Porky Pig: Return to Ramen Fujisan (San Gabriel, CA)—CLOSED


At the spur of the moment, my daughter asked if we wanted to go out and have ramen for lunch. Sounded like a good idea. Since she’d never been to Ramen Fujisan, that’s where five of us headed. Located along Valley Blvd in San Gabriel where there are more strip malls than you can shake a stick at (and therefore lots of places to eat), Fujisan is the rare ramen restaurant. I’d been there once before and liked their tonkotsu ramen.

This time around, I decided to have the “strong” broth (I chose the “medium” before). Ever on the lookout for truly porky tonkotsu broth—and being frequently disappointed—I was truly pleasantly surprised. The first few sips is like tasting the essence of porky pig, almost gamey in its funkiness. But as my taste buds adjusted, i realized how much I was enjoying it. I also realized that other versions I’ve had were pretenders, either watered down for American tastes or not done properly. Combined with perfectly cooked firm noodles (and here you can order them “hard,” “regular” or “soft”), this may be the best tonkotsu ramen I’ve had the pleasure of eating. The pork belly (you can also ask for pork loin) slice, shredded tree ears, green onions and a single toasted nori square were fine enough, but secondary to the two main stars. An egg, which can only be ordered at extra cost, was the lone underachiever, having been sliced in half and therefore the yolk congealed from the hot broth. A wonderful ramen otherwise (☆☆☆½).

Tonkotsu ramen

Tonkotsu ramen

The option to specify the spiciness level has gone by the wayside, replaced by a single add-on choice called “spicy miso.” You used to be able to pick on a scale between “none” to “extra spicy.” Also gone is the macho challenge called Eruption of Mt Fuji in which the goal is to finish a ramen bowl at the spiciest level in 20 minutes, either costing you $30 if you failed or getting your tab picked up the restaurant plus a $10 restaurant certificate if you won. Winners had their photographs posted on the bulletin board. But this game has been replaced by another. If you finish a large bowl of Mt Fuji Ramen, equivalent in volume to 4-5 regular bowls, within 20 minutes, you get the same reward or penalty as before. Once you win, you can’t challenge again. Of course, you can lose $30 a pop as many times as you want.

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Ramen Fujisan (**CLOSED**)
529 E Valley Blvd, Ste 138-B
San Gabriel, CA 91776
626.288.1774

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Food Truck Phenomenon: Kogi BBQ


What does a whip-smart, street-wise, Culinary Institute of America Korean-American valedictorian do for an encore? Why, start the most talked-about food truck in America, of course. Roy Choi, head chef of the Kogi BBQ food truck empire, has earned some high-cred awards, including from Bon Appetit and Food & Wine magazines. Choi considers himself an LA son, which happens to be the name of his recently released autobiography (and which I am currently reading), even though he was born in Korea. He grew up in the Southland. The story of his life is fascinating stuff, having spent much of his childhood as a latchkey kid, and consequently lived a relatively independent life on the streets of LA and Orange County.

His love of food can be traced to his parents’ restaurant business and, in particular, his mother’s culinary skills. Because Choi grew up in Southern California, he became exposed to all sorts of ethnic food. Far from ignoring the food he grew up with, he revels in it as any chapter of his book will clearly show. Even as he went on to get professional training at the CIA and practiced his trade at big-time restaurants across the country, he ultimately decided to return to his hometown. With some business partners, Choi went on in 2009 to establish his now-famous taco trucks, featuring fusion cuisine, Mexican in concept but with definite Korean flourishes that mark the offerings as unique contributions to the LA eating scene.

Five trucks serve the entire Southland. Kogi BBQ’s website informs where each one will be on a particular day. It just so happened that one would be in Alhambra, 6-9pm, in front of Goudy Honda. I felt it my duty to check things out. When others in the family learned of my plans, they put in their orders.

By the time I got to the truck at 6:30, there was already a line of customers. Still, it didn’t take long to complete my order and return to the house.

The defining food item that catapulted Kogi to fame is the Korean taco. There are four popular fillings (short rib, spicy pork, chicken and tofu). One costs $2.29. The short rib taco was everyone’s choice (usually but not always, the first option in a non-alphabetical list is a restaurant’s “best”). Tender pieces of short rib were nestled in double soft corn tortillas, mixed with a red salsa, and topped with a relish of onion, cilantro and lime, and dressed shredded napa cabbage. The dual Mexican and Korean influences were nicely balanced, a pretty good taco (☆☆☆).

