Lao Goodies at Thai Savon

Our good friends in the Seattle area have been doing some interesting restaurant exploring, mainly small places that are under the radar and unlikely to be on any big-time publication or travel site lists of best places to eat in Seattle. They’ve gotten inspiration from Yelp friends who’ve done their fair share of looking for those hole-in-the-wall gems that the likes of which Jonathan Gold is always on the lookout for than, say, Providence Cicero, the fine food critic of our local Seattle Times. One of our friends’ recent visits was to Thai Savon that for marketing purposes is billed as a Thai restaurant but also has a  Laotian menu. I suspect that the kitchen can prepare other Lao dishes not on the menu. Anyone familiar with the Isan (Isaan) regional style of Thai cuisine would feel more at home with Laotian food since the influence and cross-fertilization are very profound.

And so it was that our friends took us to Thai Savon after they picked us up at Sea-Tac. It’s located near the NewHolly development, just south of Rainier Valley, along Martin Luther King Jr Way.

The only Thai dish we ordered was pineapple fried rice. And it was the one that wasn’t as impressive as the Lao dishes that followed. The main problem was the curry powder that had a strong coriander flavor, more like an Indian curry than a Southeast Asian one. (☆☆½)

Pineapple fried rice

Pineapple fried rice

When laap seen was brought to the table, it looked very much like Thai yum neua (grilled beef salad).  The similarity didn’t end there because it had the same dressing. The only difference was the smaller slices of beef, which were more tender than I’ve usually experienced with the Thai dish. The presentation also confused me because laap (laab, larb) is usually a minced meat dish that doesn’t appear salad-like, so Thai Savon’s may be a variation. In any case, a terrific dish. (☆☆☆½)

Laap seem

Laap seen

Sticky rice at a Thai restaurant is normally an Isan staple, but it turns out to be fundamental to Lao dining. This was my second time it’s been served in a small bamboo steamer, the rice wrapped in a plastic baggy (the first time I had was in L.A.’s Grand Central Market). I personally have never developed a liking for it because of its sticky density and the fact that it soon dries out after coming out of its wrapper. I gather the plastic usually means the rice was microwaved, which promotes hard chewiness.

Sticky rice

Sticky rice

The lao sausages are all house-made. We picked the pork sausages which were very flavorful with the thinnest imaginable casing that was perfectly browned and lightly crispy. (☆☆☆½)

Lao pork sausage

Lao pork sausage

The outstanding dish of the meal was kao nam tod, a savory rice dish more like an elaborate appetizer, flavored with lime juice and fish sauce. It was served with a plate of greens (romaine lettuce, cilantro, mint and perilla), the idea being to place a bit of the rice mixture in a lettuce leaf, garnish with the other greens, roll it up and dip in a nuoc cham-like sauce. Crunchiness was provided by peanuts and the killer ingredient of chunks of fried crispy rice, reminiscent of koge or the crusty bottoms of bibimbop dolsot. Extraordinary. (☆☆☆☆)

Greens for nam kao

Greens for nam kao

Kao nam tod

Kao nam tod

Pastrami Sandwich at The Oinkster (Eagle Rock, CA)

Could the lure of The Oinkster‘s house-cured pastrami, house-made ketchup, chipotle sauce and garlic aioli, hand-cut Kennebec fries that are double-fried, indications that Chef Andre Guerrero is serious about food, be enough to give me satisfaction that I could find the ideal pastrami sandwich?


It’s been a long, dry spell since I’ve had a great Southern California-style pastrami sandwich. My last visit to Johnnie’s in Culver City last year was disappointing, to say the least. Even a stop at The Hat in Alhambra didn’t change my wondering if standards in the Los Angeles area have relaxed over the years. Or is it that my expectations had changed? In both the Johnnie’s and The Hat instances, the bread failed to measure up. While the pastrami itself was fine, the French roll that wrapped it was unappealingly dry. I admit that I can’t underestimate the profound influence that Vietnamese baguettes have had on me since I left Southern California—the bread is an equal partner in defining the best banh mi. With a killer roll, pastrami sandwiches would be equally sublime.

