Thursday, September 15, 2011

Asian Invasion - Ikemen Dip Noodle and Soy Sauce Roll and Bowl

I'm all a-twitter and a-flutter. I love Little Tokyo, to the point that I actually look forward to jury duty because it means I'll get to eat my fill of ramen at Daikokuya and donburi at T.O.T.  Between rounds of public service, I make pilgrimages downtown, just to get out of the culinary wasteland that is central Hollywood and into some good Japanese food.

The options for a quick meal in walking distance of my house have been pretty grim: the big chains and awful pizza joints on Hollywood Boulevard; fair to middlin' Thai food; strip mall Hawaiian BBQ; El Pollo Loco. It's telling that even this Food Crazy, on those nights when my Better Palate is at an exercise class or whatever and I can indulge in take-out for one, usually settles for solid but unexceptional Singapore style Chinese from Le Mandarette.

But all that has suddenly changed, with the opening in the last two weeks of two genuine, delicious, Japanese  holes-in-the-wall that would be worthy of Little Tokyo, right here in Hollywood. Did I mention I'm a-flutter?

Soy Sauce Roll & Bowl
7131B W Sunset Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90046
(323) 876-7000
Yelp Info

I know, I know, it's an awful name for excellent and authentic Japanese lunch counter food. LA. Eater noted its opening with understandable lack of enthusiasm a couple of weeks ago. But then I received a menu in my mailbox, and I was mightily intrigued by the photos. Nearly half of the menu is a variety of donburi bowls (protein and vegetables over rice): spicy scallop, baked lobster, eel/avocado, spicy seared albacore, chicken katsu, Japanese curry. There are also izakaya-style skewers, miniscule but delicious tastes of things like grilled pork belly, baby octopus, and quail egg at miniscule prices ($1.95 for three bites of pork belly). True, there are also the ubiquitous "special rolls" with names like "Super Crunch" and "Japanese Burrito." Bot don't let the questionable nomenclature fool you. This is real Japanese/Asian Fusion food, made and served by Japanese people. And the quality of what I've ordered has been excellent. 

The Spicy Scallop bowl ($7.50) comes not with the generic American broccoli and carrots pictured on the menu but a delightful salad of fresh greens; the bay scallops are plentiful and indeed very spicy, and made sans mayonnaise, with just a chili oil sauce. The bright red pickled ginger adds snap and color to the bowl. 

Rainbow Bowl
The Chirashi ($8.50) features generous portions of fresh, tender fish -- yellowtail, salmon (raw, thank you!), tuna, albacore, and shrimp. The "Bake Lobster" ($7.50),  is the dish that brings the mayo. If it's lobster, they're they're tiniest tails I've ever seen (think crawfish), but the creamy bake is rich and satisfying. One or two caveats: the "crab" in the Crab Bowl and Rainbow Bowls (pictured above... a chirashi with avocado and crab salad added) is actually Krab. And the fried "popcorn" scallops, by the time they're delivered to our door, are a bit rubbery.

But wait -- they deliver?! Oh, yes, my friends, they freakin' deliver. Promptly and courteously. When one of my orders arrives missing a baked lobster bowl, Brian (the chef? owner?) returns almost immediately with the AWOL bowl, but also three miso soups, a giant order of edamame, and a voucher for another lobster bowl next time I order. That will, I assure you, be very, very soon. Note that the "dining room" of the place is tiny, although clean and stylish in modern Japanese lunch counter style: three small tables and counter space for maybe a dozen. The staff is almost impossibly friendly and enthusiastic. I have yet to work through the menu to decide if the food is better than the comparable T.O.T on 2nd Street in Little Tokyo; but that I even am considering such a question, regarding a place in what we call "the Pollo Loco mall" makes it a great day in Hollywood.

And then, just a long stone's throw away, there's:

Ikemen Dip Noodle
1655 N La Brea Ave
Los Angeles, CA 90046
(323) 800-7669
Yelp Info

In the same parking-challenged strip mall that houses our go-to takeout pizza (Raffallo's) and aforesaid go-to Chinese takeout, Ikemen quietly appeared in a soft opening a couple of weeks ago. The space formerly occupied by Casablanca (which was once our go-to Mexican but has for years been sad and inedible) is now home to a tiny, ultra-hip noodle counter serving black-belt ramen from a genuine celebrity Ramen Master. This little bit of Tampopo three blocks from Hooters and the Hard Rock is so wonderful and unlikely. This place couldn't be more Japanese-cool, from the "Urban Youth Smoking" art to the Louis IVX chandelier to the black painted tile to the chef and wait-staff wearing red or pink straw pork-pie hats. And the ramen might be the best I've had in L.A.

The "dip ramen" ($9.00) consists of thick, gloriously chewy noodles served cold, soba-style, with either chashupork tonkotsu (pictured below ) or grilled chicken on top and a bowl of richly seasoned hot broth, into which you dip the noodles bite by bite.