Short rib tacos

Short rib tacos

Also popular are Kogi’s sliders, basically the same filling as the taco but with the addition of sesame mayo and cheese and also a bit more heat. The buns reminded everyone of Hawaiian sweet bread but somewhat denser, overall a tasty but somewhat bready item (☆☆½).

Short rib sliders

Short rib sliders

The Kogi Dog uses an all-beef Hebrew National wiener and essentially the same toppings as the slider. The quantity of slaw gives the dog a “healthier” impression, but in the end, it was not a wholly satisfactory dog, marred by saltiness (☆☆½). It’s probably because I prefer simpler dogs.

What started out as a “special” became so popular that Kogi now offers it on the regular menu. Constituting a fifth taco, their calamari taco featured perfectly cooked squid rings with flavors of lemon and ginger, and topped with a pretty assertive salsa. The salsa itself was unusually complex with flavors of chili sauce, oranges, lots of garlic and herbs. I have to admit that this taco intrigued me, despite its sauciness, unique with Mexican and Asian flavors, exactly what Roy Choi was aiming for (☆☆☆).

Kogi dog and calamari taco

Kogi dog and calamari taco

While nothing bowled me over, I have to hand it to Roy Choi for redefining how interesting fusion cooking can be, especially combining the two bold flavors of Mexico and Korea. One of the things I didn’t care for particularly was a sweetened mayonnaise that seems to be making appearances not only at Kogi but kaiten sushi shops. Still, the palette is wide open in LA, one of the great melting pots of America. Just reading Choi’s autobiography convinces the reader how much he was taken by all the ethnic food he ate there.

Making of the New Year Tamales


For osechi-ryori, many Japanese American families living in the eastern part of the Los Angeles area have adopted the making of tamales. My wife’s family is no exception, having lived in Lincoln Heights, an Hispanic enclave, for a long time before moving to the San Gabriel Valley. For a festival whose food has long ago shrugged off its symbolic significance, it is more about gathering family together on New Year’s Day and enjoying the food, including non-traditional dishes that are more culinarily relevant today.

The making of tamales has been a family affair involving many hands. It takes time and effort to make the ingredients, spread the masa, lay the fillings, wrap and steam almost a hundred tamales. My wife’s youngest sister has taken the responsibility of coordinating the event. She makes the fillings and brings over all the ingredients and prepares for both meat-filled and vegetarian versions.

Her tasty beef filling is one we all love. It’s made by simmering a beef chuck roast (or another cut) in enchilada sauce, Herdez salsa casera and El Pato salsa de jalapeño until the meat is fork-tender. After it’s done, it glistens in a thick, spicy, almost iridescent dark red sauce.

To commercially prepared masa dough, she adds garlic powder, garlic salt, dried oregano and ground cumin.

There is no single template for the tamales. They are pretty much happenings, the assemblers creating whatever strikes their fancy. This is part of the fun. The entire process takes several hours to complete. The following pictures speak for themselves.

Masa dough, roasted corn, black beans, olives, roasted chiles, corn husks

Masa dough, roasted corn, black beans, olives, roasted chiles, corn husks

Spreading the masa

Adding the fillings

Adding the fillings

Tamale with pork

Tamale with pork

Tying the husk (this step identifies tamales for the vegetarians)

Tying the husk (this step identifies the vegetarian tamales)

Ready to steam

Ready to steam

Steaming the tamales

Steaming the tamales

A little spirit to urge the troops on.

Lychee martini

Lychee martini

Pastrami Dip Sandwich at The Hat (Alhambra, CA)


At the risk of repeating my previous post’s circumstances, I can’t recall how many times I’d driven past The Hat in Alhambra (California) and not stopped. Though I live in Seattle, my in-laws live in the restaurant mecca of the San Gabriel Valley. As if by self-proclamation, “World Famous Pastrami” plastered on signage dares you to pull into the parking lot. This location of The Hat has been there since 1951, which by itself should’ve provided incentive enough (if not curiosity) for me. Still, it wasn’t until my friend KirkJ enthused over the sandwich he and his wife had at another location in Southern California that I finally decided to sample the sandwich.

