Archive for the ‘Places to Go: SoCal’ Category

Tastes: 4 Pound Takeout at Kuakeli

In Places to Go: SoCal on December 17, 2008 at 6:20 am
This is serious takeout, had to weigh at least four pounds (plus free green tea).

This is serious takeout, had to weigh at least four pounds (plus free green tea).

I have a new job that requires a 160 mile round-trip commute every day. Sounds pretty bad, right? Well, there are some factors that ease the pain: 1) I love what I do, 2) I get to listen to NPR for hours on end and 3) Sometimes the east bound traffic is so bad I have to pull over. That’s right, zero in on reason #3. My feeling is that if traffic is crawling, it’s much better for your sanity to exit, and try a new bakery, or try out that hole-in-the-wall’s cream buns. And since the 10 eastbound is backed up every day….basically, all of those little places within a 1-mile radius of the freeway in the San Gabriel Valley have become my playground. No reviews, no guidance from Jonathan Gold.

One of the shopping plazas on the 300 block of Valey Blvd. was my pit stop today. To be honest, I had a hankering for fried squid balls and knew that the boba shop teeming with teenagers would have a good selection of deep fried goodness. Kuakeli (a syllabic translation of “quickly”) seemed like a lively hangout, though I was clearly at least ten years everyone’s senior. I thought I should eat something else relatively healthy to wash down the squid balls, so I also ordered the “Taiwan Chicken Leg and Rice.” For $4.99, I was expecting a chicken leg quarter on a mound of rice. When I picked up my takeout bag, I stopped and asked if I had been given the right order, because it was REALLY heavy. Surely, my food had been confused with the order for a family of four? Nope, it was just huge. I was expecting something generic, and instead, it looked like I had a lunch lovingly packed for someone by their Taiwanese grandmother. Crispy fried chicken tinged with five-spice, pickled greens redolent with that Chinese herbalist shop smell, garlicky baby bok choy spicy ground pork and a heavenly marinated hard-boiled egg. As I took my first bites, I was transported back to undergraduate days when my roomates would return from trips home in Queens bearing endless tupperware containers of pickled mustard greens and ground pork. The combination of sour, salty and crunch on a bed of hot rice is unbeatable. Grinning and full, I pulled back on the freeway, wondering what the next day’s gridlock would bring.


Ray of Light in the Inland Empire: Manila Rainwater Cafe

In Places to Go: SoCal on November 23, 2008 at 11:01 pm

img_0208East of the 57 freeway, deep in the heart of the Inland Empire, it’s tough to find great Filipino food. Customer traffic is distinctly lighter than in other Fil-Am enclaves like Cerritos and West Covina, and the prevalence of steam tables doesn’t help much either. These conditions tend to lower the bar for Filipino restaurant food the farther east you go, but Manila Rainwater Cafe in Corona takes those lowered expectations and chucks them out the window. At a recent afternoon merienda (the sacred snacktime) the food was so good, I committed the ultimate sacrilege: I declared their Arroz Caldo better than my grandmother’s.

Everyone has their favorite touchstone dishes for homestyle restaurant food. My husband is a serious img_0207barbecued pork stick consumer (see earlier post about the Pistahan) and grew antsy as dish after dish arrived on the table (merienda is a very serious, substantial snack) with not a bit of barbecue to be found. We discovered the reason for the long wait after the first bite. Instead of the familiarly dry meat that results from quick grilling over high heat, this was succulent, juicy pork, well-seasoned and glazed with a lip-smacking sauce that benefited from  was not too cloyingly sweet. Meat like that takes time and rapt attention to the grill.

My measurement of Filipino restaurants oftern rests on the pancit palabok and the arroz caldo. I have a pretty high standard for the latter, a savory rice porridge akin to Chinese congee or Korean jook. Not only was I raised by a doting Lola (grandmother) who prepared arros caldo whenever I was sick, I also got a free, steaming bowl every morning at my neighborhood cantina on my way to school as a teenager in the Philippines. Those types of nostalgic associations have elevated the humble dish to an emotional culinary experience. I had been craving it for a while, was desperate and just hoping for something that wasn’t too watery. From the first spoonful, I was blown away by the layers of garlic, chicken and peppery flavors. The soft rice was the perfect consistency, blending seamlessly with a thick broth based on robust, homemade roasted-chicken stock. Not even my grandmother roasts the chicken first, and now Manila Rainwater has completely spoiled me, exposing me to an arroz caldo dimension I didn’t even know existed. After restraining myself from licking the bowl clean, I leaned back, turned to my family and said ” I can’t believe it. This is better than my Lola’s. I already feel guilty.”

