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Many, many thanks to writer and NYLON editor Melissa Giannini for passing me the mic to do this Next Big Thing post. Below is my interview about two works of narrative nonfiction I’m writing. I’m proud to pass the mic to the super talented essayist and memoirist Steven Church, author of The Guinness Book of Me and The Day After the Day After: My Atomic Angst, and co-editor of the literary magazine The Normal School. Check the mic, one-two.
What is the working title of your book?
Currently, it’s Crowded: Portrait of Life on a Teeming Planet, though it’s hard to settle on a title until the entire story’s been written. I’m also working on another book of narrative nonfiction, this one a first-person narrative travelogue set in Canada. It’s called Canphilia. It’s essentially my attempt to understand Canada and Canadians, and to reconcile my ignorance with my strong attraction to the country. Since that book is slower-going, Crowded has overtaken it. But that’s what crowds do, I guess.
Where did the idea come from for the book?
The idea for Canphilia came like many of my essay ideas: from looking closely at my fixations. I’m obsessive. I fall deeply, and my interests lead me to read and learn as much about various subjects as I can. Be it music, food, a city or book, people or myself — I want to experience life fully, and to understand. I’ve been enchanted by Canada for about half my life, but one day I realized how strange a fixation that was since, despite having some Canadian friends and taken a few long trips through the western provinces, I didn’t really know much about the culture. I realized that my issue reflected that of many Americans: we shared the world’s longest international border with the world’s second largest country, and we knew little more about Canadians than clichés. That became my theme: do we even know what makes a Canadian a Canadian? What they stand for? How they think and act? And what do they think of us, anyway?  I spent months shaping that into a book proposal, and now I’m plotting my drive across their country in search of some enlightenment. The idea for Crowded came from feeling crowded in my daily life, which I’ll talk about more below.
What genre does your book fall under?
Crowded and Canphilia are narrative nonfiction, though I’ve been calling the former a narrative social history, and the latter a first-person narrative travelogue. They mix essay, memoir, participatory journalism, scientific exposition, profiles and history. It’s storytelling, swift and built from scenes, dialogue, action and characters, all accurately reported.
Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition? 
Jawas, all the way. I’d have Tusken Raiders work the crew’s food service stations.
What is a one-sentence synopsis of your book? 
Canphilia: Who are the Canadian people, and why do I long to live somewhere I know so little about? Crowded: The story of one loner’s vision of human history through the story of the crowd.
How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
I’m still writing both books, but I only started Crowded in late January, so I’m making good time. Sleep is overrated, especially when you work tea shop (caffeine).
What other books would you compare this story to within your genre? 
Some stellar works of participatory journalism and narrative nonfiction that I love and keep high on my bookshelf: Taras Grescoe’s The Devil’s Picnic: Around the World in Pursuit of Forbidden Fruit, Susan Orlean’s Saturday Night, Ian Frazier’s Travels in Siberia, and Bill Bufford’s Among the Thugs.
Who or what inspired you to write this book?
For Crowded, real life. I was eating lunch inside a café across the street from work. The place was packed but thankfully not as noisy as it can be. I was reading the Susan Orlean chapter of Robert Boynton’s The New New Journalism: Conversations with America’s Best Nonfiction Writers on Their Craft, and when a guy sat down next to me, a few lines came to mind: how much elbow room do you need to get by in life? To thrive or just keep your sanity? I scribbled them down on one of the stained wrinkled pages in the back of the book, then I had to race back to work since my thirty minutes were over. The next day, I typed the scribbles and kept exploring the basic idea, expanding the range of my gaze and spelunking all the fissures in the topic, and I kept looking more closely at my life. The subject was all there, all around me. Now I have a stack of library books about sociology, psychology, evolutionary biology, ancient England and China, and photocopies of all sorts of music and historic stuff, and a thick manuscript. It’s fun, and it all started with a stray thought following a bowl of soup.
What else about your book might pique a reader’s interest?
The fact that, if you live in or near a city — which over half the human population now does — you can relate to it. If you’ve ever sat near a screaming baby on a plane, watched someone in line buy the last pastry, struggled to find something on your messy office desk, or been smooshed at an awesome, sweaty rock show, then this is your story. Also, the human comedy of urban life, sleeping in a closet, scrambling over people on trains, and brushing your teeth while you pee and check your phone and close a cabinet. Life is crazy.
When and how will it be published?
With hope and with time. Meaning, hopefully sometime! (And the help of my brilliant, tireless agent.)

