Thursday, December 31, 2009

The 2000s - A Personal Food Journey Through the Decade

Happy New Decade! I moved to Los Angeles in the summer of 1998, so while I spent the last year and one half of the 90s in LA, the 00s were really my LA decade. For the previous ten years, I'd been roaming. Through the course of the 1990s, which was the decade of my 20s, I lived in seven different states, went to two different schools and held three different full-time jobs and countless part time, summer and temp gigs. It was a transient time, and while I ate some great foods in great places, I never got settled in one place and got to develop a real familiarity with it, and I tended to eat on the run, seeking out the best I could find wherever I was, from New York to New Orleans and many places in between.

The 00s were different. The decade of my 30s was more settled; I lived entirely in LA, and really got a chance to dig deep into the city and into various food obsessions that I developed. Oh, and unlike the 90s, I had steady jobs the entire decade, which helps with the economics and all. It was the decade that I was able to develop true obsessions with chocolate, cheese and whiskey and do some serious home cooking.

So, feeling reflective on this New Year's Eve, I thought I'd review a few of my personal food memories of the 00s.

2000: I got a copy of Steve Jenkins' Cheese Primer and began my journey on the road to cheese obsession.

2001: Driving home from work, I heard an NPR story about a website called Chowhound that sounded right up my ally. I logged on the next day and my food life changed forever.

2002: I moved from Park La Brea to Koreatown, one of LA's culinary hubs. I also made the first of many pilgrimages to Langer's to worship at the altar of pastrami (how did it take me that long?).

2003: I took my first trip to the San Gabriel Valley for Chinese (Sea Harbor), something I now do several times per month. After being a casual Scotch drinker (Glenfiddich, Glenlivet, Macallan) for many years, I had my first sip of Lagavulin and developed a taste for smoke. Scotch displaces Tequila as my drink of choice.

2004: Highland Park Bicentenary blows my mind and sends me into a flavor tailspin. From thence, a full scale single malt obsession was born.

2005: I tasted my first George T. Stagg and took the same dive into American whiskey. With Julia Childs' help (no, not Mastering the Art, the more user-friendly The Way to Cook), I became more ambitious with my cooking and started venturing out into the world of French cooking.

2007: I started this blog and reached a new level of food obsession but also joined a thriving community of on-line food and drink appreciators.

2008: I bought a whetstone and started sharpening my own knives, adding another level of obsession to make the sharpest blades.

From May to 2007 to now, I blogged the whole way, so it's all right here, from doughnuts to dim sum, from pupus to pupusas, from Kentucky to Scotland, and everywhere in between.

Happy New Year and here's to a tasty teens.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Whiskey Wednesday: The Year in Review

Continuing my year end observations, here is a brief wrap up of the year in whiskey.

The year of our whiskey 2009 was the year of big peat. Actually, Bruichladdich Octomore and Ardbeg Supernova were released in 2009, but they took until early 2010 to make it to our shores, and the year ended with Ardbeg Corryvreckan, which I will review sometime in early '10.

In LA, it was the year of festivals, with the first ever WhiskyLive LA as well as the returning Scotch Whisky Extravaganza. Hosting both events, Santa Monica became the whiskey tasting capital of the Southland.

In American whiskey, it was a year of special releases, including Jefferson Presidential Select, a new Stitzel-Weller Van Winkle and regular new releases from Old Forester, Woodford Reserve and, of course, the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection. For me, though, it was my first year of serious dusty hunting.

For Whiskey Wednesday, we spent more time on Irish Whiskey than we had in the past, but less on Japanese. And being a recession year, we spent a fair amount of time on cheap booze and even cheaper booze. Don't worry, we'll definitely look at some Japanese whiskies in '10.

My biggest whiskey accomplishment of the year was probably putting together my Complete List of American Whiskey Distilleries and Brands. I feel confident in saying that nowhere else on the internet is there as complete (and constantly updated) list of American distilleries (both micro and macro), brands and independent bottlers. The list got some nice mentions from internet whiskey luminaries like Dr. Whisky and Ralfy, which I very much appreciated.

Now, let us raise a glass to a great 2010!

Cheers and Sku will see you in the new year.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Year in Review

With the close of another year, I look back on the food and drink gone buy. Here are a few of my favorite memories and some observations.

I ate gelato and found praise worthy cups at Bulgarini in Altadena and a great affogato at Gelato Bar in Studio City

I said a sad goodbye to Fassica but found a new Ethiopian star on Fairfax at Little Ethiopia.

Why did it take me so long to go to Chung King? Now I can't stay away.

More good stuff to drink: I explored the worlds of dan cong tea and brandy.

I adopted a sense of humor.

I made cheese!

My favorite new higher end meals of the year were Animal and Bazaar, but be warned that Bazaar is like a really good magic show. The first time you go, you think it's great, but the second time, you're like, "Okay, I've seen that trick before. What else you got?"

I ate great, non-BBQ Korean food at Hanbat Shul-Lung-Tang and Seongbukdong.

I found my new favorite shen jian bao at Dean Sin World/Tastio.

And Mozza2Go opened and delivered their excellent chopped liver to my door.

All in all, a good year for food (and I even lost weight). Let's see what 2010 brings.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Whiskey Wednesday: William Larue Weller

The yearly release of the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection is a cause of great joy among whiskey geeks. Each fall, Kentucky's vaunted Buffalo Trace distillery releases a new version of their George T. Stagg, Eagle Rare 17 year old, William Larue Weller Bourbons and Sazerac 18 year old and Thomas Handy rye whiskeys. All of these are great whiskeys and you can't go wrong with any of them. For three of the seven years he has been writing the Whisky Bible, Jim Murray has picked one of them as his best whiskey of the year (Stagg in 2004 and 2006 and Sazerac 18 year old rye in his latest edition).

