Sunday, November 29, 2009

Real Korean Tacos at Kobawoo House

A few weeks ago, I panned the ultra-hip Kogi Korean taco truck, but that's not to say that there is no place in this world for Korean tacos. In fact, there is an authentic antecedent to the Kogi truck and its name is bossam. Bossam is the specialty at Kobawoo, a popular Korean restaurant on Vermont, just south of Wilshire (in the same strip mall as BBQ Chicken).

Bossam is barbecued pork belly (they cook it for you) served with a turnip kimchi, wonderful pickled peppers and another fermented product (collectively described on the menu as "spicy mixture all around"). The meat and spicy mixture is served with thin, round slices of a large radish, like a daikon but milder tasting. You place a slice of pork, kimchi and assorted condiments into the radish tortilla and eat it like a taco. The combination is spicy, savory and just a tad sweet from the pork marinade, with ample pork fat from the belly. These were just delightful. The menu also includes a version with fish. The medium sized order was plenty for two people.

Kobawoo is also known for its pin dae duk, Korean seafood pancake. Their version is a very large, thick disk with ample squid, shrimp and scallions. It was good, as they usually are, but not my favorite. I tend to favor a thinner, chewier version of this Korean staple.

So for Korean tacos without the lines, the sweet sauces or the hipsters, check out Kobawoo House.

Kobawoo House
698 S. Vermont Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90005
(213) 389-7300

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Whiskey Wednesday: The Scotch Whisky Extravaganza

On Friday, the Southern California whiskey tasting season closed with the Scotch Malt Whisky Society's Single Malt and Scotch Whisky Extravaganza at Lowe's Hotel in Santa Monica.

As with last month's WhiskyLive, the Extravaganza included numerous tables at which distillery representatives poured samples of their wares. As this was a Scotch and single malt event, the samples were heavily tilted toward Scotch with a few Irish and other single malts. Present were such favorites as Ardbeg, Highland Park, Laphroaig and Bowmore, along with many others.

Glenfiddich was there pouring their fifteen year old Distillery Edition, a new, non-chill filtered release at 51% alcohol, a higher level than their other whiskies and a bit of a throwback to their old and sorely missed fifteen year old cask strength. The Distillery Edition was very well done, with a full and balanced, heavily malty flavor.

Highland Park was also there, pouring their full range up to the 30 year old. Brand ambassador Martin Daraz told us that within the next two years, Highland Park would be releasing a 50 year old and a vintage 1968 whisky, though it sounded as if the prices would be out of my range.

As with WhiskyLive, some of my favorite tables were the independent bottlers, which provided a chance to taste cask strength versions of whiskies from a number of different distilleries. The sponsoring Scotch Malt Whisky Society was there with a number of their excellent bottlings, including an eleven year old Ardbeg that I very much enjoyed. And the Society's American distributor, Spirit Imports, Inc., had its own table with a number of interesting whiskies, including nice Douglas Laing bottlings of Linkwood and Glenburgie. Spirits Imports, Inc. also wins the prize for the most clever label with its Scottish/Jewish hybrid: Loch Chaim, though the one they were tasting on Friday was a Macallan Fine Oak which I didn't particularly care for.

All in all, a fun party and lots of great whisky to be had. Thanks to the SMWS for putting it on.

FTC Disclaimer: The SMWS gave Sku's readers a discount to attend the event and invited me to attend free of charge.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Take Me Out to the Infield: The Infield Hot Dogs in Sherman Oaks

Finding an authentic Chicago dog is LA is a challenge. Usually, there is something wrong with the toppings: The relish is the usual style rather than the fluorescent green variety, they use peperoncini instead of sport peppers, the bun isn't poppy seeded and, worst of all, there is little or no celery salt. While I tend to favor New York style dogs, I'm always happy to find a place that does a Chicago dog correctly, and I was pleased to see that The Infield hot dog stand hit all of those notes on the toppings.