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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.

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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/

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I’m working on another essay involving mid-century jazz and the Blue Note label — this one involving organist Jimmy Smith and record company vaults, for The Threepenny Review – so I wanted to toss out links to some interesting, related video clips. One is an interview with engineer Rudy Van Gelder, one of the most important people in modern music, period. Nearly every jazz session on Blue Note, he was in the room taping it, countless sessions for Verve and Prestige, too. When you hear the warmth and richness of Coltrane’s “Blue Train” and Hank Mobley’s “Soul Station,” it’s because of Rudy. When you hear every fine detail of a jazz drummer’s brushes, or every crystaline note on Kenny Burrell’s guitar — and when Jimmy Smith’s organ sounds neither overdriven or like a chirping circus tent nightmare — we have Rudy to thank. He is, without question, the Coltrane of the control room.

Clip from the Blue Note “Perfect Takes” DVD:

Then there’s this short oddity, about Blue Note in general. Shake what nature gave you:

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Wrote another post for the Portland Farmers Market Blog here:

Green on Red: Christmas Tamales

December 24, 2011

When I told an old friend that you know it’s Christmas time when the tamales appear by the dozen in your refrigerator, she asked how you know when it’s Hanukkah time. “When there are eight tamales on your plate,” I said. She lives in Georgia now, but we both grew up in Phoenix, Arizona, where tamales are a holiday staple. I moved to Portland in 2000, but I still associate Christmas more closely with tamales than I do chestnuts or eggnog, and my need for the warm corn dish has only increased with time and distance.

Tamale from a cart at the Portland Farmer's Market

Many people in the Southwest know someone who makes Christmas tamales – a coworker’s mother-in-law, a friend’s abuela. I once met a male nurse at an orthopedist who sold homemade salsa and tamales to both staff and patients. I’d broken my elbow skateboarding that winter, and while he checked my damaged bones, I asked how business was. “Business is always good,” he said. “But Christmas is booming.” Those unfortunate souls who don’t have a personal tamale connection usually find a good restaurant that sells them in bulk. Even though he knows people who make homemade tamales, my dad has taken to getting his at a fifty year old family restaurant in downtown Phoenix. He buys five dozen red, one dozen green, freezes half of his haul to ration during the winter, and when I still lived nearby, he and my mom and I would eat the others daily from the fridge while they were fresh. Red contains beef or pork stewed in red chile; green contains a meatless mixture of gooey cheese, diced green chile and corn kernels. Neither he nor I eat the green. Mom eats those. To me, green corn tamales’ masa tastes too sweet, as if spiked with cheap white sugar, and the filling feels like a greased slug in my mouth. Because she’s my mom, I can forgive her culinary inadequacies.

My dad likes to tell this one tamale story. He grew up in Florence, a small farming and prison community in southeastern Arizona. It sits on the Gila River, which runs east to west through town and marks the original boundary between Arizona and Mexico, before the Gadsden Purchase extended the boundary in 1854. Florence is one of the oldest American settlements in the entire state. Dad lived there between 1946 and 1955, and his core social group consisted of his younger brother Eddie and about five friends, mostly Hispanic, like Eddie Espinosa. Every Christmas all of them would walk house to house singing carols. They’d step onto the porch and sing. Residents would peek through the curtains then come out and hand each kid a tamale. “And we’d eat it,” Dad says, “right there on the porch.” Then the group would go to the next house and sing and get a tamale. “And we’d eat that one too.” They went house to house and got so full that, when they couldn’t eat any more, they dropped those hot tamales into their pockets: “Use them as hand-warmers,” Dad says. “It was always so cold out back then, or it felt like it was. So we’d stick our hands in with the tamales and warm them up. Then later,” he says, “we’d eat those too.”

When I was a vegetarian, I had to refrain from eating the red tamales that I craved. During what I now think of as The Drought Years, I’d order tamales at a restaurant, and the waitress would ask, “Green or red?” Suppressing a sigh I’d answer, “Green, please.” Chewing that rubbery yellow cheese, its lumpy hulk nearly resistant to mastication, I always wished I could conjure the red chile flavor through force of will, just imagine it into being and onto my food by some sort of alimentary projection. The tongue has a memory. It does not have Jedi powers.

I should have invented a tamale-flavored gum by now. They have strawberry, mint-melon, mango sorbet, every imaginable flavor. I mean, companies produce squid chips. Red tamale flavored gum would be good for vegetarians who are trying to stave off their inner carnivore. For years I’ve been joking about making an enchilada-scented air freshener designed to sooth homesick Southwesterners.

