Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Food’ Category

har_hires

This piece explores the social and economic implications of automating restaurants, and what Americans can learn from Japan’s badass, semi-automated shokkenki restaurants, like the popular chain Matsuya. Here’s the intro:

This spring, at a time when American fast-food workers were marching to demand pay increases, and local governments were voting to raise the minimum wage, the Chili’s restaurant chain installed more than 45,000 tabletop touchscreen devices at 823 of its franchises nationwide. Customers at these locations can now order drinks and dessert directly through monitors, pay without the assistance of a server, play games, and read the digital edition of USA Today. The company has also installed computerized ovens at 1,200 locations. Applebee’s, meanwhile, has announced plans to follow suit with approximately 100,000 tabletop tablets by the end of 2014, while Panera Bread is replacing many registers with self-serve kiosks and adding technology that will allow customers to sit down, enter their orders and table numbers on a smartphone, and have their food delivered to them.

Read the rest here

Read Full Post »

IMG_20130826_213253

Located in New York’s East Village on St. Marks Place, Oh! Taisho gets busy most nights.

A cool, bustling yakitori, they specialize in skewered meats grilled over Binchōtan charcoal. You order by the skewer: chicken gizzard, chicken wing, chicken skin, chicken heart. The menu even lists a “chicken chunks” skewer called yotsumi, though their many offerings have kept me so busy that I’ve never ordered it. Along with offal and other yakitori classics, Oh! Taisho serves ramen, yakisoba, salt grilled mackerel, seaweed salads, ebi shumai, gyoza, tatsuta age, agedashi tofu, a mixed vegetable sauté called yasai itame, and a pork belly and kimchi sauté called buta kimchee, which is a variation of the Korean dish jaeyook bokkeum.

If you like fish and pork, this is your place.

Grill

Long and narrow, cramped and loud, Oh! Taisho’s tables are tightly packed. The counter leaves you elbow-to-elbow with strangers. In winter, traffic in and out of the front door blasts you with frigid gusts, and the small wall rack by the prep area overflows with coats. There’s nowhere else to hang them. For lack of better options, women at the counter often set their purses on their laps.

While you eat, the friendly wait staff leans over and around you, yelling to each other in voices as piercing as alarm clocks. From behind the grill, cooks call out finished orders in Japanese, as customers and servers rush perpetually past you, and others scan the perimeter to understand what all the commotion is about. It’s not the kind of place you come to relax. It functions like an izakaya: you order small plates, drink and eat and talk and have fun.

Quail eggs, ume sasami skewer

Quail eggs, ume sasami skewer

On a recent visit, between eight and ten staff members waited tables, though they moved too fast to get an accurate count. When I asked my waiter what the whole grilled hokke fish tasted like, he said he didn’t like fish. No fish? “No,” he said smiling. “No fish. Shrimp, the squids. But fish—no.”

I started with a kaisou seaweed salad for $5.75. A squeeze of lemon brightens the flavors, offering a nice, light prelude to the meat-fest come.

I followed that with some old favorites: a pork belly skewer, or bara, a shishito pepper skewer, and sasami mentai: a moist hunk of white meat chicken drizzled with bright orange spicy codroe. These cost $1.75, $1.75 and $2.75 respectively.

Skewer selections

Despite their name, shishito peppers taste mild—although, for some reason, about one out of ten packs some heat. Dressed only with coarse salt, the little green spears are grilled until a nice dark char marks their sides and the skin melts in your mouth.

Shishito pepper skewer

Shishito peppers

The $7 large grilled squid, ika yaki, is the best I’ve ever had. It plumps and turns a lustrous purple when cooked.

Ika yaki, skewer, squid

Ika yaki, grilled squid

I like a little starch with my fish, so I usually order yaki okaka onigiri: a grilled rice ball stuffed with bonito. It’s $3.25. It’s bigger than your fist. Dressed with oil and soy sauce and cooked to a crisp, the outside kernels crunch like corn, while the ones inside remain soft and white. In the center: hot, moist, shredded bonito fish, one of the best flavors on earth. Salty, smoky, rich with umami, a buddy described it as “sea bacon.” Oh! Taisho was the first place I tasted bonito, and it revolutionized my idea of what flavor could be. I now buy bags of shredded bonito to sprinkle on everything from omelets to salads, and to flavor soups.

Onigiri close up

yaki okaka onigiri

Don’t let people tell you that all Japanese food is healthy. Oh! Taisho grills greasy seasoned strips of seasoned pork belly and wrap bacon around everything from peppers to scallops, asparagus to enoki mushrooms. They serve sliced roast duck, French fries covered with cheese, and something called chikuwa cheese, which are deep fried surimi tubes filled with dairy.

This mix of fatty and fresh, healthy and decadent, partly explains the crowds. White, black, college kids and businessmen—everyone comes here.

Two couples at a nearby table ordered the $39.50 Party Set: a total of thirty skewers. One man clapped when it arrived, while his wife covered her smile and shook her head at the excess, and maybe at the challenge ahead. “Kampai,” they said, raising sake glasses.

“Order ready!” the staff yells as they try to find counter space to set huge steaming bowls in front of you.

Pork broth soup

Pork broth soup

The old wooden counter is resinous and tacky—not dirty, but sticky from lacquer. When you sit there, you can watch cooks chopping, drizzling sauces, garnishing dishes and shaking skillets over bursting flames, laughing and smiling despite the pace and tight quarters. If you sit in front of the grill, you can feel the heat on your forehead. Without room for your bag, you have to set it by your feet. With few places to look, you’re forced to stare at the aluminum foil that covers the grill’s exterior, or to watch neighboring diners stare longingly at the cooks, waiting for their food. Others talk, drink beer. With crowds, it’s not unusual for your food to arrive between five and twenty minutes after ordering.

Life at the counter

At the counter, to my right, a Chinese high school girl was on a date with an Indian high school boy. After sitting down he said, “Soy sauce is the real deal.”

She said, “It’s kind average, you know?”

“Okay,” he said, “name a sauce that’s not average then.”

Without hesitation she said, “Worchester.”

“What’s that taste like?”

“I don’t know,” she said.

“You made that up.”

“No, I didn’t. It’s real.”

“Really?”

She proceeded to teach him Chinese mythology and describe which parts of our bodies symbolized good luck, health, wisdom, and so on.

To my left, a Japanese-American NYU student was on a date with white NYU student. She set her strawberry-shaped purse on the counter by the shichimi tōgarashi. “Well,” he said smiling, “I knew I liked teriyaki chicken, but those rice balls—yum! They’re not even balls. They’re spears.”

The cook!

The cook!

At the end of the counter, the cook reached inside a refrigerated case and grabbed prepped skewers. His timing was impeccable. With multiple skewers of varying thickness grilling for multiple tables at once, he knew how long to leave each skewer on the grill, when to turn them so they cooked evenly, how to stagger items, all while pulling new tickets from the hanging queue. He read the ticket, removed skewers from the cooler, dipped them in the vat of tare sauce and draped them over the black cauterized grills. As the food sizzled, he glanced at the door and called out orders.

Bacon-wrapped scallop skewer

Bacon-wrapped scallop skewer of doom

It’s easy to order more food than you can eat.

To keep from ordering the same familiar items, I branched out and tried the grilled skate wing. Dense and chewy like a moist seafood jerky, el hire carries the strong, deep flavor of the ocean. It arrived with a mayo dipping sauce which I skipped in favor of a squeeze of fresh lemon. My suggestion: eat it fast. When it cools, it dries.

The hotate bacon, or bacon-wrapped scallops, delivered the desired hit of fat, salt and seawater.

The chicken skewer with plum sauce arrived moist and fresh.

The soup made from pork stock, filled with rice and topped with scallion and sliced charsu pork, was equal in every way to ramen.

And the quail egg skewer offered texture and flavor in bite-size morsels that left room for more morsels.

‘Taisho’ is the name of a historic period in Japan, defined by the reign of Emperor Taishō, which ran from 1912 to 1926. I can’t explain what that has to do with this yakitori joint.

For booze, they serve beer and sake, and offer unusual sho-chus made from rice and wheat, sweet potato and sesame and one called jougo made from brown sugar ($6 glass, $50 bottle).

Stay a while or eat fast and get out—no one’s going to rush you, but the sight of people constantly asking staff about the wait will make you aware of how in demand your seats are, and might hasten your pace.

While I ate, a Japanese chef and the Indian cook were forcing seafood dishes on a Latino staff member. They had him seated at the counter by the cold case, eating seafood soup and picking at a weekly special: tiny baby horse mackerel, deep fried and seasoned with a hint of curry, called mame aji no karaage fuumi. The man shoved the little fish in his mouth and shook his head. He liked it. The soup, not so much. He pointed at the fried fish and waved to another staffer who was prepping in back. People kept checking on him. The large Japanese chef rubbed his back and poured more beer into his mug. Another prep cook came out to measure how much he’d eaten from the bowl. He must have been new, and they were testing and teasing him.

A young server came over holding a large plastic cup with a red straw. He patted the man’s shoulder. “Avocado milkshake,” he said, “you like that, right?”

“Yeah, yeah,” the man said. He liked it. The kid flashed thumbs up and walked out the front door. Later, a waitress in sweatpants came by and asked him, “Doing okay?” He nodded yes and grinned. He really liked the horse mackerel. When I asked my waiter if he was going to at least try the weekly special, he laughed. “No,” he said, “not for me.”

Long view

Read Full Post »

Even though Urban Dictionary defines ‘lonchero’ as “lunch time consensual sex between two Gay Males,” it more commonly means lunch or taco truck.

Like Denny’s and credit card debt, loncheros are everywhere, from Texas to Seattle to North Carolina’s Research Triangle. In Los Angeles they’re so numerous that they even have their own association, La Asociación de Loncheros L.A. Familia Unida de California, to advocate for themselves as “an asset to the economic and socio-cultural landscape of Los Angeles” whose owners “contribute to the well-being of the communities they operate in,” and to protect their business interests. Another community forum in LA keeps lunch trucks up to date on threats and relevant developments.

edge of the town of San Joaquin 4

I’m devoted to taco trucks. I eat at them wherever I travel, and I’m rarely disappointed. The loncheros I find most interesting, though, are those serving rural areas. Out there amid sprawling farm fields, near little but train tracks and irrigation ditches, you can’t help but wonder how these loncheros stay solvent. Where does their electricity come from? How often do customers arrive? And is it frequently enough to keep the meat fresh and produce circulating? While passing through California’s rural San Joaquin Valley recently, I ate a bunch of tacos.

