Monday, August 24, 2009

The World's Biggest Feed Bag -- L.A. County Fair

Wed-Sun Through Oct. 4
1101 W. McKinley Ave.,
Pomona, CA 91768
(909) 623-3111

Apparently people are beginning to wonder if I still blog about food. I do. The late spring and early summer were totally taken over by producing and narrating the audiobook of my novel, My Name Is Will, and taking on a bit of work with my old friend Stitch, the little blue alien dude. Apologies to those who have gone hungry since my last post in April!

I hope to make up for it spades. Read this, and you will be primed to eat more in one day than you have all summer. Because that's what you're supposed to do when you go to the Los Angeles County Fair.

I freakin' love the County Fair. What's not to love? The crowds, okay. Aside from the crowds, what's not to love? The heat, sure. The traffic going in, yeah. And the parking, fine. Aside from the crowds, the heat, the traffic, and the parking, what's not to love? There's entertainment galore, hot tub sales, real trains to climb around on, livestock to marvel at, pig races, dogs jumping into pools, ferris wheels, miniature trains, the wine and beer pavilion, and most joyous of all, a racetrack where you can wager on the ponies if that's your perversion (it is mine!), all for your 17 dollar entry fee. (Sa and I got season passes for this year: 25 bucks.)

But for me, it's all about the food. I have been looking, on Chowhound and elsewhere, for a one-stop set of recommendations to "what to eat at the LA County Fair," and haven't found it. So this year I decided to compile my own, based on recommendations and research from all over the food blogosphere, and a couple of days of my own research on the Fair's final weekend last year and opening weekend this year. I'm including exterior shots of all the mentioned vendors so you can recognize 'em when you stumble upon them.

Of course the County Fair is notorious primarily for various deep fried foods-on-a-stick. You can, it's true, have Deep fried Snickers Bars, Deep Fried Coca-Cola (to answer everyone's question of "How...?", it's frozen solid, then battered and fried), Deep Fried Oreos, Deep-fried Krispy Kreme Chicken Sandwiches, or god knows what else Chicken Charlie's will come up with as a specialty item this year. And sure, you can get a pork chop on a stick.

Take my advice: don't waste stomach space on that crap. It's as awful as it sounds. Instead, try some of this.

If you're there early, and of a sweets-for-breakfast mindset, head straight to Old West Cinnamon Buns outside the Jurassic Planet exhibit hall. The bun served here, I guarantee, is the best you've ever had. Hot, sinfully buttery, cinnamony, not too sweet, and melt-in-the-mouth soft with just enough of a bake on the outside to remind you it's there. Order dry, without frosting, which would be truly gilding the lily.

Midmorning snack, or second breakfast if you're a hobbit: a bit of roasted corn on the cob. This stuff is everywhere, all over the fair, and is pretty much the same everywhere. We ate ours here, just east of the Clocktower.

Fire-roasted on the grill, husks pulled back but still attached, a few kernels slightly charred, tender and juicy and sweet inside. Most purveyors have a varied selection of condiments. I use 'em all. Why have corn with butter and salt when you can have it with butter, salt, pepper, lime juice, garlic powder, chili powder, and seasoned salt? It's delicious, California-grown, and healthy for your colon -- you're gonna need that.

It wouldn't be a trip to the Fair without two things: visiting the animals and eating BBQ. I recommend doing them in succession. There's nothing like sharing a moment or two with some cute, snoozing pigs to ratchet up your appetite for pork.

I'm not that great an authority on BBQ. I generally find it to be either too dry or too gloopy (yes, "gloopy"), too sweet even when it has a spicy kick, and generally a killer to the subtle flavor of the meat. Last year people I was with raved about the pulled pork (or sliced pork) sandwiches to be had from the stand that proudly trumpets "Pork Butts!"

Personally, I wish the bun were of more interest, and the pork required too much added gloopy sauce to make it interesting.

This year, I went with the suggestion of a post in the helpful Fair thread on Chowhound, recommending this Texas style BBQ spot conveniently located near the entrance to the big animal barn at the Blue Gate.

