Monday, December 10, 2007

How do I love thee, let me count the dumplings

What is it about dumplings? It seems that every culture has their own form of filling (meat, veggie, tofu, heck, even dough) wrapped in dough. From the Italian ravioli to the Indian samosa, dumplings are a common thread in our human taste bud genes. I am surprised we don’t have specialized teeth to handle dumplings like our incisors are set up for meat.

To celebrate all that is valuable in dumplings, we hosted the first annual pot luck dumpling festival this weekend. Just 10 close friends who got together for an event to be forever known as “Dump-Fest”.

Now the origins of dump-fest came from an accusation made by a Korean-American colleague of ours that that Korean dumplings - mandoo - were "waaaay better" than Chinese jiaozi. That statement did not sit well with the Chinese-American contingent, and dump fest was born (for which all of the non-involved but hungry were thankful). Unfortunately, our Korean interlocutor was unable to prepare dumplings for the event (although she did manage to show up with beer), so our mandoo report will be postponed.

There were no restrictions on locale for the dumplings, so only a few qualified as Asian. The outliers are dealt with briefly below (also excellent, just outside the blog parameters).

The Asian fare included two kinds of Chinese jiaozi – boiled little meat packets of joy - and aushak, an Afghan leek dmpling.

Jiaozi

To put it mildly, we like pork. Our correspondents all have a preference for pork-based products, but to broaden our horizons – senior roving reporter Lily C made two kinds
the first were beef and celery jiaozi and the second were more standard pork with dried shrimp.

Both were very good. There was a strong preference for the pork overall (but not by everyone), but both were very flavorful.
BEEF DUMPLINGS

The beef lacked the same pork fat richness, but had a nice beefy flavor. In fact, I admit to sampling a few of the beef jiaozi later in the evening after they had been put away (yes, I know – there were dumplings left over!!!) and reheated. They were better the second time around, with the flavor improving. I wonder if they needed the extra time to mellow or maybe a second cooking is what was needed. Perhaps next time the beef should be boiled and then pan-fried?

PORK DUMPLINGS


These pork jiaozi were really good. Very tender, rich tasting with a nice saltiness from the dried shrimp. These were really nicely done, and served with a simple soy and vinegar dipping sauce.

Aushak - Arama

The surprise entry and my personal favorite from the afternoon were the Afghan Meat Pockets, or aushak.



I have never had aushak before, but man were these goooood. Filled with a leek-based vegetable mixture, they were served with a dry meat topping that was brimming with flavors – chili powder, mace, salt, and more. They had a wonderful flavor. The dumplings were almost translucent when served, and very delicate. The meat topping on top made for a wonderful set of flavors and the yogurt sauce they were served with had a perfect tang to cut the richness of the overall dish.

All in all, an excellent first Dump-Fest. The wonderful thing about dumplings is that they can be made ahead and frozen, so we now have a bag of frozen pork jiaozi in the freezer (thanks Lily). We are anxious for more suggestions for next year's fest, so please send 'em in if you have em (the recipes, not the dumplings that is).

-------------------------
The non-Asian fare included empanadas (two kinds) from South and Central America, pierogi (with mashed potato, cheese and bacon filling) and Brazilian cheese balls, or pao de queijo. All were excellent, if I must say (I made the pierogi) and rounded out the variety very well. The pierogi were all the better for being boiled first and then panfried in butter, onions and sour cream (how can anything with that combo be bad). The empanadas were very nice, but too small and because of the size dried out a little. The fillings were very flavorful and the Brazilian cheese balls disappeared before anything else.

Brazilian Cheese Balls


Pierogi

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Thai, Vietnamese, and Chinese in Buenos Aires . . . Oh My!

By Senior Roving Correspondent Lily C.


Sudestada
Guatemala 5602 (btw Fitz Roy and Bonpland)
Palermo Hollywood
Buenos Aires, Argentina
Tel: 54 11 4776-3777
Open for Lunch and Dinner (Closed Sunday)
2 out 5 grains of rice

I know you are asking why in the world would you go to asian food in Buenos Aires? Well the answer is that after a week of eating large slabs of oh so delicious meat, we hit the wall. While the various cuts of famed Argentinian grass-fed beef were delectable (ojo de befe yum!), we became tired of the grilled meats. Plus, as the traveling asian invasion (myself, brother and friend), we were craving not only different flavors, but a little taste of our own food. So we took the plunge into the limited world of asian restaurants in BA. We avoided Japanese as my traveling companions experiences with sushi in Brazil the previous week were mediocre at best and settled on Sudestada (mostly because it was only 5 blocks from our hotel and the review on an Argentinian website cracked us up "intenso olor de la cocina, que despues de un rato deja de ser agradable" which roughly translates to "an intense smell of the kitchen, that after a while it ceases to be enjoyable").

Sudestada is an Asian fusion place in the chic neighborhood of Palermo Hollywood named after a South American weather phenomenon involving southeast winds. Apparently, the chef is Vietnamese but the menu is a mix of asian flavors, including Thai, Vietnamese and Chinese. We arrived for an early lunch on a Friday. The place was fairly crowded but by 2pm it was packed. Apparently, eating there for dinner is impossible without a reservation. Now, in the States one factor in assessing the authenticity of a good asian restaurant is the asian to non-asian ratio of the customers. The higher the asian population, the better. However, this formula does not work in BA because unlike other South American cities there are not that many asian residents. In fact, we were the only asians in the joint. I think the waitress (who was not asian) was excited to see us because she made a point of asking us to tell her our honest opinions of the food.

This is what we said (note: the waitress spoke very good english but my brother is fluent in spanish so I think our critique was communicated accurately):

Appetizers:
chinese jiao zi -- these were little pockets of heaven. the homemade wrappers were perfect. chewy but not too thick with tasty ground pork filling. easily the best thing we had.

shrimp grapefruit salad -- a thai inspired salad with some fairly decent heat that was nicely balanced with lime

Mains:
crispy pork + chinese broccoli -- what we hoped for: large glistening pieces of crunchy gai lan with little bits of stir fried pork. what we got: large chunks of fatty pork belly coated in sugar, deep fried and served in a bowl of oil with some anorexic gai lan thrown on top. WRONG WRONG WRONG! too oily, too sweet. the huge amount of sugary oil completely overwhelmed the slivers of gai lan. we had to soak off the oil on our rice to even eat the veggies. the waitress later admitted that this was her least favorite dish (if only she forewarned us) but said the customers like it. Porteños like sweet but usually not on meat so this dish was very unexpected.

tom yum goong -- huh? why is the broth red with a stew-like consistency? ai-yah! not soup, not sour, not spicy. there was only one sad stalk of lemongrass. where are the kaffir lime leaves? the only redeeming element were the giant prawns.

mung bean noodles with chicken and veggies -- by my usual standards this dish would be just ok, but compared to the other mains it was near the top. its pretty hard to mess up stir-fried noodles. our main complaint was that there were far too little noodles.

stir-fried bok choy -- yah! clean, light. just what we needed. we could have eaten another order of these veggies.

Dessert:
chocolate obsession -- anything with this name cannot be bad and this was no exception. chocolate ice cream on top of layers of a light chocolate cake, cream, and some type of delicious peanut buttery concoction. the best thing about asian food in BA is that you can get very good western style desserts and coffee.

All in all Sudestada was ok. There was some really great appetizers and it was soooooooooo nice to have asian flavors. Most people were ordering the lunch special (appetizer, entree, drink and dessert for $25 pesos or $8 dollars). We considered that but wanted to try so many different things we decided to order a la carte. However, upon reflection we should have gone with the lunch menu because the lunch special chow fun looked better than anything we got and it would have been far cheaper. Our bill was about $30 each for 3 people. Pretty expensive by BA standards when you can get a 20 oz ribeye at the best steakhouse in town for $15 dollars. Also, note that the grilled a la carte items are not available for lunch (and these looked pretty good).

Monday, November 19, 2007

More Ma, La La La

In the future, home cooking posts like these will include photos, but we have still not located the digital camera so sorry for the omission.

After our sample MaLa research, I ordered some Sichuan Peppercorns, and decided to try it out last night at home. Made a dry Sichuan Chicken with green onions, and man was it gooooooood.

The Sichuan peppercorns were pretty easy to work with. I roasted then in a cast iron pan and then ground them up in a mortar (picking out the black seeds which are supposed to be very bitter). To prepare the dish, I diced some chicken breast and thighs, dredged in corn starch and flour, added some dry red pepper and salt and then lightly fried and drained the chicken. Once done frying, I heated some oil and added the ground Sichuan pepper (about 1 tablespoon for 1 1/2 lbs of chicken) and some crushed red pepper (same amount) into the oil (3 tablespoons), and added the fried chicken. DO NOT BREATH IN THE FUMES. The oil quickly turned red and coated the chicken , and was whole mixture was very pungent. Green onions added afterwards and then pulled out. Served with rice and stir fried bokchoy.

At first I was worried the chicken was too bland. It had a hint of salt, but no real heat. Then it started to build slowly. The mixture of Ma (numbness) and La (heat) worked out pretty well. The Ma has a cumulative effect, and by the end of the dish my mouth was just tingling and kept me wanting more even when I was full. I'd probably add a bit more La (30% more) and a tad more Ma (20% more), but overall was really pleased with the outcome.