You might have driven through the San Joaquin en route to somewhere else: going from LA to San Francisco, maybe, or from Oregon down toward Interstate 10. It’s that hot flat place bisected by I-5 and Highway 99 that often smells like manure and onion soup. You might not have known it had a name and just called it “that shithole.”

Sandwiched between the Sierra Nevada and Coast Range, California’s great rural core stretches over four hundred miles north and south and around fifty miles across, forming one of the world’s most productive agricultural regions. With nearly 300 commercial crops, everything from almonds to olives, tomatoes to rice, the Central Valley produces 25% of all table food in the United States and houses the world’s largest cotton farm, five of the country’s top ten agricultural counties, and the birthplace of the raisin.

The San Joaquin is the drier southern half of the Central Valley. Scorching in summer, foggy in winter, it’s flat as a board and consistently ridiculed for being featureless, backwards and boring―and understandably so. This is a land of pickups and truck-stops, ample fodder for meth references and redneck jokes.

For reasons too complicated and confusing to bore you with here, I love the place. To me, it’s the ugly dog that you can’t help petting. Here are some of the loncheros of the rural San Joaquin. I like that phrase because it sounds like a western.

1) Chelitas Tacos

IMG_9607

“Chelitas Tacos,” said the sign on the passenger door, “by Consuelo Rodriguez.” Set beside a McDonald’s, across the street from the Auto Zone, this lunch truck in the town of Lamont was parked on the side of the Rancho Viejo Carnicería lot.

IMG_9617

I asked for two tacos and a side of refried beans. The cook handed me a plate covered with grilled onions and hunks of beef. Hot tortillas came in a basket, their heat locked in with a towel even though it was over ninety degrees out. When some time passed, Consuelo threw open the window screen and said, “You need more tortillas?” I said no thank you, I was okay. She brought three more anyway, in another basket.

IMG_9610

Three tables sit under a metal awning, which sit in the shade of some scraggly pines. Chelitas likely gets its meat from the Rancho Viejo Carnicería. It definitely got its electricity from there: two yellow cables ran through a hole in their nonfunctioning fountain drink system and plugged into the side of the meat market. It was a symbiotic relationship. At one point, a carnicería clerk came out in his apron and had the cook make change from a $20 dollar bill.

The truck’s menu was unusually diverse: tostadas, tostilocos, huaraches, molitas, quesadillas, sopes, posole, flautas, tacos, nachos, burritos and a hot dog plate. No prices were listed, which explains my shock when I pulled out my wallet to pay and the cook said, “Setenta.” Seven dollars? Since I ordered one carne asada, and one pastor taco, plus beans, I only expected to pay around $4.50.

IMG_9612

Did they sucker a gringo? Doubtful. The cook had taken my order while Consuelo was out, and because my Spanish is rusty and his English poor, he seemed to think I ordered the carne asada plate, which was fine. He delivered a feast.

IMG_9614

As I ate, cars lined up at the McDonald’s drive through window. Car after car after car, slaves to the predictable blandness of frozen, pre-formed patty life. I salted my meat and doused it with salsa, and as much as I wanted to eat it all there, I took half of it home. It was a lot of meat.

2) Two Pupusarias

IMG_9784

Tita’s Pupuseria wouldn’t sell me a pupusa without cheese. “Beans and pork, yes,” the clerk said. “Squash and cheese, yes. But not beans and squash. Cheese.”

I’d been polite when I first placed my order, explaining that I don’t eat much dairy, and that for various health reasons, I only wanted beans or beans in vegetables in my pupusa, no cheese. She said she couldn’t do that.

“But you can do pork and vegetables?” I said.

“Yes,” she said, staring at me through the window. “And beans and pork.” She stepped away from the window and returned with a large Ziploc bag full of grated cheese. “See? It’s all grated.” She held the bag out for me, kneading the heavy bottom as if to prove it was harmless. She pointed to something behind the counter that I couldn’t see, and said, “And that’s the meat.” I didn’t know how to respond. “How about a sopa?”

I said, “No thanks.” I come from a family with extreme heart problems, so I try not to eat fried food.

She said, “How about tacos?”

“I’m all taco’d out. I’m craving pupusa.”

“How about beans with tortilla on the side?”

I didn’t say this out loud, but beans with tortilla on the side sounded as appealing as eating cold refried beans straight from a can. I stared into her eyes. They offered no sign of diplomacy. “So you won’t sell me a pupusa at all, is what you’re saying?”

She nodded yes. “Sorry, mijo.”

I went across the street. There was another pupusa cart in the ARCO lot.

This was at a travel center on I-5, outside the town of Buttonwillow. A pupusa mini-explosion seemed to be sweeping through the small cluster of gas stations and motels from top to bottom, so a few hundred yards. There was Tita’s Pupuseria Salvadoran & Mexican Restaurant on the north end, next to Castro Tire & Truck Wash. There was Tita’s pupusa lonchero, in the potholed dirt lot beside the highway onramp. And there was Elsy’s Antojitos Centro Americanos on the opposite side of the street.

IMG_9783

The two times I’d eaten at Tita’s, it was just a Mexican food cart. That was many years ago, and it might have even gone by a different name. But they served basic lonchero menu items – tacos, burritos, Jarritos – and had a really nice salsa bar on a foldout table and offered hand-roasted Serrano peppers. There were no pupusas.

The other time I ate here was at a lonchero in the E-Z Trip Food Store parking lot, across from Denny’s. Again, it was tasty but no frills. They made me a bean burrito with no cheese, no problem.

Elsy’s Antojitos Centro Americanos was so delicious that it made me grateful for Tita’s rejection.

IMG_9792

Along with tacos, burritos and enchiladas, they sold pupusa for $2.75 a piece.

I stepped to the window without a moment’s wait and, despite my inclination to avoid meat that night, I ordered one with pork and beans, no cheese. The clerk didn’t even mention the cheese. She just wrote it on the ticket and took my money.

IMG_9793

Parked on the north edge of the ARCO station, Elsy’s stood on the east side of the travel center, on the edge of a vast sandy lot, undeveloped and covered in native desert scrub, that stretched as far east as I could see.

 IMG_9816

A Hispanic man selling oranges and cherries parked his pickup truck on the street below the ARCO sign.

IMG_9819

Eleven semis parked in a row next to the lunch truck, some for the night, others just resting momentarily.

IMG_9795

Thirteen of us ate here, all men. “Excuse me,” one said while lowering himself on my bench. His friend waved a friendly hello as he took a seat at our table. There were four wooden picnic tables under the metal canopy, and for 8:30 at night, this place was packed.

While placing his order, one trucker said “Sinaloa” to the cook. It was the only word in his rapid fire sentences that I understood. A pickup pulled up, playing Norteño, and three men piled out. Three other men in Western shirts and jeans stood around a pickup, leaning against the red rim of the bed. Two wore cowboy hats. Behind them towered the familiar red and yellow McDonald’s sign, its colors cast against the crepuscular blue of night.

3) Tacos Mi Casita

In the town of Buttonwillow proper, on Lokern Road, this lonchero was parked in a decommissioned gas station. Had I not just eaten breakfast, I would have eaten here.

IMG_9823

4) Ricos Tacos

IMG_0022

When I arrived at Ricos Tacos, two men in uniform blues stood at the counter eating, covered in sweat.

IMG_0005

Located on Mt. Whitney Avenue, outside the 3000-person town of Riverdale, this lonchero leads a lonely existence.

IMG_0006

Mt. Whitney Ave isn’t a popular route to anywhere. Tourists don’t pass by. People heading to the Indian casino near Lemoore or up to Fresno take other routes. Customers seemed to be truckers, locals, farm hands and factory workers.

Ricos Tacos overlooked a dirt lot and sprawling green fields. Parked against the eroded eastern wall of the gutted Hancock Gasoline Market, there were no tables or places to sit. There was shade, though. You could park your car under the big tree and sit on your trunk or hood. The view was nice and the silence peaceful.

IMG_0013

The tacos were great, too. Served on bright yellow corn tortillas and loaded with rich, juicy asada, Ricos garnished them with a thick sliver of lemon and radish slices, all for $1.25 a piece.

IMG_0015

Riverdale is one of many small towns set amid the braided channels of the King’s River alluvial fan, southwest of Fresno. Because this area’s tiny rural towns are tied to the rich soils and high water table of the King’s River, they often grow grapes and have more large, shapely oaks than towns to the south and west, so I think of them all as a unit. A sense of isolation and insularity also permeates the area.

IMG_0020

When you park at a condemned building, you have to make your own energy. Ricos draws part, or maybe all, of it juice from a generator mounted on the grill.

IMG_0018

After I ate, I stepped to the front of the truck in search of a trash can. I found a gray plastic tub standing against the market wall, hidden by sumac. One side had cracked off like a broken tooth. Old paper plates and napkins filled it, covered with gravel and a fine gray powder looked like cement dust. When I snapped a photo from that position, a door on the back of the truck swung open, and the cook stepped out. He came right over and said, “You taking picture.”

I said Yes, I was, and explained that I liked write about places where I ate. He nodded and stared at my camera, still unsure. “I saw you taking pictures,” he said and pantomimed the process, understandably unnerved at my intentions. There was a sign in the front window announcing that the last food inspection certificate was available upon request. Maybe he was concerned about health inspections, maybe immigration.

I explained that I only wanted to post photos of his truck and food online. “Is that okay if I do?”

He said, “Sure, that’s okay.” He extended his hand to shake. “What’s your name?”

I told him it, first and last, as we shook. “What’s your name?”

“Orlando,” he said and went back inside to cook the food of the man who just pulled up in a maroon pickup.

5) San Joaquin, California

Another truck parked on Colorado Road, just before entering the town of San Joaquin. Set on the dirt shoulder flanking the train tracks beside a cotton field, it stood alone at 7:20pm, with no customers.

edge of the town of San Joaquin 1

Oompa music played from inside it. Cars passed, no one stopped. Cool wind blew. Say what you will about this corner of California, but it was beautiful here, peaceful.

edge of the town of San Joaquin 2

 

Read Full Post »

By the time Lucky Peach magazine did their ramen issue in the summer of 2011, ramen shops and izakayas were already multiplying in many West Coast cities. The issue’s recipes and the unprecedented “Specifist’s Guide to the Regional Ramen of Japan” only fueled Americans’ interest in this popular Japanese food.

You can call this ramenia a hipster fad if you want. Dismiss many US versions as inauthentic. Go ahead and be a grump. But trendy or not, I’m enjoying the dish’s increasing availability.

