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

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
1915 I Street, NW

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

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

4215 Annandale Center Drive
Annandale, VA

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
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.