The infield is a stand on the corner of Ventura Boulevard and Beverly Glen in Sherman Oaks. The doggery is heavily baseball themed, complete with actual stadium seats, a baseball related soundtrack and baseball card pictures.

The menu offers a wide variety of dogs. I tried the aforementioned Chicago dog and a chili cheese dog. This place gets its toppings right. The Chicago toppings were classic with plenty of celery salt. The chili on the chili cheese dog was very good and not excessively greasy, which I appreciate in a chili dog. Sadly, while the toppings were done right, the dogs were lackluster. The natural casing dogs simply didn't have anywhere near the requisite snap. A dog should literally pop open in your mouth, hurling its juices down your throat. These dogs just didn't do that.

At The Infield, you can actually pick your dog meat from a list that, on the day I was there, included Sabretts, Hebrew Nationals, Viennas, Nathan's, Trader Joe's and several sausages. While I like the concept of picking the dog meat, the dogs they offered were pretty typical. Nothing wrong with Sabretts or Nathan's, in particular mind you, but they don't compare to the places that make their own or specially order their dogs.

The other thing that concerns me is that this place just seems to be trying to do too much. While all they serve are hot dogs (and fries), they are trying to cover everything from chili dogs to New York dogs to Chicago dogs to New Jersey style deep fried dogs. They even have a dessert dogs menu with horrific sounding preparations like the Deep Fried Twinkie Dog, consisting of a hot dog sandwiched in a deep fried Twinkie. The truth is that while hot dogs would seem to be a narrow specialty, most doggeries only do one type of dog (or at least, only do one type well), and it's hard to be all things to all hot dog eaters.

Still, the menu is novel and varied enough that I will probably be back to try more of the creative offerings. Who knows, maybe even a Deep Fried Twinkie Dog.

The Infield
14333 Ventura Blvd
Sherman Oaks, CA 91423
(818) 501-1850

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Root: The Cultural Liqueur of Late Capitalism

Root is a new spirit that claims to be based on root tea, an alcoholic precursor to root beer. This is one of the more interesting new spirits to come along in a while, both in flavor and philosophy.

Root is a product of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. Art in the Age is a collective of artists, musicians and artisans that was founded in Philadelphia. The name is a reference to an essay by Frankfort School philosopher Walter Benjamin; this may, in fact, be the first spirit to subscribe to a specific, philosophical school. Indeed, the Art in the Age website includes a manifesto that ends with this rallying cry:

In this troubling epoch of industrial commodification, standardization of reproduction, and fomentation of a society of shallow spectacle, Art In The Age issues a challenge and rally cry. We fight fire with fire, subsuming the onslaught of watered down facsimiles and inaccessible displays with thought-provoking products of real cultural capital

Root appears to be the only spirit sold by Art in the Age. As noted above, Root is based on a recipe for root tea which the producers claim dates back to the eighteenth century. Root is certified organic, and is made with birch bark, smoked black tea, cinnamon, wintergreen, spearmint, clove, anise, orange, lemon, nutmeg, allspice, cardamom and cane sugar. It is made by Modern Spirits, a Southern California maker of flavored vodkas, so presumably, the base spirit is vodka, though Art in the Age claims that Root is not "root beer flavored vodka." Root is 40% alcohol and sells for around $35 to $40.

I tried Root neat as well as some Root based cocktails.

Root Neat

The nose is a sort of medicinal root beer smell, like some of the newer, craft root beers that include more botanicals. The first thing that hits your tongue is sweetness and birch bark/birch beer, these yield on the palate to spices, with clove and cinnamon on the forefront. I would not say it tastes like root beer, though it has definite commonalities. Sipped neat, this would make a nice after-dinner drink, in the same way that Absinthe does, in that the strong herbal flavors provide somewhat of a numbing sensation and leave your palate feeling rested.

