Monday, December 29, 2008

Discover LA: Farmer John's Hog Wild Mural in Vernon

Other than being a great foodie town, LA has much to offer and while this blog will still be primarily about my culinary experiences, I also wanted to share with you other things about LA that have definitely made me smile, think, chuckle, appreciate and so much more and hopefully, they'll also help you discover an LA you've never known before and may want to know better.

If you're one who likes to go hog wild, you may find the mural surrounding the Farmer John Brand Clougherty Meat Packing Company in Vernon, CA, just your thing. It certainly got my attention - so much so that I whipped out my camera and took photos from one end of the mural to the other.

The mural basically depicts farm landscapes where you can see fields, trees, corn, barns, etc and of course, lots of pigs, big and small. Some of the pigs are happy and carefree, either laying in the grass, playing in the mud or with each other, flying airplanes, sleeping in hammocks and interacting with everyone from a buxom hill billy gal to keeping a boy company while he's fishing to pulling a wagon for a Gladiator wanna-be.

Other pigs are trotting happily following a road and "Farmer John" signs to what they think is probably OZ, but is actually a smokehouse or a greased pig contest. A variety of other animals also grace this mural like dogs, chicks, quails, hawks, crows and probably even more that I may have missed this time around.

If you'd like to know the history of this mural, it basically goes like this. In 1957, Barney Clougherty, then owner of Farmer John, was approached by Les Grimes, a talented painter of scenic backgrounds for Hollywood movie sets, to decorate the outside of his building. With Barney's blessing, Grimes spent the next eleven years working on his "masterpiece." Unfortunately, Grimes died in a fall from a fifty- foot scaffolding he was using to paint a portion of the sky on the mural.

After Grimes' death, Clougherty hired Arno Jordan to finish the murals. Arno Jordan continued the legacy by painting new murals and restoring Grimes' originals. To noted art dealer Ivan C. Karp, the murals are "a fundamental tract for West Coast vernacular painting." What's great about this mural is that it includes several gatefold plates of entire walls. Now that's some great detail. The plant was purchased by Hormel who intends to maintain the murals.

To see the the photos I took of the mural, go to:

To check out the mural for yourself, here's the address below:

Farmer John
3049 E. Vernon Avenue
Vernon, CA 90058

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Korean Soon Tofu Soup Explorations in Koreatown and SGV

The chill is in the air (literally), which means it's perfect soup weather and if you're someone like me who loves strong, bold flavors than sometimes the only kind of soup that will do is Korean Soon Tofu or Dubu (depending on who you ask). But before I talk about 6 restaurants that serve these sizzling bowls of tofu soup, let's learn a little more about tofu and Korean tofu soups.

What is Tofu?

Before we can even delve into Korean Soon Tofu Soup, first, a quick introduction for tofu itself. Tofu (the Japanese "Romaji" spelling), also called doufu (the Chinese "Pinyin" spelling often used in
Chinese recipes) or bean curd (the literal translation), is a food of Chinese origin, made by coagulating soy milk, and then pressing the resulting curds into blocks. The making of tofu from soy milk is similar to the technique of making cheese from milk. Wheat gluten, or seitan, in its steamed and fried forms, is often mistakenly called "tofu" in Asian or vegetarian dishes.

There are basically three types of tofu: soft/silken tofu, Asian firm tofu and Western firm/dried tofu. For Korean Soon Tofu Soups, the tofu of choice is the soft/silken tofu.

What is Soft/Silken Tofu?

This undrained tofu contains the highest moisture content of all fresh tofus. Its texture can be described as similar to that of very fine custard. In Korea and Japan, traditional soft tofu is made with seawater which has an
even higher moisture content and is often eaten as a dessert, but sometimes with salty pickles or hot sauce added instead. Because it is nearly impossible to pick up this type of tofu with chopsticks, it is generally eaten with a spoon.

What is Korean Soon Tofu Soup?

In Korea, tofu is often served not as a substitute for meat, but alongside it, with a small amount of meat flavoring enriching the silken tofu, which adds its incomparable body and mouth feel.