The bottom line is that you have to experiment with the Sichuan pepper to get it right, starting with much less than you think you will need and the building from there. Starting small. better to have a bland meal the first time then blow out our taste buds.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Turnpike Redux

From our DC-based, Pseudo-Korean correspondent

With a visiting relative in tow and fond memories of our last trip out Little River Turnpike, I returned to Hankook Kyoja last night to make sure the first dine-in wasn't an anomaly, that the food is in fact that decent. While the Dennys decor raised suspicions amongst the first timers, all were quite pleased and surprised at the food. Hankook Kyoja is on its way to becoming our default Korean, replacing HanSungOk.

We tread familiar ground with the samgyupsal (still good), but branched out with some fried mandoo, soondooboo, and seafood pancake (haemul pajeon). At many lesser Korean joints, the mandoo and pajeon have a tendency to be a 5-napkin affair (overly greeeezy), but these were very lightly battered and fried...absolutely delicious. The mandoo were particularly tasty, almost like a puff pastry, crunchy on the outside and a good mix of meat in the middle. The soondooboo was a bit pedestrian, but still enjoyable. Polished off a bottle of soju and it made for a very satisfying evening.

The service was also much improved since the last visit. So much so that we had to fight them off to let us turn our own samgyupsal on the bbq. The heart-attack casserole (sausage, bacon, ham and kimchi) seems to be calling my name...but I should probably wait until after the Thanksgiving binge to return.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Gearing up for the next review

Now that our little project is filtering out into the internet/seach world, it seems that we should start taking our reviews even more seriously that we have been already. Now don't get me wrong, we take our food VERY sriously, but if we are going to review places and those reviews are going to be read and maybe even have an impact on business for these joints, then I for one want to make sure we get it right.

The next place we are gearing up to review is Great Wall Szechuan House, 1527 14th Street. We won't be the first to review this place, but we will be the most thorough, that is for sure. ;-)

As part of our prep work, I've been learning about MaLa. Translated literally as "numbing/hot", this is the spice common to Szechuan cooking. The hot comes from red chilis, and lots of them. This flavor will be well known to spicy food junkies. The numbing, however, may not be known to as many people. This unique flavor sensation comes from Zanthoxylumm known as szechuan peppercorns. The outter shells contain hydroxy-alpha-sanshool, which in adition to the pepper and lemony flavors also produce a numbing sensation similar to novacain. These are some mean little pods, that were briefly banned by the FDA but whose importation has been reopened.

The combination of the Ma and the LA is a tricky thing, it turns out. In our preliminary work at Great Wall, we found the basic balance to be too heavily on the numbing side. While the food was very good (you'll have to wait for the formal review a little longer), the MaLa dishes were a little too numbing. It appears, however, that you can request the balance you like - which is already making my mouth water for the next go round.

So get ready for some new posts and do a little research. Turns out, learning is almost as fun as eating.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Japanese beer: Beyond Asahi and Kirin

There have been a few articles recently about how wine and other spirits are becoming status staples in the far east. Given last night's start of the World Series (DO NOT MENTION THE AL TEAM PLAYING!!!), I carefully considered my choice of liquid denial and picked up a six pack of beer and a little something extra. This little pint of Hitachino Espresso Stout was intriguing enough to make the low dollar-induced, shockingly expensive price worth considering. I¹ve had a few Japanese micros from time to time, and found them more suited for ­ -- surprise surprise -- Japanese tastes. Generally Japanese beers are a little lighter and hoppier than I prefer, but I've always found them well made and, as with other Japanese food, putting a premium on freshness and pure ingredients.

So I was both content and pleasantly surprised by this bottle of stout. It is a deep, dark and even slightly oily concoction. A deep, small bubbled head put off a nice nutty and chocolate aroma. The beer really coats your whole mouth with a nice creamy, coffee-tinged flavor. It has a good dryness for such a creamy beer, and is very light despite its total black color.

Less bitter aftertaste than a Guinness (an imported Guinness -- ­ Domestic in Ireland has none), and really refreshing.

I really enjoyed it and, when the special occasion or sale beckons, I will be sure to look for that cute little owl and drink up. Kampai!!

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Outing Dim Sum Outing

Lord knows I am always ready for some new source of information on where to get good dim sum. I've been known to accept speaking gigs in San Francisco and elsewhere if I think I can get enough time to rummage some backwater but praiseworthy dumpling house. But I was a little saddened to see this article in the Washington Post today. Yes, it's good to have a ready source in the paper for where to go, but it means that for the next month at least it will be impossible to get into Hollywood East or Fortune, already a tough seat at prime time.

Ok, yes, we have to strike a balance between hiding things all for ourselves and sharing them with the broader public. Many of the best of the places listed have lines and are hard to get into without a long wait. So thanks for nothing, WP. All they have done is created greater competition for my dumplings, and weakened a country.

Now, that being said, there are a few places on the Post's list of Dim Sum I have not been too. Those with feedback on some of these joints are welcome to chime in. Some listings from the post are:

A and J - Northern Chinese Bfast in Rockville
China Garden - the closest to DC worth having, in Rosslyn
Fortune - My personal favorite - 7 corners
Hollywood East - good, but long lines in Wheaton
Marks' Duck House - Parker's Favorite

Monday, October 22, 2007

Off The Beaten Turnpike

Hankook Kyoja
4210 John Marr Dr.
Annandale, VA 22003
703-354-1950

3.5 out of 5 grains of rice

Submitted by Senior Korean Cuisine Consultant Toby D and SK

While our roving LA correspondent took in the delights behind the Orange Curtain, we ventured again behind the Great Annandale Wall for a shot at doing something unheard of: trying a place that hadn't yet made it into the various food blogs (at least not that we could determine) or official newspaper reviews. While getting hopelessly lost on the way to Annangol exploring the outer burbs a few weeks back, we noticed a nondescript standalone building cheerfully advertising its noodles and dumplings across from the K-mart on John Marr. So this time, instead of peevishly sitting in the parking lot arguing about the right way to get to Annangol driving by, we decided to give Hankook Kyoja a whirl.

Inside, the place looks like Dennys crossed with Heebeen: Ye Olde Homey country chairs and decor up against bright light, industrial-strength bbq hoods and shoji screens. But no Moons Over My Hammy here - the closest you'll get is a sausage, bacon, ham and kimchi casserole, which did look pretty tempting in a heart-attacky kind of way. In the end, though, we decided that we'd concentrate on the dumplings and noodles advertised - and we certainly weren't hard up for choices. The menu features several types of noodles (traditional, anchovy, seafood, cold buckwheat) and various types of mandoo, or dumplings (steamed, fried, in soup etc.), enough to send the most die-hard low-carber into glycemic conniptions. Given our small group, we finally narrowed it down to three: the house specialty mandoo, the haemul kalkuksoo (seafood noodles) and the olgun soojaebi (hot dough stew). We threw in the samgyupsal (pork strip bbq) for good measure - it's hard to find and worth ordering when it's available.

The banchan, which were admittedly slow to arrive, were the first indication that we might have stumbled upon a pleasant surprise. The regular kimchee and coleslaw were nothing that special, but the gagdogui, or daikon kimchee, was particularly zippy on the tongue. How something that effervescent and perkily spicy could emerge from many long hours fermenting in a cold dark place, we'll never know, but why question process? The slightly nutty, almost molasses-y hard red beans (at least we think they were red beans - we have to do some research into our childhood here, because they tasted awfully familiar) were also a welcome change from the usual array. While the banchan weren’t as plentiful as those served up in other Korean joints around, the selection was highly complementary to the food and the taste didn’t disappoint.

The house specialty mandoo (8 per order) arrived hot on the heels of the banchan, and were simultaneously straightforward and pleasantly delicate. The filling was light (pork?) with a balanced, almost Chinese mixture of chives and spices, and the homemade skin was quite thin, but substantial enough to contain the generous helping of filling without disintegrating in the pepper paste dipping sauce - something of a feat to pull off, as anyone who's ever tried to make any kind of dumpling at home knows.

With the mandoo dispatched in short order, we turned our attention to to the next dish to arrive, the soojaebi. As anyone who has tried soojaebi knows, it can be quite a challenge to manage with traditional metal Korean chopsticks, and this was one time we were happy to have the disposable wooden ones – made grabbing the unusually slippery noodles (think large, raggedly torn sheets of pasta) a bit easier. This dish was probably the highlight of the evening. It started with an excellent broth, at once both fishy and spicy, and was complemented by noodles that were appropriately sized and just al dente. Unlike most under-spiced chiggae (Korean stews) that one finds in your typical NoVa restaurant, this clearly wasn’t adjusted for the western palette, but tasted as if you were at a mom and pop noodle house in Seoul. (Our server, noting with amusement our attempts at nonchalance while surreptitiously dousing our mouths with soda, advised us that on our next visit we should try "the spicy version.")

While we had been enjoying the soojaebi, our friendly server had started frying up our order of samgyupsal on a tableside stove. For the price (about $18), the order was decently sized and the strips of pork were both thick and fatty, just the way samgyupsal (which translates as “delicious coronary”) should be. As with kalbi, we took the fried bacon, dipped it in a sauce of sesame oil and salt, and wrapped it in a lettuce leaf with some spiced green onion. The result was delectable – salty, sweet, savory, refreshing and bit spicy all at once.

We concluded the main course with haemul kalguksu, or seafood noodle soup. The noodles, as with the soojaebi noodles, appeared to be handmade and were very tasty. Although we had ordered the anchovy soup and received this one by mistake, we were pleased with our misfortune: a good fishy broth, nice noodles, and a few clams and mussels to boot. Of course, there was some mystery ingredient posing as seafood (conch maybe?) that none of us could easily ingest, but it didn’t take away from the experience.

