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Is Monterey Park finally getting its own craft beer and cocktail bar? It would certainly be nice if I didn’t have to drive too far to have a decent alcoholic drink that I didn’t make myself or have Will make for me.  We went to the soft opening of Spirit House Bar, located on the second level of Lincoln Plaza Hotel and it already had a Golden Road brew on tap and a handful of cocktails to choose from.

Not in the mood for something super-IPA, I ordered a Taps Cream Ale, which satisfied my craving of something a little light and as easy to drink as a pilsner. Hey, I had a huge diner — don’t judge me.

Spirit House Bar

To help with the drink consumption, we were served some hard-to-turn-down, crispy lotus chips dusted with a savory mix of two types of seaweed.  Crispy and savory?  Best bar snack ever? Perhaps.

Spirit House Bar

I also sampled a few bites from their experimental menu:fried chicken wing with a soy sauce and ginger glaze, and a small bite of chicken salad served on top of fried Chinese bread. If you’ve ever had that soft, sweet loaf of bread from any Chinese bakery, you’ll know what I’m talking about.  Fry a slice of that up and you’ll think it was the most unhealthy but delicious thing ever. Top it with a nicely seasoned chicken salad with tangy julienned cucumber and it’ll be even better. By itself, the fried chicken wing was as good as a deep fried wing could get, but the drizzled sauce on top gave it an edge.

While I only tried Spirit House’s soft-opening food, I have high hopes for the food coming out of the kitchen and what else gets added on tap.

Spirit House Bar
123 S. Lincoln Ave
2nd Fl
Monterey Park, CA 91755
(626) 872-0353

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Do you like chewy, slippery goodness? What about the savory taste of ground pork or shrimp?  And the pungent room-temperature funk of fish sauce?  If you, like me, answered yes to all of the above, then you might find yourself enjoying warm plate of banh cuon from Banh Cuon Tay Ho.

The old neighborhood staple may be hard to find because it’s tucked into a strip mall that doesn’t exactly face the street. In fact, it’s so hard to find that I forgot completely about it for years until it recently popped back into my mind like some repressed memory.  I remembered my mom buying plastic boxes of banh cuon from them, packed full of the slippery white sheets, warm bean sprouts, and crispy sweet potato fritters.  This place was frying sweet potatoes long before sweet potato fries was a thing.

banh cuon tay ho

My go-to plate right now is 6A, which is banh cuon filled with ground shrimp. It also comes with a couple pieces of shrimp paste (think shrimp-flavored meatballs), and a healthy handful of par-boiled bean sprouts and julienned cucumber.  My old favorite was the banh cuon dac biet (the special) which comes with ground pork instead of shrimp. For a few dollars more, you can also get the sweet potato fritters, a deliciously mysterious deep fried mung bean ball, and slices of cha lua (or what I like to refer to as Vietnamese ham).

Once the plate of your choice is placed before you, there are two forms of attack.  If you’re ravenous and don’t mind your food mixing together, you can ladle the fish sauce from the Kool-aid sized pitchers on the table into a small bowl, adding enough chili sauce to your liking, and then pouring it over your entire plate.  Mix well and you have a tasty and nutritious salad thing.  The second form of attack, which a refined lady like me uses, is to ladle the sauce into a bowl, throw in a handful of bean sprouts and cucumber, and dip individual pieces of banh cuon in there, picking up some sauce-soaked bean sprouts and cucumber on the way.  When I’m feeling extra fancy with my chopsticks, I spread out a piece of banh cuon, dip some bean sprouts and cucumber in the sauce, put it on said banh cuon, and with my chop sticks, fold it up into a taco and eat it that way. If you’re unsteady with the chopsticks, leave that maneuver for the pros.

Realistically, any plan of attack that ends up with the banh cuon in your mouth is a successful one.  There’s something satisfying about putting those warm, freshly-made rice-noodle-things into your mouth.  And when it’s coated in salty, sweet, garlicky fish sauce, it’s even better.  The sides are nothing to be scoffed at either.  The shrimp paste is deep fried to give a sufficient chew to the outside while still being tender and soft on the inside.  The sweet potato fritters have an unnatural ability to stay crispy, even after dunking in the fish sauce.  The mung bean ball thing makes me think of space-food.

And to wash it all down? The no-nonsense older guy who’s always there will probably ask you what drink you want. That’s the only sign of hospitality he’ll show you. After he takes your order, he’ll stand in the corner of the room and brood.  Order the lemon soda if you want something refreshing. It’s one of those drinks that’s greater than the sum of its parts.  Ice, soda, lemon, and a bit of salt and sugar may not sound good to you, but I never regret ordering it.

