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.

 

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Thai Boom – Palms, CA

Food Adventures, Los Angeles

Thai Food Friday. One of my and Martin’s favorite food traditions. We try to cook at home as often as we can, but sometimes, after a long week, you just want to unwind and let someone else bring you some hot, delicious, ready-to-eat food. We used to live less than a block away from Thai Boom, a little hole-in-the-wall mom & pop restaurant located right on the busy Venice Boulevard thoroughfare, and luckily, our new place is still within the delivery radius. Thanks to its impressively extensive menu featuring typical Thai dishes (pad thai, pad see ew, rad na, and the like), more traditional Thai dishes (tod mun and fish maw soup, anyone?), and even pan-Asian cuisine such as Vietnamese hainan chicken, Chinese roasted char siu pork, and Japanese gyoza, we frequent Thai Boom so often that all three delivery guys recognize us and we are on first-name basis with the cashiers who take our phone-in orders. We’ll occasionally eat at the restaurant as well, hence the varied backgrounds and lighting for the photos below.

Kra Por Pla (Fish Maw Soup)

Kra Por Pla (Fish Maw Soup)

Martin and I are admittedly creatures of habit; when we find something we like on a menu, we’ll keep ordering it until we get sick of it (if that time ever comes). But even so, over the past three years, we have been able to sample a great variety of dishes. Arguably the most daring is the kra por pla — a thick soup filled with fish maw, crab meat, hard boiled quail eggs, congealed pork blood, and bamboo. Fish maw, a euphemism for the swim bladder, is the offal of the sea. With a soft and airy yet chewy texture, the essentially flavorless collagen takes on the bold flavors of the spicy broth. Another “unusual” ingredient is the congealed pork blood, known as huyết in Vietnamese cuisine, basically a steamed blood cake that resembles tofu or pudding in texture. Altogether perfect for a cold night, but not for the faint of heart.

Fried Tofu

Fried Tofu

Another starter we’ll order on occasion is the fried tofu. Super crispy, golden triangles that are silky smooth on the inside, dipped in a homemade sweet and sour sauce, these are a great splurge – worth every calorie. On other visits, we have also ordered the tod mun (fish cake patties) and som tum (papaya salad). The tod mun are crispy and fragrant with lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves. The som tum can be ordered extra spicy (“Thai spicy”) and arrives with finely julienned green papaya swimming in a fish sauce, chili, and dried shrimp dressing. Two traditional Thai favorites!

Tom Kha Gai with flat rice noodles

Tom Kha Gai with flat rice noodles

I love Thai soups. The trifecta of galangal (similar to ginger in appearance but with a much more potent flavor), kaffir lime leaves, and lemongrass impart their aroma to create a broth unlike any other. Tom yum is a clear broth soup while tom kha gets its opaque creaminess from coconut milk. I make a Vietnamese spin on tom yum (actually tom khlong, which is tamarind-based instead of lime) at home so I like to order tom kha when dining out. Thin slices of chicken breast or cubes of fresh tofu serve as the proteins, and I order my soup with a side of flat rice noodles (the ones used for pad see ew) to add a carb element. This is my go-to dish here!

Pepper Assortment

Pepper Assortment

When we dine at the restaurant, the waitresses are always quick to bring us (well, me) this cute basket featuring pepper in many preparations. I always go straight to the sambal – a paste of ground Thai chilies, garlic, and vinegar.

Tom Yum with Tofu

Tom Yum with Tofu

Luckily I have my own stash of sambal at home, manufactured by the same lovely people who make Huy Fong Foods sriracha. It adds a tangy and spicy kick to the soup, tinting the broth a tinge of red. (In case you noticed, I had leftover vermicelli rice noodles after making spring rolls one night and I poured my tom yum soup over those instead.)