The problem with so many vegetarian tamales is that they involve fillings that fail to capture the simple yet essential tamale flavor. I’m all for experimentation. Combine the unexpected, expand our palate, reinvent the wheel, go wild. But in my experience, New Agey flavor combinations involving stewed banana flower and parsnip, or thyme and spiced pumpkin, are not only hard to take seriously, they often taste like nothing more than a bowl of soup shoved into a corn wrapper. One veggie-friendly joint I went to in Northern California spiked theirs with sunflower seeds. Even by the most liberal standards, these were tamales in shape only. That and I’m a picky jerk.

I’ll admit: green is fine in a pinch, it’s edible, it’s just not my preference, and it doesn’t taste like Christmas. When it comes to music and food, I know you can’t argue taste. If you like something, you like something, and if gloppy, green chile-laced cheese bearing the shoddy, heat-lamp churro quality of state fair food is your thing, then who am I to argue with that? But one thing you can’t argue with is history. Consider the record:

14th century to 1521: Aztec culture dominates Meso-America.

1st millennium AD: Corn spreads from what would later become Mexico into the Southwest.

1848: the United States forces Mexico to sell what would later become Arizona, New Mexico, etcetera for $15 million dollars.

1889: The once svelte Germanic god Odin debuts as the remodeled “Santa,” a fat, elf-employing, North Pole resident, and after taking a bite of each of the two tamale varieties his elves brought back from Santa Fe, he bans the color green from his workshop and declares red his holiday’s official color.

A few Christmases ago, I spent the holiday with my folks in Arizona. Mom called Dad that afternoon and asked, “What’d you do for lunch?” I was standing beside him at the kitchen counter.

He said, “Had tamales with Aaron.” Concerned about my father’s health, my mother asked how many he’d eaten. “I had two. Aaron had six.” We’d only had three a piece, but they laughed at his joke, and I could hear her joyful cackle three feet from the ear piece. “Yep,” Dad said, “he needs to be stopped. We’ll have to reduce his inheritance by two tamales.” She said something I couldn’t make out, and with his nose crinkled up and face lit up in a grin, he said, “No, red. We wouldn’t touch your green.”

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Pumpkin Pie Is a Vegetable

Whoever first said “Life is uncertain, eat dessert first” has peered into my soul.

Parents, teachers, nurse-practitioner friends, they often worry about our health. Are we eating enough vegetables? Drinking enough water? Did we take our multivitamin? I do all of the above, and if I want a bowl of stewed cuttlefish tentacles for dinner, then I eat a bowl of stewed cuttlefish tentacles. That’s just my way. I don’t eat garbage – no soda, no fast food, no fried stuff or sugar in my tea – and that’s partially how I’ve justified my decade-long fall habit of eating pumpkin pie for breakfast.

In Japan, many people eat miso- and bonito-based noodle soups for breakfast. In Vietnam, phō is a common breakfast. Many Koreans eat rice porridge. My mom used to stand over the kitchen sink and eat frozen chicken wings that she didn’t even defrost. Eggs and bacon? They feel so 1950 to me, but I have to concede that breakfasts are what you make of them. I didn’t realize that pie had become my seasonal routine until my mom called during the 2002 winter holiday season to ask how I was doing.

“Great,” I told her.

She was raised in Queens, New York, and even though she isn’t your stereotypical Jewish mother, she does occasionally “check in” like one. “Not starving to death?”

I had just taken the pumpkin pie out of my refrigerator and set it on the counter. “No,” I said, “doing great. About to eat some pie.”

She said, “Pie?”

It wasn’t even 10am.

I’d been eating pumpkin pie for breakfast, every fall, for about two years.

Vegan pumpkin pie, that is. I should qualify. My breakfast pick isn’t the usual pumpkin-flavored sugar and cream confection that factories seem to squeeze from machines into pie shells by the millions each year. I’m talking real pumpkin. With vegan pumpkin pies you use silken tofu in place of dairy, and because my recipe aims for flavor and body rather than just sweetness and creaminess, you get more pumpkin, too. In the dietary calculus of my self-serving mind, this means that vegan pumpkin pies deliver more protein and vitamins than standard grocery store ones. Does that sound right to you, too?