Vegan banh cuon from Banh Cuon Tay Ho

Most Vietnamese places are no-man’s land for vegetarians and vegans.  Not this one. Banh Cuon Tay Ho has a whole page dedicated to vegetarian plates.  An easy introduction to banh cuon for the vegetarian is probably their banh cuon with fried tofu.  They’re empty rolled sheets of rice noodle topped with deep fried tofu sheet, cucumber, and other tasty vegetable-based morsels. Instead of the cha lua, vegetarians are given curiously chewy deep-fried tofu.  The vegetarian plates even come with their own vegetarian (fish-free!) bowl of sauce. What more can an omnivore who’s married to a vegan ask for at a legit Vietnamese restaurant?

In a place like the San Gabriel Valley where restaurants open and close with a blink of an eye, Banh Cuon Tay Ho must be doing something right since they’ve been open for more than ten years. And the thing they’re doing right is fresh, simple, banh cuon.

Banh Cuon Tay Ho
1039 E Valley Blvd
Ste B103
San Gabriel, CA 91776
(626) 280-5207

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fasolakia

Green beans have never excited me that much.  My earliest memory of the long green vegetable is one of me choking down a soggy, tin-can tasting one on my lunch tray from the cafeteria.  While I can recall actually enjoying them, like that one time my cousin made a traditional green bean casserole from a recipe on the side of a box of fried onions, I don’t usually think of them in the same wide-eyed with glee way as I do other vegetables like brussel sprouts or leeks. So when I heard Lynne Rossetto Kasper talk about buttery soft green beans in a dish she called Greek-style green beans, I decided to give often-overlooked legume another look.

Kasper wasn’t kidding when she said these beans were to be gently and slowly cooked for a long, long time.  The wait for the beans to be perfectly cooked becomes excruciating when you’re hungry. I started the beans with diced onion, lots of thyme, and chopped canned tomatoes at what I thought was an early enough time.  I covered my dutch oven and just let that baby cook for an hour before I checked it. Nope, not done yet.  Half an hour later, still not done, but I was hungry enough that I ladled some of the beans on polenta, poached an egg, and called it a day.

The next day, I cooked the remaining beans for another two hours on low low heat and then they were meltingly tender, savory from the tomato sauce, and pretty much perfect.  I fried up some leftover polenta, topped it with the now soft beans, put a fried egg on top, and enjoyed it much better than the night before.

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Okay, maybe potatoes aren’t really the best vegetable to eat, but man, oh man, do I love potatoes.  One way we’ve been enjoying potatoes is in a warm lentil and potato salad, which you’ve probably seen pictures of in previous posts. Will made them for dinner last week with braised endives. Makes for a pretty balanced, meal, no?

Lentil and Potato Salad with Braised Endive

Tonight, I made a trashy meal: potato skins. We watched Worst Chefs Ever yesterday and they had to make potato skins for a St. Patrick’s Day party, which gave me the idea.  Mine weren’t deep fried, so I can at least pretend they’re somewhat healthy.  And I upped the kale to potato ratio because I wanted more kale than potato in the stuffing. They tasted good with a glass of beer.

Potato Skins Stuffed with Kale and Mashed Potatoesyukon gold potatoes stuffed with kale, mashed potatoes, and tempeh bacon

Stuffed Potato Skins

Ingredients:

  • 4 medium to large potatoes (I used yukon golds because I like the taste)
  • 1 bunch kale
  • 1 bunch green onion
  • 3 slices of tempeh bacon
  • margarine
  • salt
  • pepper
  • olive oil

Directions:

  1. Preheat oven to 375F
  2. Wash the potatoes and slice them in half.
  3. Brush olive oil over the potato and place them on a baking sheet or roasting pan and into the oven for 30-45mins.
  4. Wash, de-stem, and roughly chop the kale.
  5. Pan-fry the tempeh bacon slices till crispy, then chop up roughly into bacon-bits.
  6. Slice the whites off the green onion and mince
  7. Sautee the green onion in a few tsp of olive oil until fragrant, then throw in the kale. Sautee for 10 minutes or until the kale is cooked to your liking. Put in a few Tbs water if it gets dry.
  8. When kale is done cooking, chop up the greens of the onion and combine with the kale.
  9. When the potato skins are a little wrinkled and the middle is scoopable, take them out of the oven.
  10. With a spoon, scoop out most of the middle of the potato, making sure not to break the skin.
  11. Combine the scooped out potato with 1Tbs margarine and mash together with the kale and tempeh. Salt and pepper to taste.
  12. Scoop the potato and kale mixture back into the potato skins.
  13. Brush the top of each scoop with olive oil.
  14. Pop back into the oven for 10 minutes or until the top is crispy.
  15. (optional) Top off with some more green onion for garnish.
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On this lovely 80+ degree day in Los Angeles, I was invited to attend the Gold Standard 2012 (thanks Jonathan!).  I was lucky enough to be the first one to be denied parking in the Peterson Auto Museum parking lot, thanks to the car in front of me who kept letting other people into the lot. Thanks a lot, guy!  After finding an illegal spot in an empty lot nearby (woohoo, free, risky parking!) I hoofed it to the entrance while the VIPs were still getting their wrist-bands.

