Super Latino Markets of Highland Park, California

Through the hilly neighborhood of Highland Park just west of the Arroyo Seco runs York Boulevard, the neighborhood’s main commercial thoroughfare. It supports not one, but two supermarkets, within blocks of each other, that serve the mostly Latino community. When my daughter lived in New Zealand, she rued that she couldn’t get Mexican products readily (or inexpensively). In Christchurch, there was one Hispanic market, but a can of black beans for $8 was a bit much. She even went so far as to buy a tortilla maker so she could make her own. She finally gave it to a friend over there before her family moved to Highland Park last year; she knew she’d never have to make a tortilla in Southern California.

El Super and Super A Foods not only have tortillas galore but every imaginable item for cooking Latino food. The usual staples are sold that are available in any well-stocked market, except that the quantities, choices and sizes are much more extensive. Where Safeway might carry one, maybe two, different brands of canned pinto beans, the Supers have many more and in sizes you won’t find outside of Latino neighborhoods. How about cases of Corona stacked to the ceiling? Or an entire aisle section devoted to Goya products? Or Mexican wines? More kinds of Mexican cheese than I’ve ever heard of? Chorizo made not only from pork but beef? A wide variety of dried chiles and beans in bulk? Fresh zucchini blossoms? Panaderia? Such is the surprise and awe that a shopper will feel when first surveying these markets. And the prices are laughably inexpensive. A pineapple for 99₵, 2 pounds of tomatillos for 99₵, a 2lb 12oz package of tortillas for $2.39. Whole Foods prices these are not. (As wondrous as these markets are, the most jaw-dropping I’ve seen is Supermercados Mexicano in Hillsboro and Portland, OR.)

Highland Park is becoming more of a hipster area, yet the commercial district seems to have kept its old character. There are no big name chain stores or franchises along York, only small shops and little restaurants, including several taco trucks. Gentrification can change things forever for the locals. For now, the community can only hope for some kind of balance and that the main character of the area will not eventually serve only the latté crowd.

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Super A Foods
5250 York Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90042

El Super
5610 York Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90042

Do Kukai, Jinya and Santouka Have the Best Ramen in Seattle?

A Hawaiian food blogger once asked me about Seattle’s ramen culture. Knowing how robust it was in Honolulu where the blogger lives, I was apprehensive about answering him. Here was the Seattle area, having as much claim as any big West Coast city to strong economic and cultural ties to Japan, a history of Japanese immigration and community, a good-sized population of Japanese nationals, a respectable ensemble of Japanese restaurants—but, no thriving ramen scene. He asked me at the same time what my favorite ramen restaurant in Seattle was. Well…uh…let me see…hmmm. The email exchange had that flavor. That was three years ago.

Mine wasn’t the only lament. Between the Bay Area and Vancouver, B.C., there really hadn’t been much to get excited about.

Then, serendipity struck. Three high-profile ramen restaurants opened almost immediately since that email conversation. Two of them had Japan connections, the other came up from Southern California.

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Bánh mì at 35,000 feet: What’s Wrong with Airline Food?

Why, oh, why? That’s what I keep asking myself. Did I have to fork over $7 for a chicken bánh mì that Alaska Airlines was offering for sale on my flight from Los Angeles to Seattle?

Maybe I can be excused when Los Angeles International Airport has what must be the crappiest food service options of any major airport. Did I want another ham and cheese or chicken salad sandwich to take on board? A garden salad? Nope. Seattle-Tacoma Airport is far superior in its range of dining choices.

I might also be excused because I hadn’t had a substantial enough breakfast earlier that morning, so that by the time I was at cruise altitude at lunchtime, I was maybe a bit famished. Or I just needed to munch on something to pass the time.

OK, I shouldn’t be excused at all for being so naive.

The card in the seat pocket in front of me that listed the meal options described the bánh mì as Alaska’s “take” on the Vietnamese classic. Seattle restauranteur Tom Douglas supplies some of the meals on Alaska flights. Perhaps his magic hand might be involved in the sandwiches? I wondered. Hoped.