If you live in the IE, don’t bother trekking out to Cerritos for your next party tray of pancit or lechon kawali, Manila Rainwater has a very full Filipino menu, including suman served with homemade coco jam that I sampled at a big family fiesta last night. Dining in the restaurant itself is also a really pleasant experience, with a fresh, modern dining room and warm, cheerful family atmosphere. Best of all, the matriarch of the family that runs Manila Rainwater keeps watch over the diners, lovingly fussing over you and whispering that the dish you are exclaiming over, well–it’s really her recipe.

(Update: June 2011. Sadly, Manila Rainwater looks like it’s closed!)

Improve your Commute: Grab a Bun

In Places to Go: SoCal on November 17, 2008 at 6:11 pm

img_0211The universal appeal of char siu bao, or barbecued pork buns, is not difficult to discern. In their steamed form, the pillowy-soft outer covering of fresh white dough encapsulates a savory, slightly sweet pocket of barbecued pork  that adapts well to many food cultures. I grew up knowing them as siopao in the Philippines, and in Hawaii they are called manupua and come with fillings like curry chicken and kalua pork that reflect the diversity of culinary influences. Because the steamed version is so versatile (and frankly, hard to mess up) it’s cousin, the BAKED char siu bao is often neglected. Jim’s Bakery in Monterey Park provides an antidote to this neglect with it’s golden domes of baked char siu bao goodness.

San Gabriel Valley spoils us Angelenos for selection when it comes to dim sum fare, soup dumplings and East Asian baked goods in general. For example, there are few other cities in the U.S. where residents can have heated debates over whether the noodles are chewier or more authentically Taiwanese at Noodle House or Dai Ho. Jim’s Bakery is located at an intersection in Monterey Park that is lined with bakeries and dim sum to go, and stands out from the pack. They are usually hailed/debated for their dan tat (egg custard tarts) which when fresh out of the oven, deliver smooth creaminess in a buttery, flaky shell for 85 cents. The real prize, however, is Jim’s baked char siu bao. Because it is baked instead of steamed, the dough has a slight heft to it that allows for a note of sweetness, which is the perfect counterpoint to the savory pork inside. The barbecued pork filling tastes as if it has been braised for hours with sweet onions and black pepper, a refreshing change from the bright red, often dry char siu that sometimes disappoints when you bite into steamed buns from other establishments. The baked char siu bao emerge as golden domes that fit easily into one hand for eating on the go.

Commuters who live on the eastside should take note, these are a great companion for sitting on the 10 freeway for hours. Since Jim’s Bakery is so close to the freeway, you could probably exit, get your hands on a few and return to the slow eastbound crawl in almost the exact same spot you had before. Only now, it’s with a baked pork bun in your hand and a smile on your face.

Nature’s Bounty = Kitchen Splendor: Apple Picking in Oak Glen

In Home Cookin', Places to Go: SoCal on September 21, 2008 at 4:51 pm

     Though I sometimes grumble about living in the Inland Empire , the area has something going for it that I never dreamed of in my ratty apartment in Culver City: close proximity to Oak Glen. If you’ve never been, Oak Glen is a small community of farms and orchards about ten minutes east of San Bernardino.Many of the farms are open for u-pick and produce shopping year round, but they’re most famous for idyllic apple picking in the fall.

        We ventured out yesterday for apples, of course, and a last run at this year’s delicious raspberry crop. Our farm of choice was Snow-Line Orchards, because picking raspberries requires a certain amount of energy that can only be derived from their deep fried mini cider donuts. When you walk into the main barn at Snow-Line, a voice immediately calls out: ” Are you ready for your cider donuts?” like she’s been waiting for you all morning. Beautiful.

      There’s definitely a weird paradox at play when you go fruit picking for fun; if you did it everyday, it would be back breaking and you probably wouldn’t get paid much. But if you do it once or twice a year, it seems like a great adventure. I tried not to contemplate it too much as I walked down each row of berry bushes, constantly distracting myself by putting four berries in my mouth for every one that made it into my little basket. That ephemeral raspberry flavor that’s more like a sweet breeze on your tongue, as opposed to a solid piece of fruit in your mouth, was strong, with a tiny burst of juice to remind you to swallow. For $12, you get to fill three pint baskets. Not a bad deal, even before you factor in the pints that go straight from the bush to your tummy.

     Snow-Line has about a dozen different varieties of apples at any given time, already picked and bagged up for you. I spent at least half an hour wandering among the sample dishes, contemplating the Mutsu and Winesaps, debating Jonagolds for pie or Galas for chomping on during the car ride home. The Mutsu and Jonagolds were particularly crisp and sweet with just a hint of tartness that holds up well for snacking or baking, so I grabbed a few bags and began plotting.

