Sunday, January 24, 2010

Food Trucks for Haiti Relief at TLofts

This past Saturday an army of food trucks gathered near the TLofts community complex in West LA in an organized event to help raise proceeds for Haiti relief efforts. With over 20 food trucks attending--including the very popular Buttermilk truck and the Grilled Cheese truck--you just knew this would draw the hordes of foodies and food truck stalkers. Luckily this event took place within walking distance to our West LA residence, so Fonda and I strapped on our sneakers, leashed our JRT, and made the 1-mile walk over to the TLofts area.

Some pictures of the event:

As we approached the pit lane of trucks, I noticed crowds already dozens deep at several of the more popular trucks. We made a dash toward the Flying Pig truck--which wasn't too busy--as I read rave reviews about their sliders--and how can you wrong with a name like "Flying Pig?"

I step up to order a pair of beef and pork sliders and a tamarind duck taco:

The sliders (2 for $5) were very good with a thick, juicy patty of pork and beef that was nicely seasoned and wrapped in a soft mini-bun. I could eat a dozen of these--but I obviously didn't as we had many more mobile eateries to raid. I wasn't too impressed by the bun and it appeared to be of the packaged variety as it tasted very similar to a Hawaiian mini-roll. The duck taco at $2.50 was a little dry and lacked seasoning, and the corn tortilla needed a little time on the hot griddle. I'd pass on this for next time.

Next to the Flying Pig truck as the Dosa truck; Fonda wanted to try this one so as I was waiting for my sliders and taco, she stepped over to the truck's window and ordered a dosa with sweet potato and massala ($6) and a mango lassi drink ($3).

I don't have a picture of the mango lassi but it was very refreshing and delicious, with just the right amount of sweetness. Our dosa (pictured above) was incredibly good with a lightly fried crepe and perfectly cooked sweet potatoes. The sweet and savory combination of the sweet potatoes and the masala just worked so well, and I loved how the crepe wasn't too crisp, but rather soft and just thick enough to hold it all together. This dosa my second favorite food item from this event (number one coming later).

With our dosa, sliders, and taco consumed, it's time to hit another truck. I see a mob surrounding the Grilled Cheese truck, so I decide to skip it for the time being and head over to the Buttermilk Truck. The line at this truck was daunting but I figured it would move fast. I couldn't have been any more wrong as it took us about 45-mins to place our orders. While waiting in line, I stepped across the street to try the FishLips Sushi truck as Fonda and Pebbles held our spot in the crawling Buttermilk Truck line.

A reporter working it at the FishLips Sushi truck. Note the DSLR "video" camera!

There was hardly a line at this one so I put in an order for small combo plate which came with a 1/2 California roll and five pieces of nigiri:

These trays are not pre-packed, but are freshly assembled with pieces of sushi that are made to order. I couldn't have been happier with my combo plate; the California roll was delicious with a nice fish to rice ratio, and the nigiri were all excellent, especially the shrimp and the eel. The taste and quality are far beyond any packaged sushi you can get at a supermarket or Trader Joe's. Eating this while standing (keep in mind there were no chairs or tables anywhere at this event) was a bit challenging, but I somehow managed to consume this while waiting with Fonda in the Buttermilk Truck line (which hadn't moved but a few feet).

We finally arrive at the front and place our order for red velvet pancake bites ($3), a biscuit sandwich with tocino ($3.50) and rosemary-garlic hash brown patty ($.50), and Hawaiian French toast sticks ($2.50).

Biscuit sandwich with tocino, and rosemary garlic hash brown patty.

Red velvet pancake bites

Hawaiian French toast sticks

I already told you that the dosa was my #2 favorite item, well now I can say that the biscuit sandwich with tocino was my #1. It was served with a freshly baked biscuit, a soft cooked egg, and a juicy tocino (cured pork belly) patty. One bite and the runny yolks smothered the inside of the sandwich--yeah I made a total mess of myself eating this. The garlic-rosemary hash brown was nicely seasoned and perfectly cooked with soft inside and a crispy outside. Fonda ate most of the red velvet pancakes and I had a few bites myself; they were sweeter than you'd might expect, but good nonetheless. We both, however, weren't too impressed with the French toast sticks. A little dry and overcooked, the sticks could have been much better with a lesser cooking time.