Zebra Dip with Chashu Pork and Onsen Tamago
The broth comes in four styles, from the garlicky "Zebra" to the heavily fish-powdered "Ikemen." My waiter recommends adding a "topping" of "Onsen Tamago," ($1.00) a perfectly poached egg, to my Zebra noodles. He's right... stirring the egg yolk into the noodles gives it a carbonara-like flavor and texture. This could be my new favorite dish within a three mile radius of my house.

The "Genuine Ramen," ($8.00) a manageable list of four varieties, is a classic thin rice noodle soup which I ordered with tomatoes (cherry tomatoes, to be exact, which were farmers market fresh and flavorful ). This is the real deal.

Genuine Tomato Ramen
The broth (a light chicken broth, not the heavy miso or salty soy sauce versions of ramen I'm most familiar with) is subtle and flavorful. The noodles are divine, and no wonder; Ikemen's "Ramen Master" (yep, that's what his business card says) is Sean Nakamura, who is currently in New York opening a Ramen Lab, teaching other chefs his mad noodling skillz. You can read about the rather baroque relationship between owner, chef and general manager, and their Japanese-cum-Torrance-cum-Beverly Hills foodie cred in an LA Weekly piece here. Again, I have yet to work my way through their menu, which promises other delights like grilled chicken and teriyaki pork sliders. But the lunch (or late night!) counter landscape is suddenly, and I hope permanently, altered in my 'hood.


Thursday, September 01, 2011

Chili Dog Smackdown - Pink's vs. Carneys vs. Coney Dog

For most of my formative years, the closest restaurant to me was an Orange Julius. My go-to item on their menu (Julius itself aside), was what. at the time. they called a California Dog. That would be a chili cheese dog to you and me. These days I'm more likely to dog it sans fromage, but I often get the hankering. Sometimes I make 'em at home. But sometimes, you gotta hit up a stand, and living in Hollywood, I have serious options.

Recently, two different friends from Detroit raved about the recently opened Coney Dog on Sunset Strip. Both told me that for lovers of chili dogs, it's the be-all and end-all. So, in honor of the upcoming Labor Day weekend, I set out with my Better Palate, Sa, and taste-tested three versions of the most American of all snack foods in the space of two hours: Coney Dog, Carneys and Pink's. The ultimate chili dog smackdown.

8873 Sunset Blvd
West Hollywood, CA 90069
Neighborhood: West Hollywood
(310) 854-1172
Yelp Info

My Detroit friends tell me that the Motor City -- not, ironically, from New York's Coney Island --  is where a true Coney Dog comes from. If Wikipedia is to be trusted on this, they are correct. There are two competing joints, originally operated by two Greek brothers and still family-run, next door to each other: Lafayette Coney Island and American Coney Island.

The two have engendered a rivalry that makes the Hatfields and McCoys look like the Brady Bunch. A Detroiter is born with a genetic allegiance to one or the other, and the fan of one never sets foot in the other, on pain of disinheritance. Both of my friends are Lafayette men (although American won a recent blind taste-off on Travel Channel's Food Wars), and they were over the moon when Coney Dog opened. It's owned by an ex-Detroiter who recreated Lafayette's look and feel, right down to the hexagonal off-white floor tile. Ingredients are shipped from Detroit for authenticity.

The service here is super-friendly; the menu is simple and to the point. Hot dogs. A "loose burger," which is actually a hot dog with ground beef in place of a frankfurter. And there is at least one ode to the L.A. location -- a bacon-wrapped L.A. Street Dog But I'm here for the real Detroit-style Coney Dog, or, as I'm told it's ordered in Detroit, simply a "Coney."  A chili dog with onions and mustard ($3.95, but two-for one during their weekday happy hour).

I like that.

The bun is steamed and soft without being squishy. The sausage itself is casing-on, as all great dogs must be. This one is a blend of beef and pork, and it's tasty. This contest, I know, will be largely about "snap," the level of fight-back the casing provides when biting in. On the Coney Dog, it's considerable, and the dog itself is not-unpleasantly chewy; one fears there might be a structural integrity issue, but there is not. It;s possible to get through one without getting mustard and chili stains on your shirt.

Then there is the chili. It's rich, savory, just the right thickness to provide creaminess without falling off the dog. But I immediately notice a slightly sour note to it. It is my Better Palate who wrinkles her nose and says, simply, "I don't like the chili. It tastes like chicken liver or something." A little research back at home reveals that she was in the right organ-meat ballpark (no Dodger Dog jokes, please). One of the "secret" ingredients to Lafayette's chili, and presumably to Coney Dog's, is beef heart. Now, don't let that put you off. If you're eating a hot dog out in the world, you're already eating internal organs you'd rather not think about. But it does impart a very particular savoriness to the dog.

