Sunday, July 18, 2010

Kids Say - and Eat - the Darnedest Things, July 18, 2010

When my nephew Seiji is not keeping up with the latest Goseiger or Yu-Gi-Oh 5DS, he enjoys the gastronomic explorations of pint-size foodie Remy and his website Food Oddities. Another favorite is Travel Channel's Andrew Zimmern and his "Bizarre Foods."

The clip he asks to see the most is one of Zimmern eating a beating frog's heart at a street food stall in Tokyo. I asked Seiji about what he likes about watching this. His answer was very matter-of-fact.

"I like gross and it is gross," he said with that eight-year-old candor I have grown to know and love.

Just the facts.

Seiji says that the weirdest thing he has eaten so far is squeaking cheese curds from the Tillamook factory in Oregon. But another kid's "weird" can be another kid's "normal." To the average eight-year-old, squeaking cheese is probably not that unusual compared to other foods that Seiji and his brother Kenzo eat regularly: the odiferous but good-for-you natto or ochazuke a traditional comfort soup - for breakfast.

Politely borrowed from

Like a lot of first-generation kids who are born of parents from other parts of the world, my sisters and I were fed for the most part, what they thought American kids would eat. This meant McDonald's, spaghetti, and thick steaks. Filipino food was optional, experienced mainly on holidays at relatives' homes and dismissed by our parents, who would say self-deprecatingly, "You wouldn't like it."

Being kids we favored sweet and starchy dishes. The Filipino dishes that we did enjoy reflected this: the comfort of lugao or arroz caldo or the afterschool treat of Mom's banana fritters. In retrospect, dishes like dinuguan, which my mom optimistically called, "chocolate meat," was really not that bad despite its main ingredient. And thanks to our dad, we never feared tripe, dried anchovies, or shellfish. We got to taste chayote squash, figs, char siu bao, and tofu long before they became as common in American cuisine as they are today.

Everything my parents served however, was not a hit, and it wasn't always because of a food's exotic origin. I hated Ovaltine, both the malt and the chocolate. We were probably the last generation that had to eat liver. But the unexpected gift here, despite our turned-up noses, is that by the sheer luck of where our parents happened to be born, we had the chance to try things and develop a more global sensibility about food.

Bittermelon - even in snack chip form - is still no deal.

If you were to judge my sisters and I by our school lunchboxes, we were typical American kids. We ate bologna or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, little bags of Laura Scudder's cheese curls and potato chips - which were ironically decorated with flags and children of the world - and the entire line of Dolly Madison baked goods. Our parochial school did not have a cafeteria, but every Thursday a few of the mothers cooked a hot lunch for us in the church's social hall. There I could sample "real" American kid food. Miniature frozen cheese pizzas with their slabs of melted cheese and slightly sweet sauce are still the gold standard of what I like in a pizza. Chili dogs and "home" tacos were my introduction to spicy food and sloppy joes gave me my love of saucy, messy fare.

So politically incorrect. And so good, at least in the third grade. Lifted with envy from fabulous retro Flickr site.

Kids, whose palates are as yet unjaded by a lifetime of eating, have very sensitive tastebuds. When they find something they really like, they seriously consider eating it all the time.

"Udon is my favorite food," says Seiji. "I wish I could eat it all the time."

When I was a kid, I wished I could eat spaghetti all of the time. And when I learned how to cook, I did just that. Curiosity - and finally, a driver's license - led me to explore other kinds of food, guided by what my friends' parents would serve, my obsession with cookbooks and food magazines, and that all-encompassing desire to seem "grown-up." I would drive from my quiet suburb all over Los Angeles in search of the ultimate knish, Southern barbeque, or ramen.

You can go home again... and again... and again. Still crazy about Canter's after all these years.

Seiji and his brother Kenzo are lucky to grow up in a family that celebrates its collective culinary heritage. We are also obsessed with the art of food from around the world and are blessed with a variety of friends who share their traditions and cuisines. I hope when the boys are older they will be curious enough to explore the world through their palates. When I was younger, I thought I could see the world from the dining table - and often, I still do.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Bastile Day: On Target With Pho Consomme, July 14, 2010

Forget liberté, égalité, fraternité: if there had been a Target (“cible” en Francais) in 18th century Paris, all of history may have been altered.