On a recent vacation, I slurped my way through numerous luxuriant bowls in Los Angeles. Like many of the world’s great cities, LA is an energetic, multicultural mélange. It’s been fortunate enough to have a large Japanese population for a long time. As both a generator and early absorber of culture, it’s no surprise that LA is home to some of America’s best ramen shops. Although they’re all over the city, two neighborhoods boast the greatest density: Little Tokyo downtown, and Sawtelle on the West Side. Here’s a tour through a few:

1) Daikokuya

In the solar system of LA ramen shops, this place is the sun. Located in Little Tokyo on 1st just east of San Pedro Street, Daikokuya sits across the street from Mr. Pizza (“dinner special available,” says the sandwich board) and Las Galas (offering Philly Combo, Taco Combo, Burger Combo, Quesadilla Combo), and it’s so revered that it’s one of the only reasons many people come to Little Tokyo at all. I’ll be generous and assume that the people eating at Mr. Pizza are lost.

Other Little Tokyo shops top peoples’ best of lists: Aoi Restaurant next door, for instance, Chin-Ma-Ya of Tokyo, and Manten down on 2nd and Alameda. But the consensus is that Daikokuya beats them all.

Daikokuya is a small local chain with five locations: Monterey Park, Costa Mesa, Hacienda Heights, Arcadia and Little Tokyo. LT’s is a tiny shop. A few booths line the walls. A small counter surrounds the cook station. Demand usually outstrips seating, although on my last trip I got lucky and only had to wait about fifteen minutes.

Some people deride it because of its popularity: “The line is ridiculous! Screw that place! Why wait thirty minutes when Aoi rarely has a wait?” There’s some logic to the latter. Whether or not you think Daikokuya’s is LA’s best ramen, it is, without question, ridiculously good.

Daikokuya is known for tonkotsu ramen, a broth based on stewed pork bones. In Lucky Peach, chef David Chang says, “Tonkotsu is to ramen as Chicago deep-dish is to pizza: it’s a food group of its own, with a style that’s a thing apart, practically a different dish.” Daikokuya simmers their broth overnight.

As the menu says, “the process begins the afternoon before it ever reaches your table by boiling pork bones and joints in a large cauldren (sic) all throughout the night reducing at an undisclosed location. by the time it reaches the stove behind the counter the next day all the goodness is concentrated in our famous tonkotsu soup base.” Their broth is so good, they could cook it in a polluted brake drum for all I care.

This stuff is gravy, a rich, buttery comfort food that packs a salty porcine punch without being greasy. Amid its many layers, it has hints of bacon smoke. On my last visit, it was ninety something degrees out, yet the broth didn’t feel overpowering. And somehow it’s only $8.50! Bottom line: you’re not going to wait in line only to conclude, “That ramen was horrible.” The only regret you’ll have is seeing the bottom of your bowl.

Ramen is composed of four parts: the noodles, the broth, the tare (the salty flavor essence that helps determine the type of ramen it is) and the toppings. Daikokuya tops theirs with stewed bamboo shoots, green onions, a marinated hardboiled egg, bean sprouts and a sprinkle of sesame seeds. Their chijiri egg noodles are springy and chewy.

Their hardboiled egg is perfect, with a firm but soft orange middle and a white that absorbs the broth’s flavor.

One key topping is chashu. Daikokuya’s is perfect.

Chashu is simmered pork. Some shops use pork loin; others use pork belly, or kakuni. Different places also spell chashu differently: charsu pork, chasu pork, char siu, hyphenated and not hyphenated. Buttery, laced with ribbons of silky fat that melt in your mouth, Daikokuya sets the standard for this stuff.

Another thing about chashu: ramen shops never seem to put enough in their soup. They use it as a condiment, rather than a central component of the dish, which conflicts not with some culinary code of ethics so much as the American tendency to view meat as a meal’s centerpiece. Even if my desire for more pork is rooted in cultural relativism, I still want more. It’s frustrating to pay $9-15 for a bowl somewhere and still only find one or two slices in it, since no matter how filling the noodles and how savory the broth, you’ll always crave more of that soft, stewed meat. That’s why it’s such a score when you find surprise scraps floating in the bottom, entangled in noodles like incidental fish caught in a net. The lesson: no matter how much it pushes your bill beyond your normal “acceptable” level, always order extra chashu. Go work an extra shift at your job. Book overtime. Sell stuff on eBay. But order extra pork, especially here.

The menu also includes fried rice, chow mein and chicken teriyaki, but who would come here for that?

One guy next to me – a young Indian-American office type guy – leaned over his steaming bowl and didn’t look up once. A single earbud hung from his ear, snaking back to the iPod on the counter. He leaned over his bowl, and after finishing his noodles, spooned up the soup with the repetitive, medium-paced motion of a shovel moving ore from a rock pile, one load after another after another. Then, when he finished, he got up and left. The only time his gaze broke was when the waitress brought his check. She set it beside him and he lifted his head, but he didn’t meet her eyes. He muttered, “Thank you,” and resumed slurping.

2) Suehiro Café

Located on 1st Street, the main drag in Little Tokyo, this small café’s sandwich board lured me in. Weekend special, it said, tonkotsu ramen $5.99, down from $8.99. The usual crowd stood outside Daikokuya waiting for tables. I would’ve gone to Aoi instead, the little mom and pop place nearly next door – what some people call one of the last old school joints in Little Tokyo – but I’d missed their Sunday 5-9 hours. So I came here.

Suehiro is a small café. The sign by the door says “Maximum Capacity: 49.” A sign in back says “Thank you for helping Japan. We raised $12,518.” Drawings from kids line the walls and back hallway, all slipped into protective plastic sleeves presumably to protect them from tonkotsu broth splatter.

Even for six dollars, this ramen is more than utilitarian. The broth is well above average, the meat meaty and noodles springy. Any place outside of LA, this would likely be considered pretty damn good. The broth is much lighter than Daikokuya’s. It’s less porky, more golden in color, and tastes like it’s made with much more chicken, kind of like a Japanese matzo ball soup. With the popularity of heavy pork broth, it’s nice to have a range options.

Along with the soup, the highlight is the toppings: half an egg; spinach arranged in a generous bunch; nori seaweed; scallions; a slice of pink and white fishcake; and a liberal pile of soft, stewed bamboo.

It’s the traditional, pre-trend Tokyo ramen arrangement, and one whose bounty puts most ramen shops to shame. It would matter more if the pork was better. Toppings alone cannot carry ramen.

The chashu pork is good, but it’s the weakest link in the chain. It’s a thicker cut than Daikokuya’s, made not from belly but from pork loin or roll, which has been sliced and simmered until approaching tender. But it’s not as tender as I like.

Pork loin isn’t buttery or laced with the type of fat that makes belly meat so appealing. Although far from disappointing, it offers proof that being meaty is not enough. You have to have texture and flavor. The thing is, Suehiro gives you so much of it, which raises a deeper question: would you rather have less of the perfect meat, or a larger serving of the mid-range stuff? This is the place to find the answer.

Unlike iconic Daikokuya, Suehiro Café was filled with teenagers and tourists. If that sounds like a nightmare, it wasn’t as bad as it could have been. Five middle school girls sat at the long table to my left, accompanied by one adult, than mother of one of the kids. When the drinks arrived, one girl with a bob, big eyes and a striped, shirt said, “Ugh. This soda tastes like my medicine.” It was Calpico, the Japanese yogurt soda. The mother and daughter were Hispanic, one kid was white, and the others were, by their own description, “Indian, not Pakistani.” When sushi arrived, the daughter with the bob poked the wasabi with her chopsticks and said, “One time my dad and I bit into that. I thought it was, like, bell pepper, and I put it in my mouth and was like oh my god, oh my god.” She put some fish in her mouth and started shaking her head in disapproval. “I don’t like squishy tuna.”

One of her friends said, “Tuna is always squishy.”

“No,” the first girl said. “The red kind. I don’t like when it’s red.”

To my right, two young, gangly boys sat with their mother. The oldest kid was an early teen. He had feathered, emo hair, tight pants and braces with green rubber bands tied so tightly that they gave him a lisp. “I want a purebred,” he told his mom. “If I can’t get a purebred, I want a part Newfie.”

His mom flipped through one of the thin magazines that stood on a shelf by the front door. “There are lots of jobs in here,” she said without looking up, “restaurants you can work at.”

“Mom,” the younger boy said, “we’re not even in college!”

They each ordered variations of grilled chicken.

3) Tsujita LA Artisan Noodle

 Part I: Ramen

You want to talk about ramen hype? With coverage in the LA Times, LA Weekly and on innumerable blogs and the tweetosphere, Tsujita had peoples’ attention before it even started serving noodles.

Tsujita is located in the Westside’s small but thriving Sawtelle neighborhood, an area sometimes called Little Osaka. Part of a small Japanese chain, this shop is the only North American branch, a fact that the ‘LA’ in the ‘Artisan Noodle’ name only vaguely hints at.

Tsujita offers two menu distinct menus. During the day (11am – 3:30pm) they focus on noodles: ramen and tsukemen. At night (6pm – 12am), they’re an izakaya, serving hot dishes and small plates, as well as a stellar omakase (“I’ll leave it to you,” aka chef’s choice) menu.

Tsujita offers three kinds of tonkotsu ramen: straight up for $8.95; Char-Sui Ramen for $12.95: “Ramen soup topped with slices of roasted pork;” and Negi Ramen for $9.95: “Ramen with thin strips of green onion.”

Head chef Kenta Ikehata

The charshu pork is really good. Tender, buttery, it even has the faint smoky taste of bacon.

Three thick slices float atop the noodles in the basic $8.95 bowl, all carefully placed alongside nori, bamboo and scallions. Although not as buttery as Daikokuya’s, Tsujita’s pork is delicious, so good that in hindsight I can see that I should’ve followed my own advice and paid the four extra bucks for the Char-Sui Ramen.

Three Jewish business people ate beside me. They kept playing what my own Jewish family calls the “Jewish name game”: guessing who’s Jewish based on their last name. One guy talked about trying to find a rabbi for his son who just left for college at Brown. When the waitress came to take their order, one man said, “I’ll have the rah-mahn.”

“Ramen,” said the waitress, scribbling it down.

“Yes,” he said, overcorrecting, “the rah-men.”

When their food arrived, they ate and talked and commented on their first bites. Businessman #1 said, “This is fabulous.”

Businessman #2 said, “Yes. Noodles are too hard for my abilities.” He was struggling to use the chopsticks to get noodles into his mouth.

The lone Businesswoman said, “We’re all here eating pork soup,” and they laughed. Through a mouthful of noodles, she described her father’s death and her mother moving into assisted living. “My mom is eighty-four, on JDate.”

Businessman #2 laughed. “Marketing is everything.”

Another highlight is the large selection of condiments on the counter.