The end of a Korean meal typically brings shikke (a sweet rice drink) or soojeonggua (a persimmon-cinnamon concoction). But at Hankook Kyoja, they brought out a fantastically good and different after-dinner treat: smashed rice (ddok) in a puree of red bean with cinnamon on top. Even the red bean hater among us couldn’t resist…tasted a bit like chocolate, and very good.

Nursing our almost uncomfortably full stomachs, we contemplated our Hankook Kyoja experience: some of the best Korean food we’ve found in the greater Washington rice bowl, reasonably priced, and packaged in an environment at once disconcerting and slightly comforting. It is definitely worth a return trip, and we’re already plotting to try one of the gut-busting casseroles and some of the other noodle and dumpling dishes. The one downside is the service: while pleasant and friendly, it was a bit slow and they appeared to be short on staff.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

What could be better than a little bling with your pho?

Pho 79
Asian Garden Mall (Ground Floor)
9200 Bolsa Ave Ste 117
Westminster, CA
(714) 893-1883
3 out 5 grains of rice

By Senior Roving Correspondent Lily C.

While I escaped a lifetime of living behind the Orange Curtain (otherwise known as Orange County, CA), there are certain benefits. Besides visiting the parental units, one huge plus is the existence of Little Saigon (an area bounded by Harbor Blvd., Beach Blvd., Warner Ave. and Garden Grove Blvd. where Westminster, Garden Grove and Santa Ana, CA meet). Little Saigon boasts the largest Vietnamese population outside of Vietnam and is the land of 24 hour pho and other delectable treats. There are so many pho places it is quite frankly overwhelming to pick one. Luckily, circumstances made the choice for us. Mom and I went to the Asian Garden Mall to visit her favorite jeweler (who restrung my triple strand pearl necklace for $50!) and then got caught up looking at the bling. The Asian Garden Mall is the largest jewelry mart in Orange County. We worked up quite the appetite after spending over an hour trying on diamond and gold jewelry. While there are many options in the food court, one caught my eye -- Pho 79. Yelpers had recommended this place (which has several branches) and I decided to give it a try. I have been craving a good bowl of pho since last weekend when a visit to a highly recommended pho place in Silver Spring was foiled by arson. (Apparently, the restaurant had suffered a fire).

Pho 79 is pretty bare bones. Not much atmosphere, plastic orange booths, fluorescent lighting and very little English spoken, which is just the right formula for a magical mini-mall ethnic food experience. The pho here comes in 3 size - small, medium, and large. Mom and I ordered the medium, which was ginormous. I can't even imagine getting the large size. I got the rare beef pho and mom got the duck and bamboo shoot pho. Standard sides (fresh bean sprouts, mizuna leaves, basil leaves, lime, jalapeno) and sauces (sriracha sauce, hoisin sauce, fish sauce) came with the pho. Chopsticks and soup spoons were stacked on the table. Now any pho aficionado knows that the key is the broth, which usually takes at least a day to make and consists of simmering beef bones, oxtails, flank steak, charred onion, and spices including saigon cinnamon, star anise, charred ginger, cloves, and sometimes black cardamom pods. The pho broth did not disappoint at Pho 79. It was hot, fragrant and exquisitely seasoned. Not to salty, good meaty flavor and no MSG. It came strained without any added veggies like cilantro or onions. I always ask for only half as much noodles so I get more broth (and limit the carb intake). Yum. You can ask for the rare beef on a separate plate and dip it in your broth so it does not get overcooked. The duck pho broth was chicken instead of beef based. My mom liked the broth (but thought the duck was a bit tough). To me chicken broth pho is an abomination. But to each their own. All in all a very satisfying pho experience. And of course super affordable, $6 per medium bowl of pho. It almost makes you want to move back to Orange County. Almost, but not quite.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Bento as Haiku

Bento-Box, Bento
What can I find inside you
Food, I think, and more

Kaz-Sushi Bistro
www.kazsushibistro.com
1915 I Street, NW
202-530-5500

2 out of five grains of rice

Business lunch today, and by chance it was at Kaz Sushi, which I have yet to write up. I’ve been a few times and always seem to find the bento box calling my name They have a standard daily special bento, and then one extra special of the day bento to boot. This is on top of the usual sushi and sashimi options, chirashi, etc available at most Japanese places in town.

If you don’t know what a bento box is, think of it as the Japanese lunch box. It’s a composed and often very balanced meal that included, in this case:

1 three piece tuna sushi roll (tako-maki)
2 pieces of sushi (yellow tail and salmon)
Chicken-katsu (panko-breaded and fried chicken) with Miso sauce
Seaweed and cucumber salad with mayonnaise dressing
White steamed rice with sesame seeds

I like the bento for its simplicity and composition. No major thought processes are needed. Just pick a box and all of your sides and mains are chosen for you. You get a variety of tastes, flavors and textures.

This box was pretty good. The miso sauce took away some of the bite of the chicken-katsu (I would have preferred it on the side as a dipping sauce) but that was my only complaint. The sushi and maki were good, the salad refreshing, and the rice nice and starchy, the way I like it.

Served with miso soup and green tea.

It was not the best Japanese food I’ve ever had in DC, but the lunch filled me up, was authentic and tasty.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Bulgogi on Wheels?

“Bulgogi Cart”
14th and L street, NW
Washington, DC
703-209-5415

2.5 out of 5 grains of rice

Having whetted my appetite for Korean with Annan-gol last night, I was convinced by a colleague to double up and try the street Bulgogi cart in Washington. As has been noted by the much referenced Post article, DC is lacking when compared with other major U.S. cities in offering good, safe, and diverse street cart options, and it goes without saying that we ain’t got nothing on places like Tokyo, Seoul and Beijing when it comes to street food. No, DCers like their four walls and a pane of glass between where they walk and where they eat.

So, being the Asian food addicts that we are, off we went to “Lst vending @ 14th Street.” No, we didn’t make this name up . . . this is the name of the yellow painted, self-contained food kiosk as proclaimed on their business cards. The menu is short and sweet:

Regular or spicy bulgogi (marinated beef) on rice
Regular or spicy chicken on rice
Regular or spicy bulgogi sub
Regular or spicy chicken sub

(They also advertise breakfast, coffee and chicken noodle soup, but they may have to wait a while.)

My colleague/Korean food consultant and I both got split plates, mine the spicy bulgogi and chicken combo, and he the spicy chicken and regular bulgogi.

Both were served over rice, with a small lettuce salad and your typical Asian sesame dressing, as well as a helping of the standard napa cabbage kimchi. The food is cooked on site – they have a propane set up and two burners. The two-person operation works quickly, with the woman (maybe the mom) cooking the food and the man (maybe the son) dishing out the plates and making small talk. This isn’t your typical Seoul street food scene, where the Korean businessmen congregate for late night spicy chicken and soju, but it clearly works for the location.

Both the spicy chicken and spicy bulgogi were quite tasty. It is not really that spicy, and I suspect they have had to tone down the spice for the Washington taste buds. They have a lot of the dry red pepper (gochu) there, so it shouldn’t be too hard to ask for a little extra kick. The regular bulgogi lacked some of the garlic/soy punch that you typically associate with bulgogi, but wasn’t overly oily and had decent flavor. The bulgogi is very tender, having just been cooked and served onto your plate, and not fatty at all. Sometimes, bulgogi is stringy and a little chewy, but not here. The chicken is also very tender and tasty, in nice sized pieces.

The rice is also good, with a little starch/sticky texture. You also get a lot of food for your money - $6.75 per plate. Kimchi is a little underpowered and clearly not grandma’s recipe, but fresh and nicely complementary to the bulgogi.

Overall the food was very decent , deserving of a 2 grains of rice rating. The extra half grain goes for location/convenience, essentially doubling the downtown Korean lunch options (the other being Yee-hwa). Their business card also claims they deliver on orders over $20, which, if true, is a significant bonus. And finally, unlike the case with many Korean restaurant experiences, where the service is tepid at best, the two cart operators are exceedingly nice, with smiles and hellos for the regulars. I suspect I’ll be one before too long.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Koreans Eat Pork Too

Annan-gol
4215 Annandale Center Drive
Annandale, VA
703-914-4600

2.5 out of 5 grains of rice

Beef is the staple of Korean BBQ, and it is hard to imagine how many bovines bite the bullet weekly in Seoul alone. But Korean food and pork are naturals. The spicy red chili sauce that makes many of the beers (and soups, and noodles, and . . . you get the idea) come alive gets nicely softened by a little bit of pork fat. So, jonesing for a little Korean, we headed to Annan-gol in Annandale.

Annan-gol, like many of the Korean joints in the region, do most of the staples and has a signature dish. The specialty at Annan-gol is spicy bbq pork, so the three roving correspondents sat down for a meal of:

1) spicy bbq’d pork;
2) jjol myun – chewy noodles in spicy sauce; and
3) kalbi dolsot – beef rib meat and rice served in a red-hot stoneware bowl

The BBQ pork was the star of the meal. Served with the usual lettuce, spiced green onions and a heavily salted bean paste. The pork is marinated in a bright (almost artificial) red sauce and then bbq’d right at your table. When cooked, it has a slight char and glistens with a nice layer of fat. The pork slices are sweet, spicy and practically melt in your mouth. A very different flavor than the uncured pork belly that I love when I go to Seoul, a bit tangier and really delicious.