Three hundred years later, fighting the crowds at the market has not changed.

Both Lucile Desmoulins and Marie Antoinette would have been equally enchanted by the prospect of being able to buy a corset, les biftecks, and gardening supplies under the same roof.

While I will spend hours shopping for beads, books, or exotic chocolates with pretty labels, I hate taking time to pick up the necessaries. My brain was stewing in its usual morning fog trying to figure out all that I have to do before I arrive at the office until I came to the realization that I could not only pick up orange juice, yogurt, and water at Target, but also take care of my morning Americano fix at the store’s Starbucks concession.

Target is usually thronged on nights and weekends as everyone scrambles to do what I set out to do this morning. Happily, you can almost have the place to yourself if you go right after they open at 8 a.m. The supermarket department is a recent addition to the store on Avalon Boulevard and since I rarely go to supermarkets at all, I have not really shopped it. I was skeptical about the yogurt selection, which proudly displayed every flavor and variety of Yoplait, in its high fructose corn-syruped glory. Finally, I found some peach Chobani, a brand that I had bought before on another emergency yogurt run that was reasonably tasty. This company got more respect from me after I found out that they post not only nutritional data on their products, but an ingredient list as well.

While this sortie to Target took care of breakfast, there was still the matter of lunch. Since there are no French restaurants near campus, Dylan and I decided to try a Gardena eatery that almost fit the bill for our Bastile Day celebration. Pho Consomme is named presumably in recognition of the colonial influence of the French government in Vietnam from 1887 to 1954. Pho itself is the delectable by-product of both indigenous and colonial cuisines, a heady combination of Vietnam's rice noodles and spices and France's love of boeuf.

Boeuf: it's what's for dîner... Gustave Caillebotte's version. I like my art like my beef: rare.

The "consomme" in Pho Consomme turned out to be a hot pot dish where one could cook meat and vegetables at the table, a bit much for a workday lunch. We went with good old pho, mine topped as usual with rare beef and Dylan's with rare beef and brisket. We rounded it out with shrimp spring rolls and our usual beverages: my limeade with soda water and his iced Vietnamese coffee blended with sweetened condensed milk.

Hands down, the spring rolls were great. The ocean-y goodness of shrimp and minty fresh herbs, all in one bite.

It was a good sign that actual Asians were eating there, good enough to forgive grammatical errors on the menu like "grounded shrimp." Although I was relieved to learn that Pho Consomme's shellfish were emotionally healthy and down-to-earth, I was a bit disappointed that the server brought Dylan the wrong pho, gave us only one small plate of the prerequisite garnishes for pho - basil, bean sprouts, jalapenos, and lime - and ignored our request for a fork which I impatiently tried to fetch myself.

Pho is just a blank page without the sprouts, chilis, and herbs.

But this is not meant to be a review.

We say we want a revolution. Pho Consomme was a Korean barbeque place before its recent opening and before that, lived out several incarnations as other restaurants. We hope that it will break the "store of doom" curse that seems to hang over the building. But for now, it's great to have an option with some French flair in the neighborhood, since there probably won't be any quaint little bistros opening up in Gardena anytime soon.

Vive le France!

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The One and Only Kettle, July 12, 2010

One of my favorite films and subsequent TV series was “Highlander.” Its tagline, “There can be only one” goes double for the Kettle, which ironically, is on Highland and Manhattan Beach Boulevard.

There were actually two "Highlanders." Here is Christopher Lambert in the film version... He was like Peter Lorre with a French accent.

The Kettle was the first restaurant where I remember dining without my parents. As a world-weary junior at the now extinct Aviation High School, I would take extended lunches (read, “ditch class”) at the Kettle which was minutes away from campus. Upon being served a chef’s salad on my first visit, I puzzled over what to my uninitiated eyes appeared to be the world’s tiniest cup of soup. I discovered this to be a portion of salad dressing, my taste buds screaming from vinegar overload as I sampled a heaping spoonful.

Later, I discovered the joys of the Kettle’s signature French onion soup, the equal of which I will probably not find until I actually visit Paris. If the calories in bread can be diminished by toasting (see previous post), they are quadrupled by being soaked in rich onion broth and swathes of melted cheese. I have a misguided American expectation that every French restaurant I walk into is going to have the stuff on tap, which of course, has not been the case.

