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!

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Farsi Cafe – Westwood, CA

Food Adventures, Los Angeles

Happy 2015, dear readers! We hope one of your New Year resolutions was to keep eating good food because that’s definitely what we plan to do. One distinct advantage of living in Los Angeles is its proximity to ethnic cuisines from around the world. Here on the Westside, we’re just a stone’s throw away from Little Persia – the stretch of Westwood Boulevard that is affectionately known as Tehrangeles for its prominent Iranian immigrant population. Waking up with an inexplicable craving for crispy rice one lazy afternoon, we decided to get lunch at Farsi Cafe.

The first thing I noticed when we walked inside the dining room was that it was set up to primarily accommodate large parties; the two of us settled in at a table meant for four. Throughout our lunch, we understood why — there were families of all sizes coming in through the door to share a leisurely meal.

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Our server brought out a basket of flat bread (lavash) along with the traditional plate of butter and raw onion. (We were perplexed but a quick Google search taught us that the onion is meant to accompany the grilled meats and the butter could be either spread on lavash or melted over rice). He also surprised us with a bowl of mast-o khiar (yogurt and cucumber) compliments of the chef. Similar to Greek tzatziki or Indian raita, this cool refreshing dip was the perfect accompaniment to both the plain flat bread and to the spiced grilled meat I ordered for my entree.

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Speaking of entrees, I selected my usual Persian food go-to — the koobideh (ground beef kabob) with rice. The generous portion came with two skewers and a giant mound of rice topped with a smaller pile of saffron infused rice (my favorite!). The typical garnishes of grilled onion, tomato, and bell pepper added that extra smoky charred flavor. The beef was well seasoned, and did I mention how huge the serving was? I got three meals out of it!

2014-09-28 13.19.34Our journey to Farsi Cafe started with the desire for crispy rice so of course, Martin went with the house special tahchin. Each order is served a “slice” of a large “pie” made of crisped saffron rice and shreds of chicken. The slice is then topped with zereshk (barberries), tart little dried currants that pair excellently with chicken (think turkey and cranberry). I stole more than a few bites of his meal and just could not stop myself. It was so good — the crunchy rice, the spiced chicken, the tart berries!

If you’re trying to choose from the many delicious offerings all along Westwood Boulevard, we suggest coming in to Farsi Cafe to try their tahchin, mast-o khiar, saffron rice, and koobideh. And then wash it all down with Persian ice cream at Saffron & Rose just up the street afterward!

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Check out Farsi Cafe: farsicafela.com

1916 Westwood Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90025

See their Yelp reviews here!

Min Sok Chon – San Diego, CA

Food Adventures, San Diego

What’s the easiest way to feed a ravenously hungry fourteen-person reunion in San Diego? Korean barbecue, of course! According to our local friends, Convoy Street is where all the good Asian food can be found, and this Korean barbecue joint is just one of many great eats in the area. Though Min Sok Chon is not all-you-can-eat, the a la carte orders are large and great for sharing among friends. Bonus – since we were eating an early dinner, we got to take advantage of the Happy Hour pricing on cocktails and soju. Score!

Party Time at Min Sok Chon!

Party Time at Min Sok Chon!

Our party was seated at a long table, so we thought it would be best to pick out a few crowd-pleasing dishes and order a set of everything for each segment of the table. Luckily, I was near the decision-makers so I got to squeeze in a few requests (and luckier still, everyone seemed to enjoy the food). We had barely placed our food order when about half the table got up to order drinks at the bar.

A Glance at the Cocktails List...

A Glance at the Cocktails List…

I spotted a very distinct Shooter on the cocktails menu that I wanted to try — The Hello Kitty. A splash of vodka topped off with watermelon soju, this adorably pink elixir was deceptively potent under its sweet and sour notes. If pink’s not your thing, check out the Scooby Snack or just go for a carafe of flavored soju.

Hello Kitty Shooters

Hello Kitty Shooters

Before long, plate after plate of food started to arrive. First, the kalbi (galbi). Sweet and salty marinated beef short ribs sizzling on a bed of caramelized onions, kalbi has to be my Korean barbecue meat of choice. The thick slices stay juicy and tender while picking up the wonderful smoky charred essence of the grill. So good.