While in line for the Buttermilk Truck, Abby from was right behind us and she gave us a tip to try the honey feta fries from Louks To Go truck. So after downing our Buttermilk goodies in short order, we sprinted over to the Louks To Go truck where I promptly placed my order for the aforementioned honey feta fries ($3).

It took a while for these to finally arrive, but they were well worth the wait. Big chunks of feta and a pouring of a honey sauce (not pure honey as that would have made this too sticky) paired nicely with a very generous portion of fries. Salty, sweet, and savory. Harmonious indeed. They're served in a plastic container with a beefy plastic fork, and you're going to need that fork to scrape up bits of feta and honey with each French fry scoop.

At this point we're getting stuffed but we just couldn't leave without grabbing some dessert. My first pick was to try a red velvet cupcake cookie from the Sweets Truck, but sadly they were out of them =(. Oh the heartbreak--I don't think Fonda has recovered yet. We try to salvage our dessert fix with a GIANT ice cream sandwich from King Kone:

They were so nice as to cut this in half for us, and I'm glad they did because I can only imagine the spillage that would have ensued had we tried to take turns eating bites from this super thick ice cream sammie. As for the taste, it was wonderful and infinitely better than that packaged ice cream cookie sandwich you can get from the freezer case at 7-11. The cookie was soft, chewy and loaded with chunks of chocolate, and the vanilla ice cream was just firm enough to hold its shape between the cookies.

We left at around 2:30 pm and some trucks were beginning to pack up, with others still serving their goods to the mobs of people lining the streets. The event had an excellent turnout and it was great knowing some of the proceeds were going to the Red Cross for Haiti relief efforts. Despite not being able to check out Grilled Cheese truck and Sweets truck, I still left totally stuffed and very satisfied with all the new foods I got to try.

For more insight on this event, check out Pleasure Palate's review here, and Pandalicious' review right this way. If an event like this ever returns to my 'hood, I will definitely be there.

More details about the trucks we tried:

Flying Pig Truck
Dosa Truck
FishLips Sushi
ButterMilk Truck
Louks To Go
King Kone

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Empress Harbor

Sometime early last year my wife and I and her family enjoyed an excellent dim sum outing at Ocean Star seafood in Monterey Park, and despite the plethora of good times and good eats I experienced, my mother-in-law gave an emphatic thumbs down to the food and to the service. On our way out of the restaurant, mom-in-law unloaded her tale of the aforementioned bad food and service to some random patron waiting outside, who in turn mentioned to her that she should try the neighboring restaurant, Empress Harbor. Now mind you that conversation was spoken entirely in Cantonese so none of us are quite sure of the exact dialog, but I do know that after leaving Ocean Star, Empress Harbor was on her hit list.

So, many months later we find ourselves sitting in Empress Harbor and about to enjoy another family meal that hopefully will meet my mom-in-law's standards for fine Chinese cuisine. Located in a two-story shopping center directly south of the one that houses Ocean Star, Empress Harbor is a large Chinese-banquet style restaurant with lazy-Susan tables, gleaming gold accents along the walls, a hurried staff, and an unmanned bar that doubles as storage for dusty boxes of red wine. It's one of those places that just shouts "bustling".

Empress Harbor serves dim sum and from what I hear it's quite formidable, but we're actually here for dinner and upon arrival we noticed that most of the restaurant was occupied by a large wedding dinner taking place. Luckily we're able to commandeer one of the last empty tables in a small room away from the wedding festivities.

We're handed menus and in our usual tradition, each of us selects a dish for the table. My brother-in-law and I start with a refreshing Tsing Tao while others sip on tea.

They might have other beers but when you just ask for "beer", this is what you're given.

We kick off our dinner with something we almost always order, honey walnut shrimp:

It's hard to screw this up--I mean we're talking about fresh shrimp coated with a honey-mayonnaise sauce and served with chunky, candied walnuts. Empress Harbor's version is a hit with our table. Generous portions of plump shrimp were cooked nicely and exuded freshness, but the sauce was a little too thick for my liking. The walnuts help cut into the creamy taste and texture, and a little steamed rice worked to balance the overall richness. As good as this was, the version I had at Newport Tan Cang was far better.