Pad See Ew with Squid

Pad See Ew with Squid

Speaking of flat rice noodles, Thai Boom of course sells one of the most popular dishes — pad see ew, flat rice noodles pan fried with Chinese broccoli (gai lan), egg, and a “brown sauce” (oyster sauce and soy sauce based). All of the noodle dishes including pad thai (which is generous with the fish sauce and not too sweet here) and rad na (basically pad see ew but with a more saucy “gravy”) come with your choice of protein: chicken, beef, pork, tofu (fried or steamed), shrimp, squid, seafood, or vegetables. The sweet and savory noodles and crunchy greens are surprisingly not very greasy for having been pan fried. Martin’s favorite is the fried tofu; when you order it, they always ask if egg is OK as many tofu requests tend to come from vegetarians or vegans. I appreciate that extra bit of consideration.

Hainam Chicken

Hainam Chicken

Martin’s all-time favorite dish from Thai Boom has to be the Hainam chicken, a Southeast Asian specialty that is essentially chicken and rice. The chicken is steeped to create a stock which is then used to cook the rice and to serve as soup to accompany the final product. The chicken meat itself is shredded and piled on over the bed of rice. Sometimes simple is best.

But the sauce...

But the sauce…

But the dipping sauce… oh the dipping sauce. This is what really makes Thai Boom’s hainanese chicken stand out from the rest. Packed with minced garlic, chilies, muddled lime, and I have no idea what else, this sauce adds a huge burst of flavor. We would love to replicate it someday, but the layering of flavors is so complex that the task seems daunting.

Trout Fish

Trout Fish

Once in a while, we dare each other to branch out and order something new. Last night, for example, I opted for the crispy fried fillet of trout, served with a mango salad. Oh. My. Fish. One bite into the crunchy, crumbly fillet and I was immediately transported back to my childhood. You see, at the Asian grocery stores that are very prevalent in Orange County (but sadly absent in West LA), you can pick out a live or fresh-frozen fish and have the crew clean it, gut it, and deep fry it for a few extra bucks. Bring it home, drizzle with nuoc cham, and serve with mounds of steaming hot jasmine rice – I was a happy camper. The edges were especially satisfying to crunch into, and what luck – they left the tail! (When I was a kid, my mom and I would take turns letting each other have that prized piece.) The mango salad was similar to the som tum with the substitution of tart green mango. Marinated in fish sauce and chilies, this was a great punch of acid to cut through the grease of fried fish.

Mango Season!

Mango Season!

If we’re lucky, Thai Boom would have tracked down some extra ripe champagne mangoes, the narrow bright yellow kind. When we eat in the restaurant, we can do a quick recon for them by glancing over at the counter where they are always on display, but when ordering by phone, have no fear! They are brutally honest about the quality of their mangoes; I remember once I asked if they had mangoes in season and the girl replied that yes, they did, but they are not particularly ripe so she would not recommend it. I’m still thankful for her saving me from the disappointment.

Sticky Rice & Mango

Sticky Rice & Mango

But sometimes, luck is on our side and we get to finish our meal with one of these – a plate of coconut milk infused sticky rice, fresh slices of mango, and extra coconut milk for drizzling. And when the mangoes are just right, they are as sweet as candy. So good!

So if you’re in the mood for Thai food, or if you are feeling too lazy to cook and happen to live within a few miles of Venice and Overland (in which case, howdy neighbor!), be sure to check out Thai Boom. There’s something for everyone!

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Check out Thai Boom: thaiboomla.com

10863 Venice Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90034

See their Yelp reviews here!

Sushi Central – Palms, CA

Food Adventures, Los Angeles

Perhaps the best hole-in-the-wall discoveries are the ones that are right under your nose. Sometimes you acknowledge its existence and brush it off, most days you go on with your life without giving it a second glance or thought. ‘Twas the case with Sushi Central, a quaint little sushi place situated in the corner of a strip mall that includes a great doughnut shop (DH Doughnut House) and other businesses. Located at the corner of Overland and Palms, I literally pass by this strip mall every morning on my way to the 10 fwy to get to work. But fate finally brought me and my dear friend S here one unassuming Monday night.

Stumbling into the quiet restaurant, we requested seats at the counter and were the only pair occupying the limited bar seating. The best seats in the house when it comes to sushi, if you ask me. A quick glance at the menu full of rolls and I proposed to S that we do omakase for dinner. Omakase is frequently translated on sushi bar menus as “Chef’s Choice”. I think the subtleties go beyond that a bit. Omakase means to “entrust” the chef, to put yourself (and your dinner) in his capable hands. Lucky for us, that night those hands belonged to the renowned chef-owner Phillip.