From this fall's release, the most praise seemed to go to the William Larue Weller, and since I'd never reviewed anything from the Weller line of wheated Bourbons, I thought I would check it out.


William Larue Weller Bourbon, Barrel Proof, 67.4% alcohol ($70-$120)

The nose is woody, wood paneling, wood polish, old library type stuff, a bit sweet smelling, definitely smells of old wheater, deep and thick. This thing has a huuuge, complex flavor that takes you by surprise: first a caramel-Bourbon sweetness coats your tongue, followed by some acid and then some strong wood; the mouthfeel is chewy. The finish lingers for quite a while. A little goes a long way. A fabulous, fabulous Bourbon, worth the praise and then some. One of the best recent release Bourbons I've had. If you can find it, get it.

A quick note on water -- while I enjoy most all my whiskeys neat, I know that some of you like a few drops of water. However, I would avoid water here as I found it to break apart the subtle and complex composition and bring out some bitterness, so if you can bear it, hold the water.

Prices vary quite a bit on the entire Antique Collection and they can be hard to find, but they are worth the effort.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Merry Jewish Christmas

For traditional Jewish Christmas Eve dinner, we always hit something Asian. In the last few years we've done Beijing duck at the old Lu Din Gee, seven courses of beef at Vietnam Restaurant and a seafood extravaganza at Sea Harbor.

Any suggestions for a festive Asian feast for this year?

Merry Christmas!

Thursday, December 17, 2009

I-5 Eats: Faster Fast Food at the El Taco Sinaloa Truck

Are you planing a holiday trip up north this season? Anyone who drives from LA to the Bay Area knows the long and culinarily depressing stretch that is I-5. From the Grapevine to the 580, there is precious little to eat close to the interstate. There are the big fast food chains, the alluring but always disappointing Harris Ranch and the hokey, substandard Apricot Tree and Anderson's Pea Soup joints. There are a few In-n-Outs on either side of the trek, but none stationed in the vast middle.

But on my last trek, we found something more. After putting some good miles down, we pulled off at the Apricot Tree exit, hoping for the possibility of finding something edible on its sad, sad menu when we saw it: a lone taco truck parked in a huge vacant lot with rows of tires lined up along the back of the lot. El Taco Sinaloa sits at the edge of the lot closest to the road alongside a table with a single bench. The clientele seemed to be a mix of locals who knew the place and Latino truck drivers.

I don't know that I've ever been so glad to see a taco truck, and a good one at that. El Taco Sinaloa offers a simple version of standard taco truck fare. The pastor taco had nicely crisped chunks of pastor, the plump bits of lengua were cubed almost to a brunoise, and the carne asada was also nice and crispy; the tortillas on the tacos were crisp and fresh and the salsa verde was citrusy and well seasoned if not too spicy.

A simple taco truck perhaps, but also some of the best I-5 exit food between LA and the Bay, and faster and cheaper than the fast food chains to boot. It will surely be my regular stop; let's hope it stays parked right there.

El Taco Sinaloa
I-5 exit 368 (Panoche Road - same exit as the Apricot Tree)
East side of the Interstate in the big lot with the tires along the back
Firebaugh, CA

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Whiskey Wednesday: The Thrill of the Hunt - Dusty Hunting

One of the primary sports of which whiskey fans partake is the dusty hunt. Don't worry, it doesn't involve hounds or horses or bugles of any sort. The dusty hunt is the practice of looking in liquor stores for old dusty bottles that have been on the shelf for many years. You can find rare, out of production whiskeys, usually marked at their original price, if you are willing to do some hunting, well quite a bit of hunting.

Now, I'm an amateur dusty hunter, and while I've found a few out of production whiskies, I can't say I've struck whiskey gold with a real rarity. One key to being a good dusty hunter is having a knowledge of whiskey history, knowing what brands have been discontinued and being able to recognize the various elements on a bottle that indicate its age. This could include the numbering on the bottom of the bottle, the presence of a tax stamp, the distillery address information, the use of metric measurements as opposed to the previous non-metric (i.e. ml vs. quart or fifth) and proof v. abv. For more advice on all of this technical stuff, check out the great series on dusty hunting over at Bourbon Dork.

The other crucial element to dusty hunting is having a sense of where to look for old bottles. You won't find dusties at a specialty spirits store. Your best bet is an old corner market with low turnover on most items, but any old liquor store can be a source of dusties. Keep in mind, though, that nine times out of ten, or maybe 99 out of 100, you won't find anything worthwhile.

The largest cache of dusties I've found so far is at Jubilee Liquors, a Koreatown shop at Third and Hobart. When I walked in, I noticed that in the far corner, there was a whole set of tax stamped dusties: Old Crow from its pre-Beam National Distillers days when it was actually a drinkable Bourbon, Old Taylor and Old Overholt rye also from the pre-Beam National Distillers, Old Forester, and Old Charter from the old Bernheim Distillery. All of these looked to be from the late '70s and early '80s. None of these were from prized distilleries like Michter's or Stitzel-Weller, but they were old Bourbons I hadn't sampled, so I picked up one of each.

The counter guy viewed me with a sort of mix of curiosity and disgust. No one ever buys those, he told me. They are really old. Lucky for me, as is often the case with dusties, I don't think they had updated the price tags, so I paid $7 to $15 for these old whiskeys from closed distilleries.

Over the next few months, I may post reviews for some of these dusty bottles. Meanwhile, if you want to try some, stop by. At my last visit, there were still bottles of all of these except the Overholt at Jubilee, along with lots of really old crap (schnapps, brandy, blended whiskey, etc.).

Happy Hunting!

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Holiday Gift Ideas: Spirits (non-whiskey)

Aside from the whiskey gift recommendations I made last week, I sampled a number of wonderful non-whiskey spirits this year that have great gift potential.