The chewy noodles (jjol myun) were also really tasty. I am not a huge fan of the nyung myun (cold noodles in vinegar sauce) that seem everywhere in the summer time in Korea. The cold noodles are a bit too chewy in the cold sauce for my taste. But served room temperature in a slightly spicy sauce with bean sprouts and sliced cucumber, this dish was excellent. Tangy, chewy, spicy and brightly flavored, this was very enjoyable.

The overachieving dish of the night was the kalbi dolsot – not much more than rice and rib meat that had been cooked and then mixed into the rice. The hot stoneware bowl makes the rice nice and crunchy and the slightly spicy red/bean paste sauce added before being mixed pulls the whole dish together.

The assortment of banchan were nothing to write home about (or post in detail) but had your basic Korean apps.

All in all, a quality, enjoyable, barebones Korean joint in the middle of little (and growing) Korea. We’ve been before, and we know we’ll go back. And for the low price, it is easy to understand why Annan-gol goes into the regular Korean rotation for your alltastesame crew.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Food Overcomes Fear

Nameless Joint
Akasaka
Tokyo, Japan

3 out of 5 grains of Rice

I admit it. I am afraid of walking into a restaurant in a foreign country when I don’t know the language. I’ve been to over 25 countries in my life, including 2/3rds of the axis of evil, and walking into a little mom and pop in Japan makes me stutter like a geeky pre-pubescent teen the week before junior prom. But my hunger was really fierce having just gotten off a 13-hour flight from the states and I could not face a non-descript meal in the hotel given the fact I only have two free meals during my three-day visit to Tokyo. So I trekked out of the hotel feeling a little time-disoriented and went looking for any busy street. I found myself within ten-minute walk from the hotel in front of some mom and pop store front (shoji screens and some writing that could have said sushi, or old show leather for all I know) and check it out. There were people (Japanese salary men all in dark suits and white shirts) inside and a few plates of plastic food in the window that suggested soba noodles and tempura. Having walked past twice, stared in, looked at the plastic food out front (which I was so hungry I could have consumed) and finally took the plunge.

Now I know my fears are irrational. In Japan, you are all but sure to be welcomed with a traditional Japanese greeting (irasshaimase) and a smile. And this time was no exception. I guess I am still traumatized from my first ever trip to Japan when I was mistaken for a US military guy on the ginza ten years ago and asked not to come into three bars in a row on my first ever trip to Tokyo.

So in I went and was of course, irasshaimase rang out and a got a nice smile from the middle aged woman tending the tables. It was a two-person operation with the wife out front serving tables and the husband in back cooking food. There were maybe fifteen tables in the place, ate about 1/3 were filled so I found an empty one and smiled at the woman who stood between me and the cure for my hunger. I looked at the tables of the other guests and saw enough to start – most had edemame and beer on the tables, and a few had big soup bowls. Unfortunately, I could not see what was inside, so I had no idea if it was Ramen or Udon or what so I tried to go simple and broke out my restaurant Japanese –

Edemame (boiled and salted soy beans in the pods), I asked. The woman kind of chucked, because they are offered as included starter plates (about 10 pods). Hai! Biru (beer)? Hai. Menu? She smiled and went looking for a menu with photos on it. She came right back and brought over a Xerox sheet with three black and white photos of what could have been fried squid or fried chicken chunks, or something intestinal, for all I knew. But then I saw the photos on the wall of the specials as was in business. The first one I saw was a split plate – one half filled with soba (buckwheat) noodles and the other half with tempura (lightly fried goodies). When she came back, I asked for Soba and tempura, moving my hands as if from one side or a plate to the other. She asked me something in Japanese (which I prayed was not – “covered with something really smelly” and I sad yes and smiled and off she went.

The beer arrived and things were looking up. A few minutes later, all my fears melted away – out came a divided lacquer plate. On one side were some off white and slightly chilled soba noodles and on the other half was bowl with some perfectly fried tempura. The noodles came with a dipping cup filled with a soy/mirin mixture at room temperature and with a lid that was filled with graded daichon radish, wasabe and chopped green onions.

In went half of the garnish and I looked around. I saw the other diners with soba pulling some with their chopped sticks and plopping them into the sauce. They then slurped then down. Seemed to work for them and away I went.

The noodles were delicious. There were very al dente, with a mild wheaty/earthy taste. The salty/sweet sauce quickly coated the slightly starchy noodles and the noodles were both light and filling at the same time. Really nice.

The tempura bowl was even better. One large prawn and a small Japanese eggplant sliced three times half way through (to ensure quick cooking) and a thin slice of pumpkin. The batter was very crunchy, but light (adding soda water to the rice flour is the key, I think) and not greasy at all. I could have eater three plates of the stuff. I lightly dipped a few pieces in the tipping sauce for the noodles, which added a nice salty feature to the tempura, but caused it to lose its crunch.

Cost – 1,350 yen – about 14 bucks. Not too shabby.

By the time the food was gone, the beer was too and my jet lag was catching up fast. I thought about stopping next door where I had seen a plastic food dish of what appeared to be tonkatsu (deep friend pork cutlet). But I was too tired, even if my fears of wandering into strange eateries in Japan was now gone. OK, maybe not entirely gone, but enough done for one night to prove that it’s worth taking the plunge.

Now to start planning for my Thursday night meal – hoping to find a good Izakaya (beer joint with food) to report on. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Tired of K Street Sandwiches? Try Bulgogi for Lunch!!!

Lighter Restaurant
1400 I St. (exit McPherson Square Metro on 14th St side)
WDC
202-842-7488
3 out of 5 grains of rice

by Sr. Non-Roving Correspondent Lily C.

One of the best things about my new job is that I am now across the street from Lighter, a Korean-owned mom and pop place next to the escalators leading down to the McPherson Square metro on 14th St. I first notice this nondescript place when I saw a large sign in the window that said "What is Bulgogi ?" In my mind the answer was total deliciousness and I was not disappointed. Lighter is my new lunch staple. I get takeout here at least 2-3 times per week. There are also tables outside and inside.

Generally, I am stoked when I do not have to have a sandwich for lunch. DC, unfortunately, is sandwich centric when it comes to lunch options. Lighter offers a mix of Korean and Japanese fare. You can get a rice bowl topped with bulgogi, spicy chicken, or bi bim bap veggies + miso soup for $7-8. They also offer udon (but I have never tried it). Today I got bulgogi + extra bi bim bap veggies for $8.80. It was so good. I got a huge bowl of rice topped with a ton of bulgogi and veggies. It was enough for 2 meals. Brown rice is also available for the health nuts. The bulgogi here is a bit sweet but still tasty.

Other days, I usually get the special bento lunch box ($10). It comes with 1 california roll, 4 pieces nigri (salmon, tuna, whitefish, shrimp), 3 pieces of white tuna sashimi, 2 different sides that change daily (usually seaweed salad, yam noodle (jap chae), cucumber + tomato, marinated tofu, dumplings, etc.), and miso soup. It is a winner. The sushi is much better than Wasabi and you get a really good value for the money.

The food here is not gourmet by any means but it is really really solid lunch fare. So the next time you can't face another sandwich from ABP or Potbelly or Subway, check out Lighter. They also have a wide assortment of bubble tea, cold green teas (the good japanese kind not snapple), and espresso.

Friday, September 14, 2007

But is it Sushi?

Wasabi
908 17th Street
Washington, DC
202-822-2005
http://www.wasabisushi.com

1 out of 5 grains of rice

Hungry for a little sushi, I dropped by Wasabi in DC for lunch yesterday. The conveyor belt sushi joint on 17th street is not cheap, but it is close to my office and the steady flow of food in front of you means you don’t have to think too much or worry about ordering. Just grab and eat. How much more primal can you get? Just think of hunting and gathering for lazy people.

But as I downed a few small plates of smoked salmon and avocado rolls and some Chicken teriyaki over rice, I was left wondering – “is this really Sushi/Japanese food?” It was clearly stylized to by Japanese. How can anything bound in nori, containing rice and served with soy and pickled ginger be anything but Japanese. But I’ve had Japanese food in Japan and in some of the best places in the United States, and at best what I was downing was a pale pan Asian image of Japanese food.

Now don’t get me wrong – I am not a food snob. I like a good California roll as much as the next guy. But it’s important (as much as anything food related is really important) to make a distinction between real Japanese food and what is consumed at far too many malls, supermarkets and eateries as “Japanese” like food.

This begs the question, what makes “real” Japanese food? Of course, if you ask 50 people, 10 will say one thing, another 10 will say another and 30 will respond “what the heck are you talking about?” But to my mind, what makes Japanese food Japanese, or any food a kind of food for that matter, is what the food says about the place the food comes from and the people who invented it/make it. Think about the T-bone steak and what it says about the American past. Think about a good coq-au-vin and what it says about the French history. Not all food speaks to place, but to my mind the best ethnic foods always do.

In the case of Japan, Sushi says a lot about the Japanese people, who even to this day think of themselves as a nation bound to the sea in which everyone thinks of themselves (in some way) as a fisherman. There are small rock outcroppings south of the Japanese main island that the country spends millions of dollars every year keeping above the steadily rising sea levels because it expands the Japanese fishing territory and has become a national symbol. This mindset demands the freshest of ingredients that allow the natural flavors of the oceans to express themselves. Eating real sushi connects you to the sea and even our own origins, as we all come from the sea millions of years ago. This doesn’t just go for Sushi – it goes for most Japanese food. Anyone who has been to Osaka and eater Okonomiyaki can tell you that few foods reflect its place better than the “any way you want it” egg pancake from this Neon-dominated amusement park of a city.