Kalbi - Marinated Short Ribs

Kalbi – Marinated Short Ribs

Next up was a particularly comforting Korean dish — seafood pajyun (also romanized as pajun or pajeon; pancake). A flat disc made of scallions, squid legs, shrimp bits, and other goodies strewn throughout a flour & egg batter and pan-fried till crispy. The server cut it into wedges like a pizza and we all dove in.

Haemul Pajun - Seafood Pancake

Haemul Pajun – Seafood Pancake

Although originally intended as an appetizer, the third item to arrive was the spicy chicken wings, described on the menu as their best selling dish. Crunchy Korean-style fried chicken wings served alongside a sweet, sour, and spicy dipping sauce, these wings reminded me of college days when I would walk down to Westwood and grab a box from BBQ (Best of the Best Quality) Chicken off Le Conte. Yummm….

Spicy Chicken Wings

Spicy Chicken Wings

I have a confession to make. I love noodles. I’ll eat any sort of noodles — ramen, udon, soba, somen, rice noodles, glass noodles, egg noodles, pasta, handmade fresh or dried from a package. Any day of the week. So when I go out for Korean barbecue, the first thing I look for on the menu is japchae. Japchae is one of my all-time favorite Korean dishes. Period. An elegant stir fry made of strips of beef, fine julienne of carrots, long wilted green bits of scallions, sliced white onion and of course, a sweet potato based chewy glass noodle, all tossed in a savory mixture of soy sauce and sesame oil, japchae is a wonderful thing.

Japchae - Stir Fried Glass Noodles with Beef and Vegetables

Japchae – Stir Fried Glass Noodles with Beef and Vegetables

And last but not least, sizzling skillets of bulgogi finally grace our table. Thinly sliced marinated beef also grilled and served on a bed of caramelized onion, bulgogi is not usually my favorite because of its tendency to be overcooked and dry. Not so here at Min Sok Chon. The beef slices were juicy and flavorful and excellent over the complimentary white rice… or to add a bit of extra beefiness to the japchae. (Guilty as charged.)

Bulgogi - Thinly Sliced Marinated Beef

Bulgogi – Thinly Sliced Marinated Beef

Min Sok Chon seemed to attract a younger crowd, and as day grew into night, someone turned up the volume and the jams transitioned to familiar electronic dance music. A huge plus in my book! The service was prompt when we used the call button (standard for Korean dining tables) and we did not feel rushed even though we lingered nursing our drinks and picking at the last bits of each other’s plates of food. Apparently they even have karaoke in private rooms you can book for parties or hanging out with friends. If you’re in the San Diego area and craving some good Korean noms, definitely consider swinging by Min Sok Chon. Geon bae~! (건배)

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Check out Min Sok Chon: mscsd.com

4620 Convoy St
Ste D & E
(between Dagget St & Opportunity Rd)
San Diego, CA 92111

See their Yelp reviews here!

The Tripel – Playa del Rey, CA

Food Adventures, Los Angeles

For our friend E’s birthday, we took him and H out on a double date to The Tripel, a popular gastropub in the heart of Playa del Rey. All four of us are big fans of Top Chef so we were excited to check out Brooke Williamson’s pride and joy so close to home. We ordered nearly 1/3 of the dishes on the menu to share, though admittedly, it was a lot of food for four people, especially paired with beer. Everything arrived as it was ready, so there wasn’t really a rhyme or reason for the sequence of dishes. Rest assured, we happily devoured every single bite, but we did have to (reluctantly) forgo dessert.

Sweet Potato Tots

Sweet Potato Tots

First, the libations: Martin went with the Chimay Grande Réserve (Blue), one of his favorite brews to indulge in on special occasions. E ordered the Black Velvet (stout, cava, and cassis) from the Cocktails menu, and H and I each had the Fox Barrel Pear Cider (my favorite cider, especially on draft). The chalkboard featured over a dozen varieties of brews on draught, something for everyone!