A hot plate of sizzling beef shows up next on our table:

Hot oil splatters onto the table cloth and smoke fills our eyes as our server rests the sizzling iron plate in front of us. As soon as the beef has cooled slightly, I go in for a piece of tender but very fatty and heavily oiled beef. It's seasoned nicely, very delicious and not at all gristly. And I love the caramelized onions and could easily scarf down an entire sizzling plate of these. I've had this same dish at countless other Chinese restaurants and it's hard to say how they all compare, but this was one was quite good.

Sea Cucumber with Chinese broccoli:

This was my mother-in-law's pick and she liked it. Whew! Unfortunately though, I didn't. The sea cucumber was overcooked and thus was chewy and lacked delicate flavors that I've become accustomed to with good preparations of this sea creature. It also had a sight fishy smell and there was too much sauce--in fact the sauce dominated the taste of the sea cucumber. I'm not certain the others in the group liked it, so I did my best to clean the plate, and mom-in-law took care of the last piece. The fact that she liked and that I didn't might mean something--she is from southern China after all, where as I grew up in, well, the south bay :). I'll just say that this didn't come anywhere close to the sea cucumber dish I inhaled during my Hong Kong trip.

Moments later our dish of scallops and asparagus arrives:

This is another typical Chinese dish that we tend to order. A generous supply of scallops and perfectly cooked asparagus make this a standout dish for me. I'm not sure how this is cooked, but I'm guessing they blanched the asparagus and then quickly stir fry them along with the sliced scallops. Everything is lightly coated in a mild sauce, allowing for the taste of the fresh scallops and crisp veggies to shine.

My dish arrives last, sauteed eggplant with pork:

Chinese eggplants and a heaping mound of ground pork are stir fried in peanut oil and then served on a hot plate. This is obviously not a dish your doctor would recommend eating on a regular basis, but there's a reason why this tastes so good. I would have loved larger eggplant pieces and crispier bits of pork, but otherwise this was a very good and very savory plate of eggplant. A sprinkling of chopped green onions counteracted the heaviness of the eggplant, which was so cooked through that it practically fell apart in my chopsticks, or was that sloppy chopstick handling on the part of this blogger? No matter, I cleaned this dish with no help whatsoever.

At the end of our meal, we're given little tubs of mango pudding:

Not bad, but the thick consistency was more like jello than pudding. My wife mentions a strong taste of mango but I could barely taste any with mine. I could have done without this, and yet I still finished it before everyone else. We pondered over making a trip to Phoenix bakery for more desserts, but being pressed on time, we decided the end the night here.

Overall this was a fine meal and Empress Harbor holds up well with the many other excellent Chinese restaurants in the area such as NBC, Ocean Star, Elite, and Seafood Village. The menus at these places are vast; pages and pages of fine print for you to analyze can make it challenging to select a few good dishes, which is why it's best to visit with a large group. Mom-in-law was happy with the food and with the service, and I left stuffed and very satisfied. Empress Harbor earns an easy recommendation from me.

Empress Harbor
111 N. Atlantic Blvd
Monterey Park, CA 91754

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Food truck stalking: NomNom and GastroBus

With so many food trucks roaming the streets of Los Angeles, it's just about impossible not to find something to suit your appetite while out on the town. In addition to the prerequisite tacos and burgers, you've got sushi, pastrami, Indian, Vietnamese sandwiches, gourmet tacos...there's an even a truck serving buttermilk pancakes and waffles--for dinner!

To be perfectly honest, I'm not exactly a fan of eating from a truck. The whole chasing and following tweets and waiting in line and standing up while eating is all too much work and effort to just eat something hastily put together. And like many of you, I prefer to consume grub while sitting down, although it's debatable if I make less of a mess that way. (Editor's note: hell no!) And yet I did partake in a Kogi BBQ chase-and-eat last year, and I found the whole experience to be such a time kill for just OK food.

But of course I wouldn't be here writing this post if I hadn't recently killed more time by trying out a few of these mobile eateries, and first up is the Nom Nom Truck.

Serving Vietnamese sandwiches known as banh mi, Nom Nom Truck frequents the Sawtelle area near my house, of part of West LA heavily saturated with fine Japanese, Chinese, and Korean eateries. Bold. My wife and I made it out one Fridaynight to give Nom Nom Truck a try.