Sa's pork ribs were tasty and had a nice dry-on-the-outside, tender-on-the inside-texture.

My Beef Brisket Dinner Plate at 12.95 was pretty awesome. I rarely eat all of an order at the Fair, preferring to share and split to make room for more tastes later on. But I made "all gone" with this stuff.

Flavorful, the sauce tangy and not too sweet, and the meat cooked to falling-apart perfection. Slaw, good; Corn bread, eh; beans, canned and bland. Although they do sell a brisket sandwich, $7.95, I wish they sold the sliced brisket a la carte, as they do the ribs.

Instead of the bland beans as a side order, I suggest sending someone to find an order of Tasti-Chips, available in various locations.

These are amazing: freshly sliced potato chips cooked to order. They're like no potato chip you've ever had, and no two alike. They range from light and crispy to chewy and savory, like a basket of fresh-baked cookies that have come out of the oven at slightly different, but recent, times. Douse with salt, coarse ground black pepper, maybe some malt vinegar, and consume. Arguably the best single dish at the Fair.

If chips aren't your style, and you want something a little heftier, you could opt for fried artichoke hearts, or better, some fried sweet potatoes from around the corner.

And if you're the type who likes to have dessert after lunch, just down the road in the Fair View Farms area, is Dr. Bob's Ice Cream.

This stuff is usually delicious, the perfect antidote to a hot day.

But I'm officially warning you off their sorbets. My friend had one on Sunday, and, well-- I'm pretty sure this glutenous strap-like stuff is not the consistency they were shooting for.

By this time, you've probably laid down a good base and couldn't eat another bite for awhile. Time to head to the wine pavilion, where you can sample one or several of the (hundred or so) gold medal winning wines from the wine and spirits competition. $11 gets you a tasting of five wines of your choice, and it's a great opportunity to try wines from locales and countries that you might not otherwise. My favorite this year was an '05 Adelaida (Central Coast) Syrah, rich with intense berry flavors and a chewy mouth feel. After ordering a glass of Bordeaux (a dozen or so wind=es are available for reasonable prices by the glass) and sitting out on the wine pavilion's verandah and watching bungee jumpers for a bit, I was ready for a snack.

My favorite, available at any of the supposedly "Thai" food vendors, is this New York style eggroll, with a thick, chewy wonton skin, and a simple cabbage and carrot filling, and a delightfully old skool sweet and sour dipping sauce. And don't forget to eat those innocent looking cucumbers with your roll... they're spicy and delicious.

Really, that egg roll just warmed up my appetite, kinda got me ready for -- well, another egg roll. But THEN I was ready for the big guns. I was tempted to visit one of the Pink's outlets -- an opportunity to get a Pink's dog without waiting in line for a freekin' hour! But instead I opted for King Taco, the truly great chain distant East LA -- a great opportunity to get me some. There's one in Park Square, right around the corner from the Grandstand, and another at the Yellow Gate entrance. Maybe more besides.

Tacos ordered: two asada, two al pastor, and one chicken. At $1.49 each, and washed down with an horchata from the stand or a Dos Equis from nearby, there's no better way to end the day. The carne asada is a 9 out of 10, with a light char on the outside and tender and juicy on the inside. The al pastor is, perhaps, a little dryer than some might like it, but right in my wheelhouse of toothsomeness. Pardon the messy plate; it was late, and I failed to dress the set.

One warning: that red salsa that come "with everything" is wickedly spicy. L.A. Food Crazy loves it, but then, he's, you know, crazy! Saner foodies might wish to order it on the side.

Finally, the chicken, the best of the three, a wonderment, pieces of tender, stewed chicken with juicy onions and mild chiles and cilantro in a green sauce. If you haven't had a memorable chicken taco in a long time (I hadn't) this one will remind you what the bird is all about.

Next time, I shall surely have a torta if I have room; it comes with sour cream, lettuce, onion, and guacamole (which I've never had at the King).

Oh, and if you have room for another dessert after all this, three words: "hot gingerbread." Okay five words, with whipped cream. From the Gingerbread House right around the corner from the Grandstand on Birch, and across from King Taco. You can't miss it.

