Thursday, February 12, 2009

Day 8: When In Doubt, Go For the Spam

Sunday, I wandered the streets of Chinatown. This is one mural I found. It may be hard to see what the people in the picture are doing but on the right-hand side, a man is sitting down for a meal over a traditional glass tray table. The ladies around him are entertainers (probably similar to geishas in Japanese culture). On the left, men and women are drinking tea, playing traditional instruments and engaging in a game of go, which is popular with the Japanese but first originated with the Chinese in 2000 BC.

At Sam Woo Cafe, the glossy menu offered options aplenty, but I went for spam and rice. The soy sauce was an unnecessary addition, in my opinion, since the spam was salty enough as is. However, the rice soaked up any lurking saltiness. I ordered a red bean milkshake to wash it down. The day before, I filled up on some spam musubi at L&L Hawaiian Barbecue in Santa Monica. Two big portions of Japanese rice and seasoned spam wrapped in nori ($2.95) was more than enough for a snack. Oh yes, my spam fix was satiated.

It happened to be the Lantern Festival and the lion dance paraded around town, dancing into every retail store in Chinatown. An entourage of gongs, cymbals and local Chinese association members in black logo jackets followed closely on the lion's heels. The sharp -BAM!- of the firecrackers made my already deaf ears even more hard of hearing, and I couldn't shake the notion that it sounded like gunshots. (Henry, this one's for you.)

I met up with more relatives for dinner at Mountain Valley's Claim Jumper, where I had the Whiskey Chicken (which is actually a sweet, tangy apple glazed sauce over stuffing, mashed potatoes, biscuit and roasted vegetables). I prefer my vegetables a bit more cooked, but at least the crunchiness gave my teeth some exercise. The combination of three carbs on my plate translated into a doggy bag pile of leftovers. I love me some comfort food.

My uncle ordered the prime rib steak. Just take a look at that gargantuan baked potato smoldering with sour cream and chives. Now that's a baked potato done right!

What the Fuzz: Kogi BBQ

Kogi! Kogi! Kogi! Okay, so the term 'Kogi BBQ' has been hitting me left and right ever since I've been in LA. I've run into Kogi at least three times in the past week and I'm wondering what all the fuss is about. First, I read about it in the Jan. 30-Feb. 5 edition of LAWeekly while browsing the publication aimlessly in Japantown, and again in the LATimes. My third run-in with Kogi was on a link to this blog.

Though I have yet to try it, Kogi is a traveling taco truck bringing Korean-style marinated meat tacos to the public. It was the brainchild of Mark Manguera, who is of Filipino descent but married into a Korean family. Manguera was munching on tacos one day when it hit him that Korean meat would taste delicious with tacos. Most people would leave the idea at that -- a fanciful rumination. Not so Manguera, who decided to make his dream a reality last November. He recruited his sister-in-law, Alice Shin, who is in charge of much of the PR and Twitter updates; wife Caroline (second-in-command); former Rocksugar chef Roy Choi, who works his culinary prowess in the kitchen; brother-in-law Eric Shin, designated cameraman; and friend Mike Prasad, who helps with publicity.

The tacos come in flavors like Korean short ribs, spicy pork and spicy bbq chicken. For non-meat eaters, there's a Venice Beach vegan black sesame seed jelly special (ooopf, that was a mouthful). Even better, the tacos only cost two dollars each -- great for lunch on the go or a late midnight snack.

Kogi has attracted a large following: people have waited in line for up to two hours just to take home a half dozen tacos.

Singer-songwriter Big Phony even got some props when he created a Kogi jingle of his own. The lyrics go:

I'll follow you down
All over town
Do anything to get there.
Where do we go?
Somebody knows
Jump in the car to get there.
(In Korean:) Koooogi ahjeushi, eodineun gahneunyah?
Mogoshipdah ( go ship DAH)

By the way, the still above is not of Big Phony but is from his music video, "Girls Like You Don't Go For Guys Like Me." I've been tuned into Big Phony since 2005 or so, and got to interview him for Boston Progress Radio. He's quite a character -- talented, for sure, with lots of offbeat humor to boot. His dislike for photographs has led to some interesting t-shirt designs. In any case, check out his songs and blog here.

Day 7: WANTED: Carnivores

Southern California has several chain restaurants that cater to the southwestern palette. One of them is Stonefire Grill. Most people come here for the meat, and with good reason. Try the the lemon garlic chicken, mesquite grilled ribs or pepper garlic tri tips, all of which are tender and perfectly marinated with herbs and spices that make your tongue sing (if it could). Stonefire Grill also offers a variety of fresh salads, soft breadsticks and thick, cheesy slices of pizza.

Carnage (there was more on the plate when it was first served).

After a winsome day at Venice Beach, we drove around La Cienega Blvd in the dusk, hoping to spot an Indian restaurant. In the end, we came across Versailles Cuban. Now, I've had my share of Jamaican, Dominican and Puerto Rican food, but I've never tried Cuban before. Parking was hard to come by, but the clink and clatter of dishes and the chatty patrons hungrily devouring their meaty entrees drew my eye in from the get-go. I knew this was going to be worth the wait. The friendly host, a dark-haired Cuban in his mid-late 20s with two gold fillings and a ponytail, winked at me and showed us to our table.

Above, one of the few vegetarian combos: Aaron, frijoles negros y platanos (rice, black beans and fried sweet plantains) - $8.95

My dish: Famoso pollo Versailles (Versailles Famous Garlic Chicken) - $10.95. The menu's description reads: "Juicy roasted half chicken marinated in our delicious garlic sauce garnished with sliced white onions," which pretty much sums up its actual taste. I was far from disappointed. And I've never seen such a large portion of chicken in my life! It was so big that I had to take home the entire breast. My head was reeling with fantasies of squawking chickens being chased by the butcher, then plunged, head-less, into a vat of simmering garlic and butter (although I tried not to think of this scene when I was eating the chicken).

Here's my moro, or white rice with black beans cooked together. I was first introduced to moro in the Dominican Republic last March when my family took a vacation there during spring break. Versailles makes it differently from the Mom & Pop restaurant in Luperon Bay, D.R. Nevertheless, it's a hearty and texture-rich dish -- if a bit on the crispy side.

One thing's for sure: California does not lack in the meat department. My carnivore friends, I urge you to take a trip out to LA and see (taste and smell) for yourself that I am speaking the truth.