Unfortunately, my complaint hasn’t changed after I got the basic sandwich, simply called House Cured Pastrami (Oinkster Pastrami adds gruyere cheese, caramelized onion and red cabbage slaw). One positive thing I can say is that at least the bread is not simply cut in half. Instead it seems a partially hollowed out roll is wrapped around the substantial portion of meat. The pastrami itself was quite tasty but it was sliced slightly thicker than Oinkster’s competitors in town. (☆☆½)

House Cured Pastrami

House Cured Pastrami

Johnnie's French Dip Pastrami (November 2014)

Johnnie’s French Dip Pastrami (November 2014)

The Oinkster
2005 Colorado Blvd
Eagle Rock, CA 90041

Dim Sum at Shanghai No. 1 Seafood Village (San Gabriel, CA)

The Mainland corporation that owns Shanghai No. 1 Seafood Village reportedly spent big bucks on possibly the fanciest Chinese restaurant ever to open in the LA basin. Chefs would be brought in directly from Shanghai, the ambience would appeal to the fussiest diners and menu to match. The debut was such a big deal that curious and expectant customers created major traffic jams along W Valley Blvd. That was back in December 2011. The hysteria has since died down. Opulent furnishings remain—chandeliers, ebony woods, crushed red velvet walls, French-style chairs (backrest and legs sprayed with silver paint), all a kind of  faux luxuriousness that prompted some reviewers to think bordello or a 19th-century dining car, obviously not the intended effect. Apparently, this kind of over-the-top excess is not rare in Shanghai.

From the start, the reviews have been mixed. Local diners, including those in the Asian restaurant mother lode of the San Gabriel Valley, weren’t overly impressed. At first, the food quality was attributed to growing pains. But, the same, no more than above-average ratings persisted, unimpressive for a restaurant with such high ambitions. Management issues? A lack of dedicati0n to quality? Chef turn-over problems?

And then, there is the curious policy of employing two separate staffs of chefs for the daytime and dinner hours. One wonders if local chefs rule the kitchen during the day, imported Shanghainese ones at night.

The dinner menu is very impressive. I’m referring to its physical appearance, looking like a slick bound catalog, almost an inch thick, with full-color photographs of its menu items on plastic-laminated pages. It struck me that, with the current price written next to every item, these menus would have to be re-printed whenever prices change. Only a single such menu appeared to be available for each table.

A week ago, four of us were here for dim sum, however, so the standard dim-sum-menu-cum-tally-sheet was also placed before us.

The reviews did identify two oustandingly prepared Shanghainese dim sum items. The first is xiao long bao, which we’ve had many times before and didn’t bother to order this time.

The other is shen jian bao, labeled Pan Fried Shanghai Style Bun. This is an interesting hybrid where a similar savory ground pork filling and gelatin slice as XLB are tucked inside a pleated, slightly yeasty wrapper, pinched at the top, steamed, the bottom half coated with white sesame seeds and briefly fried, the top sprinkled with black sesame seeds and green onions. When done properly, the bottom should have a nice golden, crispy hue and the dumpling should release a hot, soupy interior, similar to XLB. A tad thick at the top, Shanghai’s was savory, crispy and doughy at the same time, though there wasn’t much soup that burst out. (☆☆☆)

Shen jian bao

Shen jian bao

We couldn’t pass up Abalone Sticky Rice, a dim sum rarity. This was more subtle than other sticky rices, probably so as not to overwhelm the shellfish flavor. A single slice in each lotus leaf-wrapped packet was perfectly tender though subdued in abalone taste. (☆☆½)

Abalone sticky rice

Abalone sticky rice

The brine for the special pickled fresh cucumbers was rather sweet. We’d never seen a maraschino cherry accompany this dish. (☆☆☆)

Pickled cucumber

Special pickled cucumber

I couldn’t resist ordering something from that beautiful menu—stir-fried scallops with pepper. Though the photograph showed both red and green chiles, only green ones were used. Despite the scallops being perfectly cooked, the dish seemed curiously bland and oily. Would this dish be better at dinnertime when the Shanghainese chefs take over? (☆☆½)

Stir-fried scallops with pepper

Stir-fried scallops with pepper

Is it possible that evenings might provide a more exciting dining experience? I might never find out because it’s also much more expensive.

