Tuesday, July 18, 2017

JW Chen's: Chinese/Taiwanese food (Closest thing to home in South Bend, IN)

Out of the five or so Chinese places in South Bend, JW Chen's consistently ranks the top in both "word-of-mouth" recommendations and online research.  The restaurant is located on an unassuming strip mall (it's not really a strip mall, but it's the closest thing to it, I suppose, really it's a parking lot with some storefronts linked together in an odd configuration), in between a Papa John's and a large tobacco store.  It's hard to miss if you aren't looking for it, and the restaurant itself is quaint and homey.  It can maybe at capacity seat less than 40.  However, the moment you walk in, you're greeted by this lovely grandmotherly owner named Jean.  She seats you and then proceeds to take a seat with you and discuss what you're eating.

Now, I'm decently familiar with what I like in Chinese food, and I can read Chinese/know what to order.  Yet, even before I had a chance to really read the menu, she has taken a chair, and proceeds to help me decide what I want for lunch.  We settle on 豆瓣魚 (fried fish in chili sauce) and 高麗菜 (Taiwanese cabbage stir-fried with garlic) and some rice.  Within ten minutes, my food had arrived and I was taken aback.  The first thing that hits you is the garlic from the cabbage.  It's a smell that reminds you of any random stall in a wet market in Taipei, where the owners are yelling in the background and banging of spatulas in woks.  That first bite solidifies the image.  The crisp and crunchy cabbage mixed in with extremely fragrant garlic is the best bite of vegetables ever.  I would eat a bowl of rice and cabbage every day if it was made like that.  Then with the fish, lightly breaded and fried then combined with a spicy red sauce that has a hint of sweetness is just divine.  Extremely flaky and surprisingly fresh, each morsel of fish is exploding with flavor.  The spice is hot, enough to make you sweat and replace every other bite with rice or cabbage, but not overwhelmingly so.  As I dine on food that takes me home, I have brief conversations with the owner, other wait staff, and I find myself having a sigh of relief and joy with every pause in the meal.




It's hard to describe in words how wonderful it felt to be in a restaurant where all the servers and staff spoke Chinese and would take care of you as if you were a member of their family.  Before I left, I let the owner know that I would return in a couple hours, on my way back to Culver, to pick up some take out for dinner.  We spent another five to ten minutes discussing what to order and later returned to pick up 五更腸旺(pig intestine and blood stew), 三杯雞 (three-cup chicken), 炒菠菜 (stir-fried spinach) and some rice.  She then threw in a free plate of 炒米粉 (fried rice noodles) to ensure that I would have more meals to enjoy.  All in all, I highly recommend coming here for meals, but be sure to bring someone who knows Chinese food.  Don't be stuck just having "orange chicken" or "mongolian beef" or "honey walnut shrimp".  Have a good meal and really enjoy it.
More food for more meals!

Saturday, July 8, 2017

The Best Ramen Bowls in LA #5: Tsujita LA

After hearing about this place from multiple people, reading about it on Discover LA's Best Ramen Bowls in LA, and then dreaming about it, I finally made the opportunity to try the "best ramen" in LA.  I arrived for a late lunch in at Tsujita LA in Sawtelle, as I waited to pick up a friend from LAX.  When I arrived at 2:10pm, there was still a line and the line for Tsujita Annex was even longer.  I was seated within ten minutes of my arrival even though the restaurant was full.

I ordered the Hakata Nagahama Tonkotsu Charsui Ramen, which came with green onions, woodear mushrooms and a seasoned soft boiled egg with hard noodles as always.  When that bowl first came out, the first thing I noticed was the smell.  It was an overwhelming wave of pork bones, pork, garlic and an earthy smell of the mushrooms.  It was glorious.  I knew it would be an amazing bowl just from that first smell.  The broth was intense, and was like nothing I've ever had in a bowl of ramen before.  It was thick and silky and was almost like a consistency of gravy.  It was so rich and deep, drinking it was like letting yourself drown in it.  There was a bit of nuttiness from the noodles, which were thin hakata style that also had a bit of saltiness cooked into it.  Because of the thick broth, each bite of noodles had soup clinging on to it that made the consumption of it so much more pleasurable.  The contrast in texture with the mushrooms provided a satisfying crunch that helped provide variance in the experience.  The pork itself was standard, wasn't too soft but had a great bite.  It didn't wow me like the rest of the bowl, which made sense as the broth it self lived in a meaty pork taste.  The seasoned egg was done perfectly and was also very silky and had a sweet yolky center that provided not only a complimentary flavor profile, but also added a bit of brightness to the dish.  While the broth was a bit oily, the green onion helped contrast that by cutting through it and adding a crisp and clean taste to the bite.  All in all, it makes sense why writers like Jonathan Gold claim this restaurant to have the best ramen.  The flavors are intense and deservedly so, the broth is amazing and the contrast in both flavors and textures help bring this bowl all together.  I'm dying to return and have their tsukemen which I hear is a whole other experience.  You can find their restaurant at 2057 Sawtelle Blvd.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