Germain-Robin XO Alambic Brandy

One of the best spirits I had all year, whiskey included, was the Germain-Robin XO. Made with pinot noir grapes, this bold, complex brandy is as good or better than any Cognac on the market. It is one of those spirits with such complexity and richness that it keeps drawing you back. It's hard to keep a bottle around for long. ($100-$115).

Carpano Antica Forumula Vermouth

Evincing a full and herbal flavor, Carpano Antica Formula Vermouth will punch up your Manhattan, but it's good enough to just sip straight. ($30)

Genevieve Genever Gin

I called it a gin for whiskey drinkers, but Anchor Distillery's Genevieve Genever Gin would also be a great gift of cocktail lovers who want something new to experiment with. It has fast become one of my favorite cocktail spirits. ($30)

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Holiday Gift Ideas: Enstrom's Toffee Popcorn and Peppermint Bark

It's holiday time again and what better gift to give than the gift of sweets. I tasted Colorado based Enstrom's toffee in my toffee smackdown last holiday season, and while it was good, it was bested by our local favorite, Littlejohns.

While their toffee was competitive, Enstrom's Toffee Popcorn is unsurpassed. Imagine popcorn made with a really high quality toffee along with cashews, almonds and pecans; the toffee glues it all together in little, candy clumps. Each bite is rich and crunchy with a deep toffee flavor. This is by far the best flavored popcorn I have ever tasted. Two one pound bags go for $24.

Enstrom's also makes a peppermint cookie bark that is among the best I've had. Dark and white chocolate encase cookie bits and are sprinkled with peppermint candy. If you know someone with a hankering for peppermint, they need some of this candy. A one pound box is $19.

All of Enstrom's goodies can be purchased on-line.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Whiskey Wednesday: Whiskey Gifts

There have been some great whiskeys released this year, for both the whiskey novice and expert. Unfortunately, many of the new releases are either extremely pricey, extremely hard to find or both. I've tried to offer some more reasonable choices here along with a few splurges.

American Whiskey

William Larue Weller. The annual fall release of the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection (consisting of George T. Stagg, Eagle Rare 17 year old and William Larue Weller Bourbons as well as Sazerac 18 year old and Thomas H. Handy rye whiskeys) is always a cause for celebration among Bourbon lovers. This year, the best reviewed of the bunch has been the Weller, a barrel strength, wheated Bourbon. My review will come later, but I can attest that this is a phenomenal whiskey, and many people who have tasted it have uttered the words "best ever." If you can still find it, it should be in the $90 range.

Jefferson Presidential Select. I reviewed this 17 year old wheater last week. It will cost you in the neighborhood of $90, but for the real Bourbon geek in your life, a sip of potion from the defunct Stitzel-Weller distillery is worth its weight in gold.

Bernheim Wheat Whiskey. While Dr. Whisky disagrees, I very much enjoyed Bernheim Straight Wheat Whiskey, a novel whiskey which comes at a reasonable price, around $40.

Wild Turkey American Spirit. This limited release Bourbon is still on shelves but probably won't be available much longer. It goes for around $70 and gives you some solid Turkey heft and complexity.


Bruichladdich Octomore. For the peat lover in your life, take a trip to Wine & Liquor Depot in Van Nuys, which still has a few bottles of Bruichladdich's über-smoky Octomore. It goes for around $120.

Ardbeg. A bit cheaper but still smokin' is the new Ardbeg Corryvreckan which runs $75 to $80. I haven't tried this one yet, but an Ardbeg new release is a pretty safe bet. Corryvreckan will be replacing Ardbeg's Airigh Nam Beist, which will be gradually disappearing from shelves, so if you're a fan of "the Beast," you may want to pick up a bottle to put away. It's still around and runs around the same price.

Japanese Whisky

Suntory Hibiki. The Suntory Company is smiling on the US and sending us two new releases, the vintage 1984 Yamazaki and the 12 year old version of their popular blend Hibiki. I tasted both of these whiskies at WhiskyLive and enjoyed them both. The more expensive and more remarkable 1984 isn't available yet and will probably be quite pricey. The Hibiki has started popping up; it is a very smooth and drinkable blend that would make the perfect gift for the Scotch drinker in your life. The going price on the Hibiki seems to be around $50.

For more budget-friendly whiskey gifts, see my list of great whiskey for under $20.

Happy holidays!

Sunday, December 6, 2009

The Real Tea Party: Tea Habitat

Hundreds, maybe thousands of Angelenos have LA Times writer C. Thi Nguyen to thank for showing them the way to Tea Habitat. Last summer, Nguyen wrote an amazing piece about a little known tea shop in a Rancho Palos Verdes mall. Tea Habitat specializes in dan cong tea, as Nguyen describes in the article:

This is the next level of hard-core Chinese tea appreciation: dan cong oolong. You know how there's single-barrel bourbon and single-cask scotch? Well, this is single-tree tea. This means that every cup of dan cong you drink has been brewed from the leaves of one particular tea tree on the slopes of Phoenix Mountain in Guangdong. Each old dan cong tree is known, named, carefully tended and loved for its own peculiar character.

I met Tea Habitat proprietor Imen Shan shortly after the LA Times article came out. It turns out that she's quite a Bourbon fan, so I had her over for some Bourbon and she reciprocated by having me over for some tea (FTC Disclaimer: She did not charge me for the tasting).

Tea Habitat is not easy to find. Even with my cell phone GPS, I had to search a bit for it. It's buried under an arch across from a TJ Maxx in a rather large shopping plaza way out on the Palos Verdes peninsula. The shop itself is beautifully put together with displays of tea pots and an antique wooden Chinese tea table in the corner.