Shanghai No. 1 Seafood Village
250 W. Valley Blvd.
Alhambra, CA 91801

In the Dog Haus (Alhambra, CA)

I’ve been grocery shopping at the Alhambra Ralphs countless times when I’ve visited my wife’s family in the San Gabriel Valley. (As a sign of the times, this Ralphs has officially closed and construction has begun on another 99 Ranch Market in the Valley.) Across the street is Dog Haus, which I’d never patronized. Maybe it was because its name and appearance reminded me a lot of Der Wienerschnitzel, a fast-food hot dog chain that’s been in Southern California for ages. But, my wife took our grandkids to Dog Haus last year and declared their food “not bad,” a review I wasn’t expecting based on my preconceptions.

Last night, she and I decided to get a quick bite before Melissa McCarthy’s “Spy” at the Edwards (fun and definitely for McCarthy fans. The fight scene with a female would-be assassin was hilarious for not only what she does with a frying pan but is a parody of all movie swordfights though no swords are used). Dog Haus was close by.

Inside were customers of all demographics: whole families, teen friends, couples, seniors, and (this being SGV) a good ethnic cross section. This is no typical fast-food restaurant interior. The dominant colors are black and red, the dining space brightened by plenty of windows along the south and east walls. Wood planks line the floor. The walk-up counter looks more like a mini food market’s than a McDonald’s, with displays of beverages, desserts, even a row of cereal boxes (to attract the kids?). A sign announces the availability of Fosselman’s ice cream. Though taro, my favorite Fosselman’s flavor, is not offered, two that are sounded tempting: Oaxacan chocolate and horchata.

Free condiments are located at a bar—mustards, a red housemade relish made with peppers, ketchup, sliced jalapeños, minced onions, mayo, crushed red peppers, celery salt, Rooster sriracha, Tapatio and more, any of which can be ladled or squeezed on your sandwich or taken to the table in little plastic tubs.

Sixteen custom hot dogs appear on the menu above the counter, special combinations of all-beef skinless dogs or sausages, plus condiments. A popular choice is Sooo Cali, which puts together wild arugula, spicy basil aioli, crispy onions, avocado, and tomato. Capitalizing on the Korean flavor craze, Tae Kwan Dog combines bulgogi glaze, kimchi, fried egg, and korean chili powder. I had to smile at Bad Mutha Clucka, just for the name alone.

If you’re not into hot dogs, there is a good selection of burgers, using black angus ground beef. For example, Freiburger comes with white American cheese, haus slaw, and fried egg, with fries.

Personally, I favor uncomplicated dogs. The only condiments that mine will see are relish, mustard and onion. Luckily, you can customize your dog by ordering just the wiener with bun, as I did for Polish kielbasa.

The “bun” is not traditional ballpark but rather grilled and split Hawaiian rolls, giving each dog an added sweet element. Because the rolls are larger than normal buns, it’s best to hold the dog from underneath. The kielbasa casing was thick enough that I had to take a careful, complete bite without tilting or pulling the sausage out of the bun. This was a superior sausage though, flavorful, nicely seasoned, grilled and snappy, not a surprise when the würstmacher is none other than Food Network celebrity Alan Gertler. While I like Hawaiian rolls, they seem more like a gimmick as a substitute for a good old-fashioned bun. And I could do without the noticeable sweetness. Otherwise, this was a very fine hot dog. (☆☆☆)

Besides customizing a dog, you can also do the same with a corn dog. Pick any of the available sausages, all-beef skinless frank or vegetarian option. While cornmeal batter is typically sweet, Dog Haus interestingly sweetens theirs with root beer soda, which does a good job of lightening the batter and hardly has the intrusiveness you’d expect. My wife’s all-beef wiener was speared with two bamboo skewers. Their thin, sharp points became more exposed with every bite, but a firm, slow push of the wiener from the other end removed the danger. A good thing about a thinly applied batter is that you don’t have to plow through much dough before reaching the sausage, but it’s also harder to keep crisped. A very good, high-quality wiener dressed in a corn dog outfit. (☆☆☆)

The sides are beyond ordinary, too. There are the standard fries, onion rings (beer-battered) and slaw (two kinds), but also “haus” chili, sweet potato fries and, to give poutine-loving Canadians pause, either fries or tater tots smothered with cheese sauce, chili, cheddar and seasoned green onions. Sweet potato fries are not as crispy as regular frying potatoes, such as Dog Haus’ Kennebecs, tending more toward mealiness though producing more interesting flavor. We discovered that dipping them in mustard is much preferred over ketchup to counterbalance the natural sweetness. The haus slaw (the other choice is Asian slaw) was exceptional for its balanced dressing and finely shredded cabbage.