The Rootini

The taste of Root is so distinctive that a really creative mixologist could probably do wonders with it. The connection to root beer makes you want to move it in a sweet direction, and most of the cocktail suggestions that Art in the Age provide do that, but Root is very sweet on its own, and I found that I missed some of the medicinal notes when it was paired with too much sugar.

One of the more successful cocktails Art in the Age suggests is a "Rootini" (I'm sorry, but the use of tini as a suffix just shouts "watered down facsimiles" to me). The Rootini consists of two ounces of Root, one ounce of vanilla liqueur and sugar. The addition of the vanilla (I used Navan) brings the flavor of this drink pretty close to root beer. It's good, but I think the vanilla masks the more funky, medicinal tastes of the Root. In playing around with it, it was much improved with a healthy shake of Fee's Whiskey Barrel Aged Bitters. The cinnamon notes in the bitters really brought out some of the similar flavors in Root.

On a whim, because I'm that type of guy, I added a couple of drops of cask strength Laphroaig to an ounce of Root. The medicinal notes of the Laphroaig played well with the herbal notes of Root, and the added smoke made for a very interesting flavor profile. I'm guessing there is a fine drink to be made with Root and Laphroaig (though go lightly on the 'Phroaig or it will quickly overpower the Root). I'm personally challenging all of you mixologists out there to make this drink, and it should definitely be called the Root of All Evil.

Root is gradually entering the marketplace and can be found at most specialty liquor shops. It's a fun drink and is definitely worth a try.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Whiskey Wednesday: Thanksgiving Turkey

I always try to emphasize American whiskies as Thanksgiving approaches, and what better whiskey to taste leading up to Thanksgiving than Wild Turkey.

Today we will be tasting two of Wild Turkey's popular premium Bourbons: Rare Breed and American Spirit. Rare Breed is a barrel proof Bourbon with no age statement. American Spirit is a 15 year old Bottled in Bond Bourbon, meaning it is 100 proof.

As you will note from the picture, the American Spirit comes in a wooden box which is supposed to be fancy but always reminds me of a casket. As a result, when I remove the Bourbon from its case, I always feel like I'm disturbing the dead -- vampire Bourbon, because, you know, vampires are popular these days.

Both of these Bourbons are very popular among Turkey lovers.

Let's Taste...

Wild Turkey Rare Breed, Barrel Proof, 54.1% alcohol ($35)

Sweet caramel on the nose, with some Cognac and wood. The flavor has both sweetness and spice in equal measures, with a good measure of wood. A few drops of water really brings out the wood in this one, as well as some pine, mint and banana flavors.

Wild Turkey American Spirit, 15 years old, Bottled in Bond, 50% alcohol ($70)

Fabulous nose with a rich, sweet, heavily wooded old-whiskey smell. The richness carries on to the taste with a nice, chewy texture. This one is for those who like them old and strong. There is lots of wood, but it's not over oaked, and the sweetness is mingled throughout. Water really opens this one up and brings out some rye spice, though at the expense of some of the wood.

These are both fine whiskies and good exemplars of the Wild Turkey flavor. The side by side nature of this tasting shows the American Spirit to be the far more interesting and complex of the pair, with layers of flavor in every sip.

My recommendation would be to integrate both Bourbons into your Thanksgiving Day, with a bit of Rare Breed before the meal and a snifter of American Spirit afterward, prior to drifting off into a happy sleep.

Happy (Wild) Turkey Day!

Monday, November 16, 2009

Whiskey Calendar: The Week's Events

It's a big week for whiskey:

Thursday, November 19. The Wine House, in West LA, will be hosting a Laphroaig tasting from 6:30 to 8:30. For $45, you can sample the new Laphroaig line, including the 25 year old, along with the new Ardmore 12 year old. To make reservations, call (310) 479-3731, Ext. 0.