The Korean specialty soon dubu (tofu) chigae (soup or stew) combines soft tofu, spicy broth and bits of meat or seafood or kimchi. Like all Korean soups and stews, it is served hot enough to boil an egg, which is exactly what you do; at "soon houses" all over the world.

Now that you've learned m
ore about Korean Soon Tofu Soup, let's talk about some Korean Soon Tofu Houses in the LA area that you may or may not wish to check out for yourself.

BCD Tofu House

I've heard people refer to BCD Tofu House as the McDonald's of Tofu Houses in general. Now this could be a bad thing or a good thing depending on how you feel about McDonald's. I decided to go with an open mind, although I mentally prepared myself for food that might probably be just ok. Lo and behold, it was just ok, if not disappointing. The panchan was pretty uninspired with the fried fish, more chewy than crispy and with kimchi that was downright bland. Both the pork bulgogi and beef kalbi had at least some flavorand a little bit of caramelization from being grilled, but both meat dishes were too oily.

As for the Original Premium Tofu with Seafood that I ordered with a medium spice, I might as well have ordered the "white" version of this soup, which comes without any spices at all. I was expecting some heat, but got embers instead and maybe, just one ember at that, plus the soup itself seemed a bit watery. The tofu, which was soft, maybe even a little mushy was by no means close to being silky. Definitely no repeat visit for me.

BCD Tofu House
869 S Western Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90005
(213) 380-3807

To see pics, go to:

Beverly Soon Tofu

At Beverly Soon Tofu, our meal started with a tofu appetizer topped with seaweed in a bowl of sesame oil. The tofu was so airy and cloud-like that it definitely bode well for things to come. The panchan was also a step above BCD and of a much better quality. The bean sprouts and cucumber were cool and crunchy and the kimchi had a nice kick to it. Before our soon tofu soups arrived, we shared a bowl of bibimbap, which had white rice topped with lettuce, carrots, beef short ribs bean sprouts, mushrooms, tofu, a fried egg as well as other items. With the addition of the chili paste tossed with the bibimbap, it could have easily been a meal onto itself and a delicious one at that.

Finally, our soups arrived. I ordered the beef and kimchee soon tofu, which was steaming away when it hit the table and of course, hot enough to cook the raw egg I broke into the bowl. It looked and smelled good and my firste was sheer heaven. The soup itself was flavorful, full-bodied and rich. Care was definitely put into the making of it. Just like the tofu appetizer we had earlier, the tofu in the soup was soft, silky and gave you the feeling that it was going to melt away in your mouth. If only this tofu house was closer to where I lived, I'd probably be a dedicated repeat customer.

Beverly Soon Tofu
2717 W Olympic Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90006
(213) 380-1113

To see pics, go to:

Sokongdong Soon Tofu

With Sokongdong right across the street from Beverly Soon Tofu, they make for natural competitors and in my research to find out which tofu houses had the most buzz, both Sokongdong and Beverly Soon Tofu always came up with the most raves. After a stellar dining experience at BST, I was definitely looking forward to making the comparison.

First, a quickie note about the panchan. I like the panchan a little better at BST for more variety and plus I felt that the chili used for the kimchi cabbage and cucumbers seemed just a tad vinegary. Sokongdong is also known for their raw chili crab which was part of the panchan, but there was so little meat that all you were left with was licking the chili sauce off the shell, if you were so inclined. We also ordered dumplings (mandu) and were pretty much underwhelmed. The dumpling skin seemed really thick and the meat filling didn't seem seasoned enough.

Finally, the soon tofu soups arrived. I ordered the soon tofu soup with beef. I have to say that it was that tofu soup that saved the day. Just like BST, the soup was rich, chock full of flavor with a nice heat to it and the tofu had a nice silkiness to it as well. I can see why people go back and forth between BST and Sokongdong; however, my vote goes to Beverly Soon Tofu. There are just too many more things I like, food-wise and even atmosphere-wise, more at BST than Sokongdong.