     When you have fruit this fresh, literally hours off the plant, it seems almost criminal to cook it. So I settled for raspberries with mint and apple and blue cheese wedges….for about 6 hours. Then I gave in and made the apple cobbler that had been haunting my brain all day. It’s a great foil for fresh apples; minimal ingredients, not too much crust and sugar and goopy stuff to interfere with appreciating the freshness of the fruit. Not wanting to neglect the raspberries, I covered a buttery, crumbly tart crust with a thick raspberry sauce– berries simmered with sauvignon blanc and a little sugar – and rejoiced in the pleasure of a homemade tart. 

     Whenever I have to live far away from California, I develop a strong appreciation for how fresh our produce is here. That’s why if you’re lucky enough to be reading this within 90 miles of San Bernardino County , I strongly urge you to cancel whatever you had planned for this weekend, pack up the kids, the dog and whatever and get out to the farm. I’ll try to leave you a few raspberries.

Max’s Restaurant: Hey there, Good Lookin’

In Places to Go: SoCal on September 8, 2008 at 6:18 am

The toughest part of the Filipino restaurant business is that every customer who walks in the door orders dishes their mother, Lola (grandmother) or uncle made countless times during their childhood. The average customer expects a selection from about two dozen standard homestyle recipes, plus maybe a couple of regional specialties. Most family owned establishments put out their clan’s best recipes, and hope that nostalgic memories of the “right” taste don’t get in the way of customers enjoying their fare.

Max’s Restaurant, a chain of Filipino restaurants famous for their fried whole chicken, manages to dodge this familiarity bullet, but sacrifices taste in the effort. According to legend, the chain was founded after World War II as a café for American troops stationed in Manila. While growing up in the Philippines, my impression was that Max’s was specifically for military personnel, because the one I went to was always filled with Americans and my dad always ordered spaghetti. I later realized that my childhood Max’s was next to an U.S. military base, explaining the large American contingent –and that to this day, my dad always orders spaghetti regardless of where we eat. The Max’s I remember as a kid is but one of dozens of bustling outposts all over the Philippines, Hawaii and California.

As an icon in the Filipino community, you’d think Max’s had well-seasoned dishes and great service. It is true that the staff is always welcoming and the service has a warmth and familiarity that makes the restaurant feel like a really clean, slightly generic looking family spot.

The funny thing is, I’ve never heard anyone say the actual food, other than the chicken, is a big draw. Max’s seems to rely on a principle that since you can’t make it taste like everyone’s mother’s recipe, go for the middle ground and make it bland. On a recent visit to the Puente Hills location, I greedily dug into family size platters of Pancit Palabok (rice noodles covered ground pork andshrimp sauce) and Daeng Ng Bangus (boneless milkfish dried and then deep fried). By definition, these are usually strongly flavored dishes. Although the Palabok sauce was the standard unholy orange color (produced by annatto seed extract) it just tasted sort of…orange. The Daeng was a beautiful deep brown, steaming hot and crispy, but under salted.

The famous fried chicken follows the theme of nice to look at, boring to eat. Inside, the flesh tastes suspiciously like it has been poached and then quickly deep fried to finish. But on the outside, glorious crispy skin snaps in your mouth with a salty tang. At Max’s they seem to have perfected the art of great appearances: Always a lively family crowd, modern facilities (even a stainless steel handwashing station!)and food that looks just like mom used to make.

Slicing and Dicing at The Pantry

In Places to Go: SoCal on August 30, 2008 at 10:57 pm


Esther Lee and brother David at The Pantry in Redlands

Esther Lee and brother David at The Pantry in Redlands

  Esther and Terrence Lee seem to be living the food lover’s dream. The husband and wife team own and operate The Pantry, a specialty food store in downtown Redlands. They spend every day surrounded by artisanal fruit and nut oils, handmade pastas and chocolate. Maybe it’s actually really grueling to turn out those mint chocolate chip cupcakes every day, and nerve wracking to own a small business in the notoriously fickle food industry. But you’d never know it when you walk in to peruse their well-edited collection of edibles and kitchen gems. Not “well-edited” in the designer-boutique-on-Melrose sense, where there are exactly two of each garment and they are both a size 4. “Well-edited” as in the sauces, condiments, spices and treats feel (and taste) like the result of lots of loving tastings. If your best friend was a chef, and bought you every delightful thing she came across that made the products of your kitchen taste like it came from hers, you would have your own version of The Pantry.