Both Johnnie’s and The Hat are fast-food restaurants, not delis. More than that, theirs are pastrami dip sandwiches in which the bread is moistened with the meat’s steaming juices, a style endemic to Southern California. Rather than pastrami slices being served on rye bread, French rolls are used, being closer in concept to a roast beef sandwich au jus. (To be fair, Johnnie’s and The Hat do have a pastrami sandwich on rye, but their fame rests with dips.) It may be that rolls are better able to withstand dipping without disintegrating, but this is my own guess. The real reason may very well be more historical than practical. The other important distinguishing characteristic is that the meat is mechanically sliced very thinly, about 116“. Many a great pastrami restaurant pride themselves on hand slicing. Purists may balk at the likes of The Hat for being nothing like what is traditional on the East Coast (most famously the Jewish delis of New York City), citing the “classic” pastrami sandwich at Langer’s Deli on Alvarado in L.A., served with cole slaw and rye bread, as being more authentic. I’ve enjoyed the mountainous version at Manhattan’s Carnegie Deli, fully six inches high, served between excellent rye bread with a wonderful crust—and their complimentary pickles at every table were fantastic.

When I arrived at The Hat today at lunchtime, the parking lot was packed with cars. Lots of customers were eating outside on picnic-style tables in the back, covered by an awning, and more standing in front. Even so, I was able to walk right up and place my order, within five minutes ready to be picked up. There was a generous amount of meat between a split French roll, the bottom half spread with yellow mustard and thin pickles (☆☆☆). This presentation is different from Johnnie’s where mustard and pickles are served on the side. The pastrami at both is comparable, tasting of spices and herbs, salty and peppery, garlicky, glistening with brisket fat, and above all, delicious.

Pastrami dip sandwich

Pastrami dip sandwich

Johnnie's pastrami dip sandwich

Johnnie’s pastrami dip sandwich (2009)

My preference is Johnnie’s (☆☆☆½), not only because of the tastier jus but the fact that mustard (which is spicy) and pickles are served separately and The Hat’s roll seems drier. Someone on Chowhound rued that in the 1980s, the bread was lamentably changed from a crusty outside and soft inside, to today’s style. Two of my wife’s sisters said flatly that they also preferred Johnnie’s. Still, the Hat’s version is no slouch. If you want a wetter sandwich, order it double-dipped. Each has its fierce defenders and many traditionalists decry both. A lot may boil down to whether you like your pastrami sandwich wet or dry. At present, the sandwich at The Hat is $7.99, Johnnie’s is $10.95 (cheese extra).

Update (1-3-15): Not wanting to pass final judgment on The Hat, I didn’t let the opportunity go by of ordering pastrami double-dipped today. As I suspected, this was much more to my liking, dry bread no longer a barrier to the sandwich’s full enjoyment. In fact, the bread was too wet, the result of the extra juices and steaming in the wrapper on the way back to the house. In spite of tackling a big, sloppy sandwich, this is fully the equal of Johnnie’s, a great Southern California-style pastrami sandwich (☆☆☆½).

IMG_0271

Double-dipped pastrami sandwich

Update (10-15-18): The only thing that’s changed since the last time is the wrapper, now customized with repeating patterns of The Hat’s logo. Otherwise, it’s the same great, generous, messy pastrami sandwich, double-dipped, which is now $9.99.

The Hat
1 West Valley Blvd
Alhambra, CA 91801
626.282.0140

Tacos at El Maestro del Taco


I’ve driven past the corner of NE 8th and 156th Ave NE many times in the last year or so and couldn’t help but notice a new taco truck parked behind the 76 Station. The reviewers on Yelp, though small in number, were almost unanimous in their praise, a few of them even going so far as to admitting having pined away when the truck apparently disappeared for a few months last spring. To their delight, it has returned. Why I’ve never stopped to try it until now, I haven’t a clue. Maybe it’s because I was on my way somewhere, like shopping at the Crossroads mall across the street or going to the movies. But, today I was at the post office at lunch time and made a decision to stop at El Maestro del Taco, only a half block away.

Taco fillings include lengua, cabeza, beef cheeks, adobada, asada and carnitas. At $2 each, they’re quite a steal. Each one is sprinkled with minced onion and cilantro and sliced radish. A lime quarter is also included. Zestiest of them all, pork adobada revealed its red chile, herb, spice and vinegar marinade, one of the best versions I’ve had locally (☆☆☆½). The carnitas were braised in a hugely flavorful liquid. The taco had some of the simmered onions and intensely flavorful pork shreds still clinging onto its lardy drippings, my wife’s favorite of the three (☆☆☆½). For my money, the asada taco (☆☆☆☆) was my favorite, the best I’ve had in a very long time since the majestic ones at a Walla Walla Mexican restaurant (Taqueria Yungapeti). Not only were they richly seasoned and beefy in flavor, they were tender, a far cry from many a gristly example I’ve eaten. In fact, all the meats were tender and had no obvious imperfections.