Plus de fromage, s'il vous plait. The Kettle's soupe l'oignon is the gold standard for me.

Along with watching my parents in the kitchen, my faithful viewing of the Galloping Gourmet, and my fascination with cookbooks – whether I cooked from them or not - The Kettle had a great deal to do with my gastronomic development as a young person. I had my first cup of coffee there. The menu helped me with my high school French with dishes like Oeufs Pain Perdu. And it taught me that zucchini can be vastly improved by deep-frying and bleu cheese dressing.

Several years and zip code changes later, I would dine at Mimi’s Café, a chain restaurant that absorbed The Kettle. Since they offer the identical menu, I could have a taste of home in the O.C. or in Torrance. But it is never the same.

There is a group on Facebook called “I’m From the South Bay Which Means I’m Kind of a Big Deal”. Laugh if you will, but that kind of hubris is what being from somewhere is. From Manhattan Beach to Manassas, home where confidence can be bolstered by a sense of belonging, and where souls can be warmed by a memory that never the memory of my first onion soup.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Pancake Puppies at Denny's, June 19, 2010

One night while Daniel and I were in that state that little kids get into of being very tired but not wanting to go to sleep, we ended up - oh, the shame! - at Denny's on Sepulveda and Overland. We really didn't need anything to eat, which is the perfect excuse to have a bad dessert.

Pancake Puppies have been trademarked by Denny's, so as not to be confused with donut holes, aebleskiver, or hush puppies. I was surprised by their presentation. Despite the fact that I was eating on a place mat covered with advertising, the Puppies were stylishly drizzled with chocolate sauce and beckoned to us in their deep-fried glory nestled against a scoop of strawberry ice cream.

I ate one. I only wanted one. It was a dense and cakey fritter, reminiscent of a stale beignet. But the strawberry ice cream was a nice, nostalgic complement that reminded me of trips with my dad to the ice cream counter at Sav-on when I was a kid.

The hour and the fact that I had actually considered and was now eating at a Denny's restaurant went to my head and I was seized by a fit of silliness that I have not experienced since the 10th grade. I plead the Twinkie defense, with a clear-cut case of Puppies per minas. Temporary insanity induced by fatty, sugary foods brought about the groundbreaking discoveries that were made at our table that night.

While paying the bill, Daniel showed me the finer details of the presidential portraits on ten and twenty dollar bills. Lots of people think foreign currency is pretty with its wigged monarchs, exotic blooms, and architectural wonders. American money, apparently, has got 18th Century hotties on it.

Win a date with Al Hamilton. Check out those dreamy eyes and perfect chin - it's a shame he wasn't a quicker draw.

Daniel says that Hamilton has got dreamy eyes. In my sugar-induced silliness, I had to agree. He also says that Andrew Jackson looks like Anthony Michael Hall from the nose down.

I kind of see it. But I think he looks more like Carol Burnett.

My favorite of course, is Babe-Raham Lincoln. Before Bruce Weber celebrated male beauty for the pages of fashion magazines, there was Mathew Brady, the first photographer to capture an American war set about exonerating an earlier type of male model with his heroic depictions of soldiers and presidents. One of his numerous portraits of Abraham Lincoln was the inspiration for Honest Abe's windswept look, immortalized on our fiver.

Actually, he kind of looks like Cosmo Kramer from "Seinfeld." If Kramer were more serious. And grew a beard.

The dollar is the only bill that has not been given a facelift. Gilbert Stuart's famous rendering of the Father of Our Country was actually an unfinished portrait, its incomplete state a metaphor for the nascent republic.

Hey there, Georgie Boy. Sadly, the buck - and the male beauty contest - stops here.

Apparently, Stuart was as bad at finishing paintings as I am at keeping up with this blog. By the time you get some of these posts, days, if not weeks have gone by. The soup or whatever delicacy I am celebrating has been long since digested, the restaurant's business card misplaced in the slush pile of GMS memorabilia. Amusingly, sometimes a return visit to the scene of the crime will occur before I ever get to post about the first visit.

As my posts simmer in my head before being ladled out into the bottomless bowl of my blog, they take on new and complex flavors as I mull these adventures over. And although some of them, like Stuart's paintings, might never be finished, they are, like sharing laughs at a coffee shop late at night, a nice place to linger.