The menu is very simple: A foot-long banh mi for $5 or $6, and Vietnamese tacos for $2.50 each. Meat choices include BBQ pork, grilled pork, tofu, and chicken. Banh mi can also be had deli special style with ham, pate, and head cheese. We each opted for a $8 combo which included a 6" banh mi, two tacos, and a drink.

My two tacos, one chicken and one BBQ pork:

Yeah that really is two tacos, they're just small and mostly engulfed in produce. I can't tell which is which from the picture, but I can say that the pork meat was overcooked and chewy with too much gristly fat. The chicken meat in the other taco was much more flavorful and leaner, but a high veggie to meat ratio in both tacos made for an underwhelming overall taste. More meat and more sauce would have helped substantially. The Kogi BBQ tacos I had were far better in terms of taste and meat portions, and they're about the same price.

My deli special banh mi--pictured below--fared much better than the tacos. The deli meats and pate were delicious as was the crusty French bread

It was good balance of veggies, meats, and bread, and this was so much more satisfying than any Subway sandwich I've had. Next time I'll skip the bland tacos and just go for a foot-long banh mi.

A few days later I decided to try out The GastroBus:

GastroBus is a family operated truck and is helmed by a former Wolfgang Puck chef. A big selling point of GastroBus is its use of organic, farmer's market ingredients, and a menu which changes regularly based on availability and freshness of locally sourced food. The truck occasionally stops at a business complex near my house, and so I paid a visit during lunch to give it a try.

On the menu for my visit were a selection of sandwiches, sweet potato fries, egg flower soup with Asian vegetables, and sauteed pea tendrils. I love a good steak sandwich and so how I could pass up the Hanger Steak Sandwich with Chimichurri?

Served with tomatoes, radish, onions, and a fresh ciabatta roll, my $6 steak sandwich was extremely good and satisfying. The meat was cooked to a nice medium-rare to medium done-ness and there was no skimping on it either. Every bite was delicious and juicy with the thick ciabatta holding things nicely together. Two thumbs way up for this sammie.

I also ordered the Egg Flower Soup with Asian vegetables:

Served in a medium-sized cup, the egg flower soup was light, fragrant, and very fresh tasting. A bit pricey at $6 but the portion size was generous, and keep in mind you're consuming high-quality organic veggies from a local farmer's market. This sourcing adds a little to the price but I'm certainly not complaining; I enjoyed the soup--slurped it all down did I-- and would probably order it again. If GastroBus were to frequent my workplace, I'd certainly be out there on a regular basis.

Even though I mentioned I'm not the biggest fan of these trucks, you can be sure that this foodie is still on a mission to try others. The ButterMilk truck, Cool Haus, and Fish Lips all have my attention and so look for me to hit those up soon.

NomNom Truck
Location varies but they hang out on Sawtelle quite frequently; follow them on Twitter at @nomnomtruck for locations

The GastroBus
Locaiton varies and you can find them at the Los Feliz farmer's market every Sunday. Also on Twitter at @theGastroBus.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Sampling the new menu at Bar*Food.

My friends know that I'm a HUGE fan of this place and honestly I've lost count of how many times I've frequented Bar*Food since it first opened last summer. I've already posted a glowing review last year and have been touting Bar*Food to anyone who will listen to me as one of the better options for happy hour outings. Select beers and wines for $3.50 and $5.00 respectively, and discounted items like the substantial $6 Bar Burger and the respectable $0 hot dog make this place stand out in the gastropub jammed west side. And so I'm quite surprised that this place isn't more bustling whenever I drop in; tables and bar stools are seemingly always available.

Where are my peeps?

In an effort to lure in the crowds, owner Jason has recently instituted all-night happy hours everyday, an expanded selection of artisinal beers, and a new pub menu with items like Shepherd's Pie and Sausage and Bacon Coddle. Throw in a menu of fine Scotch Whiskeys and you have yourself a destination that would appease just about any patron looking to satisfy both hunger and thirst.

Last Monday night I met up at Bar*Food with my wife, her coworkers, and several of our foodie friends. Upon arrival around 6:30pm, the place wasn't busy at all and our large group of 10 or so occupied several open tables along the east wall. We start things off with an assortment of burgers, potato puffs, spicy tuna, and of course some $0 hot dogs. I've had all of those items during past visits and can fully attest to their greatness, especially the spicy tuna. Pictures:

Spicy tuna

Potato puffs, and the hot dog in the background.