So “No” is my short (and probably questionable) response to my own question of whether what I was eating at Wasabi was not really sushi. As I finished my last plate and paid, I realized it wasn’t even all that good “not” Japanese food. I was full, but not satisfied. What I ate was Japanese-inspired (if I can even use the “inspired” in this instance) food that would have been rejected by any educated Japanese palate and should not really be the destination of anyone going for more than just a filled stomach. It said nothing of place and history – only of convenience and kitsch. In short, I probably should have just grabbed a salad.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

A Tale of Two Cities (and Chickens)

If you have been to the blog before (and if you have not, welcome), you’ll know that there has been a real bit of fevered excitement over the importation of Korean Fried Chicken (kfc) to the United States. This worthy addition to the American chicken scene has made a big splash in foodie circles in NY and has even filtered down to our little food backwater of Washington DC.

The DC advisory crew for AllTasteSame decided to check it out for themselves a few weeks ago, and while I was away they all clearly had a great time and enjoyed some fiiiiiiine chicken. While there were some disagreements) over final rating and issues like service, all agreed that it was a chicken to be dreamt of and eaten often.

Not to be outdone by the DC-based contingent, I happened to be in Seoul at the same time for work and decided to sample some of the original product personally.

But I was curious - how did the two chickens compare? From photos on the web, it was obvious that there were differences, but one wing is worth a thousand photos (or something like that) so a small group and I ventured back to the wilds of Annondale, VA to try it for myself at Bon Chon last weekend.

OK, let me be crystal clear – THIS CHICKEN KICKS ASS. Bon Chon is a strip mall eatery with tinted windows and an interesting, cultureless vibe indoors. It is roomy, dark, and 90% Korean inhabited. Big screen TVs on the wall, music, etc. There is a big bar (and even bigger beers – they serve mini-kegs right at your table) and it was clear that people did not come for the ambiance, they came for the food.

So the five of us grabbed a table and got our menus. We knew we were getting chicken, but decided to share a dish of dok bok gi (tube shaped rice cakes served in chili sauce) just to get our taste buds running. This delicious snack is everywhere on the street in Seoul and the stuff at Bon Chon is good, although I like my Seoul street version better (a bit more bite and heat and no fish balls, etc).

But we quickly moved to the main event. We ordered a plate of the soy and garlic chicken and a plate of the spicy. Both came out in about 30 minutes. The plates contain only drumsticks and wings, and the chicken itself comes out glistening and piping hot. But it was immediately clear that my photo analysis was right – the chicken at Bon Chon is different than the Korean version I had at 22Chicken in Seoul.

The secret to kfc is that it is cooked twice. The chicken is first dredged in fine flour before frying. This contrasts with most American or southern style fried chicken which is dipped either in batter or layered in egg and then flour before frying to make a crunchy coating. It does, but this system also picks up a lot of oil and can be greasy (good, but greasy). For kfc, once the chicken is dredged and then patted off so only a little flour remains, it is then fried at a relatively low temperature for about 10 minutes. After 10 minutes, the chicken is taken out of the oil and put onto a rack to cool, after which it goes back into higher temp oil to finish. This process allows the chicken to cook through without burning, and also allows for a crisper, less greasy chicken.

The 22chicken follows this recipe, as far as I can guess. It is seasoned with salt and pepper before and after frying It appears that Bon Chon follows this recipe but after the chicken cools, it is then hit with its flavor sauce (either soy and garlic or spicy) and then put back into the oil. The flour that has been fried onto the chicken absorbs the sauce, and then it gets fried on to a glorious crunchy finish.

Herein lies the difference. The 22Chicken is very crisp and has a wonderful salty taste. It is not greasy at all, and the meat is well cooked and delicious. The Bon Chon chicken, by contrast, is more crunchy than crisp. The flour has a crunch to it because it has puffed up a bit with sauce before second frying. The soy and garlic is mouthwatering (I can testify as I am salivating just writing this review) and the spicy wings make your mouth and lips sizzle. The heat does not hit you all at once, but it builds and leaves you hot, happy and hungry for more. Also, with 22Chicken, you get the whole chicken. With Bon Chon, you get sticks and wings – no thighs or breast. Not sure where the rest of the chicken went, but too busy eating at the time to care.

The bottom line is that both chickens are damn tasty and any food oriented human would easily dish out three times what they are charging for their regular fix (shhhhhhh, don’t tell them). The kfc method makes for a very tasty, tender chicken that is moist, but not watery (like the official KFC). I personally think the service and environment at Bon Chon was perfect for what it was – a fried chicken joint. The beer was cold and delicious (although I’d prefer a better variety than Miller Lite) but it works. 22Chicken is really a hole in the wall take out joint with a few tables. But the chicken speaks for itself, and man does it say good. I’ll be going back to Bon Chon soon, and might even take the time to drop my bags off at the hotel before heading to 22 on my nest trip to Korea.

Surely, “the best of times. . . . AND CHICKENS.”

San Fran Two Step

Sushi in the Foggy City….
By our roving Contributor

Hamano Sushi
1332 Castro Street
San Francisco, CA 94114
(415) 826-0825
hamanosushi.com (closed Monday for lunch)
2 1/2 out of 5 grains

SF has a million sushi restaurants on every block and in every neighborhood. For my SF weekend, I chose one in Noe Valley (a sentimental fav from my SF years) and one in the Castro (a newcomer that a friend told me about).

Hamano is where I had the best hamachi sashimi of my life back in 1995. It was buttery melt in your mouth goodness. Sadly, Hamano part deux did not live up to my memories. To start out with there were tons of empty tables at 8pm on a Sat nite. Unheard of back in the day. Still the hamachi sashimi was quite decent (better than the next nite at Eiji) and there was quite an assortment of interesting rolls (check out website menu). We had the Noe, the Silk Road (daikon is not a replacement for seaweed) and a special roll which was basically the Alaska with fried garlic. The spicy tofu special was yum (soft tofu covered with sauce), but not even close to the same league as Eiji. The hamachi kama was nothing to write home about. Sushi Taro's hamachi kama is still #1 in my book.

To sum up, good neighborhood place but I would not trek to Noe Valley just for this joint.

Eiji
317 Sanchez Street
San Francisco, CA 94114
(415) 558-8149
Closed Monday
3 1/2 out of 5 grains

Eiji is a year old sushi place run by straight up Japanese people (all 4 employees spoke Japanese). The real treat at Eiji is not the fish but the artisanal tofu (only in Cali). I had the ankake tofu -- a bowl of creamy warm tofu topped with a sauce make of soy, mirin and daishi. Truly delish. I could have eaten 2 more bowls of this. I wanted to try the oboro tofu, which is tofu make to order, but the waiter advised that it was quite big for 1 person. Later, I saw the waitress make it for others. She heated a clay bowl of soy milk on a gas burner and added some clear liquid when it was the right temperature to create curds of tofu. The bowl really wasn't that big. I should have ordered it. Everyone says it is amazing.

The fish was fine but nothing life altering. [Caveat -- I did go on a Sun which is not the best nite for a sushi place but it was the only day that would work in my schedule. The fish is probably better on Tues when they get their new shipment.] I had hamachi sashimi, aja nigiri, tamago nigiri (this was really good!), california roll, and spicy white tuna roll.

Finally, drum roll please, I had the handmade strawberry mochi with red bean paste for dessert (ichigo daifuku). Yes, that's right folks. I ordered something with red bean paste on purpose. And, it was really, really good. Picture a whole fresh strawberry covered with a thin layer of red bean paste that was not too sweet or beanny tasting wrapped in the chewy goodness of fresh mochi. Each bite was filled with tart strawberry flavor and chewy mochi. There was only a hint of red bean and it was actually good with the strawberry and mochi, not like the red bean popsicle nightmare of my childhood. Yah!

The place is tiny (seating for 20) so expect a wait unless you eat dinner at 6:30pm like I did on Sun. By the time I left, the place was packed.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

There’s No Place Like Near Home

Sushi-Taro
1503 17th Street, NW
Washington, DC
http://www.sushitaro.com/

4 out of 5 grains

Craving a little Japanese food, the Mrs and I strolled down 17th street to Sushi Taro, which I am convinced is a much under-appreciated slice of Japan in DC. Our meal, consumed at the Sushi bar right in front of the head chef was simple, delicious and featured only the freshest ingredients. No sushi was had, and it was not missed.

We began with the special of freshly made creamy tofu, which was served with grated ginger and scallions on top, with sea salt on one side and soy on the other. The texture of the tofu was heaven, so light and creamy – almost like a yogurt but without the tang. A great starter.

The other special we had was grilled “Hon Shishamo,” small whole grilled little mackerel served hot with only a lemon wedge. These were so tasty, eaten bones and all. Only the head was left, but the meaty white flesh contained in a crispy little package was really good. Nicely salty, meaty and crispy all in one.

Our main course was a bowl of simple hot udon with seaweed. The udon were machine made and a little too soft, but serviceable. The broth was a tad on the sweet side, as I prefer a bit more fish and bite, but pleasing. Overall, however, the weakest part of the meal. I’d skip this next time and try another special.