There’s slivered red ginger, hot leaf mustard, sesame seeds, vinegar and pepper — you can dress your noodles to taste. If you like your soup spicy, add some of that mustard. This isn’t wet, hot dog style mustard. It’s the actual mustard plant, diced and leafy and seasoned to add heat but not too much. (Meaning, if you like your Korean food medium-hot, you won’t feel this at all.) It also adds flavor but not a pickly, tart flavor that’s going to overwhelm the soup.

The broth is thick and super porky, satisfying all the points on your palate with its dense flavors and silky body. They cook it for sixty hours. Besides this slow, careful simmering, part of Tsujita’s secret is fat. It comes from the pig parts, as well as a clear slick of lard on top.

Lard, you say? Before setting the bowl on the counter for the waitress, the cook spoons in some soy sauce from one metal bucket, then spoons in liquid lard from another.

Lest you think all Japanese food is healthy, know that, in Japan, it’s common to thicken ramen broth further by adding liquid lard. Some shops add butter. If that sounds like overkill, it is. It’s also delicious.

Take, for instance, Asahikawa ramen, a shôyu-based broth that blends chicken, pork and seafood. Since it’s located on Japan’s cold northernmost island of Hokkaido, Lucky Peach says, “The bowl is topped off with an insulating layer of lip-scalding melted lard to prevent the soup from losing heat in the frigid winter months.” In that same issue, David Chang says, “There’s a shop called Jiro in Japan that has become epically popular for having the most extreme tonkotsu-style broth, with so much pork fat emulsified into it that people talk of getting sick after eating it for the first time. But that doesn’t stop them from returning for the second go-round.” It’s a description that could fit countless junkies’ first use of heroin: getting sick then continuing using. What is it about pork fat that’s so seductive? And ‘emulsified?’ Any food whose preparation requires industrial and pharmaceutical terminology is going to take a toll on your body.

It gets crazier.

According to Lucky Peach’s “Specifist’s Guide to the Regional Ramen of Japan,” restaurants in the town of Kurume, on Japan’s southernmost island of Kyushu, serve their ramen with bits of fried lard. How you fry lard is beyond me, but determined chefs have found a way. And in the frigid west of central Honshu, “The twin cities of Tsubame and Sanjô lay claim to one of the most unusual and unhealthy ramen variants in Japan—an already rich broth made of pork bones, chicken, and sardines is topped with an almost obscene amount of suspended pork fat. There’s enough lard and raw white onion shaken on top that it’s almost impossible to make out the extra-thick, linguini-like noodles hidden below. They say that the salt and calories go a long way to replenishing the body after a hard day’s work making forks and spoons.”

A few words on lard skin:

Lard skin

Lard is a curious beast. Like mercury, it exhibits unusual physical properties that give it strange movements and qualities. Drizzled on hot soup, it liquefies, yet like the top layer of American sausage gravy, it quickly solidifies. Its resting state is congealed, and when it congeals in ramen, lard skin at rest resembles rice paper: a clear, delicate, surprisingly pliable layer. It contains tiny bubbles, and no matter how many times you stir it, as long as the soup is hot, the skin seems to reform. It sticks to everything, draping from the side of the bowl like a plastic pool cover, encasing the noodles, chopsticks and green onions as if this were sous-vide.

like a plastic pool cover

When you look at that reflective film, you know that that is exactly what it’s doing inside your arteries: coating everything and blocking passage. But when it’s on your tongue, you don’t care. You’ll care a few decades from now in the ICU.

In addition to compromising your health, the eating is fraught with danger. Even the tiniest drops will ruin your clothing. Bowls slide across the counter and leave oily traces that you don’t notice until they wet your arms. Pouring your soup into a take-out container requires surgical skill and the ability to disguise your terror in a way that maintains the illusion of masculinity. I even found a pool of liquid lard on the plate beneath my bowl. It had a semi-skin when I lifted it.

Broth like Tsujita’s elbows you in your bloated gut and proves that no matter how much Japan imports and celebrates Americana, it can also out-America America on uniquely Japanese terms. America invents the bacon cheeseburger topped with a fried egg and onion rings, and Japan lets some lard soup harden in your wheezing ventricle. Most ramen is a bacon cheeseburger. Although its complicated and protracted preparation means that it is not necessarily fast food, it does offer eaters a similar sense of comfort and a fatty rush, as well as a comparable physical abuse.

Despite the grim air of mortality surrounding this meal, there is much to love here, as evidenced by my consumption of the entire bowl and half of a second one. One highlight are the noodles. They’re fresh and chewy, closer to angel hair spaghetti than the springy, curly rubber bands most ramen eaters are used to.

Tsujita cooks them three different ways: hard, medium and soft. As the menu says: “Our recommendation is hard!” (That’s also how they like their arteries.)

If the bowls are smaller than the Daikokuya feeding trough you’re used to, then at least the flavor here more than makes up for it. Forget about size. This dish isn’t your penis. The soup’s so rich that a small order is sufficient. If you’re reading this and you’re American, though, you likely think that bigger is better, in which case, Tsujita makes you a dangerous proposal: buy a refill of noodles for $1.50, and the restaurant will give you free soup with it. This practice is called kaedama (替え玉), which translates to “extra noodles.” Since some customers may still be hungry after their meal, or might find the restaurant’s portions too small, some restaurants have a system where you can order extra noodles for a small additional fee. The Ramenaiac website says: “Ordering kaedama is a pasttime that originated with the Hakata style of ramen, in which portion sizes are traditionally smaller.” Many Japanese ramen shops require that diners have enough soup left in their bowl to accommodate the added noodles, which is why diners with foresight will resist drinking too much of the soup if they’re going to order a second helping. That’s why it’s generous that Tsujita includes more soup with the deal: Drink your soup, don’t drink it, they don’t care. You’re getting fresh soup either way. When the waitress brought my extra noodles, I realized the wisdom of not drinking too much of the soup: mine arrived in a new, clean bowl. The second was essentially a naked recreation of my first bowl, minus all the toppings – just soup and noodles.

I dressed it with sliced ginger and hot leaf mustard, then sprinkled it with sesame seeds. I was so stuffed that I could barely get through a third of it.

As Americans, we’re used to ordering more than we should, and eating more than is wise, so when you sit down at a place this good, it’s tempting to just assume you’re going to order kaedama. Eat like a horse, I told myself, you’re not in LA very often. It’s vacation. But Americans aren’t the only ones. A Japanese twenty-something came in, said hi to someone he knew at a nearby table, and in the time it took me to eat half my first bowl, he scarfed down two. His wallet was out to play before I finished slurping up my broth.

During the meal I felt fortunate to be here. Afterwards, I felt sick. No wonder: I’d eaten the gastro equivalent of wall insulation. After paying my bill, I tried to walk down Sawtelle but had to sit down in the shade to keep from throwing up. I pictured what that would look like: the bald gringo, vomiting into a planter. Bloated and remorseful, I tried to keep it together. Like the baby that I am, I text my girlfriend. She texted back the truth: “That’s what happens when you eat lard, baby!”

Part II: Tsukemen

Like those nauseated diners at Jiro, I returned to the source of my torment for more.

Besides ramen, Tsujita serves tsukemen. At first glance, this resembled a healthier soup, one based more on fish than pork and lard. “For 12 hours,” the website says, “the rich flavors of bonito and dried sardines are simmered together with pork bone, chicken bone and many vegetable creating a succulent fragrance of the sea that is powerful and beyond compare!”

I’m addicted to bonito dashi – that rich, umami-laced flavor based on dried bonito fish (katsuobushi) that tastes like a bacon-infused ocean. A whole, carefully simmered broth of that struck me as liquid heaven. I would have ordered it on my first visit, but once I read the menu’s tsukemen section it was too late; like a miracle, my ramen arrived less than three minutes after ordering. I came back a week later.

Since Tsujita’s so popular, there’s often a wait. If you get stuck waiting for lunch outside, drink some of the barley tea they offer in a large plastic jug. Waiting outside beside me, three twenty-somethings discussed their recent celebrity sightings. A young woman in a high-waisted brown dress said, “You saw Angelina Jolie a few weeks ago, right?”

Her friend, a young man in super skinny black jeans said, “A few years ago. I saw Russell Brand a few weeks ago at the airport.”

She nodded. “You see them at the DMV because they have to go there themselves.”

It’s not that kind of restaurant. It’s just that kind of city.

So, what is tsukemen? Pronounced skeh-men rather than tsoo-keh-men, it’s a cold-noodle dipping style of ramen. Despite its rampant popularity in Japan, it remains relatively unknown in the US. Lucky Peach gives a brief history: “As much a different concept of ramen as a regional style, undressed tsukemen noodles are dipped into an accompanying bowl of fishy, barely diluted broth before slurping. Though tsukemen has taken the ramen world by storm of late, it traces its history to the early postwar era, when the now-legendary ‘God of Ramen,’ Kazuo Yamagishi of Tokyo’s Taishôken, decided to offer his customers soup and noodles separately.”

Tsujita is one of the only places on the West Coast that serves tsukemen, reproducing stateside one of the best recipes in Tokyo. In his 2011 LA Weekly article, Jonathan Gold calls the dish “life-changing” and describes a noodle blogger/cognoscenti known as “Rameniac” who flew from London to LA just to eat it. As Garrett Snyder puts it in his 2012 LA Weekly article, “The tsukemen broth [at Tsujita] starts out as the same tonkotsu base as the ramen, except it’s simmered and reduced for 60 hours, then fortified with bonito until it’s as viscous as motor oil. You dip your noodles, chewy, bouncy and cooked al dente, into the umami-rich liquid, then slurp up the lubricated strands. The proper technique for enjoyment involves consuming one third of the noodles with the broth, the second third with a dash of togarashi spice, and the final third with a squeeze of lime. Although you might have a hard time getting past the pure animalistic bliss of the first section.”

Los Angeles magazine included Tsujita as #88 in their 2012 “101 Cheap Eats” summer roundup and described chef Kenta Ikehata as a tsukemen fanatic who moved from Tokyo to LA to open Tsujita’s first US location. “[H]e’s been known to toil into the wee hours to perfect his pungent broth,” it said. “All that labor has yielded a bowl of silky soup unmatched in L.A.”

The Tsujita menu offers directions to bring out the emergent flavors:

Enjoy Tsujita Tsukemen Style in 3 Stages,

Begin by dipping the noodles into the accompanied soup broth until you have enjoyed around 1/3 of the noodles.

Please squeeze the lime juice over the noodle at the timing you like.

After the noodle is finished you can enjoy the soup at the end by pouring some addition soup stock.

The taste changes dramatically with each stage. Tsujita Tsukemen style at best.

The menu didn’t mention lard, though, and this time I arrived prepared.

