Lotus of Siam – Las Vegas, NV

Food Adventures, Las Vegas

Martin and I are huge fans of Anthony Bourdain. His books Kitchen Confidential and Medium Raw speak to my lifestyle as a line cook, while his shows No Reservations and Parts Unknown have enabled us to vicariously explore the food and cultures of far-off places that we could only dream of visiting, all from the comfort of our couch. But when we watched his episode of Parts Unknown: Las Vegas, we knew that an accessible opportunity to follow his advice had finally come. On our most recent trip to Sin City, we went to Lotus of Siam.

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LoS is tucked away off the Strip in an unassuming commercial district a few blocks away from the shiny new SLS Hotel (it replaced the Sahara). The parking lot is HUGE and believe it or not, one of the country’s best Thai restaurants is flanked by a mish-mash of establishments including other restaurants like Korean barbecue and small businesses like a billiards parlor and a beauty school. From what we hear, this place always has a line out the door at any given time during their hours of operation, so it seemed that luck was on our side then when we were seated right away on that Monday afternoon. (Protip: lunch is served on weekdays only.)

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The single most important piece of advice I can give (and Bourdain has said this himself) is to order from the last four pages of the menu — Northern Thai specialties. My eyes widened at every menu description and it was hard to pick just a few to try on this visit but we chose the crispy garlic prawns, crispy duck in panang curry, and soft shell crab over drunken noodles. I had to convince Martin to get the three dishes to share between us (I wanted to throw in the khao soi as well but that will have to wait for another time); it was way too much food for just two people but I regret nothing. As I stared sadly at the leftovers that we would be unable to bring with us on the desert drive home, Martin couldn’t help but give me his “I told you so” look. I guess that is my only regret: not having the leftover panang curry sauce over rice the next day for lunch.

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We started with Thai iced tea. The tea mixture, we learned, is pre-sweetened (and quite sweet) so we got ours with extra ice and half-and-half to mellow it out. Still a bit sweet for my taste but I usually consider it to be more of a special treat than a regular beverage anyway. Then the feast arrived at our table like a grand procession.

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First came the garlic prawns. The prawns themselves were giant, and each one was delicately peeled so that the shell remained attached but exposed the body to its own layer of batter and seasoning. The shells were crispy, flaky, and completely edible — the menu description called them “almost like potato chips!” The prawns were juicy and perfectly cooked. It was reminiscent of a Chinese-Vietnamese dish (salt & pepper shrimp, or tôm rang muối) but solved the ever-present problem of seasoning only the outside (and often inedible) parts of the shrimp while leaving the meat inside bland. (Flavored sunflower seeds frustrate me for the same reasons.)

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I’m a noodle fiend so one of our dishes just had to feature the flat steamed rice noodles. We got the drunken noodles with soft shell crab; the crab was crispy, deep fried, and drenched in the fragrant pad kee mao sauce. Tossed in with the pan-fried noodles were julienned bell pepper and plenty of Thai basil, my favorite! We got the most mild option so Martin could comfortably partake, but I’d love to try this again with a higher spice level.

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Perhaps the most talked-about dish here is the crispy duck in panang curry — crispy duck gently laid atop a pool of red curry cream sauce bearing a hint of cognac. The duck was incredible — the fat rendered perfectly so that the skin crisped up while the meat remained tender and succulent, almost like a confit. The sauce of coconut milk and red curry was so aromatic that I could eat just that drizzled over plain rice for weeks. Again, we ordered this at the lowest spice level but I will have to try it again with more kick.

Chef Saipin Chutima was awarded Best Chef: Southwest by the James Beard Foundation in 2011. She is an incredible woman and I am so glad that she was recognized for the amazing food she creates. The next time you find yourself in Sin City, be sure to venture off the Strip for an epicurean experience you won’t soon forget.

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Check out Lotus of Siam: lotusofsiamlv.com

953 East Sahara Avenue, Suite A5
Las Vegas, NV 89104

See their Yelp reviews here!

Sakura Japanese Restaurant – Del Rey, CA

Food Adventures, Los Angeles

One of the best parts of living in LA is that there are just so many dining options it would be nearly impossible to eat at them all. In an effort to explore our immediate surrounding neighborhood (yes, we have lived here for over two years and still haven’t tried everything), we decided to have an impromptu date night at a local favorite – Sakura Japanese Restaurant.