Before reading the article and having tea from Tea Habitat, I was one of those people who thought of oolong tea as an only slightly flavored water that was best for slurping down with dim sum, something to grease my gullet for all of those pork buns. Tea Habitat opened my eyes to a whole new world of flavor in Chinese tea. At Tea Habitat, I found teas that were fragrant and floral, like their popular Honey Orchid dan cong, but they also serve teas as funky and earthy as any Islay Scotch. After tasting a 1978 vintage dan cong, my partner described it as tasting like the damp soil under an old decaying log in the forest, and this was a good thing. After several batches (properly brewing dan cong involves making numerous, successive brews to taste the changes from brew to brew), the earthiness receded to reveal a sweeter, more floral tea, a mind-bending transformation. The dan cong teas are not just single tree, they are single season, so you can compare a fall 2008 to fall 2009. The varieties available are staggering. Single tree dan congs cost from $30 per ounce and up, but Tea Habitat also offers tasting flights starting at $10.

In addition to the dan cong teas, Tea Habitat sells herbal and iced tea as well as three varieties of Bee's Family raw Chinese honey: longan flower, lychee flower and the multiple flower winter honey. These are some of the best honeys I've ever tasted, with rich floral notes forward.

Ms. Chan doesn't always work the store counter, but she is an absolute pleasure to talk to and learn from and is always willing to share information about her teas.

Tea or a tea tasting from Tea Habitat would make a fabulous holiday gift. It's more than worth the trek to the outer reaches of the Palos Verdes peninsula.

Tea Habitat
21B Peninsula Center (under the archway across from TJ Maxx)
Palos Verdes, CA 90274
(310) 921-5282

Thursday, December 3, 2009

It's Egg Nog Time - Evan Williams Egg Nog

As you know if you read this blog around the holidays, I love egg nog. I drink store bought egg nog and I make my own. One thing I have not generally done is buy premixed egg nogs, as they are usually sickly sweet and full of low quality booze. However, this year we are lucky enough to have Evan Williams egg nog on the market in California.

Evan Williams is a popular Bourbon from the Heaven Hill distillery. I've heard raves about their egg nog for years but until this year, I had never seen it for sale in California. Now, at last, it's showing up at reputable Southern California spirits stores like Wine & Liquor Depot in Van Nuys and Hi Time Wine in Cosa Mesa for a very affordable $7 per bottle.

The Evan Williams nog is premixed egg nog that includes Bourbon, blended whiskey, rum and brandy. It is a pale yellow in color and has a good, creamy texture. The nog is rich and very balanced. It's sweet without being cloyingly so with just a hint of nutmeg. There is a definite dairy flavor that comes through as well.

The booze gives it a nice kick but it's not overwhelming (It weighs in at 15% alcohol). This is definitely the best of the pre-mixed nogs I've tried and the price is right. Popping open a bottle is a great way to kick off the holiday season.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Whiskey Wednesday: Jefferson Presidential Select and the Cult of Stitzel-Weller

Among Bourbon connoisseurs, there is a special reverence in tone used to discuss the Stitzel-Weller distillery, and if you announce you are serving a Bourbon containing the "juice" of the long closed plant, heads will turn. There have been many heads turning over the last few months since, for the first time possibly since the closing of the distillery, a Bourbon bottler announced it would be marketing a new Stitzel-Weller Bourbon.

Closed in 1991, the Stitzel-Weller distillery has developed what can only be described as a cult following among Bourbon lovers. Located in Shively, Kentucky, a distillery-rich suburb of Louisville, the distillery was founded just after prohibition and made what in Bourbon parlance is known as a "wheater" or "wheated Bourbon." According to the federal regulations governing spirits, Bourbon must be made from at least 51% corn. Most Bourbons use a higher percentage of corn than is required and then use rye as a secondary grain to add flavor, along with some barley. Rye is what gives Bourbon its spicy kick. Stitzel-Weller, however, used wheat instead of rye as its secondary grain, giving their Bourbons a smoother, gentler taste, often with citrus notes.

Stitzel-Weller's biggest brands were Old Fitzgerald and W.L. Weller. After the distillery closed, as is common in the world of Bourbon, it sold off the brand names. Old Fitzgerald is now produced by the Heaven Hill distillery and W.L. Weller by Buffalo Trace; both are still made using wheated bourbon recipes. Buffalo Trace has also teamed up with Julian Van Winkle III, the grandson of Stitzel-Weller founder Julian P. "Pappy" Van Winkle, to make a series of wheated Bourbon under the Van Winkle label.

Julian Van Winkle has confirmed rumors that he still has stocks of Stitzel-Weller Bourbon that go into the older versions of the Van Winkle line, but none of those Bourbons, the Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve series, are marketed as Stitzel-Weller Bourbon, and there is no official disclosure of whether the older versions (20 and 23 year old Bourbons) are purely from old Stitzel-Weller stocks or are blended with Buffalo Trace Bourbons. In any case, those old stocks won't last forever and eventually, Van Winkle Bourbons will be made wholly with more recently distilled whiskey.

Stitzel-Weller became big news again in the world of Bourbon this summer when Bourbon bottler McLain and Kyne announced that it would be issuing a new expression of its Jefferson Reserve line of Bourbons -- the Jefferson Presidential Select, a 17 year old Stitzel-Weller Bourbon. Speculation was rampant as to how McLain and Kyne acquired the Stitzel-Weller juice. Some suggested that they may have purchased it from drinks giant Diageo which was the last owner of the Stitzel-Weller distillery, but only McLain and Kyne know for sure.

The release of a new Bourbon marketed as Stitzel-Weller Bourbon is unusual in the world of American whiskey. Unlike the world of Scotch, in which there are regular new releases of rare, old whiskies from closed distilleries, it is unusual to see new Bourbon releases from closed distilleries. One of the only other such Bourbons currently on the market is A.H. Hirsch from the old Michter's distillery in Pennsylvania.

The announcement also gives the new crop of younger Bourbon lovers a rare glimpse into the flavors of Bourbons past. Stitzel-Weller closed at the tail end of a whiskey market downturn which saw many distilleries, in Scotland and the United States, close their doors. Less than ten years later, a spirits revival would begin. Most of the new afficionados who have come to Bourbon during this revival either weren't of drinking age or simply weren't drinking Bourbon when Stitzel-Weller was producing. To these drinkers, the McLain and Kyne bottling is manna from the heavens, something many of them have heard about but that they never believed they would taste.

