Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Vietnamese Costco

T & K Food Warehouse stocks every Viet - Chinese food item imaginable inside a ginormous blimp hangar of a building. I ran into many items I've never seen before, and took home a few. I love being baffled by foods I'm completely ignorant of. As with Costco, many items are packed in bulk quantities.

I found the elusive Szechuan peppercorn (labeled as Chinese prickly ash), which has been hard to find since the US Department of Agriculture confiscated much of the wholesale supply several years ago. The medicinal tingle of the numbing spice is legal again in the US, but still hard to find.

$7.99 for a big bag that could numb all the mouths in Sichuan province.

Corn tea. I give it a thumbs-up, too.

Made of toasted corn silk and other medicinal herbs, it tastes toasty and mildy sweet. Who knew? I also took home artichoke tea, and it's good in an herb tea way. Slightly bitter and alkaline, it's one of those "cooling" foods that I should eat to balance my body with, says my ayurvedic counselor.
Both teas available from

Dafuck is this? Anyone? Beuller?

Both Maine and local lobster are available, at least until they sell this one.

T & K Food Warehouse
9681 Bolsa Ave
Westminster, CA

Quan Hy - Westminster

In today's episode, our band of meddling kids explore the mysteries of Hue cuisine at Little Saigon's Quan Hy. Sandra invited friends from the Chowhound board. I loved that nobody cared what was on the menu. We all were in, no matter what showed up on the table. True chowhounds!

The chorus of flavors in Vietnamese cuisine fascinates me. If there's a Vietnamese term for medley of contrasting flavors and textures, I'd like to know. Herbs like ginger and cilantro play off salty, pungent fish sauce laced with palm sugar. Crunchy brown bits of fried shallot versus fresh green onion. Soft, gooey glutinous rice against fried bits of rice cracker. All in one dish. Fascinating, simple, and a lovely principle with which to feed loved ones.

Our waiter did a great job describing dishes we never tried, and suggested a few winners. He steered us away from one of the clam dishes, saying it's a Hue specialty that even some Vietnamese don't like.That's like waving a steak in front of a dog with this group. Yeah, we got it and loved it. He later revealed that he doesn't like this dish.

We started with banh beo, steamed rice cakes with shredded shrimp. Splashed with fish sauce flavored with hot chilis, these were terrific. The rice cake's neutral flavor plays with the slightly sweet fish sauce, the shrimp, and the crunchy fried shallot.

Next up: banh it ram, described inadequately on the menu as "potsticker stuffed with mushroom, and shrimp on crunchy rice cake." It's a clash of textures: a saucer shaped fried rice cake stuffed with shrimp and shrooms, and capped with steamed and pounded sticky rice that I can only describe as mochi's gooey cousin. Garnished with green onion and fried shallot, this was one of my favorite dishes. If you like mochi, definitely get it.

Soups were next: bun bo dac biet cha hue. Special Hue royal noodle soup with pork, beef, and pork patties. Hue style broth is somewhere between the clear beefy flavor of a good pho broth and the funky, fiery, pork-rich cauldron of red chili and lime of a Mexican pozole. This version came with substantially thick, cut pieces of rice noodle, well stewed pieces of pork, beef and pork patty. The pork patty here is like a skinless sausage, mildly flavored and unthreatening. I've had Hue style noodles at Thanh My, and their patty is a square of congealed pork blood. Complex, tart, tangy, herby and spicy.

Banh canh tom cua white noodle soup w/ crab and shrimp. The soup is pure essence of crab, tinted turmeric yellow, and slightly starch thickened. The thickener got in the way of an otherwise lovely soup, filled with thick hand cut noodles, crabmeat and seafood.

Com hen. Stir fried manila clams and vegetables with steamed rice. This is the dish our waiter warned us about. He called it a "jungle style" dish. Well, that's one jungle I'd like to spend more time in. With lots of shredded vegetables and fruit (pineapple!) supporting the steamed shreds of clam, it's practically a salad. It comes with a bowl of hot clam broth, chili paste, julienned ginger, and a pungent shrimp paste. For Viet customers, the kitchen mixes these components together, but they kept it separate for us gringos in case we didn't like any of them.

Anyway, the condiments are combined with the dish, and served with steamed rice. The crisp rice cracker studded with black sesame softens, and adds its character to the dish. Fabulous!

Mi guang. Yellow noodles w/ shrimp, pork, and mixed vegeables. This reminded me of a Thai dish, but with cleaner, more distinct flavors. The individual voices in a Thai dish sometimes get lost in the song. Vietnamese food flavors somehow remain distinct within a multilayered dish. Excellent!

We didn't try desserts from Quan Hy because Sandra brought treats from L.A.'s superchic new patisserie, Boule. Sandra lives practically around the corner from this very high end boutique of pastry. Lucky!