I asked the waitress if she could hold the lard in my tsukemen. She shook her head no.

“You can’t tell them not to add lard?” I said.

She said, “Oh, it’s already in the soup.”

“That’s okay. Can you tell them not to spoon more on?”

Yes, she said she could do that.

Some people might see this as sacrilege, akin to asking Katz’s Deli to make their famous pastrami sandwich without the rye bread, but I disagree. Why take such great pains to source and combine specific ingredients only to ruin the dish at the end? Japanese soup stocks have some of the most complex, satisfying flavors on earth. Wanting broth straight wasn’t sacrilege. Dumping lard in there was. I just wanted to eat without feeling ill.

The broth was incredible. Potent and complex, porky and oceanic, rich and savory — like nothing I’ve ever tasted. It was also pretty greasy. A layer of clear fat floated atop the dark, cloudy broth like spillage in the Gulf.

In that 2011 LA Weekly article, Jonathan Gold says, “If you try to taste the tsukemen dipping sauce alone, somebody probably will stop you before the spoon makes it up to your lips.” Either no one bothered to stop me, or they didn’t see me spooning it to my mouth. Same with leftovers: “You are permitted but not encouraged to take home leftovers,” he says. The waitress with the ramen was more than happy to let me take what was left of my second bowl home. By the time I ate all my noodles, though, I was so larded out that I didn’t even want to take the tsukemen home. Less than half the broth remained in the bowl.

Rare or not, I was happy to leave it there. All that flavor, the cooks’ labor, the meticulous ingredients – burying it beneath so much grease seemed more egregious than like pouring generic barbecue sauce over Central Texas brisket that had been smoked for two days.

Maybe my stomach’s too sensitive. Maybe I have a prejudice against grease. I would say that Tsujita just barely missed the mark if I didn’t have the unbearable urge to eat there again.

4) Miyata Menji

Miyata Menji’s small, Spartan space presents a far more welcoming environment than you’d expect from a narrow expanse of white walls and wood floorboards.

A Plexiglas case of cookies stands by the door. Between the cookies and the kitchen, a large group of construction workers sit at the large center table, slurping noodles and sharing boisterous conversation.

Unlike many places, Miyata Menji has chosen the path of simplicity. It offers two items: tsukemen and tonkotsu ramen. Although they serve specials like a curry ramen, their simple menu means they do everything well.

Miyata’s soup didn’t turn my stomach the way Tsujita’s did. In fact, when I asked the hostess if they added lard, she tried to conceal her confusion with a smile. “Lard?” she said. “What is lard? I don’t think so.” There was a sense of finality that countered the rising intonation of her final sentence.

And unlike Tsujita, there was no wait. Miyata’s hostess greeted me at the front door with the traditional “Irrashaimase!,” or “Welcome!” in Japanese, and let me choose a table. She was super sweet and accommodating. Wearing a bright yellow Miyata t-shirt, a dark apron and a white headscarf decorated with Japanese characters, she buzzed around the room refilling water glasses, seating new arrivals and smiling when she caught your eye. A few bites into my meal, she appeared beside my table. “Everything good?” she said. She rubbed her belly. “We have extra noodle if you’re still hungry.”

Part of a small Osaka-based chain, Miyata is a recent addition to Sawtelle’s ramen kingdom: it opened on March 21, 2012, the first American branch in the company. As the LA Weekly reported right after the opening: “Owner and ‘famous comedian’ Menji Miyata wants to spread his food to the world, explains vice president of operations Akihiro Kanda. The 26-seat, cash-only restaurant, which opened on March 23, has yet to make any public announcements of its debut and is relying heavily on word of mouth and foot traffic for customers. ‘The ramen business is blowing up,’ says Kanda.”

A tiny Japanese woman ate an enormous bowl of tsukemen next to an enormous Hispanic kid in a maroon Adidas soccer shirt, eating an enormous bowl of ramen.

While I ate, a brusque middle aged Asian woman stepped inside to grab a menu. When the hostess greeted her, the woman barked, “Do you have cold noodle?”

“Tsukemen?” said the hostess. “Yes.”

“No,” the woman said in unsteady English. “Cold noodle.” They exchanged words I couldn’t hear. Her eyes darted around, and then she left.

The menu describes their take on tsukemen as “steamed noodle with anchovy cabbage, white shallot, grated cheese & vegetable ptage, pork minced, tomato crouton.” It notes: “If you are allergy or dislike to cheese, please tells staff. We are able to make it without cheese.” Looking around, it seemed that most people ordered the tsukemen.

Although I wish I’d ordered it, too, Miyata’s tonkotsu is the stuff of dreams. It’s rich without being heavy, fatty without being greasy, porky but not too salty. It’s the same approach that Daikokuya takes, finding flavor in the slow simmering of broth and adding fat back in, rather than adulterating perfect broth with lard. Like Suehiro’s, the broth here is golden like matzo ball soup, and its medium-body is silky in your mouth.

As usual, they top their soup with scallions, but in a twist that’s unusual among LA’s ramen shops, Mikyata garnishes their soup with diced tomato.

The tomato adds a nice tartness and a soft, fresh texture to each bite, a counterpoint to the hot broth. It doesn’t alter the flavor of the soup, though, which is nice. In what almost seems a cue from Vietnamese noodle dishes, they sprinkle on white shallots and fried slivers of garlic. The combination adds a deep, satisfying punch to the broth that fans of Kumamoto prefecture’s garlic-infused ramen might appreciate.

Another unusual twist: instead of using charshu pork, Miyata uses terisyabu – teriyaki beef. Granted, there isn’t much of it, and maybe it’s more a cost-saving measure than a culinary decision, but the thin strips are flavorful and have that chewy, resilient texture that makes teriyaki so good.

You can add extra terisyabu for $2, and more fresh tomato for $1. Ramen and tsukemen are both $8.75 for a regular size bowl. A large size is available for when you feel like an animal.

While chewing terisyabu, I started thinking: after eating all this pork ramen, what was it doing to my body? If you want a biased opinion, famed Tokyo ramen shop Nantsuttei offers a nutritional analysis of chashu pork. (The lead singer of the Morning Benders, Chris Chu, told The New York Times that of the twenty-five or so bowls of ramen they ate on a 2012 Japanese tour, Nantsuttei’s tonkotsu “blew everything else out of the water.”). Nantsuttei says: “Pork is a great source of good quality protein and contains an abundance of vitamin B1. Vitamin B1 is highly effective in relieving fatigue and is necessary to change glucose to energy in the liver. Vitamin B1 also helps to stabilize your autonomic system and relieves the symptoms of menopause and autonomic dystonia. Pork also contains compounds that reduce cholesterol and help prevent hardening of the arteries. By combining with garlic, which contains scordinin, you can feel the full effect of fatigue relief!” Oh, pork actually protects your arteries from hardening? Who knew. (Notice their website discusses the nutritional profile of green onions, garlic and eggs, but doesn’t list any info about their soup’s salt, fat or calorie content.)

Daikokuya, on the other hand, has taken a more subtle, evasive approach to the subject: “Currently we do not have the nutritional info for our food. It is something we will do in the future, but it is an involved process. Right now we are a small restaurant chain of 4 locations.. The California law requires restaurant chains of 20 or more locations to provide nutritional info.. so we still have time lol. Alternatively, you could look up general item’s nutritional info such as ‘gyoza’ etc.. and find a possible ball-park idea of what it might be. Of course, our recipes are not necessarily the same, so it would not be entirely accurate. Eventually we will have the analysis done.” Now that’s a line of BS I can respect.

Miyata’s only problem is location: the shop is easy to miss. Set off the street, on the edge of a small parking lot, the tiny storefront is composed mostly of a doorway and a yellow awning beside a blank wall.

Walking by, it looks like it’s part of the neighboring hardware store, rather than an appetizing restaurant.

Because it’s set back a ways, Miyata sets a sandwich board by the sidewalk to draw attention. I’d say that I hoped that tactic was working, but the crowd at 12:30 on Tuesday proved that it was.

Despite the seductive decadence of Tsujita, Miyata is my favorite noodle joint on Sawtelle. Simple, savory, with a relaxed atmosphere and friendly staff, eating here is like eating at a friend’s house, expect they leave you a bill. As the red paint on the parking block in front of the door says, “Thank you!! See you again.” Oh hell yeah you will.

5) Asahi Ramen: Japanese Noodle House

 

If we judged a restaurant’s prospects by its appearance, we’d miss some of the best food on earth. A birrieria with bars on the windows whose screens buzz with flies? A man grilling meat on a cart on a downtown sidewalk? Unlike the covers of books, food often works on the counterintuitive, uglier-the-better principle (UTBP). In fact, when it comes to ethnic, neighborhood restaurants, you should ignore the setting entirely. In Los Angeles Magazine, food writer Zach Brooks goes further, offering two rules: “Avoid Anything ‘Clean’ and ‘Real’ – These are code words for ‘expensive’” and “Look Past the Surface – Love the ambience and friendly staff at your favorite restaurant?  Of course you do. Know who pays for that? You.” That’s good advice.

Asahi Ramen isn’t dirty. It isn’t cramped or even faintly crusty. Rather than a hole in the wall, it’s the sort of benign brood cell you find in suburban strip centers next to office parks. Instead of overpriced iceberg lettuce salads and garbage sub sandwiches, it serves twelve types of ramen, more varieties than any other place on Sawtelle.

An hour before closing on Saturday night, the place was jumping – only two vacant tables in a room full of about ten. As the restaurant’s website says, Asahi is a place “frequently visited by film stars, so one wall is like a small gallery with star photographs covering it.” I missed the wall of photos, but the place was a sea of civilian faces.

A middle-aged guy with his girlfriend knocked over his cup of Diet Coke. Ice and soda cascaded over the edge of the table, onto the floor. She giggled and handed him a napkin. “Why is that funny?” he said.

She leaned back in her seat and tightened her ponytail. She said, “It is,” and smiled at me as if we had an inside joke. I smiled back. I couldn’t deny it was funny.

An older woman with buggy eyes and overprocessed big black hair sat next to me with her young daughter and said nothing. The kid watched a kid’s show on a smart phone with the volume turned up. The mother stared past her, past me, straight out the window, her chin resting on her hands as if the life had just left her. Only when the food arrived did the two speak.

“Would you like a fork,” the mother said, “or chopsticks?”

“Fork,” the kid said. Then they ate.

Nearby, a young man ate by himself, slowly and methodically, and drank a Coke.

A jovial couple behind me spent a lot of their time laughing and swapping stories. When the server came by, the man asked, “Can we get this to go?” He and his girlfriend said they loved their ramen but were full. “As you eat it,” he said, “it expands. It grows and grows. You have to watch as it reproduces!”

