ve probably seen a few previews for this post. Unlike those cellphone pics, however, I snapped these photos “offline” with my DSLR camera, and that’s why it’s taken me so long to post them. It’s finally the super hi-res food porn that you’ve been waiting for. Click on any photo for the insanely large version. Enjoy!
The Godmother (with The Works) @ Bay Cities Deli & Bakery, Santa Monica. The key to this iconic sandwich is its blistered-up roll, which is baked in-house. It’s this proprietary element that guarantees that the Godmother cannot ever be duplicated, and the reason why the line at Bay Cities can be ridiculous during peak hours. The interior of the Godmother is an amalgam of glorious Italian flavors, pickles and peppers mingling with cured meats and plenty of mustard and mayo.
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The Tacos with Cheese @ Tito’s Tacos, West Los Angeles. Tito’s was one of my earliest favorites and definitely one of the things I had eaten the most of when I lived in Los Angeles. Eating there takes me back 20 years, and for a moment, I can even forget that I don’t live in Los Angeles anymore. Tito’s remains so familiar to me, even years later, that it will always connect me to the Westside.
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Tsukemen Ramen @ Tsujita LA Artisan Noodle, West Los Angeles. Profound flavors abound in this deconstructed version of ramen, the broth of which combines a rich pork stock with scallops and whitefish. The flavors are mind-blowing, and the broth is almost sauce-like in consistency, while the noodles are fatter and more tender than most conventional ramen. The noodles are dressed and eaten. This “dipping ramen” is the ramen 2.0 of the moment — apparently the next sub-trend — though tonkotsu-style ramen will always be my favorite, no matter what. That being said, I’ll be sure to try Tsujita’s tonkotsu ramen the next time I return.
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The King Size Fish and Chips @ King’s Head Pub, Santa Monica. This restaurant is one of the vestiges of the Third Street Promenade as I first knew it. During the early dotcom boom, I was fortunate to work in an office on the Promenade, which was a killer location at that time; lunch offered so many different options back in those days, since the Promenade was robust with unique restaurants. As one might imagine, a mid-day session at the King’s Head usually meant for a pretty unproductive afternoon.
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The Falafel Pita @ Falafel King, Westwood. If I thought the Third Street Promenade had taken a turn for the worse, Westwood was even more dismal in my eyes. The area has been stripped and purged of its charm over the last 20 years, and the neighborhood seems vaguely dismal and unfamiliar to me now. Westwood is now full of mediocre chain restaurants that you can find most anywhere else, including the frozen section of your local supermarket. I had a scare when I tried to go to Falafel King, and I discovered that Five Guys now occupies their old storefront. I already think that Five Guys sucks, and I was convinced that corporate fast food had run one of my old favorites out of Westwood. I was disgusted. Luckily, I turned around and noticed that Falefel King had simply moved across the street. Keep on keeping on, Falafel King.
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The Cuban Roast Pork @ Versailles, Los Angeles. This restaurant was my first stop in Los Angeles (my original thought was to visit Tito’s, but just as I was pulling in to park, I realized I didn’t have any cash). The pork at Versailles is tangy with citrus and garlic — an apt counterpoint to the wonderfully sweet plantains that garnish the plate.
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Pork Cutlet @ Hurry Curry of Tokyo, West Los Angeles. I enjoyed plenty of meals along Sawtelle Boulevard during my trip, and Hurry Curry was actually my last meal in the city, a quick last stop on my way to LAX. Compared to Indian curry, I feel that Japanese curry remains relatively unknown in the United States, but I think it’s a fantastic dish. What’s not to like about a crispy, panko-crusted pork cutlet, smothered in a rich, slightly sweet, spicy curry sauce?