Friday, November 20. Just a reminder that the Scotch Malt Whisky Association's Single Malt & Scotch Whisky Extravaganza is this Friday, November 20. Readers of Sku's Recent Eats can buy tickets at the special members' rate. To reserve tickets, call (800) 990-1991. FTC Disclaimer: Sku was invited to attend the event at no charge.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

A Burger Sequal: Umami Returns

I ventured out to the new Hollywood outpost of Umami Burger to check it out.

I never made it to the original Los Feliz branch, but I have to kvetch a bit about the fact that I'm pretty much over the massive wave of burger bars that Father's Office has begotten. There is a certain sameness to these places: burgers topped with various pork products and blue cheese, a large selection of beer, the obligatory sweet potato fries being consumed by a hipster clientele and attended to by a too-cool-for-school waitstaff. It's not that this is necessarily a bad formula, it's just not very original.

At Umami Burger, I tried the original Umami which includes their homemade ketchup, a shitake mushroom and a roasted tomato slice. We also tried the Manly Burger which has cheddar cheese and lardons. For sides, we ordered their thick cut fries and sweet potatoes with homemade ketchup and garlic aioli.

I have to say that I wasn't really thrilled with any of this. The burgers were fine, though not as good as a number of the others available in this same genre (Father's Office, Hungry Cat's pug burger, the Lucky Devil burger back when it was good, etc.). Lardons are always tasty, but they are small chewy nubbins that don't work very well on a burger, where they tend to fall out or require excessive chewing.

The fries were highly disappointing; they were only lightly crisped on the outside and their innards were starchy and stiff. If you're going to serve thick fries, they need to be soft on the inside; these needed a bit longer in the firer. The onion rings with a tempura style batter were probably the best thing we got.

Alas, another day, another burger bar.

Umami Burger - Hollywood
4655 Hollywood Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90027
(323) 669-3922

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Recent Reads: The Foie Gras Wars

In the past fifteen years, foie gras has gone from an exotic ingredient that was virtually unknown and unavailable to American eaters to a staple of high end restaurant menus. As its popularity has increased, so has the controversy surrounding the dish made from the fattened livers of geese and ducks. Chicago Tribune writer Marc Caro explores the controversy surrounding foie gras in his superb book, The Foie Gras Wars: How a 5,000-Year-Old Delicacy Inspired the World's Fiercest Food Fight.

Writing in an informal, journalistic style, Caro covers many fronts of the foie gras controversy but focuses on his home town of Chicago, where the fatty livers were subject to a much publicized ban. Starting with Chicago chef Charlie Trotter's personal decision to stop using foie gras, he follows the politics of the Chicago ban from enactment to repeal. While Chicago is the focal point, Caro spends ample time on other far-flung locales, from the streets of Philadelphia, where the controversy reached a fever pitch, to Israel, whose supreme court banned the livers, to foie gras farms from France to California.

Seeking to fairly represent both sides of the controversy, Caro gives voice to foie gras producers, restaurateurs and animal rights activists alike, presenting each in a sympathetic light and allowing each to make their own arguments about the ethics of foie gras. In the end, he does a good job of not taking sides and presenting each side respectfully, though he seems to slightly favor the foie.

The Foie Gras Wars is less culinary history than cultural history, touching on such non-culinary issues as activist tactics, agribusiness and even old-time Chicago politics. For this reason, interest in this work should go beyond the narrow group of people (like myself) who have a specific interest in foie gras.

Caro is an engaging writer with a healthy sense of humor and the book is a joy to read from the first page. If you are at all interested in food ethics or just looking for a good read, I highly recommend it.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Whiskey Wednesday: Discount for Sku's Readers at the Scotch Malt Whisky Extravaganza

Fall is whisky season in LA, and hot on the heels of WhiskyLive, we are lucky enough to have another major whisky tasting event, the Scotch Malt Whisky Society's Single Malt & Scotch Whisky Extravaganza.

The Extravaganza will feature over one hundred (mostly Scotch) whiskies for tasting. It will take place on Friday, November 20 at the Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel (1700 Ocean Ave., Santa Monica). Registration begins at 6:30 p.m. and the event will run from 7:00 to 9:00 and includes a buffet dinner.

