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)
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?

908 17th Street
Washington, DC

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 (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.

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

1503 17th Street, NW
Washington, DC

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

163 1st Ave # 2
(between 10th St & 11th St)
New York, NY 10003
(212) 475-7899

- 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.