Tacos (left to right: adobada, carnitas, asada)

Tacos (left to right: adobada, carnitas, asada)

Also appearing in my order was a grilled long green chile, I’m guessing a chilaca (pasilla), which packed so much heat that I couldn’t finish it. A small tub of tomatillo salsa was also included, stiffened with a good dose of spicy green chile.

The truck’s name might sound a bit like self-promotion and grandiloquence, but the results speak for themselves. This is the best taco truck I’ve found thus far in the Seattle area, though it’s certain there are other fine purveyors in the many parking lots of Seattle and surroundings. The fact that El Maestro is relatively close to me in Bellevue is all the incentive I need to be a frequent customer. I surely hope they don’t do a disappearing act anytime soon. And the price can’t be beat.

El Maestro del Taco
15615 NE 8th St
Bellevue, WA 98008

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Birthday Dinner at Monsoon East


Celebrating our birthdays at Monsoon East may be becoming a tradition. Granted, two years in a row hardly qualifies as an annual observance, but truthfully we couldn’t think of any better special place to be that was within a short driving distance of home. Along the two-block distance on Main Street in Old Bellevue can be found a surprising number of good places to eat, which include not only Monsoon East but La Cocina del Puerco, Belle Pastry, Ginza, Bis on Main and Cantinetta, the last to which we’ve never been.

First came the small plates. Dungeness Crab Rolls delighted us with their crispiness (deep-fried and sliced diagonally) and filling of crab, shrimp and rice vermicelli. These chả giò were delicious by themselves, even without nuoc cham. You could choose to wrap these in green-leaf lettuce leaves, garnished with extra rice noodles and Thai basil, before dipping. A tad greasy, the fried rolls were extraordinarily good (☆☆☆½).

Crispy Dungeness Crab Rolls

Crispy Dungeness Crab Rolls

Remembering how good it was last year, we requested Claypot Manila Clams again. To be sure, the clams were tender, but the sauce was an absolute killer, da bomb. Made from tomato purée and other secret ingredients, it was thick, bright, savory, buttery and a little spicy from sliced jalapeños. Even after polishing off roughly a dozen small clams and using their shells to scoop up the broth, there still was more sauce left behind. It would have been a crime against nature to let this go to waste without slathering it on rice, so we declined the waiter’s offer to remove the vessel. This is an astonishingly good entrée (☆☆☆☆), one we’re likely to order time and again.

Clay Pot Manila Clams

Clay Pot Manila Clams

Next came the rest of the meal. There was the steamed jasmine rice, of course, to mate with the clam sauce. Mustard greens are not normally associated in the West with Vietnamese cuisine, but  Chinese mustard greens are very popular in Asia. At Monsoon, they’re sautéed with roasted shiitake mushrooms and slivers of ginger in a savory sauce (☆☆☆).

Mustard Greens and Roasted Shiitake Mushrooms

Mustard Greens and Roasted Shiitake Mushrooms

Veal Luc Lac is a variation of the more common bo luc lac which is prepared by searing marinated beef cubes in a pan and shaking the pan (luc lac) back and forth until done. One could not ask for more tender meat than Monsoon’s veal version, tasting of oyster sauce, fish sauce and garlic. The red onions were nearly caramelized to heighten their sweetness. The whole dish is seasoned with coarsely ground black pepper that added pungency and floral taste. A small dish of a bracing dipping sauce made with lime juice, kosher salt and pepper sealed the deal on yet another outstanding though pricey dish (☆☆☆☆), accompanied by a salad of watercress and cherry tomatoes, dressed in a refreshing lime vinaigrette.

Luc Lac Veal with Seasonal Greens

Luc Lac Veal with Seasonal Greens

We’ve come to regard Monsoon East as one of the best Asian restaurants on the Eastside. At their upscale prices, it is not a place we’d go to often or on the spur of the moment, but certainly when our birthdays roll around again next December, we’d be hard pressed to think of a better place.

