Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Ghanaian and Belizean Food Adventure at Nana & Naa and Little Belize

Ever since I had read Man Bites World's post on his Ghanaian dining experience at Nana & Naa, I've been wanting to check out his delicious find and with Saaris, a Nigerian restaurant close by, some foodie friends and I thought we'd do a back to back African dining day of it. As you can probably tell from the title of this blog entry, the best laid plans of mice and men, etc., etc., but I'll have to get into that later.

When it comes to African food, let alone Ghanaian food, I hadn't a clue. Other than reading Man Bites World's post, I didn't do any other additional research, before going on this culinary jaunt. Sometimes, there's something to be said for just experiencing without having to think too much about the ins and outs or ups and downs about the food you're going to partake in; however, if you'd like to learn more about Ghanaian food, you can click here and click here and even here for more info.

However, I didn't go completely uninformed about how things worked at Nana & Naa. I already knew that the market was inside the building and the restaurant part which consisted of tables and metal chairs covered by tenting was behind the storefront. I also knew that getting to the back of the restaurant meant walking through the kitchen and what delicious aromas we inhaled as we made our way to the back.

Once we sat down, our waitress asked how we heard about them. Once we mentioned Noah and Man Bites World, their eyes lit up. Given how Noah was so open to their food, I think they knew we'd be the same way. With no set menu, what we ended up ordered consisted of what was cooking in their kitchen and with 5 of us, we were ready to sample it all. In fact, my group ended up sharing 5 dishes and that didn't include the fufu and banku.

Before I get into the food, I have to mention this popular Ghanaian malt drink called Malta Hatuey that we tried. Wow, that drink was thick. One sip felt like it coated the inside of your mouth. It had an interesting flavor. Of course, the malt was there, but it also tasted a little like black licorice. I'm a red vine kind of girl myself, so this isn't a drink I'd get again. I just thought I'd mention it in case any of you would like to experience it for yourself.

As for the food, it's hard for me to pinpoint what spices or herbs were used. The food tasted unlike anything I've ever had before. Nothing I had was spicy, but everything was seasoned well and overall really flavorful. We started with the Deep Fried Tilapia on a Bed of Spinach served with Yam and Egg. The yams were a little bit dry, but the fish, fresh off the frying pan, was nice and crispy. The spinach was definitely mixed with other ingredients and at the time, I was thinking tomatoes and something nutty perhaps, but I wasn't sure. After doing some online research, I'm pretty sure that the spinach that came with the fish is referred to as "Palava Sauce." You can check out variations of this recipe at The Global Gourmet and Home Foods Ghana.

The next dish to arrive was a Tilapia on a Bed of Black-Eyed Peas Served with Plantains and Egg. Again, the fish was crispy. The fried plantains had a nice sweetness to them and those black-eyes beans were hearty, meaty and with a little kick to them. This dish is referred to as Red-Red. Some sources I read referred to the Bean Stew as Red-Red or the plantains themselves as Red-Red. Regardless, this is a dish where the beans and plantains seem to be forever partnered.

Two soups followed soon after the above two dishes along with the banku (fermented corn and cassava dough) and the fufu (cassava), both starchy sides that are used to sop up the soup. One was the Peanut Butter Soup with Tilapia, which is also referred to as Groundnut Soup. I had high expectations for this soup, based purely on my experience with Kare Kare, a Filipino dish I grew up that's also made up of a Peanut Butter Sauce. When I looked down at my bowl, it was seemed more like a tomato soup than anything else. Dipping a piece of fufu in it, I could taste a little bit of the peanut butter, but it was definitely overshadowed by the tomatoes. I actually still enjoyed the soup, but I just felt that it was misnamed.

The second soup was called simply "Light Soup" and came with Beef. While sometimes served as a starter to a meal with fufu, it's also thought to help with those recuperating from illness when spiced appropriately with ginger chili. You can check out a couple of recipes at eHow or this Ghanaian Discussion Board I discovered. "Light" is definitely a good description. It's the kind of soup that would be good to eat if you don't want anything too hearty, but just enough to assuage a little bit of hunger.