What's Next

It's been a while since I've posted a life update, but seeing as most of my readers come from social media, most already know what I'm up to!  For those who don't, well consider yourself now informed.  This past year, I graduated Occidental College in Los Angeles with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Diplomacy & World Affairs (International Relations) as well as Theater.  I also minored in Economics at the same time.  I will be attending Tufts University in September for my Masters of Arts in Teaching in Social Studies.  As of June, I am working at Culver Academy, a boarding school in Culver, Indiana for the summer, as one of their Theater Instructors and Staff.

One of the things that is important to note specifically for my blog, is that as I am no longer in LA, I won't be completing the Ramen Reviews as I intended.  I still have one more review in my backlog of Tsujita Ramen, but other than that, I have basically began writing reviews about none LA places.  That being said, please contact me if you would like a recommendation of LA restaurants.  I'm still quite knowledgeable, and my blog only reflects a small fraction of the restaurants that I have visited in LA.  I look forward to updating you all on my experience at Culver as well as any further details I may have about my journey.  Until then, look out for my backlogged reviews of various places.


Berkeley's Koja Kitchen: Koja Burger and Umami Fries

Recommended to me by my pastor in Walnut Creek, my friends and I went over to Berkeley to try Korean/Japanese fusion restaurant Koja Kitchen.  It was a very crowded restaurant, right in the heart of Berkeley, with quite a few people going in and out.  There was a line to order and then a little bit of a wait for a table to open up.  I ordered the Koja Burger with KBBQ Style Short Ribs as well as Umami Fries.  The burger is Korean BBQ short ribs (kalbi), sesame vinaigrette lettuce, katsu aioli and sesame seeds, sandwiched in between fried garlic rice buns.  The Umami Fries were waffle fries that came with coconut-miso braised pork, red sauce (sriracha), garlio aioli, fried onions, masago (tobiko) and chopped green onions.

The burger was done very well.  The rice buns immediately reminded me of Japanese fast food chain, MOS Burger, that is known for their rice buns as well.  The difference being, the Koja Rice Bun's were pan fried, thus not only providing a drastic textural difference in terms of the crunch and the soft beef, but also it allowed for the bun to retain its shape and not fall apart during the eating process.  Often times, the rice bun tends to fall apart as a result of the refrigeration process in shaping the buns tends to dry out the rice thereby reducing it's stickiness.  The beef was classic KBBQ marinade with a delicate balance being achieved in being both sweet and savory.  I was also able to taste the sesame in the vinaigrette lettuce along with the additional sesame seeds on top, which helped add some variety in each bite.  The burger was very juicy and actually produced quite a bit of grease.  My only suggestion would be to add some heat, some spice.  Whether in the form of jalapenos or kimchi, something to once again, contrast the sweetness and the savory.  Otherwise, a very well done product.

The other flip side, the Umami Fries was very disappointing.  There was just too much going on with the product.  The savory masago and garlic aioli along with the spiciness from the sriracha just wasn't combining well.  The biggest issue was the coconut-miso braised pork.  The pork had an overwhelming sweetness to it, that was very broad but still powerful.  It overpowered the other flavors and didn't mix very well with the other sauces.  Coconut is a hard ingredient to work with, as the flavor tends to seem very elongated with a subtlety to it, but still very noticeable.  In this case, the pork never ceased to be center stage, even though it wasn't good.  I wasn't very pleased with this product.  My suggestion is to remove the coconut-miso concoction.  With two sauces already, providing complimenting flavors of spicy and savory, there's no need to add a radical sweetness to it that may overpower it.