No one seems to know exactly how much Stitzel-Weller Bourbon is still resting in barrels in ancient warehouses, but if the Jefferson Reserve bottling sells well, then the world of Bourbon just might see an extended last hurrah of a distillery that closed nearly twenty years ago.


Jefferson's Presidential Select, 17 years old, 47% alcohol ($85-90).

The nose is alive and singing on this one. I smell sweet, caramelized fruit, pastries and the smell you get when you first open a can of passover coconut macaroons. The flavor is rich and clean. You can tell it's an aged wheater, but it doesn't have the chewy, oakiness you would expect in a 17 year old Bourbon. It's less layered and complex than I might have imagined, going more for a clear, clean Bourbon flavor. This is a Bourbon that knows what it wants to be, sweet but not overly so, woody but not overly so, very well balanced in every respect, including a solid finish.

A great Bourbon and a chance to taste history. Is it expensive? I suppose, but nowhere near what you would pay to taste whisky from a closed distillery in Scotland. This would make a great holiday gift for any Bourbon loving friends or family.

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.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

The New Food Blogging Twiteratti

In an effort to be the absolute first to review new establishments, from now on, I'm going to Twitter my reviews. That way, I can have the definitive first word and no one else will need to review them.

In case you missed it, here is my first Twitter project. I stopped by the opening night of Bistro Merde in Hollywood on Saturday night and gave this report.

Banging on door...I need to be first in!
5:28 PM Oct 24th from web.

I hope none of these other foools are blggrs.
5:29 PM Oct 24th from web.

Sitting down, nice decor - blue walls and mirror.
5:32 PM Oct 24th from web.

Tap watter please - don't rip me biatch
5:37 PM Oct 24th from web.

No wine - can't tweet on the drive home if I'vebeen drinking - tooo risky.
5:41 PM Oct 24th from web.

Menu is long - will try to download photo
5:43 PM Oct 24th from web.

Sorry, had to take a call and missed contemporaneous tweeting of amuse- damn!@!
5:48 PM Oct 24th from web.

Sweetbread app - first bite is good/ crisp and firm
5:52 PM Oct 24th from web.

Second bite - CAPERS!!! Fkyeah
5:53 PM Oct 24th from web.

Mopping up sauce w bread now
5:58 PM Oct 24th from web.

@SoupBlogger, hey are you at the table near big mirror - whup?
6:02 PM Oct 24th from web in reply to SoupBlogger.

My date thinks this is not what she signed up for - I'm doubting I'm taking her for a second date.
6:05 PM Oct 24th from web.

Mains are here - almond crusted arctic char for her; duck confit for me.
6:12 PM Oct 24th from web.

Damnn, pickkked up dulk legh and greazze gt on my ipone ewijlks.ssjlie
6:16 PM Oct 24th from web.

Duck is good but char is overdone
6:18 PM Oct 24th from web.

Decrumbing happening
6:28 PM Oct 24th from web.

Great bathroom decor
6:32 PM Oct 24th from web.

6:33 PM Oct 24th from web.

Dessert - for me lavendar chocolate mousse with lemongrass/garlic sorbet
6:36 PM Oct 24th from web.

Date in bathroom - eating dessert so sorbet won't melt
6:37 PM Oct 24th from web.

Date still in bathroom - bill is here
6:47 PM Oct 24th from web.

Waiting for date - jeez what's up?
6:59 PM Oct 24th from web.

Shit, she was my ride home
7:26 PM Oct 24th from web.

Two and one half stars - FAIL- I mean how good can a place be if your date feels she has to walk out - will yelp it while I wait for cab
7:38 PM Oct 24th from web.

Look out twenty-first century, Sku has arrived!

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Whiskey Wednesday: WhiskyLive LA

Last Tuesday night, whiskey lovers from across the Southland converged on the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium for a four and a half hour tasting extravaganza. To the strains of the inevitable bagpipe and drum corps, we sampled Scotch, Bourbon, Irish and Japanese whiskies (as well as some beer and rum), took classes, and talked to knowledgeable brand representatives from all over the whiskey world.

WhiskyLive, sponsored by Whisky Magazine, is one of two major international tasting events (the other being Malt Advocate Magazine's WhiskyFest), and this was the first time that either festival was held in the LA area.

I sampled 28 whiskies through the evening and there were many highlights. The Suntory Company was there with samples of two whiskies that will be new to the US this fall: The Hibiki, a very pleasant blend, and the exceptional Yamazaki 1984, a vintage single malt distilled in Orwell's favorite year. The beauty of whiskey festivals is that you often get to taste whiskies that don't make it to market, and Suntory had a large collection of these, including the component whiskies that go into its Hibiki blend and whiskies aged in different types of barrels that go into its Yamazaki single malt. The brand representative also told me that there are "discussions" about bringing Suntory's other malt, Hakushu, to the US.

I attended two of the five "master classes" that were offered. Maker's Mark, like Suntory, offered versions of their whisky which are not available to the public, including the unaged, new make spirit, a one year old version and a nine year old version, which they referred to as "overaged." The point of the lesson was supposed to be that by ageing Maker's for five to seven years, they arrive at the perfect point of maturation. Frankly, I preferred the "overaged" version. (I'll finally do a Maker's post sometime this fall).

Highland Park's master class allowed me to taste most of the line of one of my favorite single malts side by side: the 10, 15, 18 and 25 year olds as well as the luscious 30 year old. The Highland Park program was more stand up comedy routine than traditional whiskey education, and brand ambassador Martin Daraz had us all in stitches. Even as much of a whiskey geek as I am, at hour three of the festival, I think people were happier to laugh a bit than to hear a long lecture about kilns and malting.