And now for the food…

Sweet Potato Tots

Sweet Potato Tots

Sweet Potato Tots with Horseradish Honey Mustard and Spiced Aioli: crispy, piping hot, sweet and savory, these little orange nuggets were delectable! The sauces were good; I liked the mustard most, as it was tangy and a touch spicy. The spiced aioli reminded me of a chipotle aioli, so fans of that will enjoy it for dipping their tots and frites.

Spicy Coconut & Red Curry Biscuits

Spicy Coconut & Red Curry Biscuits

Spicy Coconut and Red Curry Biscuits — Orange Blossom Honey and Clotted Cream: the dense, scone-like biscuits were perfect for slathering with the refreshingly cooling clotted cream drizzled in sweet fragrant honey. Great flavor combination.

Crispy Pig Ear Salad

Crispy Pig Ear Salad

Crispy Pig Ear Salad — Treviso, Poached Egg, Apricot: this was one of the dishes i was especially looking forward to – a bed of frisée and treviso (a mild radicchio) dressed in a light citrus-y vinaigrette, a beautiful poached egg in the center, and a crown of crispy strips of pig ear on top, this bowl was an impressive presentation. E did the honors of cutting through the egg, letting the yolk ooze over the salad and mellowing out the acidic vinaigrette with its creaminess. All four of us, having grown up eating pig ear (usually braised and sold by the pound in Chinese barbecue places), were excited to see more and more chefs in LA choosing to serve this and other offal in a high-end setting. A must try.

Steamed Mussels & Clams

Steamed Mussels & Clams

Steamed Mussels & Clams — Serrano Pesto Broth, Grilled Bread: we almost skipped this dish with the reasoning that we could get moules frites in just about any reputable gastropub. However, I’m SO glad we went for it because this turned out to be (dare I say it?) my favorite dish of the night. The mussels and clams abounded, always a good sign for one of these dishes, but the highlight was the broth. Oh, the broth. Fragrant with the expected notes of lemon and white wine, packing an incredibly flavorful kick from the serrano pesto. After we had dunked all of our grilled bread to sop up the broth, H and I shamelessly picked up our discarded clam shells and re-purposed them as spoons. No regrets.

Garlic Shoe String Frites

Garlic Shoe String Frites

Garlic Shoe String Frites with Horseradish Honey Mustard and Spiced Aioli: crispy thin frites reminiscent of those at Father’s Office. They were served with the same sauces as the sweet potato tots, and again, I personally preferred the honey mustard.

Squid Ink Spaghetti

Squid Ink Spaghetti

Squid Ink Spaghetti — Ground Shrimp, Lemon, Chili Oil, Herbs, Salmon Roe: another dish I was really looking forward to, especially since the menu description brought back memories of the black pasta aglio olio from The Daily Catch in Boston. The al dente pasta carried the briny, citrus-y flavor of the squid ink well, and I enjoyed the variety of textures that the ground shrimp and ikura offered. The lemon flavor was a tad overwhelming though – I love lemon with seafood, but this pasta tasted like someone squeezed lemon in it, then someone else came along and unknowingly added more lemon, and possibly a third hypothetical person after that. That said, it definitely didn’t stop me (and especially H who adores lemon) from polishing off the whole plate.

Grilled Umami Butter Drenched Quail

Grilled Umami Butter Drenched Quail

Grilled Umami Butter Drenched Quail — Black Figs, Fingerling Potatoes, Sorrel, Chive Blossoms: tender and juicy boneless quail nestled over roasted fingerling potatoes and caramelized figs, this was a bit difficult to share, at first in logistics (though we ended up splitting it into quarters) but then after taking a nibble, I just wanted to claim the entire dish for myself. Umami indeed!

With no reservations and only communal tables, we had quite a wait ahead of us when we arrived on a Sunday night. Thankfully, on busy nights there is a friendly hostess who will take our names and keep track of seating so we aren’t tasked with awkwardly hovering over tables and practicing our Jedi mind tricks to urge diners to leave so we could swoop in. Everything was peachy once we were finally seated and could join in on the joyous merrymaking that seemed to be the theme throughout the venue (always great to dine with happy people). The kitchen paced our dishes well so that nothing grew cold (except maybe the tots and fries but they were perpetual side dishes throughout the meal) and so that our piece of table didn’t get overly crowded. We are already looking forward to a few return visits to try the remaining 2/3 of the menu!