They have 4+ locations scattered across the Bay Area.  Check them out for some interesting Korean-Japanese fusion.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Howlin Ray's: Nashville Hot Chicken

Ever since I read an article about the opening of Howlin Ray's in Eater LA, I knew, I wanted to brave the lines and try the hot and spicy chicken for myself.  Hot chicken is unique in the spiciness and heat that is sometimes overwhelming depending on the spice blend.  The restaurant opened in April of 2016, and ever since it's inception, there have been lines that stretch out across the shopping plaza in which its located in.  In a previous, unsuccessful attempt, I sauntered by the store, only to discover a line that seemed to last 1-2 hours.  Finally, I decided one day to drive out and enjoy a nice lunch at the restaurant. I learned that the store opened at 11:00 and I figured if I got there by 11:05, I wouldn't have to wait that long.  Unfortunately, I was wrong; almost 10 months since it opened, the line was still 50-80 people deep and it took almost 1.5 hours to get through.  The line snaked around the plaza, and the line doesn't seem to get shorter.  As I step forward, more people get in line, all waiting for some Hot Chicken.  At 12:21, after waiting about an hour and 15 minutes, I finally placed my order and sat down.  There is some seating inside the joint, but most of the customers sits outside at large picnic tables.  The customers are quite diverse, members of the rat race, young college-looking people, etc.  I ordered a half chicken: leg and thigh at the medium spice level and breast and wing at hot.  I was informed that the "hot" spice blend included habaneros, ghost peppers, and the South Carolina Reaper.  As someone who grew up eating spicy food, I was confident in my ability to withstand the heat.  Served on sliced white bread and with pickles, the anticipation began to build as I saw chicken after chicken get tossed into the spice blend,  The fact that they don't separate the parts (breast + wing and leg + thigh), made a daunting beast to conquer,

Hot (Breast + Wing), Medium (Leg + Thigh), Fries



When it was first served to me, I recoiled a bit because the smell of the heat was intoxicating.  My eyes started to water and I was cringing just by breathing it in.  I take a bite of the hot chicken and the first thing you notice is the crunch.  It's a very thick and meaty crunch that sort of attacks you back with the texture and the heat.  It's really spicy, which is compounded by the juiciness and the temperature of the chicken.  Everything is prepared fresh so the heat and the pain comes from the spice as well as the temperature.  Everything is scalding.  My lips and mouth slowly become numb as I continue to bite into the juicy white meat inside.  I immediately begin pulling off the skin as I examine the chicken inside.  It's pristine inside, with no trace marinade. Unlike other spicy chicken, where the meat itself is coated in a spicy marinade leading to an orange tinge on the meat, the Hot Chicken at Ray's is immaculately white, being a direct contrast to the heat that coats the skin.  The dark meat is just the same, juicy, flavorful and just as hard to finish.  There's a deceiving sweetness to the spice.  As I battled through the chicken, it came to the point where I had to give up. I had pulled off all of the skin and had just ate through the meat.  The spice and the heat was overwhelming, to the point where I gave up and couldn't finish.  I left the store extremely pleased and satisfied while also beaten: brow is wet, nose is running, and I can't feel my face.  I know I want to go back, it just tastes amazing and I want to finish an order at some point.  Hopefully I can bring my friends along to explore this wonderful addition to fried chicken culture in Los Angeles.

Monday, February 6, 2017

LA Food Truck Reviews #5: White Rabbit Truck

You ever have that feeling of anticipation, that bubbling in your stomach, that knowledge that the food is going to be amazing right when you order?  That's the feeling I had when I ordered from White Rabbit Truck.  I was set on getting curry from Okamoto's Kitchen, and while I did, I saw the White Rabbit Truck parked right behind, and I knew I had to try something.  White Rabbit Truck specializes in fusion Filipino cuisine.  They combine typical Mexican street food: tacos, burritos and quesadillas, with Flipino proteins and preparation.

I ordered the Pork Sisig Burrito which was 10$.  Pork Sisig is typically chopped up leftover pork bits like ears, tails, livers, etc.  Their pork sisig is made with fried pork belly.  It is then finished by chopped and pan fried with a medley of onions and jalapenos.  The burrito is wrapped in a flour tortilla comes with garlic rice, a fried egg and cheese, but I opted to have no cheese.