The Scott's Selection table was another highlight. The brand representative for this independent bottler was particularly knowledgeable (not all brand reps can hold their own with a crowd of intense whiskey geeks) and was pouring a fabulous variety of well-aged whiskies, including a 38 year old Longmorn and a 45 year old North of Scotland single grain whisky (an older version of the whisky I reviewed at 42 years).

Oh, and the picture at top of the page (i.e. the bottles, not the bagpipes) shows the table sponsored by the LA Scotch Club, who weren't pouring drinks but were showing off their impressive collection...membership apparently has its privileges.

While the event was well attended, it was not overly crowded and there was easy access to all of the libations. The vibe was friendly and casual, and the drinking was responsible.

We in LA owe many thanks to the good folks at Whisky Magazine for bringing WhiskyLive to Los Angeles, and here's hoping that they make it a regular event.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Bayou Worthy Oyster Po Boys: Big Mama's in Pasadena

One of the hardest cuisines to find a decent version of in LA is Cajun. Having had a job which required me to roam around the entire state of Louisiana for two years in the early '90s, I developed a deep love and respect for Cajun food. Not the refined creole dishes of New Orleans, but the rustic, fried seafood, jambalaya and gumbo of the Cajun country. The object of my deepest affection back then was the fried crawfish po boy, but given that mud bugs just don't make it out of Louisiana all to often, the best you can hope for west of Houston is a half way decent fried oyster po boy.

In the best version of this delicacy, the oysters are fresh and plump, flash fried and slapped on a bun with lettuce, tomato and mayo. Then, you add hot sauce to taste, which for me, means enough to saturate the bread and blend with the mayo, turning it the color of Russian dressing.

For a few years after moving to LA, I relied on the fried oyster po boy at the Venice Boulevard Uncle Darrow's shack for my fix. Unfortunately, that location closed years ago, and while there is another Uncle Darrow's in Marina Del Rey, I simply never make it out to Marina Del Rey.

On my recent LA gelato tour, I found myself hanging out in Altadena to sample the wondrous Bulgarini Gelato and needing someplace to eat after knocking down some goat milk gelato or olive oil yogurt. I didn't find a lot of options in Altadena, but just over the Pasadena border is Big Mama's Rib Shack.

Big Mama's is not an impressive looking place. More of a lounge than a shack, it has the feel of a run down night club. A massive TV greets customers at the front of the restaurant, and the place is divided in half with two separate decors. The left half of the room has some stylish touches, tables and a bar, but the right side features worn out booths with ripped fabric and a carpet in need of a serious cleaning.

As the name indicates, Big Mama's is a barbecue joint and the menu tends to emphasize the barbecue options. But when I scanned the menu, my eyes landed immediately on another section, tucked away on the side: Jambalaya, file gumbo, fried seafood, and a whole list of po boys...Louisiana food. One of my rules of life is that if an oyster po boy appears on a menu, I will order it, although in California, usually it will disappoint.

The Big Mama's po boy was an unassuming creature. A smaller version than is typical, featuring just two large oysters, but biting into that po boy was one of those moments in life you treasure, when you realize that you have found something truly and unexpectedly wonderful. The first bite revealed a crisp, nicely spiced cornmeal crust encasing a beautifully cooked, huge, juicy oyster within. It included the typical lettuce and tomato, though with a bit of onion and mustard as well. I grabbed the hot sauce, splashed some on to make that perfect bite and sat back, dreaming of shacks on the bayou, the decks of which I used to lounge on eating something like this. It was one of those flavors that takes you back. I was so happy that I came close to ordering a second one right on top of the first, but I try not to overindulge in such ways as I slip into middle age.

The hush puppies were good, but nothing else we ordered was worth noting. Despite the fact that Big Mama's bills itself as a rib shack, the ribs were unexciting and the catfish had that musty, dirty taste they get when they aren't prepared quite right or aren't the best quality to begin with, but none of that mattered. For now, I've found the best LA oyster po boy that I've had in years and within just a few miles of one of the best gelato shops anywhere. This was my definition of a find, and a balanced meal to boot.

Big Mama's Rib Shack
1453 N. Lake Avenue
Pasadena, CA 91104
(626) 797-1792

Friday, October 23, 2009

Candy Fans Rejoice: BonBonBar is Back!

In this economy where so many great restaurants have shuttered, it's great to be able to relay a success story, especially one about chocolate.

I am happy to report that BonBonBar, makers of the best dang candy bars around, is back. As you may recall, BonBonBar's owner, Nina Wanat, closed up shop and moved to San Francisco in August, unsure if she could keep up the business.

Thankfully, she seems to have landed on her feet. She announced last week that BonBonBar was back up and running with new bars as well as old favorites (I can't wait to try the Coffee Bar featuring Blue Bottle Coffee). You can order through through the website.

Welcome back Nina! We always knew you would make it.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Two Luscious Soft Cheeses: Wynedale and Nevat

I haven't written up a cheese plate in a while, so I thought I would highlight two excellent soft cheeses I picked up at the Cheese Store of Silverlake.

Wynedale is a Belgian cow cheese. It is a pungent cheese with an underlying sweetness, and notes of wine or liqueur. The flavor is almost fondue like (i.e. cheese plus liqueur). I absolutely love this cheese and it pairs well on a plate with some of the stinkier cheeses, adding some contrast with its very particular flavor.

Nevat is a Spanish goat cheese from Catalonia. It has the look of a major stinker, but then surprises you with a totally different flavor profile. It's light and salty and a bit acidic tasting. It pairs very well with nuts.

I put these two on a platter with some Epoisse (of course) and had a great soft cheese plate.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Whiskey Tuesday: Tonight is WhiskyLive

Tuesday night is WhiskyLive in Santa Monica! Along with samples from distilleries making all kinds of whiskey and catering by the Patina Group, there will be masterclasses from Highland Park, Maker's Mark, Yamazaki and Diageo.