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Check out The Tripel: thetripel.com

333 Culver Blvd
Playa Del Rey, CA 90293

See their Yelp reviews here!

Mae’s Cafe – Garden Grove

Food Adventures, Orange County

Mae’s Cafe… I used to drive past it all the time when I lived in Garden Grove. It’s situated right next to one of the most consistently busy In N Out Burger locations, and you can even see the Mae’s Cafe marquee from the 22 freeway! I was always curious about the unwavering blue and yellow sign and what lay beneath in the ordinary-looking restaurant. My best friend C was in town and wanted to meet up here to catch up over lunch — a divey diner, he called it. Mae’s Cafe is open 24/7 so he had plenty of high school memories of late-night meals with friends; maybe it was where all the cool kids hung out because I had never set foot in there until just last week.

Steak & Eggs at Mae's Cafe

Steak & Eggs at Mae’s Cafe

When we first walked in, well… we were tackled by a bear hug from C. But then we were warmly welcomed by the woman behind the counter; a closer examination of her name tag revealed that she is in fact Mae of Mae’s Cafe! That was a great way to start our experience and I was looking forward to the food to come. I had done my research beforehand (read: looked up the menu online) and I knew I wanted one thing — THE MANLY MEAL. I kid, I kid, although that only $14 for steak, potatoes, AND a choice of pancakes, waffles, or French toast, my wallet was tempted to dive in. Challenge… not accepted.

New York Steak & Eggs with Hash Browns

New York Steak & Eggs with Hash Browns

Instead I went for my all-time favorite diner dish — steak and eggs. Mae’s offers a choice of sirloin, t-bone, New York steak, or porterhouse (or for the strong of heart, country fried), and I opted for the New York steak with my eggs sunny side up and runny. The steak arrived rare to my liking, though this particular cut was a tad chewy. Nothing a dip into luscious egg yolk couldn’t fix! These are all served with your choice of hash browns or lyonnaise (pan fried) potatoes as well as toast, English muffin, or biscuits & gravy. As you can see in the photos above, I went for the hash browns – extra crispy and a beautiful golden brown. Now my readers, I’ll bet you know me well enough by now that you can guess what I ordered for my bread accompaniment….

Biscuits and Gravy

Biscuits and Gravy

Not the prettiest plate in the world, the biscuits were absolutely drenched in a thick, white country-style gravy. The gravy was savory and hearty, but the texture was a bit odd — even visually you can tell it resembled cottage cheese. Still, the fluffy buttermilk biscuits underneath sopped up the all the flavors and were really comforting in a stick-to-your-ribs kind of way.

Breakfast Fajitas

Breakfast Fajitas

C ordered the breakfast fajitas — a hot skillet piled high with strips of steak, ham, onion, and bell peppers, and topped with a dollop of refried beans and mountain of cheesy scrambled eggs. It was a man-sized meal (though not the Manly Meal) served DIY with tortillas and salsa. C said it was difficult to choose between this and the John Wayne’s Favorite, but he seemed to have zero regrets as he dove into this sizzling platter.

Le French Dip

Le French Dip

Martin was in a lunch-y mood and decided to go for Le French Dip. Because adding “le” makes it more French, I guess. The menu described it as “thinly sliced beef on a French roll, served with au jus dipping sauce,” but as we soon discovered, the beef slices were generously thick. They seemed to be a bit dry, so he let them marinate in the piping hot au jus which perked them up and made for a more enjoyable sandwich. The fries sounded crispy as Martin crunched next to me in the booth we shared, never offering me a single fry. :( The sandwich came with a pickle (reasonable) and a carrot stick (odd?).

The conclusion? It was a divey diner as promised. But the staff was no-nonsense yet attentive, the food was decent, the iced coffee was pretty good, and most importantly, it was a great place to share a booth with friends and enjoy a leisurely conversation over breakfast. Or lunch. Or dinner. Or any meal really, since they never close. Definitely better than Denny’s, that’s for sure!

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Check out Mae’s Cafe: maes-cafe.com

9062 Trask Ave
Garden Grove, CA 92844

See their Yelp reviews here!