Rice and Red Beans with Goat and Cassava Grains was the last dish of our meal. I couldn't find any reference to the Ghanaian name for this dish. One thing I can say is that the rice and red beans tasted similar to what you would expect to get a Southern or Creole restaurant, although the rice in this case seemed more heavily sauced, perhaps tomato-based. I did find out that Cassava Grains are referred to as Gari and are very much a staple of Ghanaian cuisine. Basically, Gari is made from fresh cassava, which is grated with the excess liquid squeezed out. The remaining cassava is then fried with over an open fire, on a broad metal pan that has been greased with a little oil that could be palm oil or other vegetable fat. The resulting product is crunchy, stored easily and than can be eaten with stew or soup or meat or fish.

Overall, I really enjoyed the food. It's not a cuisine I'd eat on a regular basis just because from what we had, the entire meal was very starchy and I like my veggies. However, the flavors were unique and everything tasted good and you can't beat the price. Between the 5 of us, we spent around $12 each for the entire meal.

What we also go out of this meal was a tip from one of the other customers about a Belizean restaurant, not too far from Saaris where we were heading to next. That tip served as well because it turns out Saaris was closed, so instead we decided to check out Little Belize, which was a few blocks away.

Walking into Little Belize, it was interesting to note that there wasn't a whole of seating. There were some booths on two sides of the restaurant and a bar with bar stools. The middle of the restaurant was empty. I think in the evening it turns into a mini night club. Since we had such a big meal at Nana & Naa, we decided to stick with ordering some of their appetizers and considering that they were between $1.00 to $3.00 each, it wasn't that much of a financial hardship.

One thing to mention is that the names of the some of the appetizers were unfamiliar. When we asked the owner to describe them for us, it was easy to see that he took a lot of pride in his country's dishes. As he was describing the appetizers, they seemed similar to other Latin or South American dishes. However, when we compared his description of the "garnarche" to a tostada, we were told nicely, but firmly, that no, the garnache is not a tostada, it's a garnache. Also, the "panade" is not an empanada, it's a panade and so on. To learn more about Belizean food, check out Belizean Journeys.

Anyway, we ended up sharing 4 appetizers and one dessert. The first one we tried was their Chicken Tamal. Wrapped in a banana leaf, the masa itself was moist and the chicken filling had a lot of flavor. Click here to learn more about tamale making the Belizean way.

Then I had my first taste of the garnaches, which were fried corn tortillas with black beans and cheese. Garnaches could also be topped with onions, but they weren't that missed in this case. It's amazing how a food can only have 3 ingredients, but still be absolutely delicious. That definitely speaks to good food preparation and quality ingredients.

Next were the Salbutes, which were flat round circles of fried corn masa with stewed chicken, tomatoes and cheese. I don't know what ingredient was mixed into the masa to give it that orange color. Regardless, it gave that masa a different flavor nuance that was appealing and combined with the rest of the ingredients, 3 to 4 of these can make up a nice tasty light lunch.

The last appetizer we shared were the Panades, what the owner referred to as corn turnovers with a tuna filling. These corn turnovers were made up of cornmeal. If I had a choice between an empanada and a panade, I'd go for the panade. What I liked about it was that just enough cornmeal was used to encase the filling and the cornmeal itself was light and crispy. The tuna filling was moist and with every bite, you got cornmeal and fish.

Our foodie journey ended with Little Belize's Coconut Tarts. After a little reading up, I found out that the dried grated coconut meat, after you mix with water and squeeze out its milk, provides the basis for many Belizean desserts. For our coconut tarts, this grated coconut was more than likely sweetened with sugar and baked in this little mini tart. When it comes to any kind of coconut dessert, the artificial coconut that comes in bags, are definitely not my thing. Once you bit into this tart, it was obvious that only real coconut was used and that's as it should be.

In looking at the menu of Little Belize, I definitely want to make a return visit. They offer a hash fish and egg dish for breakfast that looked interesting as well as weekend specials like Conch Soup and Pigtails and Pea Soup.