Instead, a company called LSG Sky Chefs, based in Seattle, made them. Okay, if you think about that for a moment, does that mean the bánh mì I was about to eat made one trip from the Pacific Northwest to Southern California already before it got put into my hands going in the opposite direction? It came wrapped in foil and was hot to handle. When I removed the wrap, steam came billowing out. And what would you think steam does to a sandwich whose bread is renown for its light crispiness? Instead of a baguette, it was more like a hoagie roll. A soggy one at that. While the chicken, what little there was of it, in combination with a kind of savory mayonnaise spread, could be described as tasty, it was also mushy. To LSG’s credit, the fresh vegetables normally found in bánh mì was wrapped separately in a plastic baggie: unseasoned shredded carrots (instead of vinegary-sweet đồ chua), sliced cucumbers and jalapeños, cilantro sprigs.

alaska banh mi

Credit has to be given to Alaska Airlines for even offering such ethnic fare, itself a proclamation that any old sandwich won’t do. But, in the end, as with most airline food, it was pretty awful, the worst bánh mì I’ve ever had.

I should’ve gone with my instincts, eschewed the very idea that a bánh mì served at 35,000 feet could pass muster.

As for LAX food choices at the gates, boarded off areas advertised that exciting plans were underway to bring in big name chefs to set up operations. Really? Do we need Las Vegas glitz or just good food?

Has Hawaiian Airlines Misled Customers about Breakfast?

Hawaiian Airlines proudly boasts that it’s the only carrier that serves complimentary meals at mealtime on all its domestic flights. Not only that, the promise is for a meal that is island-inspired. Hawaiian even goes so far as to name its executive chef, Chai Chaowasaree (who helms Pacifica Honolulu in Waikiki), suggestive of a Hawaiian-themed breakfast to Honolulu, yeah? So what did we get?

Am I missing something or does this breakfast look, um, ordinary? What island goodies showed up on the plate? A little bag of milk chocolate-covered macadamia nuts, that’s what. Oh, and a cup of complimentary passionfruit-orange-guava juice from a can. Fresh melons and grapes hardly qualify as tropical fruit. Pre-packaged crackers and cheese? Is this meal the best that Chef Chai could come up with? I didn’t expect first class quality, but at least something to whet my appetite for the island food I was looking forward to, now that my wife and I were headed to Hawaii. The breakfast was as uninspiring as the one we had on Hawaiian Airline’s morning flight from Auckland to Honolulu that I thought was an aberration, but apparently not. Hawaiian’s declaration may very well be true—and for that I should give them more credit—but couldn’t it make more effort to providing morning meals a little more interesting?

I should quit griping because everyone could get a complimentary rum punch just prior to arrival at Honolulu Airport.

Is Air New Zealand’s Premium Economy Worth the Extra Airfare?

Image from Air New Zealand’s website

Air New Zealand has a Premium Economy (PE) class that the airline touted as a significant step forward in comfort and service for economy passengers when introduced in 2010. Is it worth the more-than-double fare over economy?

On a flight between Los Angeles and Auckland, my wife and I upgraded to PE. I’ll explain how below. But first, let me describe our experience.

From the marketing, it surely seemed that our flight experience could be vastly more agreeable. The first improvement we experienced was the premium check-in line shared with business class. No hassles and, at the time of our check-in, no line.

PE seats are a big step forward in passenger comfort. On a Boeing 777-300, the seating configuration consists of six seats across, in groups of two separated by the airplane’s double aisles, a 2-2-2 arrangement, as compared to economy’s 3-4-3. The seat looks more like something out of an Apollo lunar module, which ANZ calls a Spaceseat. Made of ivory-colored leather and surrounded by a color-matched hard plastic shell, they contour to the body better than economy-class seats, with ample width for a large person and separate controls for reclining angle and tilt, though they’re awkward to operate. When reclining, the seat slides forward rather than leaning back into the space of the passenger behind. There is noticeably more legroom, enough to cross your legs easily or stretch them out. For electronic devices, a universal power port is provided as well as a USB port.



entertainment center

The seats don’t point forward like they do in economy, but are rotated roughly 30 degrees, a design that provides more legroom at the expense of a loss of overall lateral space in the cabin.