Kurodai (left) and Halibut (right)

Round 1: Kurodai (black sea bream) from Greece and halibut. The kurodai was really tender and the halibut, which I had never tried raw before, was deliciously sweet.

Surprise shooter – amaebi brain and liver

Round 2: The brain and liver of amaebi (sweet shrimp), served as a shooter with some masago (?). All in one go, it was really creamy and fishy (in a good way).

Amaebi

Round 3: Amaebi (sweet shrimp). The amaebi was sweet, of course, and also HUGE in size – much larger than other sweet shrimp I’ve had. This one was about the size of my thumb whereas other places have ones barely the size of my pinky.

Amaebi Broth

Round 4: A miso broth made with amaebi body/shell – flavorful and so fragrant, and I really appreciated the use of the whole shrimp.

Kohada

Round 5: Kohada, whose very un-sexy English name is the gizzard shad. It’s a small fishy fish, similar to mackerel, with a great slightly firm texture that was served at the perfect warm temperature.

Amaebi Heads

Round 6: Amaebi heads, fried tempura-style. Crispy crispy! It’s always my favorite part of eating amaebi. I can’t even begin to describe to you how disappointed I get at places that serve only the amaebi itself and discard the heads.

Aji

Round 7: Aji (Spanish mackerel). As expected, it was tender and fishy and just so good.

Sake Hara

Round 8: Sake hara, also known as salmon toro (belly). Easily my favorite cut of any fish, the salmon belly is succulent, sweet, and so buttery that you can see the fat glistening as the fish warms up to room temperature. Awesome.

Seared Ono

Round 9: Ono (escolar) – seared. I had heard that Sushi Central was known for sourcing some great ono and it was SO GOOD. A bit of char flavor from the sear and a very interesting texture. Note: escolar (a whitefish) is not to be confused with escarole (the leafy green). This made for some interesting conversation between me and S.

Uni and Blue Crab

Round 10: Uni (sea urchin) and blue crab. We followed Chef Phillip’s advice to “always finish with uni,” so we started with the blue crab first. The blue crab was warm and delicious, a pleasant surprise over other blue crab sushi I’ve had where the crab is ice cold from having been sitting in the refrigerator all night. The uni was brushed with house soy sauce (which, to me, tasted like a sweet ponzu with yuzu) which had a bit of acidity to help to cut the creaminess. Yum!

Tempura ice cream

Having overheard that we were celebrating S’s birthday, Chef Phillip offered us an order of green tea tempura ice cream. He and our friendly server Mika even sang and presented the ice cream with a lit candle. So good! My guilty pleasure is deep-fried ice cream but the one here was superb. Instead of panko, they used tempura crumbles to make it extra crispy. I also discovered my new favorite thing: tempura crumbles with chocolate syrup. Do it.

While we were enjoying the unexpected dessert, Chef Phillip apparently had another scheme up his sleeve. We were about to bid our adieu when he told us we couldn’t leave. He had just sent a regular patron over to the 7-Eleven to pick up Asahi to celebrate! I seriously thought he was kidding but in walked someone with 2 giant cans of Asahi. Kanpai!

Ankimo

Last Round: Ankimo (monkfish liver). I was just telling S about this earlier during the meal, and he surprised us with a complimentary order! Mm.. I love monkfish liver. It’s so buttery and livery and fishy. I’ve heard people call it the “foie gras of the sea”, so I found it especially amusing that he rolls it into a torchon-like roll when preparing it. Yum!

We set our budget for omakase at $40/person. Despite breaking my personal rule of not eating sushi on Mondays, Chef Phillip reassured me that they still get shipments of fresh fish from Japan but they get better selections later in the week. Perhaps what made me enjoy the experience even more is that he serves what he likes and what he himself would enjoy, rather than catering to audiences.

S was amazed and proclaimed this to be the best birthday dinner ever! She told me that she counted literally 3 items that she had eaten before and everything else was new and absolutely delicious. Now that’s a pretty great endorsement!