Below are macaroons: lemon, rose, and chocolate. We also tried five chocolate treats. Wasabi flavored chocolate truffles, passsionfruit jellies, caramel filled chocolates with sea salt, and a couple others that I don't remember. The other photos, sadly, didn't come out well.

I stumbled across NorCal based writer Andrea Nguyen's Viet World Kitchen. Check out the Mama Says page for cooking tips from a Vietnamese mom with gems like, "When bringing home your bottle of fish sauce (or any other kind of condiment), avoid laying them down in the bag or in your car. The bottles are seldom packaged with tight seals and can leak."

Quan Hy
10212 Westminster
Westminster, CA


9727 Bolsa Ave
(inside the T & K plaza - see my Vietnamese Costco post)

Goodbye Jerry

Jerry Orbach 1935 - 2004

Jerry Orbach died yesterday of prostate cancer at age 69. He starred as Detective Lennie Briscoe in Law & Order, one of my favorite TV shows. He convincingly played the real New Yorker he actually was. I'm saddened by his loss, even though I only knew him through his body of work.

Peace be with you, Jerry.

Saturday, December 25, 2004

Take a trip back

Our Christmas dinner featured a Honeybaked ham. I have a soft spot for Honeybaked because it takes me back to my college years, when I taught skiing at a local ski resort. The Kreuger family owned Honeybaked at that time, and they brought their kids to ski with us for years.

They'd bring two hams for the ski school every weekend. The day crew got one, and destroyed it before anyone got seconds. I worked on the smaller night crew, and we always had leftovers. We'd come in from a cold night of skiing, and tear into the spice and sugar crusted slices of ham, smeared with the sweet and spicy champagne mustard. Food always tastes better after working hard outside, doesn't it?

There are fancier, "better" hams out there, but none of them evoke memories of a job I loved in my heyday. I thought of friends I haven't seen in 15 years. They might be like me - older, heavier, a little more wrinkled than my memory wants to admit. I'll bet some of them are still ski gods and goddesses, on dodgy knees. Me - I haven't skiied in 6 years. I hope I still can when I go to Park City next month.

Food and holidays unlock powerful memories. Where did your Christmas dinner take you?

Saturday, December 18, 2004

King me!

A friend of mine invited us for live king crab at Irvine's China Garden. It's close to home, and I go there when I want good dim sum without schlepping to the San Gabriel Valley. For the usual Hong Kong style dim sum, it's the best choice in Orange County. We ordered the usual suspects: the very white-peppery hot & sour soup; a couple variations on har gow (steamed dumplings w/ shrimp and greens); a couple potsticker iterations; steamed and baked char siu bao (BBQ pork buns); etc.

Today, we splurged on live king crab and live giant clam, which showed me another side of this restaurant that I'd taken somewhat for granted as my local dim sum joint. Color me spoiled.

The 5+ pound crab was brought to our table for approval, and sent to the kitchen to meet it fate in two ways. The legs were steamed and shocked in ice water. After this, it'll be hard to go back to frozen king crab ever again.

The joints around the body were prepared "house special" style: coated first in cornstarch and fried, then sauteed in a sweet / tart sauce along with green onions and hot peppers. I'm not sure of the Chinese name for this preparation. Westminster's Seafood Cove offers crab, lobster, shrimp, calamari, even mussels in this way, and they're all delicious. I'll have to see if China Garden's menu covers the same items.

Even though we were pretty full, my friend, a known instigator, asked if we should order a live giant clam. I'll pretty much agree to jump off any bridge, so the kitchen prepared it for us in two ways: sashimi style, and sauteed with asparagus. If you order giant clam at a sushi bar, two little pieces will run about $8. We got the whole giant clam prepared two ways for $50. Not a bad deal if you look at it that way, but not cheap. I neglected to photograph the clam dishes. Forgive me.

We saw other tables ordering this thing that resembled a frou frou pot pie, so we jumped off of that bridge too. It turns out to be an almond "souffle," and takes 20 minutes for the kitchen to cook to order. Creamy, mildly sweet almond milk fills the ramekin about halfway, and as it bakes, the steam raises the elastic puff pastry to form the pale golden dome. Inside the almond milk lurked 5 gingko nuts simmered until tender. A pleasant end to a lunch filled with new surprises. I'm looking forward to more new discoveries from China

China Garden
14825 Jeffrey Rd
Irvine, CA

Friday, December 17, 2004

I suck

I apologize for how much I suck. The Quality Seafood outing was over a month ago, and I finally got around to posting it. Will get back to a weekly reporting after the holidays.

Merry Chanukwanzaamas and a Happy New Year, everyone.

Sir, your 15 minutes are up

My little blog got a mention on another blog called The Food today, along with Chowpatty's Eating L.A. and Steve Doggy Dogg's Hot Dog Spot.

Fun, this blogosphere is. Maybe the novelty will wear off someday, but right now I'm enjoying being part of a bigger realm of food geeks.