I'll be going with the early crowd and attending the Highland Park Masterclass. If you see me, please say hi, and I promise a full report for next week.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Soup is Good Food - My Favorite LA Soups

As the air finally begins to develop something akin to a chill, for Southern California at least, my thoughts turn to soup. Soup is a comfort food in nearly every culture; perhaps the warm, wetness appeals to our desire to return to the womb and feast, once again, on amniotic fluid from the one time in our lives when we lacked any literal independence and were totally and completely dependent on the care of others. Or maybe it's just warm and tasty.

In no particular order, then, come a few of my favorite LA area soups.

Seolleongtang with beef tongue at Hanbat Shul-Lung-Tang. Like Pho Minh's pho, the broth is the essence of beef, though this time, it's beef bones, oxtail to be precise. The murky, milky broth shows the presence of stewed bones and reaches out to comfort every extremity. The tongue is sliced so thinly and is so tender that you might think you are eating ultra-thin strips of filet mignon. This may be the best of the cold-day soups on the list.

Ajiaco at La Fonda Antioqueña. Made from specially imported potatoes and only available on weekends, ajiaco is a Colombian chicken and potato soup in a rich, corn broth. The rich, yellow broth yields flavors of corn and chicken fat and puts the rest of the ingredients to shame, making you wonder why they are; even there. This may be the most delicious broth on the list; it's hard to stop eating.

Pho at Pho Minh. There are thousands of phos throughout the Southland, but none that I've tasted is as intrinsically beefy as Pho Minh's. The broth is so full bodies and representative of beef, that I hesitate to add any of the traditional condiments lest they interfere with that broth. Unlike the beef bone broth at Hanbat, this broth is the essence of the meat, the cow, simmered for God knows how long to wrest every last bit of flavor and present a liquid composition of meat.

Napa Soup with Lamb and Hand Cut Noodles at Dumpling Master. It's tangy, sour and gamey, filled with cabbage, boiled lamb, a good dose of vinegar and chewy, hand cut noodles. This funky Northern Chinese soup is one of my go-to soups and seems like it should cure hangovers, improve virility or have some other mystical effect.

Cream of Corn at La Cabanita. Given how much I love cream soups, it's odd that this is the only one on the list. I just haven't been excited about that many creamed soups in LA. La Cabanita's cream of corn, however, is velvety smooth, sweet and corny. It's topped with crumbled Mexican cheese, which gives it just the right amount of added salt. La Cabanita has a number of excellent soups, but the cream of corn is my favorite.

Bean Paste Casserole at Seongbukdong. The funk continues at this home style Korean restaurant with the bean paste casserole. Not a casserole at all, in the way westerners conceptualize of such a thing, this is a chewy, salty fermented soy bean soup. It tastes like eating an entire bowl of slightly diluted doenjang, the fermented soy bean mash served as a condiment to Korean BBQ. Since it's all I can do not to eat doenjang of the condiment tray with a spoon, this casserole suits me just fine.

Ramen. I'm no Rameniac, but I like a good bowl of ramen, and I go back and forth between whether the ramen is better at Daikokuya in Little Tokyo or Santouka in the Mitsuwa Marketplace. I have a porky soft spot for both Santouka's fatty broth and the pure porky goodness of Daikokuya.

There are other soups I love, but don't have a great example of in LA. Lobster bisque is one of my favorites (are there any Hamburger Hamlets left?). I'm a huge fan of vichyssoise, but I really like my own version the best and besides, it doesn't really count as a cold weather comfort food. And Hawaiian chicken long rice from Ono Hawaiian in Honolulu always deserves a shout out. Then there is Laksa and...well, I could go on.

What are your favorite LA soups?

Thursday, October 15, 2009

This Little Pig Went to Cuba: El Conchinito

A recent trip to Southern Florida accompanied by some heart-stopping pig put me in the mood for some good Cuban roast pork or lechon. Cuban isn't a real strength of Southern California, and I've never been a huge fan of the much loved Versailles, especially their pork. For a while I've been eyeing the popular (porkular?) El Conchinito on Sunset in Silverlake, so I thought I'd finally give it a try.

The only thing I can say to sum up is that El Conchinito (literally, the little pig) is a flavor explosion. The lechon, roasted with huge amounts of garlic, is crispy and juicy and fatty and wonderful in every way. It may be a bit too greasy, certainly moreso than the Florida lechon I had, but if you get the sandwich (pan con lechon), which is really just the pork on bread, the grease is absorbed into the bread creating a wondrous porky, garlic bread.

The fried yuca is also excellent, consisting of perfectly fried yuca pieces (underfrying of yuca is a common crime) topped with another dollop of fiery garlic sauce. This is the burger and fries of cuba and Conchinito does it proud.

The Sandwich Cubano, a traditional Cuban sandwich of roast pork, ham, pickles and mustard, was good, but I would have liked to see more roast pork and more pickles on it. Lechon is definitely the thing to get here.

El Conchinito
3508 W Sunset Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90026
(323) 668-0737

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Whiskey Wednesday: Budget Booze - Ancient Age

Continuing our series of whiskies in the $10 range, we move to Frankfort, Kentucky where the distillery now known as Buffalo Trace used to be the Ancient Age distillery. Even with the name change, Buffalo Trace still produces the old namesake Ancient Age, a three year old Bourbon in the $10 range. There is also a ten year old version, known as Ancient Ancient Age, but it is only marketed in and around Kentucky.


Ancient Age Bourbon, 3 years old, (distilled by Buffalo Trace) 40% alcohol ($10-$12).

This Bourbon has a soft nose with some juniper and rye spice. Lots of rye early in the palate, then lots of sweetness as the rye recedes, but a nice spicy finish. The flavor profile is similar, though somewhat sweeter than the standard Buffalo Trace label Bourbon with its prominent rye notes.