Overall, this was a day of true culinary exploration of two unfamiliar cuisines where although I didn't recognize the spices that were used or the names of the dishes themselves, the food really stood out and left me craving more. On that note, it's definitely time for a couple of repeat visits, although maybe not on the same day this time around.

By the way, if I identified any of the dishes incorrectly, please let me know.

To see pics, go to:

Nana & Naa International Enterprise
4248 W. Century Blvd.
Inglewood, CA 90304
(310) 674-8052

Little Belize
217 Nutwood Avenue
Inglewood, CA 90301
(310) 674-0696

Monday, March 30, 2009

Mustard's Cuts the Mustard For the Most Part

I don't normally go for hot dogs, but sometimes I just crave one and finding out that Mustard's, a Chicago-Style hot dog joint was around the corner where I used to work in Long Beach, was a good thing in my book.

I was able to visit Mustard's twice. For my first time out, it was all about their Chili Fire Dog which was in a poppyseed bun with chili and onions and a side of fries. Taking my first bite, I could already taste the quality of the meat. It was moist and there was a snap to it with every bite. I also really appreciated how the hot dog was cut partially half-way. It allowed the chili to lay inside the hot dog as opposed to just on top it. That actually meant more chili in general and considering that the chili was quite flavorful, I was happy to have more. The soft poppyseed bun was also a hit. Overall, it was a great hot dog, except for one thing.

The "fire" was missing. Not to say that there wasn't some heat. There was a little bit of a kick, but not one big enough for it to be appropriately referred to as a "Fire Dog." But then I'm not sure if there's any other term that would be more appropriate. Maybe, "Spicy Dog" would be a better fit. Regardless, I wouldn't necessarily enjoy it more if it was actually spicier, just because the quality of the ingredients spoke for themselves.

For my second visit to Mustard's, I went straight for the Chicago Dog, which is a hot dog on a poppyseed bun with mustard, relish, dill pickle, a slice of tomato, onions and peppers. Given that my palate likes strong flavors, I was really looking forward to taking my first bite. Once I did, it was a big mess. The pickle and tomato were hanging for dear life while the pepper almost came off the bun hanging off my mouth and then the relish got all over my fingers. From start to finish, this Chicago Dog was a chore to eat. At one point, I picked off the pickle spear and pepper and ate them separately and removed the tomato entirely. The hot dog itself was still really good as was the bun.

On paper, I actually thought I'd enjoy this hot dog better than the Chili Fire Dog I had before, but it wasn't the case. I've never had a Chicago Dog before in Chicago, so I'm not sure if what I had was close to the real thing or not. Don't get me wrong. I don't shy away from messy hands-on eating, but if the draw of this Chicago Dog is try and capture as many of the flavors of the ingredients as possible, one bite at at time, it just didn't work out for me. What would have made this hot dog a better eating experience for me is if some of the ingredients were at a smaller scale like the pickle spear and tomato which seemed gargantuan. The pepper was generally okay as it was. With the pickle and tomato scaled in size, the hot dog would have been more enjoyable because I would have had a better chance of tasting everything at one time as opposed to separately.

To end, if I were still working in Long Beach, I would have made more return trips to Mustard's. There were actually other foods I saw on the menu that were typical Chicagoan fare that I would have wanted to try like their Italian Beef Sandwich. I may have even ordered the Chicago Dog again, even if I had to cut the tomato and pickle spear smaller myself. Overall, while execution may not have worked at times, the hot dog on its own was superb. Just give me one of those hot dogs in their wonderful poppyseed bun with just a little mustard and onions and I would have been a happy camper. Sometimes food at its simplest form is just the way to go.

To see pics, go to:

3387 Atlantic Avenue
Long Beach, CA 90807
(562) 427-6435

Mustard's on Urbanspoon

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Food Porn from the Now Closed Courtyard

With all the eating out I do, I definitely get behind on my blogging about my various dining and restaurant experiences. I think that's a problem that most bloggers experience as well. Such is the case with The Courtyard in West Hollywood, which is now closed. Briefly, I wouldn't say it was a destination restaurant for me, but I still enjoyed my meal there. Even more so, I liked how my pictures came out. While I may not be sharing a review with you, I hope you enjoy some of the food porn below.