Pumpkins are loaded with vitamins A and C and fiber. Granted, the silken tofu may only contribute a negligible amount of protein, if any, but it’s enough to secure the feeling that I’m treating my body like a temple. Really, my pies are probably only healthy by omission: they’re free of the saturated fat and cholesterol of dairy. Add to that the fact that I don’t use much sugar in my recipe, nor do I top my slices with whipped cream, and you have something on the “could be worse” side of the health food spectrum.

Admittedly, I used to smoke right after eating, which negates most if not all of a food’s healthful qualities, but that was years ago. I don’t smoke anymore. (Hear that, Mom?)

But seriously, pie: how did this happen?

Unlike the first time I tasted phō or drank pu-erh, I can’t remember the first time I awoke to a slice, but I can imagine what the scene probably looked like. I was a bachelor in 2000. A person’s sense of decorum unravels when you’re alone and unsupervised in an apartment. I’ve washed dishes in my bathtub and washed my hair with dishwashing soap. Single guys can really be a sad, feral lot. But from this eroded sense of acceptable behavior, new modes of living can arise, a vision of limitless possibility that seems to hold within it the power to alter the entire world. At least it does when you’re in your underwear. I probably bought a pie at the natural foods grocer, didn’t eat all of it at night, opened the fridge one morning while wearing just my boxers and thought, “I want a bite of that.” I’m sure I set the box of pie on the counter, forked out a piece. Then another. Even though there would not have been anyone there to notice other than my two cats, I bet I decided to be civilized and put a slice on a plate. All that scooping bite after bite seems foolish every time I do it, the way I’m always telling myself, “Last bite,” then, “Okay, this is really the last bite,” as I carve off yet another bite. Why do I do this? Militant increments diminish the pleasure of eating. “Just cut yourself a piece and sit down,” I always tell myself. So I’m sure I cut myself a piece and sat down that morning. (On the floor, since I didn’t have a couch or chairs back then.) Once I finished, I was full. I didn’t need to fix myself a supposedly “proper” breakfast of scrambled eggs or tofu or whatever quinoa/flaxseed/almond butter bullshit I was into at the time. I hadn’t planned to feast on pie. As with most of my bachelor decision-making, it was lack of foresight that birthed the habit. I guarantee that when I dumped that dirty plate in the sink, where it sat for a week, I licked my lips and thought, “Well, I’m definitely doing that again.” Now every time the leaves start to change color I think, “Awesome, it’s pie time.”

People I admit this to think it’s weird, but the older you get, the less stuff like that bothers you. It all reminds me of this John Wesley Coleman III song, “Bad Lady Goes to Jail,” whose verse is: “I drink, I smoke, I do what I want. I drink, I smoke, I do what I want.” Some things need no justification, thought if I were forced to offer one, I would borrow a line that a New Seasons cashier recently told me.

I was buying a non-vegan pumpkin pie for a dinner party the other night, and the cashier said, “Oooh, don’t you just love pie season?”

I told her about eating this stuff for breakfast. “I fact,” I said, “I bet I’ll be eating whatever’s left of this one soon.”

“Well hey,” she said, not missing a beat. “It can’t be so bad. Pumpkin is a vegetable, right?”

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Here’s my second post from the Portland Farmers Market blog, from October 17, 2011.

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First Pears, Last Tears

Eternal Summer of the Bosc-less Mind

While picking Italian plums in a friend’s North Portland backyard recently, I angered some yellow jackets, climbed up a light pole, and ingested part of what might have been insect larvae. Besides the rain and increasing cloud cover, the last urban plums provided one more sign that summer was over.

Remember summer?

I don’t have a problem with change. Although the end of things can make me sentimental sometimes – the end of romance, the end of a vacation – I don’t wallow in it. But for some reason, this year the end of summer really hit me hard. Why can’t we Portlanders live the golden dream referenced in that surf movie Endless Summer? I like pants as much as shorts, but do I really have to fish out my beanie already? As many wise people have said in numerous ways over the millennia, the end of one thing is the start of another thing, or something – close a door, open a window, etcetera – so I’m trying to remember that. Example A: the dwindling of peaches means the arrival of pears.

The markets have tons of pears right now. There are the bright, flavorful Starkrimson, and the tiny, super sweet Seckel. There’s the bodacious, curvy Comice, the variety which pairs so well with soft cheeses and that I always imagined would wear booty short were it bipedal (you’ve heard the term “apple bottom?”). There’s the aromatic red Anjou, so juicy and crisp and nice on a salad that I’ve actually woken up some mornings thinking of their taste. And there’s the boring old Bosc which I think of as a tree potato.