Japan is home to numerous regional ramen varieties. Despite this diversity, ramen broth is often divided into four basic types: pork-bone based ramen (tonkotsu), salt-based ramen (shio), miso-based (fermented soy bean paste) and shôyu-based (close to soy sauce). Nine of Asahi’s twelve ramen are shôyu-based, but each has a distinctive flavor, due as much to its toppings as its broth. There’s Wakame Ramen (“Noodle with seaweed, bean sprouts, cooked bamboo shoots in a soy sauce soup”), Moyashi Ramen (“Noodle with sautéed bean sprouts and shredded pork in soy sauce soup”), Shio Ramen (“Noodles with roast pork, ½ egg, bean sprouts, cooked bamboo shoots in clear soup”) and Kimchi Ramen (“Noodles with pan fried kimchi and shredded pork in soy sauce soup”).

I ordered the Mabo Ramen.

I’d eaten so many varieties of tonkotsu in the last few days that I wanted to taste something completely different. Often spelled mapo doufu, mabo tofu is one of the most well-known Chinese dishes in Japan, Korea and the West. It’s simple: slices of tofu seasoned in a red, chili- and bean-based sauce, whose flavor comes in varying levels of heat that frequently reaches the popular Sichuanese “numbing” level. Asahi’s menu describes their Mabo Ramen as “Noodles with spicy sauce with ground pork and tofu in soy sauce soup.” It was spicy but not overpowering, just warm enough to have heat and lots of flavor. But the broth was mediocre.

As Asahi’s website puts it: “The broth is derived from meats and 10 different types of vegetables and steeped for over 24 hours. The broth requires vegetables of which 7 would easily spoil, so the profound taste of the broth is very special to the dish.” Maybe the owners prefer the taste of shôyu soups. Maybe they want to specialize in a type that few other LA ramen shops serve, make it their niche. Or maybe shôyu ramen is just easier to make. The problem is, you can taste the difference. It’s not that Asahi’s broth is cheap or lackluster. It’s clearly labored over. It’s just that, for all that simmering and those ten different vegetables, the result is too simple a taste for my palate. Even though I’m partial to stronger flavors – briny, porky, oceanic – Asahi’s stock is savory and salty but lacks depth. You won’t find a whiff of bacon smoke. You won’t find the complex layers of tartness, garlic or butter the way you do at Miyata, or the concentrated seafood character of Tsujita’s tsukemen. The flavor that dominates here is salt, not overpoweringly, but in a simple way. It’s silky on your tongue but flat, which is disappointing considering their range of offerings.

I initially saw the menu hanging in the window and thought, “I want them all. This will require numerous trips.” I ate one bowl and thought, “Eh, next time I’ll eat the Hiyashi Chuka (“Cold noodles with egg, seaweed, cucumbers, and bean sprouts in sweet sour sauce”) and tsukemono pickles.” Maybe shôyu broth just isn’t for me, in which case, I’m a poor judge of quality. Maybe this is actually what ramen is supposed to taste like, and the heavy porcine gravy version is just the now version, the “extreme” next-level, take-it-over-the-top trend soup. Hard to say. I like porky, though.

If this was a person’s first experience of authentic restaurant ramen, they would be missing out on the depth of experience, but Asahi still has many charms. A small bowl of delicious, sautéed cukes accompanies each soup. Nice and crisp, they’re seasoned with what tastes like salt and sesame oil. The staff is super friendly, very attentive. Prices are reasonable and servings large. And unlike Tsujita, overindulgence at Asahi won’t make you ill. If there’s any post-meal regret here, it’s that I don’t live close enough to work my way through their menu.

In addition to ramen, Asahi serves yakisoba, sara udon (katayakisoba), oshitashi (boiled spinach in a sweet sesame sauce topped with shaved bonito), ban ban ji (“marinated shredded chicken and thinly sliced cucumeber”) and mabo rice, even egg flower and wonton soups.

As I ate my soup, servers repeatedly walked to the front of the store to close the door behind customers. The door locks in an open position. I can only imagine how annoying that would be to do all day. If the servers were irritated by it, they concealed it well. When the clock struck ten, they flipped the “open” sign and kept refilling diners’ water, as the rest of us slurped soup and paid our checks.

6) Jinya Ramen Bar

Despite the number of meals I had on Sawtelle, I never got around to eating at Jinya. But for those planning a trip to the area, it’s worth mentioning. As LA Weekly said during my visit to LA, Jinya serves “Tonkotsu ramen – including a black version with black garlic oil and a spicy red version – soupless ramen, gyoza and organic tofu made to order at your table.” The idea that I missed spicy red and black versions makes me ache with regret. That I walked by this joint and didn’t go in – what an idiot I am. LA residents, I ask of you: please slurp a bowl for those of us who cannot.

7) Hakata Ramen Shin-Sen-Gumi

Another venerated place I didn’t get to eat is Hakata Ramen Shin-Sen-Gumi. It’s a small chain with a few branches in LA and one in Tokyo. The Little Tokyo location is on Central Avenue, south of 1st. In their June, 2012 Cheap Eats round up, Los Angeles magazine said of it: “Mitsuyasu Shigeta’s chain of Shin-Sen-Gumi restaurants serves everything from yakitori to hot pots. The draw at the latest branch in Little Tokyo is a pork-centric hakata-style ramen that’s meant to be customized. From the firmness of the noodles to the thickness of the broth to the flecks of fried pig’s ear on top, you get to choose. » 132 Central Ave., Little Tokyo, 213-687-7108.

The restaurant’s website explains their unique offering: “Hakata ramen originated in Hakata city located north west of Kyushu . The main characteristic of Hakata ramen is the white, thick soup that is made from pork bones, also called Tonkotsu (pork bone) soup/ramen. Some of the other differences in character it has from other types of ramen are thinner noodles, and the simple decorative toppings of cha-shu , chopped scallions, red colored ginger, and sesame seeds.

In our restaurants we use carefully selected Berkshire pork and filtered water. It is cooked for more than 15 hours with a strong flame from a commercial grade jet burner to make our unique Tonkotsu soup.

Some of you may think, Tonkotsu soup is just a soup, it can’t be difficult to make. soup is like a living thing that must be carefully monitored. The water level, temperature, and strength of the flame must be maintained in order to create the best consistency of coloring as well as taste. Otherwise we wouldn’t be able to open our restaurants, as it has happened a few times in the past. We take great pride in our work and food that we serve. We will not be second best!”

I admire their obsessive dedication. It’s one more reason that I need to go back to LA.

Read Full Post »

Like a billion other people, I took a trip through Los Angeles recently. Thanks to my food fanatacism, I’m going use the ’60s “Summer of Love” convention to describe my time there, except in place of love, I use tacos and burritos. Here are a few of the more interesting places in LA where I ate Mexican food.

1) La Tehuana

Maybe it seems weird to drive to Koreatown to eat at a taco truck, but if you think about it, it’s sort of weird to let strangers cook your food inside a truck.

Parked on the north side of 3rd street just west of Normandie, in a dense, residential strip, La Tehuana serves food Monday through Friday, 7pm to 1am, and Saturday and Sunday, 5 to 2. If you sling tacos in the middle of a city this big, it’s wise to stay open late for drunks and weekend revelers.

When I arrived after 9pm, I slid in line behind a Korean couple and some fellow solitary eaters. It was Saturday night. People walked and biked by. Cars raced down 3rd and piled up at the stoplight. I parked a few feet away, in front of a Korean liquor store whose sign simply said “Liquor” in both English and Hangul.

A guy on a skateboard rode up, ordered an asada burrito and leaned his board against the newspaper wrack that stood in front of the cashier window. Because of the way the truck was situated, the dispenser functioned as a de facto table, which you could relax on while waiting or use to set your drink.

An elderly man on a bike yelled “Get outta my way!” to a pedestrian crossing the street. I leaned against the cool brick wall of Lucky’s Laundry and waited for my food. Three women in aprons and ball caps hustled inside the truck. Two prepared food. One handmade tortillas. When the cashier called the Korean couple’s order, they sprinkled their tacos with cilantro and hot sauce at the salsa bar and carried their food down the street.

If you want napkins here you have to ask for them. Same with utensils. If your order is to-go, the cashier will wrap your plate in aluminum foil. She’ll call your number and slide your plate across the counter: “Cuarenta y ocho!”

I sat on an upturned milk crate and ate.

The coastal air was moist. People continually arrived to place orders. Two tacos cost me $2.50. Every taquería garnishes their tacos differently. La Tehuana doesn’t dress theirs — just meat piled on one corn tortilla. You add onions and cilantro as you like, shredded cabbage, too. A row of condiments and salsas lines a metal counter.

There’s the usual containers of limes and thinly sliced radishes. There are two mulcajetes of salsas – one a thin, smooth guacamole, the other a fiery roasted red, as much flavor as heat. And there’s a Tupperware of plain but workable chunky salsa which seems to be made with only onion, tomato and cilantro; I couldn’t taste lime or salt in there. Inert as it is, it does add a nice crunch and color that makes the food pretty.

La Tehuana makes their own corn tortillas by hand, and they’re delicious. My sole hang up is that they only use one tortilla per taco. Doubling up lets you spread the contents out into a longer taco, which extends the pleasure of the taco experience and keeps your bites from being ridiculously overstuffed. Doubling up also helps keep any wet tortilla from disintegrating in your hands. Even though using one tortilla is an understandable way to cut costs, if you’re known for handmade tortillas as La Tehuana is, I say slap another on there. It’s a minor complaint.

Despite the abundance of local taco options, lots of Angelinos love this place. One woman on Yelp recalled the moment her La Tehuana addiction began: “Saw this random taco truck with a crowded line and I immediately made an illegal U-turn and almost ran through a red light.” Another woman said, “$1.25 for a taco? Great price to pay to get through the gates to taco heaven.” “I once heard you can judge a taco truck by their Pastor tacos,” said a Yelper named Victor, “and let me tell you this trucks pastor is 5 stars.”

Apparently, they used to serve a mysterious, decadent dish called Alambre, which the LA Weekly covered. It wasn’t offered when I went, though I wouldn’t have ordered it anyway. I was here for the tacos, even if they did only use one tortilla.

For dessert, here’s a fun blog, subtitled “Celebrating the Taco Lifestyle in Los Angeles” http://www.lataco.com/

2) El Gran Burrito

Red words painted on the yellow wall say:

WELCOME

TACOS • WE SERVE

TORTAS • BREAKFAST

BURRITOS ANY TIME

“Burritos any time” – I want that on my headstone.