I'll go back next week and bring back some more ideas and updates. Recommendations, most welcome!

I wonder if my Fair Season Pass comes with a free rental of one of those I'm-Too-Fat-To-Walk motorized cart jobbies?

Thursday, April 30, 2009

What Was YOUR Lunch Sandwich Today Like? - Greenblatt's Deli

Greenblatt's Delicatessen-Restaurant and Fine Wine Shop
8017 Sunset Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90046
(323) 656-0606‎

Reviews, Map, Etc.

Sometimes I go so far afield in search of finding a new, "institution"- level eatery, I forget to mention the institutions in my own backyard. And sometimes, I forget to frequent them. Somehow, I recently went several years without visiting what is possibly the closest eatery to my house, and certainly the closest Bona Fide L.A. Institution: Greenblatt's Deli, at the eastern approach to the Sunset Strip, right next to the Laugh Factory.

Why, I thought, have I not blogged Greenblatt's? Perhaps because I assume most people have been there. But a quick poll of my friends tells me that's not true.

My poll also suggested that if you have visited Greenblatt's, the first words out of your mouth will be, "I love Greenblatt's, but it's so expensive." Now it's true, fourteen bucks for a Reuben sandwich is not cheap. But somehow it seems that Reuben sandwiches have ALWAYS been fourteen bucks there, and as prices everywhere else in the world have slowly crept up over the years, this doesn't seem so outrageous anymore. Especially when there are so many things to recommend said sandwich. In this case, I will let the picture above speak a thousand words.

Greenblatt's is simply the best Jewish deli on this side of the hill. It kicks all manner of ass over Canter's. There's free parking, first of all. True, it's always crowded and the spaces are tiny, but it seems like there's always one space left there when you need it. Second, location. Even if you don't live nearby, chances are you're headed to the Laemmle theaters across the street, and wondering where you should eat, a couple of times a year. Third, atmosphere. Seventy years old, it has a rare-in-L.A. genuine old wood-paneling wide-plank-floor creakiness that makes you feel like this town has some real history, after all. Fourth, open 'til 2:00 am, 365 days a year.

And then there's the extraordinary wine shop. It is, remember, Greenblatt's Deli and Wine Shop. They have a small but extraordinary selection of wines, mostly French, at extraordinary prices. A couple bucks more than the average selection at TJ's, perhaps, but you get what you pay for. These are quality, well-chosen wines.

And -- and this is the most exciting part -- I've recently discovered that next to Costco, they have the single best price in town on family-sized (as we call it Chez Winfield) bottles of Ketel One: $31.99. That, friends, is a bargain, and they know it. Witness the sign above the nearby Belvedere display.

And of course there's the food. I could go on describing the flavors of their hot pastrami, or corned beef, or their delicious Egg Salad Like Grandma Used To Make It, or this stellar BLTA I had yesterday.

But you know what you're getting: Jewish deli counter food, the quality of which I'd say compares favorably to even the best New York has to offer. The good stuff.

My only chronic complaints: the deli counter help tends to be distracted and either hard of hearing or lacking English skills. Orders need to be peated, repeated, and three-peated, then checked, double-checked, and thriple-checked. From which comes the corollary: delivery service? Fuhgeddaboudit. That's what they tend to do with your phoned-in order.

But for that quick lunch to take home, or a pre- or post- movie bowl of matzoh ball or kreplach soup in one of their comfy naugahyde booths? Drop in, chow down -- and don't forget to grab a bottle or two to go.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Ensenada-Style Fish Taco Smackdown

The wife and I had been craving the unique fish tacos to be found in Baja, but we haven't been down that way in awhile what with all the murder, carjackings, and other hijinks going on in the border drug cartel wars. Then I had the idea to take my wife on a three-day Carnival cruise to Ensenada. We avoided the border entirely, got dropped off with 800 other people en masse at the dock -- strength in numbers, don'tcha know -- went for a horseback ride in the mountains, stuffed ourselves on tacos, and got out of town before we anyone could kidnap us and melt us in vats of acid.