PE occupies an entire section of the aircraft, meaning curtains are drawn between economy and business classes. and two toilets are dedicated for 44 passengers. The surprising amenity was a dispenser of hot cloth face towels.

Aside from cramped seating in economy class, one big reason I dread long flights, especially overnight ones, is my inability to sleep well when sitting. My head tends to bob forward when I get drowsy—and that wakes me up. ANZ claims their PE seats recline 50% more than economy’s. Coupled with more leg and seat room, the greater recline was enough for me to sleep better. And while sleeping at any position other than supine is not ideal, I was still able to get about 7 hours of shuteye, even if I had to shift my body around occasionally, a remarkable achievement for me. The topper was that I didn’t watch a single movie during the flight, extraordinary considering that during another flight to NZ on economy last year, I watched four to cut the tedium.

When we first boarded, at each seat were waiting bottled water, blanket, pillow with pillowcase and noise-canceling headphones. The headphones would prove to be adequate, greatly cutting down on cabin noise, but our Etymotics ER-6i isolator earphones were much more effective. Shortly, the flight crew handed out to each PE passenger a felt bag which contained complimentary eye mask, lip balm, moisturizer, foam ear plugs, toothbrush and toothpaste and a pair of socks. The socks can be used for extra warmth when you rest your unshod feet on a bean bag that serves as a foot rest. As soon as the aircraft reached straight-and-level, the flight crew passed out hot cloth hand towels, followed by orange juice and sparkling wine.

And what about the meal? We were handed a menu for dinner with a choice of three main entrées.

supper menu

Would you believe a starter? Prosciutto with heirloom tomato and basil salad, marinated olives and baked ricotta cheese. It was served on a tray with dessert (cheesecake), which made me wonder about where the main dish fit into the sequence. It was to come later, placed on the same tray after the flight attendant recorded your selection and after offering a choice of three types of bread served from a basket. And how was the quality of the food? Very good as airline food goes, I’m happy to say, leagues better than what we normally got in previous flights in economy to New Zealand. My braised Asian-flavored beef was very tender, as was my wife’s salmon, flaky from not having been previously frozen. Flavors of both were good, more interesting than standard economy grub.

Breakfast, which in my experience is the least considered meal of airlines, was likewise a nice surprise. Again, the hot hand towel. Nice touch. Juices and coffee were served first. Next came a tray with fresh fruit and strawberry yogurt. The flight attendants refilled coffee and tea, served a croissant and took passengers’ hot meal orders. We both were surprised by how pleasant the breakfast experience was.

breakfast menu

The meals, in short, were a pleasure to eat rather than a means to pass the time, unhurried and more relaxed.

How is it that we got Premium Economy? ANZ has a program called OneUp in which passengers can upgrade one class by submitting bids as late as six days prior to departure. Bids, tendered as additional amounts over your base fare, have to be made separately on both inbound and outbound legs. Last year, our bids were summarily rejected. This time, we made similar offers but instead, for the LAX-AKL leg, were given an opportunity to improve the bid, which I did by a small amount. For $295 per person, the offer was accepted. (As time draws near, I’m sure we’ll be given the opportunity to rebid on the return flight.) So, the question at the beginning was, is it worth the extra roughly $2,000 roundtrip to purchase a PE fare outright? For us personally, no. Though our experience was undoubtedly excellent, it’s still a lot of money. But, we would be highly motivated to play the OneUp game when offered.

Sunrise as we approached Auckland

Sunrise as we approached Auckland

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Oh Poo, Is Tilapia Good for You?

I often wonder, is seafood safe to eat anymore? Out there in our waterways floats a vast stew of toxins, the worst offenders being heavy metals and chemicals from industrial pollution, not to mention dangerous amounts of radioactive isotopes from Fukushima-like disasters. Unlike soil, whatever gets dumped into the oceans spreads far and wide, only to be taken up by the organisms that live there. The conventional (current) wisdom is that the lower down in the food chain a fish species is, the less likely it’s accumulated enough toxins to trouble the health of humankind. And that’s the fine point, isn’t it? