Sunday, December 30, 2007

"South Bay's Taste of Japan" - Lunch at Otafuku

As a part of my continuing series exploring Japanese dining in the South Bay, next on the agenda was a visit to Otafuku in Gardena, CA. Otafuku is a soba house that is supposedly so good that fans from all over LA will make the trek to this unassuming restaurant just to experience what they consider to be soba noodle greatness. So what makes Otafuku so special? In short, its owner, Seiji Akutsu.

On the menu, there are two types of soba noodles, the seiro (sarashina soba) and the zaru (brown soba). What's unique about both noodles is that Seiji uses only bottled spring water to mix in with the flour and then kneads the dough by hand in small batches. This is no small task since you have to take into account the temperature and the air's humidity when deciding on the amount of water to be mixed with the flour to ensure the best results for the dough. While both noodles are made the same way, the difference lies in the type of flour used. The seiro uses gozen-ko (flour milled from the white buckwheat heart) while the zaru is made with ichiban-ko (second milling flour) and blended with a small amount of wheat flour.

What drew me to Otafuku for my first time soba noodle experience really had to do with how I viewed Seiji Akutsu to be a real artisan, who really took care in making his creations, which in this case were noodles. Considering all the rave reviews I read, I definitely was looking forward to my meal there.

Once we were were seated and upon perusing the menu, my party opted to share a few dishes which included the pickled vegetables, the sea eel tempura, roasted seaweed and vegetable tempura. When it came to the noodles, some of us ordered the seiro noodles and others ordered the zaru noodles. By the way, the words "seiro" and "zaru" have more to do with the type of basket the noodles are served in, not the actual name of the noodles. As noted earlier, the seiro are the sarashina soba noodles while the zaru are the brown soba noodles.

First, let me talk about our group's shared dishes where the two standouts were the sea eel and vegetable tempura items. The tempura in general is definitely the best tempura I've ever had. The batter was crunchy, light and non-greasy. When you take a look at my photos below, you'll see that a light hand was used, just enough to give you a nice crunch without you having to eat your way through a thick batter before you even taste the "filling" inside. As for the eel, the meat was delicate and moist, which isn't surprising since Seiji purchases only fresh eel for this dish. The vegetable tempura was cooked perfectly and perfect for me, is when the vegetables still retain a little bit of crispness and aren't overcooked.

Soon our noodles arrived. I had ordered a special combo which consisted of brown soba noodles, a shrimp tempura rice bowl, a small side of pickled vegetables, a dipping sauce with a small plate of green onions and wasabi. There were also leaves in my bowl of dipping sauce and I wasn't sure what they were. Maybe, shiso leaf? One thing that surprised me was that I could barely tell the difference between the seiro soba noodles and the zaru brown soba noodles. I was expecting the brown soba noodles to be…well…more brown, a nutty brown. Side by side, you can definitely see a brownish tinge to the brown soba noodles, but the color difference between the two soba noodles was definitely very subtle.

Before even starting, I had to be tutored to add some of the green onions and wasabi to the sauce and then dip the noodles into the sauce before slurping them into my mouth. At first taste, I enjoyed the flavors of the sauce that coated the surface of the noodles, which were firm and definitely to my liking. I also detected a hint of nuttiness which I liked, but what I was expecting was something bolder and earthier. What I got seemed more refined and subtle.

Being a soba noodle newbie, I have to say that my soba experience at Otafuku was a bit befuddling. There's certainly nothing wrong with refined and subtle. After all, I enjoyed my noodles to the last bite, but I do wonder if there are regional differences or just preferential differences in regards to how soba noodles are made. When I have seen soba noodles ordered elsewhere, they looked thicker and were also more beige or light brown in color. Compared to the soba brown noodles at Otafuku, those noodles seem more rustic and not as elegant looking.

Although I enjoyed my zaru noodles, I wouldn't consider it a mind blowing experience. In fact, I think I was more enamored with the tempura dishes than anything else. I left thinking that I definitely need to expand my horizons. I honestly have read about people making pilgrimages to Otafuku for their soba and the only way I'm going to understand why is to try other soba noodles in comparison. If anyone has any suggestions for places that serve great soba noodles, I'd love to hear about them.

To see pics, go to:

16525 S Western Avenue
Gardena, CA 90247
(310) 532-9348

Otafuku Noodle House on Urbanspoon

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Ethnic Food Word of the Day

aji / ah'-hee / [Peruvian, other] 1. various kinds of South American hot chile peppers. 2. a variable sauce made with aji chiles, oil and other ingredients.

Taken from Pocket Dictionary of Ethnic Foods

Friday, December 21, 2007

Foodie Quote

"Stressed spelled backwards is desserts. Coincidence? I think not!" - Author Unknown

Lunch at Clifton's Cafeteria

If you've never visited Clifton's Cafeteria, LA's oldest cafeteria, than you definitely should put it on your to do list, because walking through this restaurant's portals will take you somewhere that you'd never expect a cafeteria to take you to.

First, let's talk briefly about the Clifton Cafeteria's founder, Clifford Clinton. The Clinton family business was a chain of Clinton Cafeterias in San Francisco. Upon his father's retirement, Clifford bought out the cafeterias along with two partners. Due to creative differences, Clifford eventually sold his ownership interest to his partners and made the move to Los Angeles, where he wanted a fresh start. Needing a new name for his business, he combined letters from his first and last name to come up with Clifton's (CLIF-ford and clin-TON).

The first Clifton's Cafeteria opened in 1931 and was on Olive Street, but 8 years later, it underwent an amazing transformation. Inspired by a family trip to Asia and the South Pacific, Clifton transformed his restaurant to one of tropical splendor. The facade of the building featured artificial tropical foliage and a waterfall, while inside there was a large tropical jungle mural, a grass hut, an interior waterfall and even a rain hut where a mini tropical storm would make an appearance every 20 minutes. Known as Clifton's Pacific Seas, it remained a tourist attraction until it closed down in 1960.

In 1935, a second cafeteria known as Clifford's Brookdale was built on Broadway. As a child growing up, Clifford spent family vacations in the Santa Cruz Mountains where beautiful redwood trees resided, not far from the Brookdale Lodge. 72 years later, Clifton's Brookdale is the only surviving Clifton's Cafeteria.

Given the description I gave you earlier about Clifford's Pacific Seas, I'm sure you can already imagine what the inside of Clifford's Brookedale may have looked like. But first, I want to mention the beautiful mosaic or tile art that is on the sidewalk in front of the restaurant. Directly outside the front door is a sun motif with the words "Clifford's Brookdale" cutting into the sun's rays. On either side of the sun, you'll see vignettes depicting things to see and do in LA like the one featuring the Hollywood Bowl or a scene with bathers about to dive into the water which represents beaches.

After you've done with your art appreciating, walk through the doors and what you'll experience is a forest wonderland. To the right is a large canvas of life size trees painted by renowned L.A. muralist, Einar Petersen. Towering up to the second floor are artificial rock facades. Above one of those rock formations is a little chapel and upon entering its small space, you can press a button to hear a recording of "The Parable of the Redwoods". To your left is a waterfall that starts at the second level and cascades into a gentle stream that eventually makes it way to the first level of the restaurant. Even steel columns that are supporting the restaurant have a covering of bark to give a feeling of there being actual trees inside the main dining room.

Of course, it wouldn't be a forest without wild life, so there are actual bear statues, with one that even has a fish dinner on a plate, standing right next to the stairwell between the 1st and 2nd levels. By the way, there's even a much plainer third level at Clifton's. You walk up to see red and gold tapestry-like walls with a red carpet and hanging plants. While up there, take a look at the signage that says that it's all you can eat for 64 cents. Amazing, huh? Along with the signage, you can also take a peek at a portrait of founder, Clifford Clinton himself.

My first visit to Clifton's Brookdale was 3 years ago and I've been there a few times since then, but every time I walk in, I always feel like I should be wearing hiking boots, pitching a tent and keeping an eye out for Yogi Bear.

As for the food, there's definitely a lot to choose from. It's a combination of Hispanic and American Cuisine. What I always found interesting was once you pick up your tray, the section that comes first showcases their desserts. I always try to make sure that I get a piece of strawberry pie if that's available. After the desserts, you can choose from a variety of salads like coleslaw, macaroni, green bean as well as various veggie sides.

Following the salads, you can get rolls, garlic bread, pasta followed by the main entrée section which can include anything from enchiladas to pork chops. Once you've filled up your tray, you make your way down to the cashier and pay up. I have to say that I've never had a disappointing meal at Clifton's. The food isn't fancy, but it tastes good, it's hearty and it's filling. For cafeteria food, I'd say Clifton's is pretty good.

As mentioned earlier, Clifton's Brookdale is the only one left in the chain. There were also 2 or 3 other Clifton's Cafeterias that made it into LA suburbs that are no longer in existence. Clifton's Greenery, which was in West Covina, finally closed its doors a few years ago.

Clifton's Cafeteria is definitely one of downtown LA's quirkiest landmarks and really is a must visit for any Angeleno. If you're only going to go there once, visit around Christmas time. They really get into the holiday spirit as you've probably already noticed by the pictures I took of Clifton's that are posted in the link below. On that note, I want to wish everyone Happy Holidays!

To see pics, go to:

Clifton's Cafeteria
648 S Broadway

Los Angeles, CA 90014
(213) 627-1673

Clifton's on Urbanspoon

Friday, December 14, 2007

Ethnic Food Word of the Day

aioli / I-owe-lee / [French] a special strong-flavored mayonnaise sauce made with lots of garlic, olive oil and egg yolk, originally from the region of Provence.

Taken from Pocket Dictionary of Ethnic Foods

Foodie Quote

"Seize the moment. Remember all those women on the Titanic who waved off the dessert cart." - Erma Bombeck

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Vito's Pizza

When the buzz first started several months back about Vito's Pizza being resurrected, there was an air of excitement amongst pizza aficionados of the likes I haven't seen in a very long time. I wondered what was so special about Vito's Pizza. Apparently, it's a pizza joint that serves what many consider the closest thing to New York pizza in the Los Angeles area. My curiosity aroused, I was happy that my friend planned an outing for a group of us to check this place out.

As soon as you step through the doors of this tiny place, you're confronted with a large photo of Vito himself, leaving room for no doubt that this was his domain. Walking past the glass cases, I was amazed at how large the pizzas were. Those suckers were 18" round pies. These were definitely not made for the solo diner, unless you ordered by the slice, which was something you could do if you so desired. They'd even cook your slice to order which is a much better option than getting a slice of pizza after it's been sitting under a heat lamp for an hour or two or more.

Soon we sat down and perused the menu and let me tell, everything looked so good that it took awhile to settle on the two we finally did order. Our choices were Vito's Terra Firma which had sausage, pepperoni, olives, peppers, onions and mushrooms and the Pizza Margherita whose ingredients were simply tomato, basil and mozzarella.

The Vito's Terra Firma came first and was placed on top of a large can and let me tell you, I think the manager was surprised to see half of our group of 6 swarming around the pizza taking photos. The Pizza Paparazzi definitely made its presence known. See what happens when food bloggers dine together. Hehehe!

After our pics were taken, we sat down to enjoy our first taste of the Terra Firma. So I took a slice, folded it, just like I've seen New Yorkers do it on TV and took a bite and then another bite and another bite. Unfortunately, I found the crust, though thin, was more doughy and chewy than I would have liked. I was disappointed. I was looking for pizza dough that was crispy and crusty and I just didn't get that with either of the two pizzas we had for our meal.

I did enjoy the sauce and the abundance of toppings. What I really appreciated was that all the veggies on the Terra Firma weren't cooked to oblivion. They were fresh and crunchy. One thing that was surprising was that I almost forgot that sausage was part of the ingredients. The fact that the sausage was so forgettable wasn't too surprising considering how bland it tasted and the pepperoni also needed more zing. In short, I think the veggies were more of a star on this pizza than either of the meats.

Soon, the Pizza Margherita arrived and after another round of the Pizza Paparazzi doing its thing, it was time to sample this next offering. I wanted to enjoy eating this pizza, but I was less than impressed. The mozzarella part of the pizza was great, but I thought the tomatoes should have been juicier and I found the basil leaves, which normally has a distinct flavor, to be blah. We might as well have just ordered a cheese pizza because neither the tomatoes nor basil added any pizazz to this pie.

After that one experience there, Vito's is definitely not a destination pizza place for me. The crust, as I mentioned, was a disappointment, but what was also missing for me were the bold flavors my palate tends to steer towards. Both pies that we sampled just didn't have the oooomph I was looking for. Even the Good Friday Pizza I took home for the family, which had ingredients like garlic, clams, oregano and crushed red pepper, still didn't do it for me.

Overall, if I was in the neighborhood or with a group of friends who really wanted to dine at Vito's, I wouldn't mind stopping by, but would I make an hour drive from the Eastside? No. There are just too many other better pizza options for me out there.

To see pics, go to:

Vito's Pizza
846 N La Cienega Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90069
(310) 652-6859

Vito's Pizza on Urbanspoon

Ethnic Food Word of the Day

ahi / ah'-hee / [Japanese] yellowfin tuna used for sushi.

Taken from Pocket Dictionary of Ethnic Foods

Culinary Byte

The Tempting Tomato

When the tomato, a rare and fascinatingly exotic plant native to South America, was first introduced to European culture, society shunned the red-skinned fruit under the pretense that it was poisonous.

But the myth was quickly dispelled once the French and Italians discovered the succulence of the ripe fruit's flesh. The once-feared tomato became known as the love apple, poma amoris or pomme d'amour depending on region. Slut-red in color with sweet, tangy flesh, it became the perfect symbol for the aphrodisiac qualities of food.

A member of the nightshade family, tomatoes have been cross bred with mandrake, another nightshade, to create narcotic red fruits, an experiment worthy of elevating the succulent, sweet tomato to new aphrodisiac heights. The tomato is also related to deadly belladonna, which may also help explain its aphrodisiac allure as well as but also sheds light on the fruit's initial classification as toxic.

The tomato has been linked to the Garden of Eden. Some even call it the “other” forbidden fruit. Even into the 19th Century, Catholics questioned the tomato's “morality.” It earned a place, as a matter of fact, on the brethren's list of forbidden dishes, along with any other food that put into question the ability of lust-filled young members of the church to maintain self-control within the scarlet tomato's presence.

Far-fetched as it might seem that one glance at a soft, fresh-picked tomato still warm from the sun could overpower the devout with desire, however tomatoes do certainly bring something to the table in the game of gastronomic foreplay.

Originally written by Amy Reiley, author of Fork Me, Spoon Me: the sensual cookbook for the website Eat Something Sexy

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Ethnic Food Word of the Day

agnolotti / on-yo-lot'-tee / [Italian] small half moon-shaped pasta dumplings with a meat or cheese filling, similar to ravioli.

Taken from Pocket Dictionary of Ethnic Foods

"The Great Burger Quest" at Pete's Cafe

As part of "The Great Burger Quest" for my dining group, our next visit took us to Pete's Café for the Hellman Burger, named after the founder of a historic building across the street from Pete's. The month before we took a bite out of the Office Burger at Father's Office and I think for many of us, it was a bite worthy of many return visits.

Having never been to Pete's Café before, I was really excited to having a new restaurant experience. Walking in, I immediately took a liking to the high ceilings as well as the photographs of old downtown LA that were hung throughout the restaurant. With it being a Saturday and close to noon, we were presented with the brunch menu.

When placing our orders, the majority of us ordered the Hellman Burger, while others opted for the Bacon Cheddar Mushroom Burger instead. But what really enthralled us were the various French fry options that we could choose to come with our burgers or order a la carte. There were three different kinds to choose from: chipotle French fries, garlic and basil French fries and bleu cheese French cries. The fries were so irresistible; we actually ordered all three of them as appetizers.

Before the fries arrived, my Spinach and Pear Salad was placed before me. The ingredients consisted of baby spinach, Bartlett pears, Maytag blue cheese, candied walnuts, dried cherries with basil balsamic vinaigrette. Having previously worked for a salad company, I'm really picky about my salads and I have to say this one was a great balance of pungent, nutty, sweet and tart flavors. My only complaint was I would have preferred the pears diced for easier eating.

Soon, the fries came our way and we dove in. Light and crispy, I liked how they were cooked. Cheese head that I am, surprisingly, my favorite was the chipotle fries. The sauce had a real nice smokiness to it, with just the right amount of heat. Of course, the blue cheese fries came a very close second. As for the garlic and basil fries, they were a bit disappointing. The strong, pungent flavors I was expecting just wasn't there.

After all the fry eating, you'd think we wouldn't have room for our burgers once they hit the table, but somehow we managed. When I took my first look at the Hellman Burger I ordered, I initially was pleased. With the burger being a ½ pound, it looked substantial. I liked that my bun was toasted or maybe grilled. The veggies were fresh and I was happy to see red onions, instead of white onions. Then I put it all together, cut it in half and took a bite and it was just okay.

There wasn't anything wrong with it, but when you pay $11 for a hamburger, you expect more of a "Wow!" which was missing. The burger meat itself was fine, but it wasn't as juicy as I would have liked. A Fontina cheese was used, but didn't contribute much in terms of flavor. Also, while part of the ingredients was supposed to include smoked tomato aioli, either they didn't add enough or didn't add any at all, because I certainly don't remember that sauce hitting any part of my taste buds.

Would I pay $11 for the Hellman Burger again? No. Would I pay $12 for the Bacon Cheddar Mushroom Burger that a couple of other people in our group ordered? Actually, I just might, especially after hearing the on the spot rave reviews, but then, the maxim that everything tastes good with bacon could also apply to this case as well.

Overall, for this "Great Burger Quest", the Office Burger still reigns supreme, but who knows? There still may be burger greatness that's still untapped.

To see pics, go to:

Pete's Café
400 S Main St

Los Angeles, CA 90013
(213) 617-1000

Pete's Cafe & Bar on Urbanspoon

Culinary Byte

Corn By Any Other Name...

The word corn was first used to describe any grain, even of salt, as in corned beef. It also means the "small, hard seed or fruit of a plant," as in peppercorn. So when pre-Columbian Old World writings mention corn, they can mean many things, but maize is not one of them.

The word maize came from the Spanish, who picked it up from the Arawak Indians of the Caribbean, where maize means "stuff of life." Maize was domesticated in central Mexico by about 3400 B.C. It quickly became the basic crop and spread north to the cliff dwellers in the American Southwest and to Cahokia, and south to the Inca Empire.

Taken from Cuisine and Culture

Monday, December 03, 2007

Ethnic Food Word of the Day

agnello / on-yellow / [Italian] lamb.

Taken from Pocket Dictionary of Ethnic Foods

Rasraj in Little India

While I do quite a bit of ethnic dining, I haven't really eaten a lot of Indian food and even though I've lived in the LA area for 25+ years, it's only recently that I've started exploring Little India. The area known as "Little India" consists of Asian Indian-owned businesses and restaurants along Pioneer Boulevard in Artesia and draws customers from the large population of expatriates from the Indian subcontinent living all over Greater Los Angeles.

My very first visit there occurred just by chance. I was having lunch with friends at a Filipino restaurant and one of my friends mentioned having Indian ice cream for dessert down the street in Little India. I'm always up for a new culinary adventure so off we went for some of the best ice cream I've ever experienced and I experienced that at Saffron Spot. Finally, I've arrived.

Since then, I've had meals at three different restaurants, with the last one being my favorite so far and goes by the name of Rasraj. What's interesting about Rasraj is that they also have a small section in their menu of Desi Chinese items. The word “desi” refers almost anything Indian, whether it's person, place or thing; thus, Desi Chinese is Chinese food cooked Indian style. Basically, traditional Chinese dishes are prepared using Indian flavors and spices. For my visit there, I just stayed with their Indian dishes, but next time will be a different story.

The thing about eating at Rasraj, it's better to either have some kind of working knowledge of Indian Cuisine or bring someone who's familiar with it. Either that or you just have to be really adventurous. When you walk in, the walls are lined with pictures of the various dishes they offer. Behind the counter, you'll see the menu items on a board and there's also a take-out menu that you can look at as well. The problem is that in all three instances, there are no descriptions or listing of ingredients next to the food items. So it's like ordering blind.

Luckily, I brought a friend with me, who happens to be Indian, and what she had me do was point to the any of the pictures on the wall and she'd describe the dish to me. Based on her descriptions, we chose three items. From there, we placed our order at the counter, were given a number and waited for our number to be called.

While in line waiting to order, we also picked up deep-fried chili peppers that didn't seem hot at first bite, but wow, a couple of bites later, my mouth was on fire. Thank goodness the food we ordered arrived fairly quickly because it was the yogurt from two of the items that helped cool the fire. As for our orders, the first thing I tried was the Danipuri. The danipuri are small round bread shells called puri filled with yogurt, potato, chili powder and tamarind and green chutneys sprinkled with coriander leaves. To eat it, you pop the whole thing in your mouth. I really enjoyed the light crunch of the shell as well as how cooling and refreshing the rest of the ingredients were to my palate, especially after eating that deep-fried chili earlier.

For more of a kick, the tandoori wrap we ordered offered that and more. The tandoori wrap was naan bread topped with mixed veggies, spicy tomato sauce, cilantro and garnished with pomegranate and cilantro chutney. Yum! Yum! Yum! I don't even think I even have words to describe all the delicious flavors of what actually seemed more like an Indian pizza than a wrap. You get a nice heat hit from the sauce while the fresh cilantro leaves and cilantro chutney adds a nice little pepperiness. I also liked that the veggies still had a nice crunch to them. No sogginess there.

The last dish was Papdi Chat which was a mixture of yogurt, boiled potatoes, garbanzo beans and garnished with tamarind and cilantro chutneys. Just like the panuri, this yogurt-based food was cooling to the palate, but the tamarind and cilantro also added a nice hit of sour and peppery flavors as well.

Overall, I really enjoyed my meal at Rasraj and trying some things I've never experienced before and I look forward to a return visit.

To see pics, go to:

18511 S. Pioneer Blvd,
Artesia, CA 90701


Rasraj on Urbanspoon

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Culinary Byte

Amethysts and Wine

The ancient Greeks loved wine and were always searching for ways to drink without getting drunk. They finally came up with what they thought was the antidote to the downside of Dionysus: drinking purple wine from a purple vessel made of semi-precious stone would cause the two purples to cancel each other out and negate whatever was in the wine that caused drunkeness.

In Greek, the prefix a means "not," methyein means "drunk" (from methy-wine), so the work for "not drunk" became the name of the purple stone the vessel was made out of - amethyst.

Taken from Cuisine and Culture