Sokongdong Soon Tofu
2716 W Olympic Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90006
(213) 380-3737
To see pics, go to:

Young Dong Tofu

In my other explorations, I also came upon Young Dong Tofu in San Gabriel. I think it's part of a small chain since there's also one in Arcadia. When I initially tried to find some reviews about Young Dong, I couldn't find much information about it. Of course, now there's a whole slew of Yelp reviews about it. However, with it being a closer drive than Koreatown, I decided to take a chance and check it out and I have to say that I'm glad I did.

At Young Dong, along with 5 panchan dishes, you also got a miniature dressed lettuce salad, a green onion pancake and rice in a stone bowl. The last three items mentioned did not come as side dishes in the 3 tofu houses mentioned above, although BCD did have one large piece of lettuce as part of their tofu set. The panchan at Young Dong Tofu was definitely on the mark for me, definitely better than BCD ad Sonkongdong and almost good as BST. The panchan tasted fresh and crisp and speaking of crispy, I also enjoyed the onion pancake. When it arrived, I could already tell I was going to enjoy it when I spotted its browned crispy edges.

As for the soon tofu soup, while not as complex as either BST or Sokongdong, the soup was satisfying and the tofu soft to the palate. I also enjoyed how green onions were a more prominent ingredient in Young Dong's soon tofu soup compared to BCD and Sokongdong where there was just a limited quantity and BST where there were none at all. The green onions added a nice subtle hit of grassiness that I appreciated. Young Dong for me, was a nice find.

Young Dong Tofu
927 E. Las Tunas Drive
San Gabriel, CA 91778
(626) 286-6031

To see pics, go to:

Young Dong Garden

Young Dong Garden, unlike the 4 restaurants mentioned above, isn't a tofu house and while it serves soon tofu soup, it doesn't specialize in it. I was definitely curious as to how it would compare and let me tell you, eating the soon tofu soup there was like eating a xia long bao at a Hunan restaurant as opposed to a Shanghai restaurant.

Before I even get to the soup, I have to give some mentions about the
panchan and the other food I ordered. One word. Terrible. The panchan wasn't fresh, with browning bean sprouts and veggies that lacked any kind of crunch or crispness. As for the bulgogi, the meat looked really pale as if it wasn't grilled enough plus I think the seasoning was still hiding in the spice jars. The dumplings/mandu looked better than they tasted - unseasoned, oily and with a funny, strange after taste.

When the tofu soup arrived, I was hoping it would save my meal, but it didn't. The soup had some good flavor, but was so thick that a fork would have stood upright in the middle of the bowl with no worry about it falling down. Inside the soup, the tofu was a little mushy and it didn't help that the soup in general cooled down really quickly. Lukewarm soon tofu soup is just not right. Needless to say, I'm never going back.

Young Dong Garden
19 Huntington Drive
Arcadia, CA 91006
(626) 698-6198

To see pics, go to:

Myung Dong Tofu Restaurant

My first ever experience with soon tofu soup was at Myung Dong Tofu Restaurant, namely because compared to Koreatown, this restaurant is a closer Eastside choice for me. I have to say that it's actually a remarkable that I've become a repeat customer. At my first visit, I really enjoyed the panchan, the savory pancake and the tasty, albeit greasy, kalbi; however, my mushroom soon tofu soup seemed watered down. For my second visit, I again enjoyed everything but the soup itself, which this time had a strange, metallic, tangy after taste that I didn't like at all.

It seemed pointless to return for a third time, so for awhile, I traveled elsewhere for soon tofu soup, even if that meant hitting the freeways to Koreatown and of course, a whole new world of soon tofu goodness opened up to me. However, I didn't want to drive to Koreatown every time I had a soon tofu soup craving, so I decided to give Myung Dong Tofu, one final chance.

I'm glad I did. Finally, I got a bowl of soon tofu soup that I actually liked. The broth is still a little too watery for my taste and the tofu is far from being clouds of tofu bliss, but it has a nice
amount of spice and since then, it has hit the spot every time I've visited. Not as good as Beverly Soon or Sokongdong, but definitely way above BCD and certainly Yong Dong Garden.