This is another fine budget whiskey in the $10 range.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

The LA Gelato Tour

Recently, I've been in a gelato phase, lapping the stuff up like a thirsty mutt near a puddle. I've also been downing my share of affogato (gelato doused with espresso). Obsessive that I am, once I got the gelato jones, I had to try a broad swath of SoCal gelato and write it up.

Before we start, a brief note on the distinction between gelato and ice cream. Generally, gelato uses more milk and less cream than ice cream, so it actually has less fat. Because it is churned at a slower rate than ice cream, gelato also has less air whipped into it than ice cream. The rich, thick characteristic comes from the lack of air, not from added fat. Traditionally, gelato did not have eggs in the custard base, which ice cream generally does.

That being said, as a practical matter, there is a lot of murkiness in the distinction. Many people simply consider gelato to be an Italian style of ice cream and judge it based on presentation (e.g. laid out on trays rather than in tubs) and aesthetic rather than anything technical. I pretty much just went with places that called their product gelato. Note that I did not include Scoops on Heliotrope here since I believe they call their product ice cream, but hey, you all know Scoops rocks anyway and I was after places that were new to me.

Not every place offered an affogato but I tried to have one at each place that did (though I did miss one). The beauty of the affogato is that the rich espresso melds with the gelato and forms a heavenly coffee ice cream float. When done well, it is a beautiful gestalt of flavors, halfway between a solid and liquid but filled with flavor. When done poorly, it's a scoop of ice cream sitting in a cold puddle of coffee, a sad affair to say the least.

As I am wont to do, I've broken the contenders out into tiers to rank them.


Bulgarini Gelato, Altadena. I'm happy to report that the hype surrounding this Altadena gelato shop is well deserved. Tucked away in a run down strip mall anchored by a Rite-Aid and a Kragen on East Altadena Drive, just west of Lake, Bulgarini was my favorite gelato. The best flavors here were transcendent in both flavor and texture, particularly the olive oil yogurt, a fluffy, light as air tart frozen yogurt with a smooth olive oil taste topped with olive oil. It reminded me of some sort of olive oil foam you might get at Bazaar. The day I visited there was also a beautiful sheep milk and parsley gelato with madeira. Also excellent were the regular chocolate and the lemon cream. The Florentine chocolate, a chocolate with sea salt, had a nice chocolate flavor but was a bit too salty to have more than a bite.

Affogato is an off menu item at Bulgarini but they do make it. The one I had was very nice with a nice crema on the espresso and good proportions, but although they said it was an item they served, they asked for instruction on how to do it correctly. It was nice enough, but I would stick to the excellent gelato at this place.

Bulgarini Gelato
749 E. Altadena Dr.
Altadena, Ca. 91001
(626) 791-6174

Gelato Bar, Studio City. The biggest surprise in my gelato tour was how well this relatively unsung gelateria compared to the others. Owned by Gail Silverton, sister of Nancy, Gelato Bar offers innovative (though not overly weird) flavors that are bold without being too sweet. Their gelato is a perfect textural, specimen, rich and creamy with a dissolve in your mouth quality. It's neither as innovative nor as transcendent as Bulgarini but it is perhaps more what I think of as traditional gelato (at least in my American experience) done about the best way it can be done. My favorite flavors here were the chocolate sorbetto, stracciatella (chocolate chip), mango, ricotta and Veneziana (candied orange peel with chocolate).

The affogato at Gelato Bar was the best of the bunch. Made with a perfectly pulled Ecco Cafe espresso, whipped cream and Valrhona cacao nibs, the Gelato Bar affogato shows the importance of proper espresso preparation in the dish's composition. Gelato Bar makes a great espresso with a thick head of crema which blends perfectly with the scoops of gelato, creating that lovely synthesis that is the affogato. Why this place hasn't entered the pantheon of great LA gelatos is beyond me, but you owe yourself a trip.

Gelato Bar
4342 1/2 Tujunga Ave
Studio City, CA 91604-2751
(818) 487-1717


Pazzo Gelato, Silver Lake. I'd been looking forward to this popular Sunset Boulevard shop, but unlike Bulgarini, it did not live up to the hype. While I liked the milk chocolate, which had a Mexican chocolate spice to it, the flavors, in general, were too sweet, not intense enough and generally lacking in excitement.

The pazzagato, Pazzo's version of the affogato, got points off for using canned whipped cream and too much gelato. It's tempting, I'm sure, to load the cup up with gelato for the affogato, but moderation is part of the key. Too much ice cream turns the espresso cold and gives you the aforementioned cold puddle of coffee. And while I love Intelligentsia espresso in cappuccinos, it's too tannic for affogato, which really calls for something darker. The popularity of this place leads me to have serious questions about hipster tastes.

Pazzo Gelato
3827 W Sunset Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90026
(323) 662-1410


Al Gelato, Beverly Hills adjacent. This was another disappointing one for me. I'd heard a lot of praise for Al Gelato, on Robertson, but it simply didn't live up to the hype. The issues were similar to Pazzo Gelato: unexciting flavors, too sweet and a texture that lacked the rich and creamy qualities that I crave, and was even a bit icy, which is a cardinal sin of gelato. Al Gelato makes an affogato, but I didn't get to try it.

Al Gelato
806 S Robertson Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90035
(310) 659-8069

Hollywood Gelato, Los Feliz. Hollywood Gelato, on Hillhurst in Los Feliz, was simply uninspiring. The flavors were too sweet and the gelato was icy. It lacked the rich and creamy qualities that make a great gelato. Apparently they are not doing so well as they have scaled back their hours fairly severely. They didn't have an affogato on the menu.

Hollywood Gelato
1936 Hillhurst Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90027
(323) 644-3311


Best Gelato: Bulgarini with honorable mention for Gelato Bar

Best Affogato: Gelato Bar