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.