We've been sampling the fish tacos in Baja for a couple of decades now, and we know where our favorite is. It's here.

On the corner of Lopez Mateos and Alvarado in downtown Ensenada. Out of all the many street stands, and all the competing vendors at the dockside fish market in Ensenada, these are simply the best. The same two women, Bene and Sandra, have been running this cart for years. It's a short walk from the cruise ship dock, and easy to find. There's a giant Mexican flag that flies over the harbor. From that flag, walk straight up the street into town. It's on the southwest corner of the street.

For those of you who don't know what makes an Baja Ensenada style fish taco, it requires: corn tortilla, heated on a grill; battered and deep fried (NOT grilled. Apostasy!) fish fillet, usually halibut or snapper; shredded cabbage; mild or tangy crema, a light sour cream-based sauce; hot salsa; a squeeze of lime; onions, cilantro, and other salsas optional.

What makes this humble stand's offering so superior? Like all tacos, it's an ineffable sum of parts. First, the tortillas are heated on the grill just so, to the point just before firmnessgives way to crunchiness. The cabbage is shredded neither too thickly nor too thinly. You dress your own taco from a condiment bar of excellent, creamy, fresh guacamole, onions, cilantro, pico de gallo, a smoky red and a mild but tangy green salsa. This baby has all the right textures and colors in all the right proportions, and it tastes like it knows exactly what it's talking about. All the flavors, from the delicacy of the fish to the woody guacamole to the tang of citrus, are distinct and yet harmonious. But what really sets this taco apart is the batter in that big pot, and the perfection to which it's cooked. The fried fillets come out light, crisp and perfectly seasoned on the outside, fish tender and flaky on the inside, and not the least bit greasy. It's a marvel, and my benchmark of THE REAL DEAL:

So, we ate about a dozen of these while we watched a thoroughly unexpected parade go by on this very corner, mixing up the fish with an occasional carne asada -- the only other item on their menu.

But then it was time to come back to L.A. Within a week I was craving those tacos again. I decided to try to find the best approximation here in the L.A. area. The good news is that there are several. The bad news is, that for a variety of reasons, they are all just that, approximations.

I did my research, and found that one of the most-approved local pescadorias is right here in Hollywood: the enticingly-named "The Best Fish Tacos in Ensenada" on Hillhurst and Prospect.

This place looks like it should have it right, from the funky beach-style decor to the minimalist menu: they have fish tacos, shrimp tacos, and drinks. That's it. But there are problems.

Do you see what's missing? Hint: red and green. There is no fiery red salsa and no lime. The condiment bar, in addition to a passable crema, and too-finely-shredded cabbage, features a number of salsas, with clever names like "mild mango" and "spicy guacamole." They're just okay on their own, but as condiments for the delicate fish taco, they are all, in various ways, overkill and underwhelming. Mango, too sweet. The spicy guac, too watery, and not spicy enough. Seriously, all a fish taco needs to succeed is a medium green, a hot red, and a simple pico de gallo. And of course, the lime. "Hey, do you guys have any lime squeezes?"

"Oh... um... no."

Now I can SEE, from where I'm standing, a bag of limes on a shelf in the kitchen. "How about those?"

"Those are for the salsa."

Surely you jest. Okay, no lime. Well, since I find even the hottest red salsa among the several at the bar to be too mild, I look around and find a single bottle of Tapatio in the restaurant. At least, that's the case on my first visit. On the second visit, said single bottle is empty. I ask the owner of the joint for another bottle. He says, "Sorry, I'm out. I gotta go up to the liquor store and buy some." Since he shows no intention of doing so immediately, I blandly consume my tacos without it.

This just doesn't make sense. Not providing lime and a simple hot sauce for Baja fish tacos is like running a hamburger stand with no ketchup or mustard. I might even forgive all this; but the fish itself doesn't impress. Although it looks like it should be crispy on the outside, coming straight from the oil and onto a nicely-grilled Guerrero tortilla, it is in fact squishy. No crisp. On the greasy side.

So proximity aside, I had to look farther afield.