A bit stunned by AP (analysis paralysis), we asked our sushi chef if he could arrange an omakase for us with a modest budget of $60. He said sure and put on his number-crunching thinking cap. Martin pointed out that he seemed relieved to see a change of pace from the many veggie rolls we had seen him assemble in just the short time we had been sitting at the counter. This is the progression he created:

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Yellowtail (hamachi) – A sushi staple, this piece of hamachi spoke volumes of the quality of the meal ahead. The neta (the slice of fish atop nigiri) was a generous portion in all its dimensions.

Blue fin tuna (maguro) – Far from the generic dull-red fish we find at cheap sushi places, the blue fin tuna here was gorgeous, tender, and just wonderful.

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Monkfish Liver (ankimo) – I love ankimo but every other time we have had it, it was served gunkanmaki-style (mashed into a paste and scooped atop a mound of rice that had been wrapped in seaweed to form an oval-shaped vessel, like uni or ikura nigiri). This was the first time we’ve ever tried it in its most pure form — large fatty morsels simply garnished with scallions and ponzu and served with a sunomono-style salad of cucumbers, seaweed, and strings of daikon. Decadent and a steal at $8!

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Albacore (shiro maguro) – Definitely not to be missed, this albacore was served in its typical style with ponzu, scallions, and a hint of garlic. The fish melted in our mouths!

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Halibut (hirame) – A mild white fish that has a firmer, slightly chewy texture, it is always interesting to have sashimi-grade versions of fish that are more frequently served cooked.

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Spanish Mackerel (aji) – The most mild mackerel I’ve ever had, not a single hint of oily fishiness that usually comes with aji or saba. Beautiful!

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Sea Urchin (uni) – Super creamy and smooth, this Santa Barbara delicacy was among the best we’ve had at any sushi restaurant.

As many others have mentioned before us, Sakura Japanese Restaurant is a hidden gem on the mini restaurant row of Centinela Avenue of our humble piece of the Westside and we’re happy to have finally tried it for ourselves.

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Check out Sakura Japanese Restaurant:

4545 South Centinela Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90066

See their Yelp reviews here!

Summer Days: Mateo’s Ice Cream & Fruit Bars – Culver City, CA

Food Adventures, Los Angeles
Rainbow of Paletas at Mateo's Ice Cream and Fruit Bars

Rainbow of Paletas at Mateo’s Ice Cream and Fruit Bars

HAPPY JUNE from us here in sunny southern California!

The days are longer, the sun is shining brighter, and the weather is just screaming for (what else?) ICE CREAM! I had had Mateo’s Ice Cream & Fruit Bars bookmarked on my list of places to check out for years, all the way back when we still lived in Palms. Now we live in Del Rey, which is right around the corner from this unassuming strip mall off Sepulveda Boulevard near Lucerne. A flourescent orange length of retail with a giant laundromat anchor, you just can’t miss this spot. Mateo’s is squeezed in all the way in the corner.

The storefront is tiny but boasts brightly colored signs depicting fruits both familiar and exotic. It looks and smells like walking into a giant cornucopia, in a good way. The case of ice cream features flavors I’d never seen elsewhere like mamey, smoked milk, and horchata with walnuts. Making our way further into the store, we find the paletas — Latin American fruit-based ice pops (or popsicles). The paletas are arranged in a rainbow, with pink and red strawberry (including a halved strawberry embedded in the middle of the popsicle), golden-colored mango con chile, bright orange-hued cantaloupe, green cucumber con chile, bright alabaster coconut, copper-colored tamarind, and some more sweet-tooth-appeasing creations like chocolate dipped and shaved coconut dusted paletas to finish. It’s an amazing sight, and certainly appetizing on a warm summer day.

Best of all? Each paleta is just $2. TWO DOLLARS. An amazing deal especially for the sheer quantity and quality of fresh fruit that goes into making each paleta. They taste like the ripened fresh fruit is pureed, strained, poured into the molds, and frozen. No frills, no additives. On our first visit, I had the cucumber on chile. I love cucumber desserts, and this one was icy and refreshing with just a slightly salty kick from the chile powder. The main part of the paleta was almost too icy, with the high water content of the cucumber itself, but I definitely enjoyed the bits of diced fresh cucumber embedded throughout. Martin had a creamy, coffee-flavored bar that reminded me of a Fudgesicle in texture. Ahh nostalgia… we knew we were going to come back.