Despite my disdain for Boscs, I will eat any pear, but my love is not equal. (Will that make me a bad parent?) Starkrimson is one of my favorites. They have a floral aroma, and their smooth flesh contrasts nicely with their firm skin. They also just look gorgeous. That luscious red exterior is beautiful. Another favorite is the Forelle.

Not to try to be eccentric or feel superior to the uninitiated (my teenage self: “What? You haven’t heard this obscure 7-inch from this obscure band?”), but a few of the varieties that I think have the best flavors also aren’t the most widely available. Forelles are sort of the Northwest’s “secret” pear, which is unfortunate because they’re so good they should be dangling off trees in the middle of every American city. (Seriously, why is the Bosc the ubiquitous pear? Then again, why is white bread so popular?) For whatever reason – probably narrow growing requirements, poor insect or frost resistance, tendency to bruise in transport, and so on – their production is one of the most limited in the Northwest. Thankfully, you can find them around town between October and March.

Forelles are an old variety from Germany. Their name translates as trout, referring, mostly likely, to the way the pear’s freckled skin resembles that of a Rainbow trout’s. Forelles are tiny. They don’t have the Bartlett’s classic pear shape; they’re more of a bell. And their flavor is just what the pear snob in me wants in a pear: elegance, fragrance and texture without being too sweet. Maybe all I’m saying is is that there’s life beyond Bartletts. Just as I have to remind myself that there is life after summer and fruit

after peaches.

After an hour of picking in my friend’s backyard, I filled two plastic grocery bags with Italian plums. I considered turning them into jam, but I’m currently dedicated to marionberry jam, so I just ate them fresh. Also, it was obvious what I really wanted: to preserve the fruit in jars in order to prolong the season that produced them, the season I always tell myself that I love best. Then fall arrives and I remember, oh yeah, around here, every season’s good. Sunlight’s overrated.

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In the spirit of literary composting, I thought I’d gather the posts I’ve so far written for the Portland Farmers Market blog, here in my blog. As the inconsistent blogger says: why let material go to waste? Here’s my first post, from way back in October 3, 2011:

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Squashing

My favorite fall food, you ask? Hands down, the delicata squash. Admittedly, I love pears. I can eat pumpkin pie all day (and I do), and I look forward to fresh chestnuts with such intensity that summer can feel like a form of gastronomic tantra. Still, few things taste more like fall to me than this simple squash.

Named, I assume, for its delicate flavor, and given the –ata suffix to sound sexy yet sophisticated, this slender heirloom bears the green-on-yellow stripe pattern of a classic, 1960s Hang Ten shirt, the firm shell of a pumpkin, and the flavor of corn and sweet

potato. On the spectrum of popular squashes, it might have a lower profile than the ubiquitous butternut and meatier acorn, and sure, its name might not be as cute as the adorable sugar loaf, but the subtle flavor and creamy texture is what earns it devotees.

Some people seem to treat all squashes like spaghetti squash, carving out the meat and tossing the skin. Not me. I bake my delicatas whole, at 350 °F for about forty-five minutes. Then I slice them in quarters and serve the wedges hot, on a plate, like some sort of glowing orange, raw food pie. Delicatas do contain some seeds and fibers to be scooped, but there’s no need to ditch the skin; these aren’t prickly pear cactus pads. Once baked, the skin turns tender, offering those of us in the “skin-on set” a perfect firmness that yields to each bite with the softest snap. It’s a nice counterpoint to the velvety sweet meat which, when I’m feeling hyperbolic, I like to call “Nature’s mousse.”

Meat and skin, smooth and firm – the delicata’s combination of textures is as scintillating as its flavor, a mix far more interesting than ordinary old butternut. Sure, you can go the typical American track and slather it with butter, drizzle it with maple syrup, or sprinkle on cinnamon and brown sugar. Or you can season it with salt and pepper, herbs or olive oil. I don’t. Not because I’m so healthy (I ate a whole bag of dark Guittard chocolate chips over the last three days), but because it’s unnecessary. When you

get a good one, adulteration only hides the delicate(ata) flavor. To my mouth, this is one of those cases where less is more and the best approach is a hands-off one. (Though you should eat it with your hands rather than a fork.) It’s also one of those cases where, when I’m chewing, I realize that another sign that you’re getting older is when the flavor of a single, perfectly ripe fruit or vegetable can momentarily relieve the ache of being persistently single. Momentarily. I said the same thing about Maryhill, Washington peaches last month.

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