Also, they’re BYOB. Chef Phillip made some awesome recommendations for an affordable, floral sake (kikusui) and suggested that we bring in some junmai ginjo sake next time as nigori is a little too sweet for sushi.

It truly was an amazing dinner experience. Chef Phillip really went above and beyond to make sure we had a great time. He is so passionate about sushi and it really showed in the way his eyes gleamed as he talked to us. On multiple occasions I overheard him greeting regular patrons by name, and I noticed during the meal that he was genuinely interested in getting to know us. This is definitely the kind of place I want to frequent. My only regret is having waited so long to stop by (I’ve lived less than 2 blocks away for over 2 years now!). Don’t make the same mistake I did — check them out the next time you’re in Palms!

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Check out Sushi Central: sushi-central.net

3500 Overland Ave #100
Los Angeles, CA 90034
Neighborhood: Palms

See their Yelp reviews here!

‘Tis the Season at Trader Joe’s

Food Life

It’s that time of year, when stores pack away the Halloween orange and black goodies and start setting out the winter holiday wares. Snowflakes, snowmen, Santa Clauses galore. What I had hoped to be a quick trip to Trader Joe’s to pick up some ginger chews turned out to be an exciting kid-in-a-candy-store feeling with all of the holiday items back on the shelves.

My spoils of war after battling the after-work crowd at Trader Joes!

My favorite by far: Dark Chocolate Stars. Shortbread cookies dipped in dark chocolate and covered with white sprinkles. Think of those pink and white frosted Circus Animal cookies from your childhood… this is the grown-up version. I probably go through 3 or 4 boxes before the end of the season. (I daresay, I get even more excited about these than Girl Scout cookies!) A one-pound box sells for only $4.99!

I hear they also make great cupcake/cake decorations!

I also picked up a remnant of fall before they all get shoved aside to make room for winter: Pumpkin Butter. It comes in an adorable little jar and has the texture of a marmalade. Delicious on English muffins and all sorts of creative ideas listed on the jar such as “…pastry filling, poultry glaze, ice cream topping, on toast or mixed with fat free cream cheese for a unique spread.” $2.99 for a 10 oz jar.

I once had a teacher who loved the expression “the best thing since apple butter”. I think he’d approve if I substituted this pumpkin butter instead. :)

What I found out from my friendly cashier Colleen was that Whole Grain Rye Mini Toasts are also on the holiday list! She likes them on their own, but when I saw them, I immediately thought of making my own Chex Mix the way it should be – none of those darn pretzels or bread sticks that end up abandoned at the bottom of the bag. Just lots of rye chips and cereal, with extra zesty seasoning. Recipe to come! I’ll be stocking up on these before the season ends. $1.99 for a 6 oz bag.

You’re my favorite part of Chex Mix, but shh.. don’t tell the cereal!

Another winter staple is Peppermint Bark! Martin and I have a fondness for the squares from Ghiradelli, which don’t really resemble peppermint bark very much at all but are delicious nonetheless. I thought it would be a nice treat to welcome the dreary winter season with some festive peppermint bark in an adorable metal tin. The tin holds one pound of peppermint bark and goes for $9.99.

What an adorable little tin!

The last item I bought, ginger chews aside, was a Milk Chocolate Orange. Yes, my friends, those interactive spheres of chocolate that you WHACK against a hard surface to break into orange-like sections. Trader Joe’s has their own and we are very excited to try them! And at $2.49 apiece, it’s a steal!

Can’t wait to take this out of the wrapper and *whack*!

There are lots of other winter treats on the shelves this year as well. Even more than previous years, it seems to me. And of course since it’s Trader Joe’s, everything is very affordable and many of the items are organic. (I noticed on the label for the rye chips that they’re Kosher!) With shelves stocked full of gift boxes of truffles, peppermint coated pretzels, candy cane cookies, sparkling ciders in many flavors… ’tis the season!

Tara’s Himalayan (updated with photos)

Food Adventures, Los Angeles

We recently had the pleasure of finally stopping by a quaint little hole-in-the-wall restaurant just a stone’s throw away from our apartment – Tara’s Himalayan Cuisine on Venice.