The Extravaganza is sponsored by the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, a private club which buys whisky casks and bottles its own Scotch for its members. In my experience, their bottles are of excellent quality.

The price for the Extravaganza is $115 for members and $130 for nonmembers, but the Scotch Malt Whisky Society is offering a special discount for all readers of Sku's Recent Eats to register at the lower, member rate of $115.

To get your discounted tickets, call (800) 990-1991 and tell them that you are a reader of Sku's Recent Eats. Tickets are by advanced purchase only, so call before the 20th.

I'll see you there!

FTC Disclaimer: Sku was invited to attend this event free of charge.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Kogi Schmogi

I'm not much for trends and hype and am especially not much for long lines, so I never got around to trying the Kogi truck. In fact, I was so sick of hearing about it, I couldn't bear to read another word about it, much less write about it (except for some gentle mockery). I made no effort to search it out and I don't do twitter, so unless I stumbled upon it, I wasn't going to be having any.

Recently, though, I was heading to Daikokuya with the family for some ramen when we saw the Kogi truck out in the plaza of the Japanese American Museum in Little Tokyo. When we got to Daikokuya, the wait was so long, as sometimes happens there, that we went off in search of alternatives (little kids + long wait = no fun for anyone). I remembered the Kogi truck, and thought, if not now, when?

The days of the massive lines are gone, but it still did a very steady stream of business for the entire time I was there. We grabbed some taro boba from I Love Boba and settled in for some trendy tacos. We ordered short rib tacos, spicy pork tacos, chicken tacos, sliders and a kimchi quesadilla.

I can't, for the life of me, fathom waiting hours for this stuff. The meat was gristly and/or fatty, and the sauces were too sweet. There was some nice cabbage slaw on the tacos, and I did enjoy the quesadilla with its surprisingly well paired combination of cheese and kimchi. The slider was a good concept with some good flavors, but again, the meat was not impressive.

I returned a week later for another try and picked up blackjack (pork) quesadillas, chicken mulitas and a Kogi Dog. This time the sauces were a bit less dominant than our previous trip. The quesadilla was good, but the Kogi Dog was simply a standard hot dog with a topping similar to that of the tacos.

The mulitas, a special of the day, were similar to chicken tostadas, but with a tortilla on top as well as on the bottom; the order consisted of two of them, one with salsa rojo and one with verde. It was the best dish I'd had at Kogi in both trips. The tortillas were fresh and crisp, and the salsas were piquant and zesty. This was also the least fusiony of the dishes, hewing toward more traditional taco truck fair, though there might have been a bit of kimchi sandwiched in the tortillas with the chicken. It was a pleasant departure from the rest of the menu.

As a whole, Kogi struck me as more inspired by the Cheesecake Factory or some other mass market fusion food hopped up on sweet sauce than anything truly innovative or interesting. But hey, given that I don't Twitter and am not on Facebook, maybe this stuff was never intended for the likes of me in the first place.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Reubens and Toffee Bars at Brent's

So after many years of meaning to go, I finally made it to Brent's Deli in Northridge. Yes, the pastrami reuben was excellent, with pastrami that was certainly better than any in town save Langer's. Was the reuben, itself, the best in town? I'd have to do a side by side with Nate'n Al's to be sure, but it was damn good.

I expected a great reuben after everything I'd heard about Brent's, but what really took me by surprise was the toffee bar, a sort of brownie/blondie like bar filled with toffee bits, topped with chocolate chips and other good stuff. It was dense, sweet, chocolaty and chewy. I bought one to take home and immediately wished I had picked up two or three at least. Oh yes, I'll be back to try more of everything.

Brent's Delicatessen & Restaurant
19565 Parthenia Street
Northridge CA 91324
(818) 886-5679

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Whiskey Wednesday: Knob Creek and the Greatest Drought That Never Was

It was with great fanfare that Jim Beam announced last week that the great Knob Creek drought of 2009 was finally over. What? You never heard about the Knob Creek drought? How could you possibly have lived through this tragic moment in whiskey without realizing it?