Blueberry and Lemonade Sangria
(white wine with fresh lemonade, mint and blueberries)

(sweet red peppers filled with cumin-lime blended goat cheese and avocado)

Dates in Bacon
(bacon wrapped dates with cabrales dipping sauce)

Five Spice Calamari
(calamari with lemon and salsa brava)

Chicken Albondigas
(ground seasoned chicken meatballs simmered in tomato sauce)

Courtyard Seasoned Fries

Dessert Sampler
(chocolate mousse, arroz con leche and banana pudding)

Monday, March 23, 2009

Old Favorites, Hits and Misses at Lu Din Gee - CLOSED

Awhile back, I had my first taste of Peking Duck as well as some other tasty dishes at Lu Din Gee. For the most part, that meal was pretty good and I was looking forward to a return visit. Well, that return visit happened and the question is "Was it just as good as the first time?" The answer is "Yes" and "No."

Yes still to the Peking Duck. The skin was still crispy and making duck burritos was still just as fun. By duck burritos, I mean that with the Peking Duck, you get rice wrappers, plum sauce, scallions and cucumbers for some hands-on eating.

No still to the Peking Duck Stir-Fried with Bean Sprouts. Why waste any extra duck with bean sprouts? I'd rather have more for my duck burritos.

Yes still to the Buddha Chicken and the Lotus Nuggets. The chicken filling still tasted just as good mixed with hot rice and the lotus nuggets still had a wonderful crunch to them.

No to the Shrimp, Scallops and Bell Peppers in Bird's Nest. Pretty presentation, but bland tasting and you couldn't even break a piece of the basket to eat. It's probably just for show.

No and I mean a Resounding No to the Barbecued Eel over Flavored Sweet Rice. This particular dish is supposed to be one of Lu Din Gee's signature dishes, but wow, everything was sweet to the nth degree from the eel to the rice to the sauce.

No real opinion on the Cold Cuts Platter since I just sampled a little bit of the jellyfish salad and found it to be just okay. However, the foil swan was a nice touch.

Major yes to the Sweet and Sour Whole Fried Fish. Beautifully crunchy skin and delicate white fish meat inside. What I also liked was that the sauce wasn't overly sweet.

Yes still to the Crab, although this time around we ordered it cooked Kumpao style. I don't think it was really that spicy, but I like how they cut into the crab so it's easy to get all the meat out for eating.

So-So to the desserts, although I liked the jello consistency of their Thousand Layer Cake. The other two we tried were forgettable.

Based on this second visit, would there ever be a third visit? I wouldn't rule it out, but there are many other restaurants that I still want to try for the first time, so Lu Din Gee will just have to wait and I mean, a long wait.

To see pics, go to:

Lu Din Gee
1039 E. Valley Blvd
San Gabriel, CA 90189
(626) 288-0588

NOTE: Lu Din Gee is now Duck House and has moved to a new location. For more info, click on www.pearlcatering.com.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

8 Courses of Fish at Restaurant Nhu Y

While many of you may have heard of a Vietnamese dining experience referred to as 7 Courses of Beef (Bò 7 Món), 8 Courses of Fish (Ca 8 Món) may be a little less unfamiliar. In fact, I had been hearing bits and pieces about this type of meal for a couple of years now, but couldn't seem to get the name of the restaurant. Finally, between Chowhound and a couple of Vietnamese friends pointing me to the right direction, I found Restaurant Nhu Y in Fountain Valley. So as soon as I could, I set up an outing to see what the fuss was all about.

Walking into a roomful of primarily Vietnamese diners, my group of 16 from mixed backgrounds really stood out and I think because of that, the manager took us under his wing. First, he helped us determine the number of orders of the 8 Courses of Fish we should have for our two tables. Apparently, one order per person is actually too much food unless you have a big appetite. Second, he even had one of his wait staff give us a lesson on how to properly roll up the food in the rice wrappers a little later in the meal.