Located just west of the busy corner of Vermont Avenue and Santa Monica Boulevard, cattycorner from an ARCO gas station, El Gran Burrito Restaurant offers a setting that feel as close to a picnic as you can get in this part of East Hollywood.

The restaurant is a giant patio. The register stands outside, set beside toy dispensers and coin-powered electric rides. Cars race by on the other side of the fence, as breezes blow between tables.

When you park, you step into the covered patio, rather than inside the restaurant, and even if you eventually spot the register, it isn’t entirely clear what you’re supposed to do next.

This convoluted ordering system is guaranteed to confuse newcomers and separate them from the regulars. Like Machos Tacos further up Vermont, though, this place engenders the kind of repeat visits that turn occassionals into regulars.

When I approached the register, the clerk was wearing headphones, scrolling through songs on an iPod he kept in his pants pocket. “Here’s your receipt,” he said. “You hand that to the lady in the window and she’ll take care of you.”

I scanned the dining area behind him for the condiment station. “Do you still have pickled carrots?”

“Yes,” he said, “just ask her for some.” They’d rearranged things since my last visit. No more self-serve carrots. Now cooks doled them out. The restaurant had also moved their entire condiment station inside; it used to be behind the register, in between the tables. It was so exposed that anyone could have stepped off of Santa Monica Boulevard and fixed themselves a bowl of carrots or helped themselves to salsa. Budget eaters like me probably spiked costs.These weird arrangements and idiosyncrasies are half of El Gran Burrito’s charm. The place is down-home, and in a world of chains, that’s refreshing.

Unlike other restaurants further north in Los Feliz, this isn’t the kind of place where you’ll hear talk of food allergies or gluten-intolerance. It’s the kind of place where you use paper towels, not napkins, and you have to fetch them yourself from an automated dispenser mounted on a metal column. It’s the kind of place that spells midnight “midnite” in its “El Gran Burrito Restaurant Midnite Tacos” sign, the kind of place where a kid on a skateboard will roll by on Santa Monica spooning cereal from a paper bowl, and two kids will chase each other through the parking lot, throwing gravel at each other.

You want a plate? Just ask for it. Otherwise, the cook will place your food in a small plastic bag, with the tacos wrapped together in foil, pickled carrots wadded in foil, too. You’ll be thankful for the paper towels’ larger dimensions and heavy gauge. For their size, these tacos are messy.

While I ate, a Hispanic man in his late forties pulled up on a BMX, wearing a white striped shirt and black plaid, knee-length shorts. He asked the cashier for a cup of water. “It’s hot, man.”

“It was hotter yesterday,” said the cashier. “But yeah.”

As the clerk filled a cup, the bicyclist peddled through the dining area, weaving between tables with the agility of a teen. His shorts stretched down past his knees, bright white socks pulled up to meet them.

The first time I ate here, a young black man in a tight purple dress beckoned me over from the neighboring Vermont/Santa Monica subway station. “Pssst,” he said, waving at me. “Hey. Come here, baby.” He was sitting on a bench, his back straight, one leg crossed tightly over the other. “Baby, come here.” People streamed past him, in and out of the subway stairwell. I waved back and said, “Thanks, but I’m hungry and need to eat. Have a good night.” When he kept calling I turned back around and blew him a kiss.

At El Gran Burrito, “everything on them” means that cooks dress the tacos with onions, cilantro and hot sauce. In addition to green, they serve two types of salsa: a chunky wet red one like the kind you’d dipped chips into, and a salsa fresca made of onion, cilantro sprigs and large slices of tomato. There’s too much oregano in the salsa for my taste, giving it a bit of a spaghetti sauce flavor. The salsa fresca is delicious, though. The tacos are stuffed full of meat both tender and flavorful. Not one but two tortillas hold each together. At $1.25 a pop, these are just what you need, especially after midnite when little else is open.

3) Tito’s Tacos

I spotted take-out containers labeled “Tito’s Tacos” in a friend’s refrigerator in Santa Monica one morning. When I asked about the restaurant, she said it was a local landmark, one that I, as a self-described taco fanatic, had to visit. When I arrived in Culver City hours later, I realized that at some point someone else might have mentioned Tito’s to me, too, but one reason I might not remember it was because of their speciality. They served tacos durados, aka hard shell tacos.

No matter how generous the contents, no matter how tender the meat, I don’t care for hard shell tacos. I prefer Mexico City style, which are often called “street tacos”: meat in warmed corn tortillas. Save the hard shell for tortilla chips, which I will also largely ignore to save room for the good stuff like tamales and beans and green chile. Maybe mine is a problem of association: any hard shell taco tastes reminiscent of my Taco Bell childhood, conjuring uneasy memories of cheap cheese atop soy-laced “meat” and the anxiety of going on high school dates with occasional acne. Can any high quality adult taco experience can undo that strong a Pavlovian response?

A crowd pressed against Tito’s five outside windows when I arrived, spilling down the sidewalk in loosely formed lines.

Inside, the same scene, except in shade.

It was as if someone had chummed sharky waters with taco meat and caused a feeding frenzy. Yet the atmosphere was calm, the people in line patient and polite. Apparently, the line often stretches far down the street.

Two women in front of me ordered twenty tacos and two large sides of chili beans. They were headed to a corporate event. A nearby couple carried off two cardboard trays stacked with tacos and chips. I’m sure Tito’s tacos are delicious, but when I stepped to the register, I didn’t order any. I got my other favorite food: a burrito. I snapped two photos through the window and the clerk politely told me, “Sorry, no photos.”

A young guy ordering at the neighboring window said, “Take one when they’re not looking.”

“Normally I would,” I said, “but I want to make sure I get my burrito!”

He laughed. “Good point.”

My cashier put on plastic gloves and stepped to the food station to wrap my burrito.

Like so many of LA’s best restaurants, Tito’s occupies a nondescript building whose architecture and location don’t reflect its iconic status. Down Sepulveda Boulevard’s seemingly unbroken row of old one-level store fronts, past Culver Ice Arena and Johnnie’s French Dip — another iconic eatery — Tito’s sits on busy Washington Place, just west of Sepulveda, beside the 405 freeway. Parking spots line the street, but chances are you’ll have to park on one of the two side streets that run north and south off Sepulveda. The north one is quieter, lined with houses and trees. The shady spots under the 405 are nice, too.

I carried my food through the crowded interior and took a seat on the back patio at a table with a family of four: two teenage girls, their mother and what appeared to be their grandmother. The grandmother spoke quickly in Spanish between long sips of Pepsi from a straw. A heavy man at the table in front of me ate alone: first a taco, then an entire chili con carne burrito and chips. He spooned salsa on nearly every bite, just as I always do.

Tito’s salsa tastes so fresh and alive, it seemed wrong to drizzled it on fried tortilla chips. It’s pureed. Composed mostly of tomatoes, it contains a little chile, a few chile seeds, and tiny, infrequent green bits that speckle its nearly absolute redness. The tomato flavor is intense but not overwhelming, and the flavor is so light and bright in your mouth that it almost tastes like they’ve pureed watermelon in it. I’ve never experienced any salsa like it. It’s exactly what you want on a hot summer day.

Even if you share my devotion to street tacos, Tito’s menu is diverse enough to satisfy. They sell beef and chicken tamales, tostadas and enchiladas, as well as chili beans. By chili, they mean chili con carne: cubes of beef, stewed until tender. As much as I love chili con carne, Tito’s version isn’t the most flavorful. It’s a bit bland. I got a meat and bean burrito, and it didn’t have the strong red chile flavor or complexity that I like. The salsa and tortilla more than made up for it, though.

The tortilla was perfectly grilled, making it both pliable and firm and giving it the essential little dark grill spots that flake off like pastry. It was, without question, the perfect burrito tortilla and folding job. They wrap like only the experts do: tight, origami corners that you can trust to hold up under pressure.

The back patio overlooks a car lot. As I ate, a car salesman taxied a small SUV through the lot, his leg dangling out the door so that the soles of his feet almost skimmed the pavement. Despite the location, the patio is peaceful. Vines festoon the side of the 405. Sitting out there beside the trees, freeway traffic softens from a roar to a calming hum, like a river of cars lulling you into a trance rather than eliciting the sense of terror and traffic jam adrenalin that LA’s freeways often do.

At a large table by the door, seven Tito’s cooks and cashiers ate together. Two still wore their hairnets. All had on red aprons. They were laughing and talking in Spanish. At one point they started singing and clapping their hands. Behind them, in a space beside the alley, stood three towers of tomato boxes, each nine boxes high. A kid with baggy skater pants and a forearm tattoo sat down nearby and ate three tacos. Inside, gringos sat beside Asian, Hispanic and black customers, everyone enjoying a sunny summer day and offering proof that Los Angeles is as multicultural as New York, and that it is this very multiculturalism that is responsible for making it one the world’s great cities.

Here’s Tito’s website. Don’t judge the food based on the quality of their jingle, but do brace yourself for it: http://titostacos.com/

Read Full Post »

It seems an exaggeration to call butter tarts the dessert for which Canada is known, since no American I know has ever heard of a butter tart, yet butter tarts are one of the few foods to which Canada can lay full claim.

No offense to Canadians, but their country isn’t known for its cuisine. They admit it themselves. People don’t go around saying “I’m really craving some Canadian.” As a nation of immigrants, Canada holds within its 3,854,085 square miles a staggering diversity of cooking traditions, from Haitian to Ethiopian, French to Korean, and it is full of incredible food. As Salman Rushdie once told me at a literary event: the best Punjabi food outside of the subcontinent is in Vancouver, BC. Compared to countries like India, France or Vietnam, though, Canada just has few culinary inventions to its name. Yes, Canada invented the Persian, an oval-shaped bun topped with a sweet, pink frosting made from strawberries or raspberries, which is available almost exclusively in Thunder Bay, Ontario. Vancouver Island’s small port town of Nanaimo has its namesake Nanaimo Bar, a bar cookie composed of rich butter icing sandwiched between layers of chocolate and wafer crumbs. (The bars are so delicious, many Starbucks even sell them.) Canada arguably invented the donut hole, which their nationwide donut chain Tim Hortons branded the “Timbit” (‘bit’ being an acronym for “big in taste”). Canada also created the Yukon gold potato, peameal bacon (back bacon, brined and coated in fine cornmeal, named for the old habit of rolling it in a meal of dried, ground peas), pemmican (you’ve seen it in westerns), poutine (arg, chest pains), and the tourtière (Quebec’s savory tart). Despite the name and my desire to say otherwise, Canadian bacon isn’t Canadian. It’s simply the moniker used in the US for a type of brined back bacon and smoked ham. Butter tarts are the most widely known of Canada’s culinary creations, a quintessential dessert so popular that it might warrant the title of “truly national confection.” Which is the point: even Canada’s most popular dessert remains relatively unknown outside of their country.