If I didn't care about my writing, I would say that there are no words that could fully and truly describe my experience with that burrito.  To me, it was the same degree of elation that I imagined members of the crowd of 5,000 had when Jesus broke bread and fish for all of them.  I was a bit giddy when I first bit into it.  There were so many things happening.  There's the aromatic garlic rice, the punch of the spiciness from the jalapenos, the chewiness of the pork belly, the soft silkiness of the fried egg; everything was just so good.  The burrito was so powerful in all of the flavors and textures, it was perfect.  Every bite wanted to barrage me with the intensity of flavors from the pork to the spicy aromatics.  The pork belly was a bit chewy, which provided a texture contrast from the soft enveloping from the rice and the tortilla.  The egg helped smooth the flavors out and really stretched out the mouth feel.  I couldn't remember the last time I had been so immensely satisfied with that burrito.  For what it was, I feel like it could be the greatest breakfast burrito of all time.  It had everything to wake someone up: a bit of heat, a bit of protein, carbs; it's perfect.

I would also like to briefly mention their lumpias, which are fried egg rolls.  After mentioning how I would review their food, they wanted me to try their lumpias which were quite good.  The filling was a mix of ground pork and shaved pickled carrot.  The skin was quite crispy, but a bit cold due to the fact that it wasn't served immediately after being fried, but still quite good.


Unfortunately, they don't currently have a regular scheduled appearance in Eagle Rock, but I do hope they come back.  It would be terrible if, like their name, being elusive and hidden, forcing me to chase after it.  I cannot wait for them to be back in the future, and I look forward to trying other things on their menu.  You can find them on their website, linked above, and their Twitter handle is: @WhiteRabbitTruk.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Side Chick: Hainan Chicken Rice

Over Thanksgiving Break, I had the opportunity to go visit a new Hainan Chicken Rice join in Westfield Santa Anita called Side Chick.  Now as a seasoned Hainan Chicken Rice consumer, both in Los Angeles as well as in Singapore, I tend to have a specific perspective when it comes to chicken rice.  My go to, is always Savoy Kitchen in Alhambra.  There, the chicken and rice are absolutely amazing and the portions are always on point.  It's a hard place to get into because parking is next to impossible and there's always a line.  However, that never deters me from making a visit and grabbing two plates.  Naturally, when I heard about this new place from my friend at USC, I knew I needed to come at some point.

Side Chick is located in the Westfield Mall in Santa Anita.  It's right next to the race track and the mall has copious amounts of parking.  The place was a little bit hard to find as it was in a different food court than I had original thought, as it was in a secondary upper eating area next to Ding Tai Fung.  It's small, and there are a few sporadic food court-esque tables and chairs.  There wasn't much foot traffic so there was no line at the counter.  They are opening a new EMC Seafood & Raw Bar next door, so it's bound to get crowded fairly soon.  The menu is quite limited, with maybe 5-6 items.  I ordered the mix plate with both white and dark meat as well as a serving of stir-fried vegetables.


You can also request for either dark or white for just 1$ extra.  The rice came with three sauces, a scallion-ginger sauce, soy-based sauce and a chili sauce.  The rice itself was topped with fried scallions and there was some pickled cucumber garnish on the side.  Everything smelled quite aromatic and the portion was quite substantial.  The rice was clearly cooked with chicken fat or chicken broth, as is the standard, and the fried scallions provided a noticeable crunch.  The chicken was done very well, very juicy.  Everything was de-boned and the flavors were all spot on.  The soy-based sauce was quite sweet and helped bind all the flavors together.  While the rice was not as fragrant as Savoy Kitchen, I did like how the rice and chicken portions were satisfactory.  Ultimately, I found that the flavors were not as strong or powerful as Savoy Kitchen's.  The price for the chicken rice was about the same as Savoy Kitchen's.  For the entire experience, I think Side Chick may be better, as there's always parking and there's no line.  If I was only focusing on food, then I my preference would still be Savoy.  

I really enjoyed my visit to Side Chick and it's nice to have another choice for Hainan Chicken Rice in LA.