The best fish taco in the Southland, by the accounts of many who care about such things, is to be found at Tacos Baja Ensenada, on Whittier Blvd. in East L.A. Sa and I made a pilgrimage there for lunch one day, and we were not alone.

Obviously, word is out about this place. And it's good. But it's still not Baja. First, your fish taco is handed to you fait accompli. They HAVE a condiment bar, from which I had eagerly gathered samples, awaiting my order. But then the tacos came fully dressed, with way too much crema for my taste.

And although slices of avocado are available on the menu for an extra .75, I found myself longing for Bene and Dorotea's delicious guac, which is the more authentically Baja way to present it. And again... I missed the crispy batter. It's tasty, but as Sa pointed out, it's more the consistency of a pancake than it should be.

Still, I suspect that the underlying ingredients here are correct, and that you could do pretty well here by ordering your tacos naked but for the cabbage, and dressing it yourself from the thorough condiment bar and the good choice of bottled table salsas. On the strength of all that, TBE gets the number one spot.

A couple of also-rans should be mentioned, lest you cry foul. First, Rubio's. Not happenin' for me. As fast food Fresh Mex goes, I'm generally well-inclined toward Rubio's, because they brought the Puerto Nuevo-style lobster burrito to SoCal. But now the lobster burrito is but a memory, and sorry to say the fish taco is, to me, just so much fast-food mush.

Second, Siete Mares on Sunset Blvd. in Echo Park (the stand, not the restaurant next door). I like Siete Mares, and I go there on my way to and from Dodger games every now and again. The problem with the fish tacos here? Too big. There's enough stuff on the poor overmatched tortilla for three fish tacos, including a veritable mountain of too-thick cabbage. And although their batter is nicely crispy, there's not much fish under it -- it's a grease bomb.

Finally -- and I know there are a lot of admirers out there -- Señor Fish, one downtown adjacent to Little Tokyo, and one on Figueroa in South Pasadena. There is much to love about Señor Fish. it was the first place I had scallop burritos and potato tacos, and to this day they're two of my favorite things. There's even much to like on their Ensenada Style fish taco. There's a generous amount of fish in a flavorful batter (although again, it's not crispy enough for my taste). There's a generous dose of crema with plenty of cayenne, which is a good thing. There's a generous dollop of delicious guacamole. But all this generosity is beyond the capacity of the poor, undergrilled tortilla underneath to withstand -- especially because the taco is inexplicably constructed with the cream sauce on the bottom, where it instantly turns the tortilla to useless mush. In my book, tacos are street food: one that needs to be eaten with knife and fork is no taco at all.

Which brings me to my last big surprise. Coming in second place after Tacos Baja Ensenada?

Yes, fast food. The Crispy Fish Taco at Del Taco is an absolutely solid iteration of the genre. Somebody did their research -- it's served in classic style: corn tortilla, battered deep-fried fish, shredded cabbage, salsa, crema, even a squeeze of lime (take note, "Best Fish Tacos In Ensenada!"). And note the judicious addition of chopped onion and cilantro.

Compare that snap to THE REAL DEAL photo above, then to the others; see what I mean? And, lo and behold, the fish is good! Crispy on the outside, flaky on the inside, as it should be. Of course, they cheat a bit by using some sort of toasted corn-meal batter, but it works, man, it works. Add a bit of their Del Inferno sauce, and you're very, very damn close to the Real Deal. The only downfall is the tomato salsa, which is on the sugary side. If they could get a real pico de gallo in its place, it just might put it over the top.

The conclusion: for the real deal, you gotta brave the drug lord kidnappers by land, or the pirates by sea, and go to Sandra and Bene's cart in Ensenda. If you're stranded here, these are your best options. Click on the links for Google Maps, reviews, etc.