And while I certainly did enjoy a few of those eats, I'm here to test drive some of the new pub menu items. The Shepherd's Pie caught my attention while browsing the menu online, so that's exactly what I ordered:

Slow-cooked lamb and vegetables in a rich sauce are smothered with mashed potatoes and a layer of cheese, then baked until the top is golden. This is a meat and potatoes dish at the most comforting level imaginable. Tender pieces of lamb meat were generous in portion, and the thick, pillowy layer of potatoes were seasoned nicely with parsley, which also added some texture. The potatoes had just the right amount of firmness to make for easy sharing with a few others. I absolutely loved this.

With the Shepherd's Pie completely devoured, it's time for another dish. I wasn't sure what to order next--luckily my friend Linda was with us and she is not shy about ordering food and doing so in a repeated fashion. (Side note: at Rivera, she commandeered the menu and with no hesitation went all-in and ordered one of every appetizer.) After a few seconds of pondering over the Mac and Cheese and Escargot, she zeroes in on the Escargot. You know, I wish more of our life decisions involved mac and cheese and escargot. Here you go:

Pictured above are meaty but mild snails cooked in what tasted like a rich butter and oil sauce, then sandwiched between two flaky and buttery slices of puff pastry. A little messy to eat but we both loved every bite of it. The puff pastry tasted as if it was just prepared and baked, and those snails had a wonderful texture and an equally wonderful taste. Our favorite dish of the night, the Escargot stood no chance against our appetite.

Linda's choosing of the Escargot freed my way to select the Bacon and Sausage Stew Coddle, which is a traditional Irish stew of boiled sausage, bacon, and potatoes:

Both the sausage and bacon pieces were nicely cooked and had great flavor, but I would have liked to have seen more bacon pieces in the stew. Seriously, can you ever get enough pork fat? The carrots were nicely cooked through, but the potatoes weren't and exhibited some firmness and a slightly starchy taste that comes with undercooked potatoes. Toasted slices of bread worked well to scoop up the rich broth. With more bacon and thoroughly cooked potatoes, this would have been a bigger hit with my palate.

It's dessert time and we both agree on not one but two desserts, starting with the Apple Tart A la mode:

I'm a sucker for fruit desserts and this apple tart did not disappoint with its flaky crust and buttery soft apple slices. The scoop of ice cream atop made it all that much better and oh so comforting. Hey it's day one after my long holiday break--I need all the comforting I can get to push me through the work week! And next time I'm ordering one for myself =).

Our second dessert greets us, the famed Bread Pudding:

This is the fifth time I've ordered this--twice on one prior visit--and so I'm obviously a huge fan. A doughy, spongy texture and a rich taste of milk, butter, and caramel make the Bread Pudding one of my favorite desserts from any restaurant, period. It's served hot which helps the generous scoop of ice cream to melt over the sides. The caramel sauce on the plate is very intense in flavor; I dare you to not lick the plate clean. It's that good.

Quenching my thirst throughout this meal were several glasses of Macallan 10-year Scotch Whiskey, ordered on the rocks. Jason brings the bottle to my attention as we chat about the ever so important topic of Scotch Whiskey.

Light, fragrant, and very easy on the ol' taste buds with a mellow finish. Not as complex or smokey as Johnny Walker Black Label, but still very good.

Service was excellent during our meal. Our plates were cleared in a timely manner and our server kept a close watch on us throughout the night. Our dishes arrived quickly and presentation of each was very good considering the price points. I noticed more people filing in as the night progressed, but even at 9:30 pm, the place was not nearly as packed as it should be. I wonder if the parking situation has something to do with this? There's no street parking between 4pm and 7pm, and it's permit-only on the north side of Wilshire. Yet, there's a mediocre sushi joint across the street that always seems to have a line out the door, although parking on that side of Wilshire is permit less.

Bar*Food has always impressed me and it continues to do so with their new drink and food offerings. It has become my go-to spot for whenever a happy hour outing is in order. You can be sure I'll be back to try more of their new menu items.

12217 Wilshire Blvd
Los Angeles CA, 90025