Sure enough, on our next visit I opted for the mango con chile which I enjoyed even more because of its natural sweetness, the soft chunks of ripe golden mango, and the toothsome texture, much less icy than the cucumber one. The chile powder, reminiscent of the packets sold alongside fresh cut fruit by the street vendors, was just spicy enough to feel a subtle kick. Definitely a summer favorite, I know I’ll be coming back specifically for this paleta over the next few months (and beyond — we all know how beautiful the weather is here year-round).

Martin saw the cantaloupe paleta in the display case, one of his all-time favorite fruits and a new addition for the summer season, and just had to have it. He shared only a small nibble, but I could taste how sweet yet refreshing it was. Like a frozen agua fresca, that paleta embodied the purest essence of cantaloupe. It was so freaking good.

Our only regret is not giving this place a try sooner, but now that we’re in the know, you can bet we’ll be coming back and telling all of our friends (starting with you dear readers!). Happy summer indeed.

Plenty of Paleta Love from NomNomCat!

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Check out Mateo’s Ice Cream and Fruit Bars: mateosicecream.com

4929 Sepulveda Blvd
Culver City, CA 90230

See their Yelp reviews here!

Food Pic Friday: Sushi Central (Re-visited)

Food Adventures, Los Angeles

First, a personal update for NomNomCat Readers (if you’re just looking for drool-worthy photos on this Food Porn Friday, scroll past this paragraph): WE’RE BACK! Our deepest apologies for our three month long hiatus. For those who are interested, here’s the reason for it — as you may well know, life offline can get in the way of blogging. And boy has 2014 already been a crazy adventure… With this food blog about to celebrate its third birthday, it should come as no surprise that food is a huge passion in our lives. So much so, in fact, that I decided to change my career trajectory to the culinary arts; I currently work in a professional kitchen as a line cook, having jumped head-first into Kitchen Life. Working sixty hours a week in a physically strenuous, mentally challenging, and emotionally stressful environment leaves little time to sit down and write about the latest LA hot spots three times a week like we did before. But I still love to write, and I sincerely missed this forum for communicating my (and our) love for celebrating life through eating and cooking. And so I make this promise to come back with new content once a week. The format will likely be different though; gone are the days of 1,000-word entries. Instead, the focus will likely shift to local food news and events, photos from new and new-to-us dining experiences, and, if we can manage it, make-at-home recipes now and then. Thank you all for your understanding and support these past (almost) three years! We’ll definitely have to do something fun for our blogiversary!

And now for the food.

Back in 2012, my bff S and I celebrated her birthday with affordable but delicious omakase at a tiny hole-in-the-wall in Palms (West Los Angeles): Sushi Central. The sheer variety and quality of the fish and the expertise of Chef Phillip Yi behind the counter blew away all of my preconceived notions about strip mall sushi. Recently, Martin had a sudden and insatiable sushi craving and we decided to pay a visit to this neighborhood gem.

Maguro (Tuna) Sashimi

Maguro (Tuna) Sashimi

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IMG_0705Forgive me, I generally pride myself on being able to remember details about my dishes, but this dinner took place back in March and I have since forgotten which fish above is which. I believe they were halibut, snapper, and sea bream (not necessarily in that order) but please let me know if YOU happen to know and I will happily edit this entry.

Ono (Escolar)

Ono (Escolar), super juicy with a smoky char from being oh-so-briefly torched.

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Liver(?) from the Amaebi (Sweet Shrimp)

Liver(?) from the Amaebi (Sweet Shrimp)

Amaebi (Live Sweet Shrimp)

Amaebi (Live Sweet Shrimp)

Broth made from the shells of the amaebi

Broth made from the shells of the amaebi

Crispy Fried Amaebi Heads

Crispy Fried Amaebi Heads

Sushi Central offers my all-time favorite amaebi preparation and I say that with full confidence. Where else could you get a tasty shooter, an umami-rich broth, a well-seasoned piece of nigiri, and a crispy fried head all from one little shrimp? Chef Phillip puts forth a great deal of effort to showcase the beauty that is amaebi and it is certainly appreciated.