This isn’t meant to disparage Canada, the world’s second largest country by square mile, and one of its friendliest. It’s only to say that butter tarts are a domestic staple rather than an export. You won’t find them in bakery cases in San Francisco, say, or for sale on American convenience store shelves. If industrial mass production is one easy if depressing sign of an item’s popularity, then the absence of a Hostess brand butter tart is proof of their relative obscurity. Culturally relative, that is. Despite their obscurity in the States, the tarts are widely available north of the 49th parallel.

Like most things, this confection has an interesting history. As a 2006 Ottawa Citizen article reports, “The butter tart was a staple of pioneer cooking. According to Toronto food writer Marion Kane, one of the earliest recipes dates back to 1915. There are a few theories on the origin of the butter tart. Some believe the butter tart is related to the pecan pie brought to Canada by American slaves. It’s also similar to Quebec’s sugar pie.” A 2010 Toronto Sun article goes further: “Toronto culinary historian Mary Williamson, serious collector of historic cookbooks and butter tart sleuth thinks not, and has revealed a very plausible link to Border Tarts from southern Scotland, origin of many 19th century immigrants. The Border Tart filling often contains dried fruit, sugar, eggs and butter – all ingredients our largely rural population would have handy, most from their own farms. She has also sourced the first written reference in a 1900 cookbook compiled by The Women’s Auxiliary of the Royal Victoria Hospital in Barrie. The recipe was labelled (sic) simply, ‘A filling for tarts’.”

Although its name sounds like a euphemism for a young, sassy, creamy-skinned vixen, a butter tart is precisely what it suggests. Take a pie. Shrink it to tart-size. Make it of butter, sugar, salt, vanilla and eggs. Beyond this there is great debate: should it contain corn syrup or maple syrup? Raisins or no raisins? Be runny or firm? How firm should the crust be? Like so many beloved staples and entrenched traditions, controversy surrounds the tart issue like some sort of rigid, overcooked crust, causing a culinary rift and me to mix metaphors. Then there’s the issue of flair. Some people drizzle tarts with caramel. Some add walnuts, pecans or currants, even chocolate chips and dates. Others who we might call “purists” like their tarts unadulterated – simple, not plain – so that the natural flavors stand out. This, they say, is the only truly Canadian tart.

Contrary to what some might consider “traditional,” history suggests that the original version included raisons. “The tart’s history has been traced back to the arrival of the filles de marier in the mid-1600s,” writes Toronto Star Food Editor Susan Sampson. “To fill their tarts, these imported brides from France had to make do with what they found in their new larders: maple syrup or sugar, farm-fresh butter and dried fruit (read raisins).”

But that was then and this is now. Our larders overflow with options, and no one uses the term larder anymore. People can toss in whatever they want – bacon bits or squid tentacles, even. This wealth of options has only fueled the debate about proper tarts. “Butter tarts have two critical components,” says The Ottawa Citizen. “The pastry must be flaky and perfect, while the filling should be brimming with flavour without being overly sweet.” Ah, not so fast! This isn’t rock identification. There’s no easy classification of the definitive tart. As fun as it is to debate, you can’t, as they say, argue taste. And by that I don’t mean, “I have taste, and you do not.” I mean that good flavor, like music and scent, is too subjective to define.

What is clear is this: the filling must contain butter and sugar, but not so much that it becomes cloyingly sweet. You can add a little cream if you like, but just a little. Many people like adding some maple syrup, not only for the taste, but because it adds a distinctly Canadian touch, the idea being that if you want to have some national pride, pouring in a little sap from the national tree is the least you can do. Anyway, white sugar is so pedestrian.

No matter which side of divide you fall on, nuts are a divisive issue. Reporting from a 2007 tart contest, Susan Sampson of the Toronto Star says, “Peering at one entry with pecans poking through the filling, a judge peevishly complains: ‘But that’s a pecan tart! It’s not a butter tart!’”

“The best butter tart I ever made,” says Sampson, “from a recipe by Canadian cooking icon Kate Aitken, was modest and pristine. She didn’t even believe in adding raisins. I’ll argue that the ideal tart has a fairly thick, shortbread-like shell. It tastes rich, but not greasy. It’s crumbly, but doesn’t fall apart at first bite. The filling has a buttery essence and a hint of maple for Canadian flair. It’s soft but not sloppy, sweet but not cloying. It’s covered by a slight crust that gives way as your teeth invade.”

The gist is that people love these things. They were the favorite treat of Canada’s first Prime Minister, Sir John A. MacDonald, in the late 1800s. In 1999, the Canadian band Len released a catchy pop confection called “Steal My Sunshine.” Over a sample at the beginning of the song, bandmates Matt and Tim discuss lead singer Marc’s glum mood and the need to cheer him up. Tim says, “What do you, uh, suppose we should do?” Matt: “Well, does he like butter tarts?” The line endeared many Canadians to the song. There’s even a Facebook page dedicated to the passage. Its motto: “The best quotation from anything in the history of ever.”

            Like most dorks, all this information got me hungry for food and more information, so I went seeking tarts. I couldn’t find a single one. I live in Portland, Oregon, a foodie town of legendary proportions. People sell ceviche out of old school buses here. Numerous food carts sell vegan phō. Even though my city sits some three hundred miles south of the international border, I couldn’t find Canada’s national dessert at any local bakery. In the absence of the real thing, I emailed my longtime friend Dayna in Toronto. She’s a flight attendant for Air Canada and has traveled all over her country. What did she think of these beloved tarts? Did she have a favorite place that I could get them in Vancouver? “They are indeed a staple in every Canadian’s house, especially over the holidays,” she said. “I don’t think there is a special spot for them, they are just everywhere.” She buys them for her boyfriend at the supermarche but doesn’t like them herself. They’re too sweet. “My Mom used to make them for the holidays and I’d convince her to make me a special batch. Scrap the butter filling for jam instead. I was spoiled with special treatment which is why I didn’t really love them like I’m supposed to maybe.” Since I couldn’t just pop up to Canada to find some tarts. I had to make some myself.

I am not a skilled baker. Worse, I’m a bachelor. Unsupervised, better equipped at reheating leftovers than creating something as fragile and sophisticated as a tart, I failed to replicate the flavors of the butter tarts I’d read about in the Toronto Star’s article “The art of the tart.” The recipe I used was from a group of sixth-graders. It won first place in a contest. The paper described it as having “a full-flavoured, buttery filling that is neither firm nor runny, in pie bald plain and chocolate pastry shells that are difficult to reproduce.” It’ll say.

My plan to mold a pre-made pie crust into smaller pieces to fit into muffin tins failed. Naturally, the dough tore when I tried to shape it. Why did I think that would work? Left with pie crust shreds, I abandoned that idea and baked the entire thing as a pie – a butter pie – which required a longer baking time since the contents’ dimensions changed. I’d already screwed up the filling. The recipe specified using table syrup that contained 15% maple syrup. When I ran out of the corn syrup I bought bulk at a natural grocer, I substituted half a cup more maple, which threw everything else out of whack and left maple syrup pooled at the bottom of the pan, encasing the pastry in an amber-colored gel. Then I ran out of brown sugar, so I added more granulated white in its place. After an hour in the oven at 375 degrees, my pie was cloyingly sweet. I ate half of a slice and nodded off while reading forty minutes later, from the sugar buzz.

My failed experiment

Failure tastes so sweet

Despite its effect on my pancreas and blood sugar levels, I loved the taste. I didn’t want to. It was so unhealthy, just sugar and fat, but I kept coming back to it throughout the day. I’d open the fridge, peel back the foil I’d draped over the pan, and fork a few bites. Three days later, it was gone, my state’s sole supply, evaporated like so much water in a drought.

For those who are interested, or want to attempt their own tarte experiments, Saveur printed a butter tart recipe in Issue 41, 2000: http://backissues.com/issue/Saveur-March-2000 and here: http://www.saveur.com/article/Recipes/Canadian-Buttertarts

Also, here’s another recipe at the BBC Good Food Magazine: http://www.bbcgoodfood.com/recipes/1837/canadian-butter-tarts

And here’s a vegan recipe for all you vegans or people who, like me, don’t want to die soon of butter-saturation: http://niranjana.wordpress.com/2010/07/12/how-it-all-vegan-by-tanya-barnard-and-sarah-kramer/

Read Full Post »

Wrote another post for the Portland Farmers Market Blog here.

A Planet Made of Fabric Softener

Spring – who needs it? In our industrial era, every day is spring. Spring rolls. Spring greens. Spring onions. Temperature controlled environments. Like Kurt Cobain said, “Nature is a whore.” Just kidding. Those peaches we get from Chile in winter are horrible. Have you had them? They’re scented rocks. I don’t care if I sound like a hippie: there is no replacing the native rhythms of Mother Earth. We need seasons. Seasons make food possible, like fall chestnuts and winter pears. And as much as I appreciate sunny central California for producing berries year-round, I’m looking forward to some fresh spring nettles for tea, rhubarb for pie, and summer melons.

In the meantime, think of all those imposters that are spring in name alone. A few visible offenders:

Spring onions – What are these? They used to be pungent shoots that came up through the soil when specific meteorological conditions rang alarms on their genetic clock. Now they’re a euphemism for scallions. You can get imported bundles of them for less than a dollar year-round.

Spring rolls – Rolled, yes, but not only in spring. The illusion is especially seductive during the dark middle of our long winters. The truth – meaning Wikipedia – is that “In Vietnam spring rolls, sometimes called summer rolls, is a Vietnamese delicacy known as gỏi cuốn. Depending on region, spring rolls were made differently. Spring rolls refer to the freshness of the spring season with all the fresh ingredients, therefore frying takes away that feeling.” See? Summer rolls. What a fraud, like me lazily pasting aggregated text into this post.

Field greens – Not always grown in a field. Same with spring greens. I eat them in December all the time.

“Spring breeze” scented laundry detergent – Maybe this smells like spring if you grew up on a planet made of fabric softener, but where I come from, it smells more like the cosmetic aisle at CVS, as well as the headache I get from trips to certain department stores.

Really though, the foods I crave aren’t ones that are ever in or out of season. I’m a product of refrigeration, globalization and grand-scale delusion, and I’m poorer for it. But I still eat well, because as much I love my warm weather fruits and veggies, the things I crave I can get year-round: phō, bean burritos, tea, chocolate, nakji bokum and doenjang jigae. Though I have to admit: even buried beneath jalapeños and onions, the hot house tomatoes in winter pico de gayo are usually godawful.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 95 other followers