When we first walked in, it felt like we had been transported to someone’s grandmother’s house in Nepal. The decor was warm and inviting with many paintings and traditional-looking textiles. As soon as we were seated, we were greeted by a friendly server who warned us we would have to wait for the chai tea. He was only gone for a minute or two and returned with two steaming hot mugs, the aroma of cinnamon and cardamom wafting in his wake. A small packet of Sugar in the Raw stirred into each and we were in chai heaven. Shortly after, a basket of fresh crispy papadum and a yummy chutney (was it tomato?) arrived at our table. It was deliciously seasoned and had a wonderfully crunchy texture. Just from the “table bread” and drinks, we knew were in for a treat!

For our entrees, I picked the bheda ko tarkari (from the website: “Boneless fresh lamb curry prepared with tomatoes, garlic, ginger, onions, and Himalayan spices”) and Martin selected the lamb vindaloo (“Boneless lamb curry served with potatoes and mountain grown herbs and spices”). The curries come with a little terrine of white rice (and more if you ask for it!) but I also added an order of garlic naan. The lamb in both dishes was tender and included some bits of fat and cartilage, which I personally LOVE. My bheda ko tarkari was full of spices and flavor but not particularly spicy, whereas Martin’s vindaloo had a great freshness from all the vegetables and had a little kick to it. We were pretty amazed that the two lamb curries complemented each other quite well; neither were heavy but they definitely had that stick-to-your-ribs comfort food sort of quality. But the naan… oh the naan! Tara’s is definitely not afraid to go all the way with the garlic on their garlic naan. I just had to order a second helping. The naan here is thinner and less fluffy than other places but it’s also much more crispy and it arrives piping hot fresh from the tandoori. Martin enjoyed the rice, commenting that the slight dryness of the basmati allowed it to soak up the curry really well. We concluded that this would become part of our regular dinner rotation.

Just when we thought our dinner couldn’t get better, Tara herself stopped by our table and asked us how everything was. She was very amiable and while I didn’t recognize her initially, Martin correctly guessed that she had to be the Tara. She shared with us her secret recipe for the chai tea we loved so much, one of many recipes in her restaurant that she learned from her own grandmother when living in the mountains in Nepal. It was traditionally brewed with yak’s milk and served unsweetened as sugar was scarce. (Recipe to come.)

Be sure to stop by her restaurant – not only is the food amazing, but 10% of all profits goes directly to supporting children’s education in Nepal! What a delicious way to support such a worthy cause! Tell her Martin & Alice sent you :)

(originally published 9/5/11)

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Update 11/1/11:

A few weeks ago we took my parents here for dinner and were able to try a great variety of dishes, all of which were scrumptious! As soon as we walked through the door (and on subsequent visits when it’s just me and Martin), we are greeted by Neel, the friendly server referenced above. The rule of thumb here is to order one dish/curry per person and share family-style.

Our delicious dinner!

We settled on the tandoori chicken, bhedo ko tarkari (my favorite lamb dish on their menu!), salmon machha ko masu, and their signature dish — yak chili. The first to come out was the tandoori chicken, making its grand arrival on a hot, sizzling cast iron plate.

Hot and sizzling tandoori chicken (pardon the blurriness)

I was already a big fan of the bheda ko tarkari, but the yak chili hit the spot with its chewy jerky-like texture and chili oil sauce. However, the most pleasant surprise of the night was the salmon dish. I think that’s become Martin’s new favorite.

Of course, the meal would not be complete without my absolute favorite component of an Indian (well, in this case Himalayan) meal: garlic naan.

A particularly photogenic basket of garlic naan!

All in all, my parents had a great time experiencing a new cuisine. And with its comforting decor, pleasant service, and delicious food, Tara’s has become a winter staple for me and Martin. :)

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Check out Tara’s Himalayan Cuisine: www.tarashimalayancuisine.com

10855 Venice Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90034

See their Yelp reviews here.

They are open 7 days/week. Mon-Thurs and Sunday from 12-10pm and Fridays & Saturdays from 12-11pm.