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Monsoon East
10245 Main St.
Bellevue, WA 98004
425.635.1112

Dinner at Loulay Kitchen & Bar


Despite the fact that I was under the weather, three of us ventured out to have dinner and attend a one-night performance of Stuart McLean’s Vinyl Cafe at The Paramount. Our choice for a restaurant was Thierry Rautureau’s new dining venture, Loulay Kitchen & Bar, which opened months after his closing of the legendary Rover’s in Madison Park. Located adjacent to the Sheraton in downtown Seattle, formerly occupied by Alvin Goldfarb Jewelers, Loulay serves the kind of food that the famed chef grew up with in the commune (the administrative designation given to a French township) of Saint-Hilaire-de-Loulay in western France. The evening didn’t start off well with the worst downtown traffic I could remember encountering in a very long time, causing us to miss our reservation time by about 15 minutes. If it weren’t for the Sheraton’s valet parking (Loulay gives you a $10 credit toward the first three hours), we would have been even later. Once we were seated, I began to unwind. Our waiter, Thomas, handed us our menus and asked if we wanted wine.

“Yes,” I said. “But we only want individual glasses since we have to make a concert shortly.”

“We’ll get you out of here, don’t worry,” Thomas assured us. “Red or white?”

“I’d like a red.”

“I don’t want any wine,” said my daughter, who was recovering from a bad cold. “It’ll make me cough.”

Thomas looked puzzled for a moment, trying to hear above the rising restaurant noise. “I’m sorry, what did you say?”

“Wine will make me cough.”

“Oh, I thought you said it would make you talk. I would’ve bought you a glass myself,” Thomas smiled.

So began our very nice meal, hurried somewhat by our compressed time schedule before The Paramount. The interior is very sleek, clean and modern yet casual, a far cry from the linen and “private home” formality of Rover’s. The emphasis is on shared plates, offered in categories of small, medium and large. We were seated in the more intimate section of the main floor, separated from the open dining area by a half wall. Each booth along this stretch had comfortable seating for four. Besides the main floor, the restaurant also gives the diner a choice of sitting at the Chef’s Counter, the 24-seat bar, a mezzanine area or the balcony.

My wife and I opted for a half carafe of house red wine (☆☆☆½), a sangiovese-merlot blend produced by Piccola, a winery in nearby Woodinville. It was clearly the best house wine we can remember ever having had.

The kitchen brought us our complimentary basket of bread (wonderful) and amuse-bouche, a small glass of cold vichyssoise (☆☆☆).

Our house salad was a fine combination of red oak leaf lettuce, endive and chevre cheese, dressed with a tart huckleberry vinaigrette (☆☆☆).

Five sliders of duck confit (☆☆☆½), sandwiched between profiteroles no more than 1½ inches in diameter, packed a lot of flavor in bites so small, unapologetically unctuous from duck fat. Delicacy and knife aside, I popped one into my mouth and savored it. The other small plate we ordered were crab beignets (☆☆½), fritters of Dungeness crab, served with harissa aioli and dressed sprouts. These somewhat lacked the inspiration we were expecting.

Crab beignets and duck confit sliders

Crab beignets and duck confit sliders

My favorite were the clams (☆☆☆½), a medium-sized plate. The broth was infused with saffron, butter, and fennel, the clams partnered with chunks of tasty, mild chorizo. While the grilled bread slices were tasty enough on their own, for sopping up the skimpy but divine broth, the complimentary bread was far better.

Clams with saffron, fennel and chorizo

Clams with saffron, fennel and chorizo

Our large plate was a Pacific cod poached in a miso broth (☆☆½), then roasted to crispy-skin stage, and served with what on menu was described as a celery root purée but was more like sautéed celery root paysanne.

Pacific cod

Pacific cod

Time prevented us from sharing a dessert.

Our family will miss Rover’s. We’d gone there on special occasions, and everyone marveled at how delicious everything was and how fastidiously the dishes were prepared. But, it was expensive, which is the reason why we went only when some occasion was being celebrated. Rather than the public’s shifting dining priorities as a result of the recent economic meltdown, it was the fact that Chef Rautureau wanted to do something new, a concept as simple as serving well prepared, simple food in the spirit of what he grew up with, using fresh Northwest ingredients. He also moved away from Madison Park, a quiet neighborhood of expensive homes (though his other restaurant Luc still operates there), into a space in the downtown core. With these changes in venue and pricing, I suspect that Loulay will attract more diners than frequented Rover’s.

Loulay Kitchen & Bar
600 Union Street
Seattle, WA 98101
206.402.4588