As we were waiting for the food to start arriving, some of us ordered drinks. My drink of choice was the Durian Shake. For many, durian is definitely an aquired taste. Some can't get past the smell, let alone have a taste of something that is quite pungent and not for the faint of heart. But I grew up on it and will savor it, whether it's as ice cream, as candy, as a milkshake or even fresh. This particular durian shake was thick, tasty, hit all the right flavor notes and was already a great start to my meal.

Speaking of the meal, the first course to arrive was the Fish Salad that came with large fish or shrimp chips. I'm not sure which. Regardless, the Fish Salad itself was tasty. The fish itself was cut in strips and lightly fried. I enjoyed the crunchy cabbage and carrots and the dressing's sweet vinegary flavors hit the spot.

The second course was the Fish Spring Rolls. On their own, they were a little dry, although I appreciated that the greens that were part of the filling tasted fresh. They really needed to be dipped in the fish sauce for some moisture and flavor.

For our third course, we had the Sizzling Fish Filet on Hot Plate. The fish was delicate and ate well with the onions and topped with the ground peanuts.

Earlier, we also got a plate of greens, rice wrappers and bowl of a thick peanut sauce, but we didn't really do anything with them until the next four courses all arrived on one plate after the Sizzling Fish Filet. Those 4 dishes comprised of Fish Egg Rolls, Fish Wrapped in Hawaiian Lot Leaf, Wrapped BBQ Fish and Fried Fish Strips with Tamarind Sauce.

Before we dug in, we got a lesson in rice wrapper wrapping by one of the wait staff. Key thing to remember is to skim your rice wrapper in a bowl of hot water, but don't soak it or else it'll get sticky. Once the rice wrapper is dampened, lay it flat on your plate. First, add your greens and herbs. Be sure to strip the mint leaves off its hard stem before adding it to your wrapper. Add your noodles, if you're so inclined. Than add either the Fish Wrapped in Hawaiian Lot Leaf, the Wrapped BBQ Fish or the Fried Fish Strips and top with either the thick peanut sauce or the fish sauce before wrapping it up like a burrito and taking a bite. It was definitely a fun hands-on eating experience.

Our last fish course of the night was the Fish Rice Porridge, which was actually one of my favorites dishes of the night. It was a simple dish with just a little bit of toasted ginger and chopped herbs for flavor, but it was so good. The rice was creamy and it reminded me of when my Mom makes Arroz Caldo, a Filipino rice soup, but with fish instead. I honestly could have eaten it as an entree soup and would have been perfectly happy.

To end the meal, a few of us opted for ice cream. I went straight for the taro/ube ice cream while others went for the pandan ice cream. It was a colorful and sweet way to end the meal.

Overall, I really enjoyed the 8 Courses of Fish. One thing that I was found interesting was that the courses that stood on their own (e.g. fish salad, sizzling filet, fish rice porridge, etc.) were quite delicious without having to add anything to them. However, the three items that we used as fillings for the rice wrappers tasted just okay by themselves. They really needed the flavor layering of the greens, herbs and sauces for them to have any type of yum factor. In the end, I had a wonderful meal at Restaurant Nhu Y and for those of you who have never tried 8 Courses of Fish, check this place out for a different kind of dining experience.

To see pics, go to:

Restaurant Nhu Y

10830 Warner Avenue
Fountail Valley, CA 92708
(714) 963-1700
Nhu Y Ca 8 Mon on Urbanspoon

Saturday, March 21, 2009

If I Could Cook...Squash

If I could cook aka if I had the patience in general and I was in the mood for squash, below are some recipes that might actually get me in the kitchen, courtesy of images I saw on Foodgawker!

Orange and Rosemary Scented Winter Squash and Zucchini With Balsamic Vinegar
- Lucullian

Pesto Quinoa Stuffed Squash
- The Quirky Kitchen

Candied Squash in Spiced Syrup
- Laylita's Recipes

Kabocha Squash with Spinach in Coconut Milk
- House of Annie

Butternut Squash and Goat Cheese Tart

Bon Appetit!