The other highlight was the black cod with miso (Gindara Sakekasu). This was terrific, and a far superior version to that we had at Go Japan in NY a few weeks back. The lush cod was so succulent; it just melted in our mouths. The miso was not very noticeable, so a bit lacking overall, but really good stuff. I would have preferred for the skin to be crispier, but I guess the miso keeps it a bit moist.

Our other main was the Ika Yaki, whole grilled squid. This was fantastic as well, served in a rich soy sauce (mirin?) covered with grated ginger and scallions. The chewy squid rings have just the right combination of give and bite, fresh and delicious. The chef even looked down and smiled, noting “usually only Japanese people order this”. He later joked as he served up a big platter of soft shell crab rolls for another customer that “this is not Japanese food.”

I was still a little hungry after the mains were gone, so we ordered two pieces of the yellow tail and Uni (sea urchin), both sashimi style. The yellow tail was cut thick and was perfect, fresh and a great texture. Tasted like it had come right out of the ocean. The Uni was also incredibly fresh (even better than the Uni I had last week flying back through Narita). It was lush and melted like custard. As my lovely wife said, this is just like a dessert. Is she ever wrong?!

We left full and satisfied, and all for under 40 a person. It goes to show that we should appreciate the solid, even surpassingly good Asian food right in our own neck of the woods. The service was adequate, although we were right in the rush, so that slowed things up a bit. But the key factors – fresh ingredients, served quickly and with a little style, made it a great meal.

Mmmm, Fatty Pork Belly

Momofuku
163 1st Ave # 2
(between 10th St & 11th St)
New York, NY 10003
(212) 475-7899
http://www.momofuku.com/

- submitted by Senior AllTasteSame Correspondent Lily C


4 out of 5 grains of rice

Ok. I know this place has been much reviewed and revered by asian foodies in NYC but I am not a totally Janie come lately. I did a preliminary recon session early last year. And, I have to say the quality has not diminished. This place serves some damn good food.

What other noodle bar does fresh, seasonal ingredients smashed up with Japanese and Korean flavors? For my August 2007 session, I showed up right before closing time 10:45ish on a Friday nite and had to only wait 5 mins for a seating for 3. Not bad. I guess the excitement has died down since the all the NYT hype. This time we got seats right in front of the grill so we could see David Chang in action.

1st course – heirloom tomato salad ($12). Picture a mound of perfectly ripe heirloom cherry tomatoes (natural sugar bombs) dressed with a light asian vinaigrette over three discs of soft white tofu topped with a chiffonade of shiso. August is the height tomato season and this salad took full advantage.

While we were waiting for the next dish, we saw the chef make a shrimp + corn salad. Fresh corn kernels sautéed with miso butter and pork bits topped with grilled shrimp. It looked amazing but couldn’t possibly fit in our stomachs with upcoming courses.

Also saw the rice cakes being made. Circular tubes of Korean rice disks (dduk) fried on grill and then cut into 2 inch pieces and served with chili sauce. It looked really really tasty.

2nd course – much heralded signature pork buns ($9). Momofuku uses berkshire pork (aka kurobuta). Fatty pork belly broiled to juicy perfection inside a fluffy white bao brushed with hoison sauce and accompanied with a slice of pickled cucumber + scallion. Its kinda of like charsiu bao deconstructed with much higher quality meat.

3rd course – shredded pork ramen ($12). You know you can really tell the difference when ramen is made by hand. The noodles were al dente and chewy. So yummy. The broth had a great pork flavor. The ramen was topped with a heaping spoonful each of shredded melt in your mouth pork shoulder, bright green peas, marinated bamboo shoots, and green onions. I loved every last drop but am somewhat ramen deprived since I live in DC.

The big difference for me between momofuku and other ramen shops is the quality of the ingredients. You can definitely get cheaper, more traditional ramen at many other places, but you won’t get a bowl of ramen where everything is local and fresh and just so good. That is certainly worth $12.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Cluckin' Awesome

Bon Chon (http://www.bonchon.com/)
6653 Little River Turnpike, #H, Annandale , VA
(located in the small size mall between Campbell Ferrera Nursery and Sambo restaurant)
703-750-1424

4.5 out of 5 grains of rice

The gauntlet had been thrown: Jon, our roving foreign correspondent, had posted up a rave review of Korean fried chicken directly from Korea, and the rest of us had to put the Virginia burbs to the test. Could Annandale really measure up to Seoul? We were soon to find out.

On Saturday night, our merry group descended upon Annandale for a night of hard-core Asian fabulousness: fried chicken-tasting, followed by red bean shaved ice and karaoke. As befitting our group adventure, this entry has multiple authors . . .

SK:

I admit, I was skeptical, even given Jon's glowing review. Could this chicken really tempt me into George Costanza-like behavior? Could its crispy caramelized skin make me forget all notions of KFC, Popeye's, and even my former downstairs neighbour's authentic homestyle southern fried chicken? Could it really be that good?

It could.

On the advice of AllTasteSame Senior Correspondent Lily C, we ordered in advance - from the car. We figured it'd take around 30 minutes to get there, by which time the chicken would be ready - and the formula worked perfectly. By the time we arrived at the actually very nicely done chicken joint (ambient lighting, flat-screen TVs - where was the fluorescent lighting and linoleum we'd been expecting?), braving some truly impressive thunderstorms along the way, the chicken was almost ready. Just time for us to order some beers, have a few small plates of kimchee, and prime the taste buds. Within a few minutes, the chicken arrived - two large platters of drumsticks and wings, equally divided between the only two available flavors: soy garlic and spicy.

AllTasteSame Senior Correspondent Lily C:

As a fellow Californian that grew up with the original KFC finger lickin good fried chicken (go extra crispy!), I was quite intrigued by the non-batter coating advertised by the nouveau KFC. After quite an extensive taste test (3 large platters of drumstick/wing combos for 7 people), I have to say I have switched allegiances to the Korean variant. Why have I forsaken the Colonel do you ask? Simple. Chicken skin that is caramelized, spicy and crispy all at the same time. It is an explosion of flavor and fat in your mouth without the resulting greasy coating caused by most American FC. We found that the key to fully enjoying the nouveau KFC experience was ordering the wings, which have the perfect skin to meat ratio. The consensus among the group was that the drumsticks have simply too much meat. Although the drumstick did provide a perfect shell of caramelized skin that you could savor in 1 big bite.

Also note that spicy means asian spicy (not the wimpy spicy you get at Popeye's). Thus, make sure to have adequate beer on hand. Bon Chon has a variety of beers available in bottles, including some from the motherland, but only Miller Lite on tap. On the other hand, what is better than a table side mini-keg of Miller Lite and some KFC? If you are not a fan of gochujang (korean red chili paste), then by all means order up a plate of the soy garlic. It was quite delish in its own right. Or order a combo so you can switch between the two. But make sure to try the soy garlic first. Otherwise your taste buds may be deadened to its subtle goodness.

All in all Bon Chon is totally worth the drive to the burbs. The only thing that could improve its rating is a location in the District and/or delivery service. However, I doubt the chicken will be quite as amazing after a 30 minute drive. You really need to taste the skin as it comes straight from being twice fried in a vat of bubbling oil.

AllTasteSame Korean Specialist Anne S:

3 grains of rice (with a future 4 if some kinks are ironed out)

All right everyone. Keep your pants on. (Or in Jon's case, shirt). I can see I am going to have be the voice of reason in this lovefest that is Bon Chon. First, I fail to see how we are going to be able to operate much longer as a reputable food blog site if we rush out like a virgin-on-prom-night/convict-on-furlough and slap a 4.5 on the first korean-fried-chicken place that we see. What if the Mother of All Kfcs reveals itself to us -- tucked secretly away ... two strip malls down the turnpike? Shouldn't we at least do a suburban mano a mano comparison? Chicken Village?

Bon Chon reminded me of a Korean American college kid going through an identity crisis.

The log cabin church-pew interior was kitschy -- but their flatscreen tvs weren't streaming Korean soap operas or news. Just the US Open.

Only one Korean beer made it onto the menu... Cass and the draft beer was Miller Lite -- then with Coors Lite and some other imported bottle beers. I was happy to see the Coors lite which goes well with spicy, but.... are we going to be a mod sports bar or are we going to be a late night Korean joint? Old photos of Marilyn Monroe and James Dean on the wall were puzzling. Where were the action photos of the World Cup 2002 team and the Reds? Where is the hello kitty-on-acid decor? Where is the foozball machine? Seriously, the Lincoln Logs distracted me from my chicken. I was confused. It was a comfortable space but I wanted more. I think a different vibe, a small tweak on the menu and more attentive service would merit a 4.

For the service I have one word: if you are going to serve people flaming hot hair-singeing kochujang chicken, please have waitress on hand to answer cries for water. If you are serving finger food whose proprietary sauce claims to stay on the chicken and not your hand but does not really, please do not just give out one napkin per customer and, have waitress on hand to answer pleas for more napkins. If you are going to claim that twice fried chicken is low cal and healthy, at least put some effort into a couple of palate-cleansing complementary (as in taste not as in free) sides. People will be able to eat even more chicken if you do! Chopped cabbage with thousand island dressing is just lazy. When compared with the narcotic that is the chicken, it actually detracts. No points for the "kimchee" either. Even the lowliest Lotteria burger joint in Seoul had better pickled daikkon than this. It was a good idea to serve sweet vinegared cubed turnip kimchee to complement the chicken. The recipe, however, needs to be spot-checked by someone's grandma. Don't get me wrong, the service was fairly pleasant for a table of non-speakers... just a little thought in advance about what a customer might need and a few more check-ins during the meal is all that I would ask.