From its humble beginnings in Pasadena, Dog Haus has gone on to open franchises throughout the Southwest. For me, the visit was a pleasant surprise. Did I mention I had preconceptions?

Dog Haus
410 E. Main St.
Alhambra, CA 91801

Surprises at the Crossroads Food Truck Snackdown

The latest Food Truck Snackdown at the Crossroads Shopping Center happened today, so we were sure to see what was cookin’. Two things were on the radar for this trip.

One was a shiksa, a pork stew that was described in ZAGAT. Sandwich-style, Napkin Friends puts everything between two “slices” of latke, which suggests influences from Jewish cooking. Revealingly, there is matzoh ball soup on the menu. Even the stew’s name is a tongue-in-cheek acknowledgment of its meat ingredient as straying from the non-Jewish arena. Unfortunately, shiksa wasn’t on the menu, so I went to Peasant Food Manifesto instead and got their Inigo Montoya, a spicy tomato-based dish that is labeled a shakshuka. Hey, I recognized that name. Inigo Montoya was that famous character in “Princess Bride.” (“Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father, prepare to die.”) The other items have similarly idiosyncratic names and show PFM’s preference for global fusion food. The shakshuka had lots of tomatoes, which almost qualifies it as a tomato stew, heavy on the chard, and Spanish chorizo from by Uli’s. A fried egg was served on top. The entrée was a hearty dish, spicy and definitely healthier than fried food. (☆☆☆)


Peasant Food Manifesto’s shakshuka

Here’s a novelty—British-inspired food served from a food truck, appropriately named Nosh. Looking over the menu, I wasn’t sure anymore what constituted English food. Some day, I might be adventurous enough to spring for fried rabbit or roasted bone marrow, but for now, it was fish and chips, reputedly one of the best served in the Seattle area and another item that was on my list. The Pacific cod piece was enormous, the biggest we’ve eaten since New Zealand. And it was fresh, not having seen the inside of a freezer. To ensure lightness, the batter is mixed with beer, apparently a local microbrew. The result was, according to my wife, the best fish and chips she’s ever had in the States thus far. And I agree. We did differ on the chip quality slightly, but they were equally top-notch, stubby little pieces with skin still attached. Supremely flaky with very little grease on crispy, thinly applied batter, a little tub of tasty tartar sauce, this was magnificent fried fish. A side order of refreshing mint mushy peas was included, not in the least overcooked as it sounds. To add to the British air, the works were served on “newspaper,” which in reality was a clever reproduction on parchment paper. (☆☆☆☆)

Nosh's British fish and chips with mint mushy peas

Nosh’s British fish and chips with mint mushy peas

Off to the side of the truck pod was a business that was serving malasadas. Hawaii’s Donut only had three kinds, plain, raspberry and Bavarian cream. The server asked if we were Hawaiians (no, we weren’t), but we told him that we love Leonard’s in Honolulu. “Never heard of Leonard’s,” he said, a strange admission coming from a guy whose wife is Hawaiian. A look at Yelp reviews of the brick-and-mortar store in Northgate later revealed many reviewers (several of them Hawaiian and familiar with Leonard’s) who were very disappointed in the donuts. Words like “dry,” “came out of a plastic bag”, “cold” and “instructions for microwaving” were used, uncomplimentary remarks applied to any business making them on the Islands. These were all at odds with the incredible malasadas we had today, hot from frying oil, dusted to order with granulated sugar and carefully put in paper bags. Can it be that the store doesn’t have an in-house fryer while the mobile operation does? These were not comparable to Leonard’s only because they were smaller and lacked in filling variety. They were minuscule, no more than 3″ across. But they were the equal of Leonard’s otherwise, tender, puffy, hot and sweet. Both my wife and I preferred the Bavarian cream, but the malasadas with both fillings had us harking back to Kapahulu. (☆☆☆½)


Bavarian cream and raspberry malasadas (from Hawaii's Donut)

Bavarian cream and raspberry malasadas (from Hawaii’s Donut)