            The Lee’s also have a great space on the basement level of their shop where Terry periodically teaches cooking basics. His vision for the class inspires a small glimmer of hope for the future of food in the Redlands area, which can sometimes feel like a culinary desert. Terry hopes that by having a series of Basic skills classes, he’ll be able to build a group that can progressively learn to cook and eat together. Many food writers and chefs may talk a great game about building communities around food, but Esther and Terry actually have it calendared out.

            Recently, I went to Terry’s Basic Knife skills class. A culinary school student himself, Terry’s approach was accessible, knowledgeable and frank. “If you try to cut your tomatoes like this-(hacking motion with an 8″ chef’s knife) – you won’t have nice slices. You’ll just jack up your tomatoes.”  He was also appropriately serious at certain moments, especially when discussing the joys of mirepoix and safety rules to ensure that knife novices don’t stab each other while moving around the room.

             We happily sliced away at each of our work stations. With only ten in the class, Terry was able to walk around and give each of us one on one instruction, periodically getting everyone’s attention to demonstrate a particular technique or answer an important question. He also fielded all the questions I had been waiting all week to ask: “How do I take the skin off a pumpkin? Did my grandmother teach me the correct way to peel cantaloupe? Then why do I always cut myself?”

            Our congenial group included familiar faces from around town and students from the university, and not one pretended to be immune to the onslaught of tears when we practiced dicing onions. Esther even tiptoed down the stairs to watch the class and laugh at us as we staggered around blindly (putting our knives down, of course), trying to clear our eyes. When Terry talked about possibly building a coterie of cooks who could share food and eventually each others kitchens, there were enthusiastic nods all around. After two and a half hours, no one seemed to be in a hurry to end the class and leave. I realized that maybe the dream-like quality of The Pantry isn’t just from the food, but from the people who love it.

After brutalizing so many vegetables and tucking them into our tupperware, Terry gave us a minestrone recipe to put them to good use. I’ve made my fair share of so-so minestrone over the years, so my ears perked up when Terry mentioned that to finish the dish, whip up a little homemade pesto and pour it on top of the soup when you’re ready to serve. The next night, after repeatedly bathing and cooking down my mirepoix with shiraz and taking an extra five minutes to raid my basil plant and make pesto, I served some damn fine soup. Silky, rich, tomato broth, fresh, complex spices and beautiful, only slightly misshapen, sliced vegetables. 

Europane: The Croissant is just the Beginning

In Places to Go: SoCal on August 14, 2008 at 6:37 am

     The Europane bakery in Pasadena has a well-earned reputation for their magical way with butter, namely in the form of the crispiest, chewiest, most-delectable croissant this side of the Seine. Who hasn’t been guilty of abruptly pulling off the 210 freeway, ostensibly to fill up the gas tank, and just happened to pop in for one of the bittersweet-chocolate- filled croissants, or perhaps a cup of the always heartwarming house coffee, served by a cheerful and sincere crew? Yes, from Jonathan Gold to to pages and pages on Yelp, the glories of the experience in the front rooms at Europane are well-documented. Only recently however, did I realize that all of these accounts are missing one crucial element, one vital part of the Europane experience — has no one else realized that one of the best parts about Europane is going to the bathroom?


     The Europane bathroom itself isn’t especially exciting or destination-worthy. The real deal is the 20 or so foot trek between the doorway to the front dining room and the bathroom door, through one of the prep areas of the bakery’s kitchen. On crossing the threshold, you immmediately sense that you have reached europane’s buttery heart.


     Depending on the time of day, a symphony of comforting and tantalizing smells greet you. In the late afternoon, the aroma of cinnamon and sugar’s timeless waltz dances past your face. Mornings greet you with the sweet tang of poached plums and caramelizing nectarines. Trying not to bother the two or three cooks filling pastry shells or lovingly layering zucchini on focaccia dough, you begin to move through the room…very slowly.


     The sight of some kitchens is sometimes best left to the cold distance of Anthony Bourdain reruns. Not so at Europane. A slow stroll to the bathroom is rewarded with a visual feast. The walls are lined with shelves groaning under the weight of large clear containers; plump almonds, bright green pistachios and marbled walnuts. The main stages are the stainless steel table tops. Who knows what treats you will get a sneak peek at? A bubbly tub of luscious caramel sauce, ready to be drizzled on some lucky tart? A beautiful bowl full of cabernet-red plum pieces, ready to be fill a pie shell and get tucked under a flaky cover? Steel bowls of silky sweet macaroon filling? It’s all possible, and always a delightful surprise, depending on the time of day and season.


     After you saunter through the kitchen prep room and reach the bathroom door, you experience a brief moment of disappointment that the beautiful, if brief, journey is done.


 Until you realize that to get to your waiting latte and LA Times in the front room, you have to walk back.