Salmon Belly

Salmon Belly

Live Scallop (and the crew - Chef Phillip on the right and Seiji on the left)

Live Scallop (and the crew – Chef Phillip on the right and Seiji on the left)

Live Scallop Nigiri Sushi and Sashimi

Live Scallop Nigiri Sushi and Sashimi

An Artist at Work

An Artist at Work

"Dirty Rice" made from the hinge muscle and innards of the scallop

“Dirty Rice” made from the hinge muscle and innards of the scallop

Ankimo (Monkfish Liver) - my personal favorite

Ankimo (Monkfish Liver) – my personal favorite

Spanish Mackerel - a fishy, oily bite to end our meal

Spanish Mackerel – a wonderfully fishy, oily bite to end our meal

At $100 a head (we originally aimed closer to $50 but added on the live amaebi, live scallop, AND ankimo), it was a splurge for a weeknight meal but definitely well worth the expense. Chef Phillip had even stayed overtime by a full hour just to show off more of his freshest and most interesting fish. Don’t dismiss this place if you’re deterred by the online menu full of California Rolls and Dragon Rolls. Bypass all of those run-of-the-mill offerings, pull up a seat at the counter, and let Chef Phillip do what he does best. You won’t be disappointed.

 

Rutt’s Hawaiian Cafe – Culver City, CA

Food Adventures, Los Angeles

Anyone remember the scene in 50 First Dates when Lucy hangs out at the Hukilau Cafe building cabins out of waffles? That was the first thing that came to mind the very first time I walked through the yellow screen door of Rutt’s Hawaiian Cafe. We frequently stop by on lazy Sunday afternoons for one thing — the royales.

Kalua Pork Fried Royale

Kalua Pork Fried Royale

Royales are basically a Hawaiian style mixed rice — generous mountains of rice mixed with bean sprouts, strips of egg omelet, green onions, and your choice of meat ranging from kalua pork to Portuguese sausage to the Hawaiian staple SPAM. Even better – you can order them fried! They come in three sizes: the junior (one scoop of rice & two eggs), the regular (two scoops of rice & three eggs), and the king (three scoops of rice & four eggs). Don’t be fooled – each “scoop” is giant. The one pictured above is only a junior!

A closer look - kalua pork royale

A closer look – kalua pork royale

If I am ordering takeout or otherwise intending to have leftovers for the next day’s lunch, I would order a regular sized royale. Otherwise, the junior is more than enough especially when paired with the (free – just ask!) Hawaiian sweet roll that comes with it. The kalua pork is my favorite as it is always juicy, flavorful, and reminiscent of luaus (no matter how touristy).  An artistic drizzle of sriracha and I’m set!

The Original Royale - fried, no bean sprouts

The Original Royale – fried, no bean sprouts

Martin’s usual is the Original Royale fried with no bean sprouts. Though his plate is always sadly devoid of vegetables, I think the chef sometimes makes up for it with extra meat. That or the Original Royale is like the Meat Lover’s Pizza of mixed rice dishes. Chopped slivers of Chinese BBQ pork (char siu) and rounds of Portuguese sausage add savory flavor to this royale. (PS: Martin only asked for that Hawaiian roll so I could have it. Isn’t he the best?!)

Filet of Sole

Filet of Sole

Occasionally I’ll stray from the Royales section and try something different. The plate specials are good (especially the mixed plate special that features a combination of kalbi, kalua pork, and teriyaki chicken for only $8!) but my latest discovery was the filet of sole. A football sized, 1/2-inch thick filet of white fish breaded in panko (?) and grilled to perfection. The fish was flaky and moist, barely opaque. It comes with two scoops of rice and (of course) macaroni salad.

To round out my island adventure, I sometimes splurge on either a can of ice cold UCC Kona Coffee or, if I spot it on the specials menu, a manapua (BBQ pork bun or cha siu bao). On my first visit, I also ordered the haupia for dessert, but I don’t think I have seen it recently. A traditional Hawaiian dessert, haupia is essentially a coconut pudding, and the one at Rutt’s was topped with extra toasted coconut shavings. Yummy coconutty goodness.

As if the food weren’t enough reason to swing by, the prices can’t be beat! About $10 will usually get me enough food for two meals. The parking is rarely a hassle with plentiful metered street parking immediately in front, and the service is so friendly. Do yourself a favor and hula on over to Rutt’s! Alooooooooha~

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Check out Rutt’s Hawaiian Cafe: ruttshawaiiancafe.com (recently redesigned!)

12114 Washington Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90066

See their Yelp reviews here!