For those of you who are living in a bubble, I will explain. In early July, Beam announced with great fanfare that there was a shortage of its Knob Creek Bourbon. Knob Creek is a popular, nine year old Bourbon made by Beam as part of its overhyped "small batch" collection. In announcing that it had not made enough Knob Creek to meet orders, the company press team sent out T-Shirts saying "I survived the drought" and empty bottles to customers and the press (not to me, I might add). Undoubtedly, the tongue-in-cheek freebies were aimed at encouraging articles about the shortage, to make sure people would, um, know that this dire shortage existed.

If you didn't see one of these articles, chances are, you never knew there was a "shortage" of Knob Creek. Most stores in my area carried healthy quantities of Knob Creek the entire time. Last week, Beam announced that the drought was finally over.

Now, while I appreciate the humor that Beam used in this ploy, it was one of the sillier marketing campaigns I've seen. Admittedly, my own cynicism may be enhanced by the fact that I live in Southern California, and when we hear about droughts, it tends to mean something a bit more serious than a slight production blip in your favorite Bourbon.

Even had there actually been some sign of depleted stocks or limited availability, I highly doubt that there is any person so committed to Knob Creek that they couldn't live with it for two months. After all, most of us Bourbon geeks wait all year just to get our hands on the latest Buffalo Trace antique collection or other limited editions, so a few months gap in a pretty standard Bourbon, just doesn't impress me.

So chalk one up to marketing silliness and let's all hope that the H1N1 vaccine shortage is as artificial as Beam's Knob Creek shortage.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes - Post Updates

One of the peculiarities of the new media is that reviews stay on-line forever. Someone who Googles a restaurant or whiskey might pull up a review from years ago. Unfortunately, the world of dining is not as static as the world of archived internet reviews. Now that I've been at this blog for a few years, I have a number of reviews which are outdated. The worst problem is restaurants that have gone downhill. (Why is it so few places seem to get much better over time?) A few months ago, I voiced my sadness at what had gone awry with the previously excellent Luck Devils, but I can't do that for every place I review, so I thought I would catalogue a few of the places that have changed, mostly for the worse, since I sung their praises.

Shanghai Restaurant. A year after my review of this San Gabriel Square Shanghainese, the food quality seemed to have dropped. The menu was the same, but the flavors just didn't have the same spark. I have heard that there have been some recent changes, hopefully for the better, so it may be worth revisiting.

Moishe's Village. As part of my tour of the Third and Fairfax Farmers Market, I gave a top tier ranking to this spot. While it calls its dishes boerek, but they are really closer to Georgian khachapuri, similar to an egg and cheese calzone. When I first visited, these were fresh and delicious, but since then, I've found the offerings lackluster with uneven flavor; perhaps they are using a different kind of cheese which resulted in a product with weaker flavors.

Crumbs Bake Shop. When the Crumbs shop first opened in Beverly Hills, I really enjoyed their cupcakes, though I did find them a bit too sweet. Fast forward around 18 months and there are five Southern California locations, the sweetness has gotten way out of hand and general quality has suffered. The actual cake in the early days was quite good, but now, for the most part, it is just a content-less vehicle for the overly sweet toppings.

No Reservations. Finally some good news. After watching the first season of Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations, I slammed it as contrived and over-written, but in the years since, it has become one of the best food shows on TV. It took Bourdain a little while to catch his stride, but once he did, he managed a balance of food exploration, humor and political commentary that you won't find on any other cooking show.

There are surely more places I've reviewed over the past two years that have changed, for worse and hopefully for better, and there are countless others that have closed their doors. Alas, even as I was writing this entry, I read that Disney has changed their beloved corn dog, and not for the better.

As a blogger, all I can do is write in the moment, and then turn and face the strain.