Myung Dong Tofu Restaurant
1025 S. Glendora Avenue
West Covina, CA 91790
(626) 338-0414

To see pics, go to:

Anyway, although my thoughts aren't comprehensive, I hope that you found my experiences helpful and if you've never tried Korean Soon Tofu Soup before, than you should give it a try and perhaps, you've seen some viable options in this write-up worth checking out for yourself.

Beverly Soon Tofu House on Urbanspoon

Sunday, December 14, 2008

"Xiao Long Bao" Crawl in San Gabriel Valley

As you're reading the title of this blog entry, you may be wondering exactly what is an "xiao long bao" or XLB for short. While no expert, this is what I came up with in my initial research about this tasty dumpling treat.

To start, xiao long bao (literally "little basket bun"; also known as a soup dumpling) is a type of baozi (filled bun or bread-like item) from the Southern provinces of China, including Shanghai and Wuxi. Xiao Long Baos are traditionally steamed in bamboo baskets, hence the name.

It can be filled with hot soup and meat and/or vegetarian fillings, as well as other possibilities. The fillings ar
e wrapped in something like a jiaozi wrapper that turns almost translucent after being steamed. Also referred to as Shanghai steamed buns or juicy dumplings, they can be recognized by their unique design, as the filled wrapper is gathered up into fine folds at the top, prior to steaming.

One way to eat your XLB generally involves pouring Chinese black vinegar into the small saucer which contains ginger that usually arrives with your order. Gently dip the dumpling into the vinegar and than deposit onto a Chinese soup spoon. Take a bite out of the skin and sip the soup out. Then you can drizzle some vinegar on top along with the ginger and then enjoy the rest of the dumpling. Of course, there are may be other ways to eat XLBs, but in the end, just find the way that works best for you, keeping in mind that the soup coming out of the dumpling may be quite hot.

Those of you familiar with the San Gabriel Valley know that we are blessed with some of the best and authentic Chinese dining outside of China itself. What's even more exciting is that there is quite a of variety of regional Chinese cooking styles reflected in the restaurants in the area, which is why I actually had to narrow my choices down to just 4 for the "Xiao Long Bao" crawl that I set up for my dining group. Of the 4, I've already visited three on separate occasions, but this time I wanted to have more of a "side by side" comparison. The crawl started in a shopping plaza in the city of San Gabriel because there were literally three Shanghai restaurants right next to each other that served XLBs.

Our first stop was Mei Long Village where our group of 8 sat down and ordered an order each of their Crab and Pork XLBs and their Pork XLBs. When asked if we wanted anything else, I simply said No and believe me, we got some very puzzled looks from the wait staff during our short time there. Those puzzled looks basically followed us into the next two restaurants as well.

Soon both sets of XLBs arrive. By the way, as you're looking at my photos, you may notice that I add black vinegar to my Chinese Spoon before adding the XLB. My personal preference is to sip the soup along with the vinegar. Anyway, back to the soup dumplings. First, I want to comment on the dumpling wrapper, which while not as thin as the ones at the famed Din Tai Fung or as thick as the ones at J&J, which we'll be visiting later on, it still retained some delicate characteristics. It was a happy medium. As for the soup inside, it had a good amount, but while the pork filling was seasoned well, the crab/pork filling actually was literally a little hard and the crab flavors were not shining through, but for the most part, the soup dumplings at Mei Long Village were a good start for our crawl.

Next up was Dragon Mark, which was right next door. At Dragon Mark, they only had the Pork XLBs on the menu, so that's what we ordered. When it came to appearance, they were smaller and tighter than the soup dumplings we had at Mei Long Village. They actually fit quite compactly on my spoon whereas the MLV dumplings didn't. We were hoping that good things came in small packages. Unfortunately, while the pork filling itself was quite tasty, everything else fell beyond the mark, pun intended. The dumpling skin was thick, a little hard to bite into and there was hardly any soup to speak of. It was definitely time to move on.

Our next stop was J&J, right next door to Dragon Mark. Compared to MLV and Dragon Mark, this was the busiest of the three Shanghai restaurants which definitely was a good sign. At J&J, the menu had both pork and crab/pork XLBs and of course, we ordered both. One thing to note here is that the XLBs on the menu are referred to as Steamed Pao, so that's what you'd actually order. Soon the dumplings arrived and compared to Dragon Mark and even to MLV, they were quite bountiful.