The event started off well with a light appetizer from Tsujita.  I thought it would be risky of them to serve nigiri in a setting such as this, but both pieces tasted fresh and they didn’t skimp on the presentation.

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Some highlights of the event:

DSC_8415The Salt Cure’s crostini with pate, pickled onion, and mustard

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Mozza’s Budino, which is every bit as good as it is at the restaurant.

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Little Dom’s smoked oyster
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I was also happy to see restaurants giving their booths some personality to distinguish from each other.  I especially liked the tree of happy people from Mo Chica and the made-to-order spoonfuls of bean stew with smoked salmon skin from another restaurant.

DSC_8436Mo-chica’s booth where people are getting refreshments

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A hearty bean stew topped with crunchy salmon skin

I wasn’t able to sample everything since I’m only one person and my stomach can only hold so much food, but of the food that I did taste, none of it seemed worse for wear because of the weather.  Once more people started filing in, it was getting close to roasting in the indoor area, so I gulped down some ice-cream, an iced-coffee, and tried to cool down outside.

Since Jonathan Gold is moving on to the LA Times, this is probably his last year doing the event for the Weekly.  Who knows what’s going to happen next year. Maybe there won’t be a Gold Standard 2013. If that were the case, I’m glad I attended this last hurrah.

A full set of pictures from the Gold Standard 2012 can be found here

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I made mussels for the first time tonight for dinner. They were steamed with a white wine and tarragon broth. Being Chinese, I dropped a couple chunks of garlic in the broth since that’s what I always do when I cook seafood.  It was a pretty easy dish to prepare which was good because I was also preparing four other dishes for dinner.

Sunday Family DinnerExcuse the messy stove. Will had cleaned it before cooking, but I was all over the place making sure everything would be cooked in time.

Simmering at the top right is fresh bamboo in a soy sauce and mirin broth.  It was my first time preparing fresh bamboo in this way and it was so simple but highlighted the fresh bamboo so well I’m definitely going to make this a repeat performance. I wanted a no-fuss soup tonight so I made kimchi and tofu soup with the over-salted kimchi.

Sunday Family DinnerTransferring the cooked mussels into a serving dish.

Sunday Family DinnerToss toss tossing the spaghetti with leeks and mushrooms.

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For eating vegetarian at home, we don’t have lentils as often as we should. Now that I’ve made this warm lentil salad for the first time and realized how easy it was, maybe we’ll have lentils more often.

The puy lentils (I like these because they don’t break down as much when they’re cooked) were boiled in some water with a quarter of an onion, a carrot, and bay leaf. Those additions to the water flavor the lentils.

While the lentils were cooking, I chopped some yukon gold potatoes into bite-sized pieces and then boiled them in salted water until they were done.  I fished the potatoes out of the water and set them aside in a strainer to cool. With the remaining boiling water, I blanched a bunch of kale and then rinse in cold water.  I then chopped the kale up roughly.

When the lentils are cooked to a point where they’re soft enough to eat, but not so soft they fall apart, I drained them, and mixed them in with the potatoes and kale.  The carrot that I had boiling with the lentils was chopped into a fine dice and also added to the salad.

I made a dressing of grainy mustard, olive oil, salt, pepper, and a splash of white wine vinegar.  I poured that over the warm potato and lentil salad and tossed to coat.  Finally, I rinsed some cold lettuce we had in the fridge, tore it into pieces, and mixed it in with the warm salad.

This lentil and potato salad may sound like it has a lot of steps, but they’re all very simple and it’s easy to make a big batch at a time.  It’s also one of those things that gets better if it sits for a little bit before eating so that the flavors can meld together.

If you’re feeling extra fancy and have leftover risotto lying around, you can shape those into small balls with some lentil, bread them in panko, and fry them into arancini to top off the salad like so:

lentil salad with arancini

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