The chicken itself was fabu. Couldn't choose between the soy and spicy. Although we all agreed that one must eat the two in progression from mild to spicy. Also agree about the legs v. wings. Also agree about the delivery (not) and take-away (not). This must really be eaten hot and fresh. Which is why I think its important for that place to make the in-dining experience as nice as possible. I think the "first Korean sports bar" would be an exciting environment for this chicken and would encourage cross pollination among the fans of this chicken. Maybe it would even make it into the district. I never considered the combination of fried chicken and kochujang together but it is brilliant. Something in the preparation made it lighter and sit better in the tummy. In fact, the thing that made me ill was not the 27 pieces of chicken I ate that night but the 2 pound moutain of shaved ice with diabetes-inducing condensed milk and azuki bean syrup.

Kochu-Fried-Chicken is like a bright crisp 21st century version of the tired old fraternity buffalo wing and could easily kick the s--t out of K.F.C. in any throwdown. Bon Chon just needs to find the Korean version of mashed potatoes and 'slaw.
-Not Afraid to be a Grouch

AllTasteSame Senior Correspondent Lily C:

you are CRAZY.

(1) i only needed my 1 allotted napkin and wet wipe. not our fault that you are really really messy.

(2) food score should not be downgraded due to lack of korean soap operas on flat screen. perhaps there should be separate score for ambiance.

(3) agree sides suck but they are really irrelevant to chicken.

(4) i reserved a 1/2 grain of rice for a better KFC. but since there are only 2 in VA and the other one is reported to have even more sauce on its chicken, i doubt it will best bon chon.


AllTasteSame Korean Specialist Anne S:

heh heh. i think its good to get different perspectives. why don't you just put everyone's wish rating for fun and then let jon choose the actual rating?

if you are going to subcategorize restaurants and further breakdown rating crieria, i would agree to a 4 for this. but if you are telling me that you would give krispy kreme the same rating as chez panisse, then it is you my dear who are crazy.


------------------

. . . After a short period of calm, rational debate that in no way degenerated into multiple flame wars, it was decided that in the interests of our loyal readers, we would cease our internal discussions in favor of posting this preliminary, non-consensus view - subject to further taste testing, of course. Enjoy, and let us know what you think.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Just Clucky

Two Two Chicken
Seoul
http://www.22chicken.net/

4 out of five grains of rice

- From Our Special Correspondent in Seoul

I have seen the future, and it clucks!

I am a believer, and the new faith is called Korean fried chicken. A growing awareness of this mythical winged beast in the States sparked my interest in taking a walk on the Korean side. I happened to be in Seoul for work and found myself without a business dinner. Now, for those that I have never met, be warned . . . . I am a real snob when it comes to my fried chicken. I have a 16-inch-wide cast iron pan for making my own and I take it very seriously. I will be forever trying to perfect the recipes from my old nanny Essie and my former neighbor Camille, who IMHO are the only real maestros of the pan-fried clucker. Neither of these lovely women uses batter or breading on their chicken (both dredge in flour), so my views toward kfc (no copyright infringement with lower case letters) are a bit biased.

So there I was in Seoul, and I decided to plunge in with both talons. (okay, okay, chickens don't have talons. Sue me.) The target of my sampling was a chain called Two Two Chicken(http://www.22chicken.net/). There are others in Korea I have heard of (including the now infamous Donkey Chicken - and my new favorite name, Born to be Chicken), but, having found the 22 by chance in Myong-dong near my hotel, I decided to take the plunge. It took a lap to remember exactly where it was (allstreetslooksame), but I was motivated.

The store is pretty small. Only five tables, and the front is occupied by the "kitchen", if you can call that cramped little space a kitchen. I decided on take-out after a 13-hour day of work, but I don't think the product suffered from shipping in a cardboard box with a vent top. I used my grunts-and-pointing to grab a chicken to go. It cost 12,000 won for a full fried chicken, cut up into pieces only a maternal hen could recognize (yes I ate the whole thing in one setting). To wash it down, on the way home I picked up an Asahi Super Dry Uber tall boy (750ML) at the 7-11 (Asia has its advantages over the States) and headed back quickstep to my hotel.

This chicken is unlike any fried chicken I've ever had. I am told it is twice cooked. It is pre-fried most of the way through and then fried a second time just before being served. This gives it a super crispy outer layer (not crunchy, a la KFC with lots of breading), but crispy with the outer layer slightly slick. However, let me be clear - this is not a greasy chicken. My hands had no residue after eating and the paper insert in the box was not see-through when it was pulled out.

But the taste is what will leave me craving chicken like Kim Jong Il craves plutonium. The spices are hard for me to pinpoint: There is a decidedly sweet taste (cinnamon), as well as what has to be anise, but there's also a great salt, sugar and pepper combination that really lets the taste of the chicken come through. Remember, spice is meant to enhance, not to overwhelm - and if Two Two chicken is any guide, they get that here. This is why this chicken sings.

If there is a knock on this chicken, it is the juiciness, or lack thereof. Some like a real juicy chicken. US chickens are fatter and plumper, a la Barry Bonds, than the Korean versions. Now 22 is an all natural joint and as a result, the chickens will seem a little smaller and taste a little drier than their US cousins. For me this isn't a problem, as I like my chicken a little drier. I cook mine a few minutes longer than the recipe says, and I always shy away from the KFC-style, water-injected versions of fried chicken.

If you're averse to really dry chicken, take heart. The take-out comes with a small cup of Korean chile and garlic paste. Dipping sauces may get a good name. If McD's served this stuff along with McNuggets, they might be edible (ok, they will NEVER be edible), but the tangy, spicy mixture leaves a great tingle on the tongue. Served in-store, the chicken can be ordered smothered in the stuff, but not sure I am ready for that.

And now here I sit, thinking I might have a problem. I just finished 20 minutes ago and am already craving more. I devoured this bird in about seven minutes, locked in my hotel room at 9:30 at night. No niceties - I ate the fated fryer over the bag I carried it home in (visions of George Costanza eating an entire block of cheese with his shirt off come to mind). But it was so good, I don't think I care. This chicken is worth some mild personal debasing. It is tasty, crisp and delicious. I plan on continuing my personal taste comparison on future trips. I might even plan a few extra trips for the chicken alone. They say there is no conviction like that of the newly converted . . . .Well fit me for my kfc habit and find me a rosary made out of chicken bones, because I am in.

UPDATE-I was just told they deliver 24/7. We may have a five rice grain score coming.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Yakyu and Yakitori

Oh! Taisho
9 St. Marks Place (between 2nd and 3rd)
New York, NY
212-673-1300

Baseball and Japan seem to be the themes of this trip. So, naturally, after watching the Yankees skewer Detroit at Yankee Stadium, we opted for more skewers, this time with grilled meat on them: yakitori. At Jayan's suggestion, we headed to yakitori joint Oh! Taisho in New York's Harajuku-lite - St. Mark's Place, dotted with several great late-night Japanese eateries and more hip young Asian kids than you can shake a chocolate-covered Pocky at.

We sat and were presented with a huge menu of options, all of which sounded totally appetizing - even the motsu ("beef guts") and yotsumi ("chicken chunck.") Ultimately, the prospect of so many things wrapped in bacon drove us a little crazy, and we ended up with a giant platter of skewers, along with some shrimp gyoza and salmon ochazuke. Ochazuke is rice served in a bowl of tea, usually with some other ingredient; this one was refreshing and light and served as a great palate teaser for the grilled goodness to come. The shrimp gyoza were serviceable, but nothing really to write home about. But the yakitori! Tired of the succulent, fat-basted enoki mushrooms enveloped in a cozy ring of bacon? How about some succulent, fat-basted asparagus enveloped in a cozy ring of . . . bacon? It turns out, as we really had long suspected but never definitively proved, that everything tastes better when wrapped in bacon. Even seafood - we went for the bacon-wrapped scallops as well (too late to try to keep kosher anyway). We did tentatively venture outside our bacon zone of comfort, dipping into some tasty kimo, or chicken livers (like buttah), and the aforementioned chicken chunck. Keeping in mind the FDA food pyramid, we even had some vegetables: grilled negi, or scallions, were the perfect counterpoint to all the meat.

In the end, we were let down by our own stomachs, which, having ingested several Nathan's hot dogs at the game a few hours earlier, finally cried uncle at the umpteenth skewer. But there were so many great options left to try, like the ika yaki (whole grilled cuttlefish), the ume sasami and sasami mentai (chicken w/ plum paste and chicken with spicy cod roe), that we're just going to have to go back - preferably after watching Hideki Matsui clobber another postseason contender. Turns out baseball (yakyu) and yakitori go perfectly together . . . something the Japanese have long figured out.

Friday, August 17, 2007

GAMBATTE!!!

The City That Always Eats
Go Japanese Restaurant
30 St. Marks Place
New York, NY

4 out of 5 Grains of Rice

NY NY. Are there any more appetizing initials anywhere? The city is a constant food festival, open at all hours and offering every possible cuisine from around the world. But perhaps no cuisine is better represented in NY than Asian cuisine. Other than hopping a 13 hour flight – and even then many people will tell you the food is better in NY than, say, Seoul – NY is THE place go get your fill of the hot, sour, salty sweet that is Asian food.

Last night was Japanese – and we are not talking your kimono-wearing, memoirs-of-a Geisha Japan but real life, modern day Japan. Osaka style. A few blocks from my brother’s place on St. Marks’ Place (30 St. Marks to be exact) is a place called Go Japanese. And you should take their advice and GO. NOW!!