1. Tacos Baja Ensenada
5385 Whittier Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90022
(323) 887-1980

2. Del Taco
Numerous locations throughout the Southland

3. The Best Fish Tacos in Ensenada
1650 Hillhurst Ave
Los Angeles, CA 90027
(323) 887-1980

4. Señor Fish
422 E 1st St
Los Angeles, CA 90012
(213) 625-2534

5. La Playita Siete Mares
3143 W Sunset Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90026
(323) 664-4604

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Khaaaaan! - Seoul Garden Restaurant

Seoul Garden Restaurant
1833 W Olympic Blvd

Los Angeles, CA 90006
(213) 386-8477
MC, Visa
Valet Parking in rear. Closed Sunday.
Yelp Info

The hostess slaps a menu on your table, but everything you need to know about Seoul Garden is prominently displayed on a backlit plexiglass menuboard on a wall in the main room. Note the first three dishes: Beef Jingee-skan, Chicken Jingee-skan, Pork Jingee-skan. It took me a bit of Googling, after my first visit there, to figure out that it's Genghis Khan... which is Korean not (curiously) for what the Mongolians call BBQ, but for what the Japanese call shabu-shabu. Go figure.

And by go, I mean go to Seoul Garden to enjoy this utterly pleasurable style of dining. There's other stuff on the menu but (and I always tell you exactly what to order, that's part of the value-added service you get at LA Food Crazy) you're here for the Genghis Khan. Get two orders for 2-3 people, three orders for three hungrier or four people. Beef (a must), chicken or pork according to your pleasure. Order soju. Here's what ensues.

It's a five course meal. The waitress fires up a hotpot filled with water on your table. While it comes to a boil, you are brought the small, refillable dishes of bonchon; Korean appetizers that here include a delicious, tangy pickled turnip and a delicately cooked egg cake.

You nibble on them with you soju. You remembered to order soju, right? Your waitress will also bring small bowls of cabbage soup.

Then comes your Khan. Raw flesh, sliced paper-thin, arranged flat on a giant wheel of a plate. Here's one order of beef and one of chicken:

A giant bowl of shredded cabbage, mushrooms, tofu and fish cake accompanies your Khan.

Your waitress gets you started, scooping a bunch of vegetables and meat into the boiling water.

Quick, take out the beef, it's already medium-rare. Two more seconds, it's well-done. You scoop some veggies and beef into your bowl. It's tender, mild, flavorful; an absurdly simple and unadorned iteration of the meat.

Of course you can adorn it. People ask, "can I add some of the bonchon?" That's like asking whether you should put some of the guacamole or the salsa on your taco. It's a free world, dude. And the best news is, the bonchon are bottomless. Run out of one, they'll bring you more.

You begin to think you'll never get through that giant wheel of meat, you're boiling it and eating it and boiling and eating it, but trust me, it eventually it does all go away. And just when it's almost gone, the last few bits still boiling in the broth, the waitress swings by. She portions the remaining Jingees-kan into your bowls, and drops some udon noodles into your broth, letting them cook for a bit before scooping them in front of you.

Not a lot, mind you... you're full from all the meat... but it's so clean and tasty, cooked in that broth that has been gathering yummy beef chicken and pork flavors, that you can't resist.

And just when you think, no, there couldn't possibly be more, there is. The waitress will have let the water boil down pretty well by now. She arrives with a bowl of rice, an egg, some seaweed, and sesame oil. She adds them expertly to the broth, and whips up a quick a delicious jjuk (porridge) for you. It's delicious as is, but also a perfect base for disposing of any remaining bonchon on the table.

You've drained that last bit of soju, and now comes a metal cup of the refreshingly sweet tea which I believe is called chik cha.

The meal has probably set you back $25 or so. But if you're like me (or my wife Sa, who wants to go here, like, ALL the time) you'll be back soon.

A couple of notes. It can be crowded, take-a-number crowded, at peak hours. And as with most Korean restaurants in Koreatown, you'll have a more pleasant experience if you're not high-maintenance. Pointing at things and asking for more is fine and appreciated. Asking about serving sizes or ingredients explaining your special dietary needs, asking for rice before the porridge section of the meal, etc., will not enhance anyone's evening. And saying kam sa na hamida (Korean for thank you) is always nice.

Besides, any questions that can be answered are right there in backlit plexiglass, down to the instructions for cooking your veggies. So just say "beef jingee-skan and soju," sit back, and let the evening roll.