While not delicate like at MLV or hard like at DM, the dumpling skin for the J&J XLBs was thick and a little chewier, but given the filling, the skin was perfect for what was needed. As for the fillings, remember how I mentioned the word "bonanza" earlier? J&J's soup dumplings were amazing. The crab/pork XLB was definitely the hit with the entire group.

Whereas with the MLV crab/pork soup dumpling, you could barely make out the crab, the J&J version was chock full of crabby flavor and along with J&J's pork XLB, both of them really brought a new definition to the words "soup dumpling." If the skin was any thinner, the soup probably would be leaking out. J&J definitely was not shy when it came to the amount of soup in their XLBs, especially when in immediate comparison to the stinginess of the XLBs we had at Dragon Mark.

If we had ended our XLB crawl at J&J, no one would have complained. That's how happy we were about J&J, but how can you do a true XLB comparison without stopping by Din Tai Fung, the restaurant who many feel serves the best soup dumplings in town, so DTF became the last stop in our journey and for that we piled into cars and made the trip to Arcadia.

Although our primary reason to visit Din Tai Fung was their soup dumplings, both their pork and crab/pork XLBs, we decided to order a few other items as well. Since most of us have never had their regular non-soupy dumplings, we got the chicken dumplings and the shrimp/pork dumplings. Both were tasty and while not soupy, their fillings were moist and were seasoned well.

Other additions included the Shanghai rice cakes and the prettily presented rice and pork shiaomai. We also ordered red bean steamed dumplings which was a first for me since my usual experience with red bean fillings is in something fried/deep fried. The other dishes we ordered did not disappoint.

So now on to the famed Din Tai Fung XLBs, which were an interesting mix of the other three soup dumplings we tried. The dumpling skin was delicate or actually more delicate than the MLV version so I felt like I had to take extra care picking them up with my chopsticks. They were small and compact like the Dragon Mark version. Like the J&J version, these soup dumplings were definitely soupy and overall, I can see why the Din Tai Fung XLBs always gets lots of praise. What's also fun about DTF is that you can actually see the dumpling makers at work through glass windows.

In the past, DTF has been my go to place for soup dumplings. However, after these side-by-side comparisons, my 7 other dining companions and myself came to one conclusion. Simply, of the 4 XLB versions we tried, we all liked the soup dumplings at J&J the best with the crab/pork being the top choice overall.

While we liked the DTF soup dumplings, the flavors of the fillings seemed almost too subtle. What J&J had over DTF was a bolder flavor. Simply, you took a bite out of the J&J crab and pork soup dumpling and you could really taste the crab and their pork XLBs really tasted "porky." Our group also felt that the J&J XLBs had more soup and that the soup was more flavorful overall. In general, the conclusion of this whole XLB crawl was a bit unexpected. I really thought that Din Tai Fung would win the day, but for this group of diners, DTF was second place followed by Mei Long Village, with Dragon Mark being a distant last.

Overall, it was a really fun foodie experience and the fact that I was able to do something that involved visiting 4 different Shanghai restaurants just to eat one specific type of regional ethnic food is one of the main reasons I love dining in Los Angeles. I'm pretty sure that restaurants serving xiao long baos in close proximity to each other is not something you'll find in just any town across the US, so I definitely consider myself very lucky. One last thing to mention is that between the 8 of us, this crawl cost us around $16 each, with the bulk of the money spent at Din Tai Fung since we had ordered other dishes. So if you want to do a little XLB exploring on your own, pull a few friends together and maybe your outcome would differ from ours.

To see pics, go to:

Mei Long Village
301 W Valley Blvd
San Gabriel, CA 91778
(626) 308-9238

Dragon Mark
301 W Valley Blvd # 110
San Gabriel, CA 91776
(626) 282-5953

301 W Valley Blvd
San Gabriel, CA 91804
(626) 308-9238

Din Tai Fung
1108 S. Baldwin Avenue
Arcadia , CA 91007

J&J Restaurant on Urbanspoon