The place hit my heart strings right away because the first waiter we saw had on a Posada (#20) shirt and they had the Yankee game on over the small sushi bar. After just having watched the No Reservations on Osaka food, this could not have been better planned. While not officially a baseball bar, there are Hideki Matsui photos up all over the place and in his honor, today’s post is baseball themed.

The outside of the place looks like it was built by habitat for humanity rejects and serves as an extension of the kitchen. This is where they have the grill and fryers so that they don’t smoke the customers out of the joint. Inside, be warned. This place is no museum with paper screens or bare feet. Bustling, bare brick walls and beat up wood tables, with all Japanese staff and they are all business . . . . . just tell me what you want to eat and drink.

We were drawn there by my brother’s interest in the deep friend octopus balls, but we found more. Much, much more.

Deciding took some time. You get three menus including the main menu, the daily sushi specials and the daily chef specials. We just selected a bunch and away we went.

For a snack, we got the dried baby sardine crackers (Tatami Iwashi). Expecting a kind of canapé, we got the lightest and crispest of crackers made from dried baby sardines. Literally like tatami mats made from little fried fish. Very crisp and salty, served with a side of spicy mayonnaise – this is like the most perfect beer snack ever. Too few per plate, but really got the taste buds primed, which after all is what an appetizer is for, right? A solid double from the lead off hitter.

Then came the heart of the line up – takoyaki or fried octopus balls. After enduring my brother’s obligatory jokes about how the male octopi have children without their balls, we got down to eating. About the size of those big jaw breakers you used to buy for 25 cents (and smaller than a golf ball), these little bite sized balls of heaven were made with very light breading, chopped octopus and seasonings. They were served six to a plate piping hot and covered with bonito flakes and ponzu sauce. Salty and sweet, very light and with a light chewiness from the octopus. Just fantastic. So good, we ordered a second plate. A two-run homer from the # 2 hitter. Score – 2-0.

Then we had the broiled salmon skin salad. This was a mixture of thinly sliced and broiled salmon skin with green onions and vinegar dressing. The skin was still warm and the richness of the salmon fat and the tart vinegar made this dish a winner. A triple.

A little less fabulous, but still delicious, was the broiled eel in vinegar. Served with a healthy helping of chopped seaweed and garlic sprouts, the ell was a little too soft from the vinegar dressing and the flavors a little muted for my taste. Eel should be a richer, luxurious taste and this one fell just a little off. A weak single, with an RBI. 3-0

Stepping back up to their A game, Go then delivered the broiled black cod with fresh miso. This dish was terrific. Just opaque, the cod was rich and tasty, and served with the fresh miso just melted in your mouth. Nobu is supposed to make the same dish, but hard to imagine it much better. A double up the gap, scoring the runner from first – 4-0

Our next dish came from the “yes, the Japanese will cook and eat just about anything” folder and, as usual, it tasted better than it sounded. Deep fried giant clam tendon fried in butter. This was a tasty dish, even if not to my liking. Very rich butter taste and the tendon was a mixture of soft and chewy. I have trouble with the very chewy foods, but this was very tasty. Sharp single to right field, another runs scores – 5-0.

Needing a few more items to top us off, we went for one of the okonomiyaki dishes. Wanting to avoid any more REALLY chewy items, we got the Dynamite-yaki with kim chi. As usual, this Osaka dish came covered in mayonnaise and sweet sauce, but was well cooked and with a really nice bite from the spicy kim chi. Another double, the flood gates are really open and the Yanks lead 6-0.

Last dish was a straight ahead ramen. The noodles were cooked very al dente, and the broth was a good mixture of rich and salty. The broth was more rich than salty, and very solid. A little thin on the toppings (bamboo, green onions and some fish cakes). Nothing to go gaga over, but then again, it is not really an Osaka specialty (stay tuned for our all-ramen post from later today). Another sharp single. Time for a pitching change and a word from our sponsor.

By now we were stuffed, and it was all we could do to head to Viniero’s for a mini cannoli in honor of the late great Phil Rizutto who passed earlier this week. We miss you, you big huckleberry.

Monday, August 13, 2007

“I know of a place in. . . . .”

“I know of a place in Herndon?” Few statements set my heart racing like these seven little words. We’ve all heard it before. You’ll be talking to a group of friend about some great Asian food you’ve had, and invariably someone chimes in with a statement like “I have a friend who goes to this great little dim sum place in Herndon. I’ve never been, but he says it’s the best. I’ll get the name for you.” Of course, you almost never hear from this person again and in the back of your mind, you are always left dreaming about that little hidden gem that no one but you and native eaters know about. It’s like the fish that got away, or the girl you almost hooked up with in college that is a lot prettier in your memory than she probably ever was in real life.

The hidden gem is in part what keeps Asian foodies like us going. We are all seeking that little no-name, strip mall eatery where the food is all hand made, authentic and worth driving for an hour for 9and waiting another hour for the table). It’s the Holy Grail for the Asian foodie. Whether it was the little Vietnamese Pho place in San Jose we found in June, the Ramen place we stumbled in a few days later, or the fried soup dumpling we are trying next weekend in Queens, there is no greater satisfaction than seeking and (hopefully) finding that great little hole in the wall that saves you the effort of going to Vietnam or Shanghai because the food is just as good (ok, almost) at the little place you’ve found.

These are the places we want to find, but we need help. I am already lined up to hit a new place in Rockville offered by one of my co-workers (stay tuned for more posts). But we need to hear more. So please share your rumors, suggestions, foodie gems so we can check ‘em out. The car is gassed up and I am starving.

Unexpected Asian

Unexpected Asian

2 out of 5 grains of rice

One of the great things about Asian cooking is that you can find it anywhere (almost). After spending a weekend on Mackinac Island (which as far as we can tell has NO Asian food at all – would-be restaurateurs be advised), my wife and I found ourselves hungry during a short stopover at the Detroit Airport. Given the large number of flights from Detroit to Asia, including Tokyo, Beijing and Seoul, we weren’t entirely surprised to come across more than your average American fast food.

Around Gate A-25, we found one of the now relatively common Japanese airport eateries – this one named Sora. Now let’s be clear, despite the pan-Asian wait staff and the sushi bar found upon entering, we were not expecting authentic Japanese cuisine, and were not greeted by the common Japanese restaurant welcome “ ”. But we did find a very full menu of sushi, sashimi and more complete dishes like Chirashi (assorted sushi over rice) and hot dishes ranging from udon and ramen noodles to tonkastu (deep fried pock cutlet).

Never one to turn down a chance at Japanese noodles, we each had a bowl – I ordered a Katsune Udon (wheat noodles with sweetened and deep fried tofu) and my wife a bowl of Gyoza Ramen (fried noodles with pork dumplings). (I am on a heavy udon kick after seeing the Japanese movie Udon on a flight from Asia recently). There were other soup options, including some with tempura (lightly breaded and deep fried) shrimp and other empting options. But we had only 25 minutes and wanted to keep it simple.

Both were surprisingly good. The udon had a little texture to them, and were topped with both tofu as well as some green onion and fish cake. Kastune means fox in Japanese and the color of the fried tofu is supposed to resemble the color of a wild fox. The fried tofu was right on, slightly sweetened with sugar, but with a silky texture that holds together in the soup. The broth (a key part in any of the Japanese soups) was also pretty good, although I would have preferred a slightly more pronounced bonito or fish flavor. The ramen noodles were a little tougher than I care for, and the broth had a slightly unusual, almost artificial flavor I could not quite place – maybe a flavor enhancer or bouillon additive. But the gyoza were good and the soup over all was pretty satisfying – which after all is what you want in all meals and in soup in particular.

In the end, both were much better than I would ever expect to find in an airport and would be decent in most downtown areas in the US. Now maybe we were just suffering from withdrawals, not having had Asian food for perhaps 4 whole days, but we were both pretty happy with the find. I am not going to book any flights through Detroit just to go back (unlike what I would do to get back to the Sushi bar I found at Narita last year) but won’t object to the next little layover I might find myself scheduled for in Michigan.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Joe's Noodle House - mmmmm, Chinese

Joe’s Noodle House
1488-C Rockville Pike
Rockville, MD

3 out of 5 Rice Grains

So while shopping up in Rockville, my wife spied a non-descript building on the east side of Rockville pike and said – “hey, let’s try that on the way home.” Turns out she is like a rain man for Asian food (definately good asian, definately). This place was good. VERY good. It’s all linoleum and mirrors – very 70s strip mall décor and you order at the front counter. We also noticed the rug had seen much better days, but since when has decor EVER been a key to good Asian dining. If you focus on the food and not the flooor, things get good quickly. There are lots of daily specials (most, but fortunately not all with Tripe) and a solid variety of options. You could come back 20 times and not repeat, and it seems from first glace that all of the food would be good to very good.

For starters, we had the tofu with chile paste which comes cold which helps mute the spice but very flavorful. It would be better if it warmed up a bit, but overall not bad (and even better the next day as leftovers). We also had the pan-fried guo-tie(dumplings) which were homemade and pretty good, if a tad on the dry side. The spicy noodles were also very good, although they appeared to be pre-made pasta but the red chile sauce was really good. The star of the menu was the sliced and stir-fried rice cake. Stir-fried with chicken and mushrooms – very tasty. We’ll be back for the food and won’t mind about the decor.