709 N La Brea Ave
Los Angeles, CA 90038
Neighborhood: West Hollywood
(323) 931-4223
Yelp Info

Love it or hate it, ya gotta love Pink's. Personally I love it, but the line, right? I usually go once or twice a year. Once, when I happen to drive by and the line looks less than 15 minutes. Once, when I visit the County Fair, where there are multiple Pink's outlets and you can step right up and get a dog. (incidentally, I posted about Fair food here. ) Today, I braved a fairly standard lunchtime line (25 minutes), just for the edification of you, my reader. You're welcome.

The frankfurter here, famously made "especially for Pink's" is Hoffy, all-beef, casing on. The bun is fractionally -- fractionally -- more firm than the one at Coney Dog. The chili dog ($3.45) is also fractionally more toothsome (a word that I use, incorrectly, as a synonym for "chewy'" I'm a novelist so I'm allowed): getting through the bottom casing without pulling out the dog or some chili is a challenge. Unlike Coney Dog, the mustard at Pink's is applied beneath the chili, which I find less pleasing aesthetically.

The dog is  delicious -- I have decided I prefer all-beef. The chili is definitive: perfectly creamy, perfectly spicy, perfectly salty. I have noticed something while waiting in line with my camera. The stand is decorated with pictures of the stand in past days. The one from 1946 has a prominently displayed neon announcing that they use "XLNT Tamales and Chili."

RU kidding?!? I have loved XLNT Tamales since I was a teen with the munchies -- and both they and their chili are available by the brick in Southern California supermarkets. I asked the manager if Pink's still uses the same brand, and she told me "yes." With all the discussion about the Pink's chili recipe, it's been right there in your grocer's freezer all along, the bastard! (Although One Guy On the Internet says that Pink's adds water, flour, and beaten egg to the brick starter, so it must be true.)

Yes, this a fine and noble chili dog indeed.

8351 W Sunset Blvd
West Hollywood, CA 90069
Neighborhood: West Hollywood
(323) 654-8300 (currently down)
Yelp Info

Carneys on Sunset Strip in West Hollywood is where I generally go when I crave a simple chili dog with a snap. I love the Southern Pacific Railroad car ambiance, the view of the Strip, the easy, free parking (I should note that Coney Dog has free parking too, on the roof). I've always considered Carney's a reasonable, no-hassle alternative to Pink's. Unlike Pink's, with its chaotic one-person-handles-your-order-from-beginning-to-cashier workflow, Carneys' dog is in front of you practically before you order it. The guy behind the counter is invariably efficient, seemingly gruff, but then personable and funny. (When the Better Palate calls me "Honey," which I hate (in public), he asks what my last name is. He laughs when I respond "Bear.  Or sometimes Pie.") We are sitting and eating within three minutes of walking in the door, having ordered the Carneys Dog without its Chicago-dog style sliced tomatoes: our benchmark chili-onion-mustard dog.

The bun is exactly the consistency of Coney Dog's: steamed soft, but with reliable integrity. Like Pink's, the mustard is applied before the chili. But the all-beef dog's snap is just right, popping juicily but not interfering with the bite; it's plump, slightly charred at the very tip, and delicious. The chili tastes a lot like Pink's; I'd be interested to do an actual side-by-side to see if, perhaps, they are the very same. This dog sings four-part harmony; bun, chili, mustard and onions are a perfectly composed quartet; the whole merges gracefully into a sum greater than its parts, and its parts are damn good. My Better Palate and I polish one off; I'm ready for more.


When I expressed fondness for both Pink's and Carneys to my Detroiter friend Danny over our  Coneys, he nodded vigorously (Danny does everything vigorously) and said, "I'd eat any of those dogs!" He's right. They're all great. (Alas, I'll never be able to test these three side-by-side with a dog from the original Nathan's on Coney Island, which is certainly great.) And frankly (ha!), very little separates the competitors. It's just a freakin' chili dog, after all. But Sa and I agreed: for the simple chili dog, Carneys comes out on top. Still, I won't hesitate to chow down at Pink's when the line is reasonable. And if listening to the excited, anticipatory chatter of tourists while contemplating an endless variety of kinky dogs (most recently, the "L.A. Philharmonic Conductor Gustavo Dudamel Dog," a nine inch hot dog, guacamole, American and Swiss cheese, fajita-grilled onions and tomatoes, jalapeno slices, topped with tortilla chips) and maybe mugging for the camera in a Good Day L.A. shoot is what you're in the mood for... well, ya gotta love Pink's.

Wherever you choose to eat a dog, why not do so this holiday weekend? Raise one to the American worker, and remember that Labor Day comes from a time that unashamedly celebrated, rather than demonized, the collective strength of our workforce.

Posts like this always generate "Why didn't you include..." comments, so bring 'em on. Cupid's? Skooby's? Tommy's? Let me know.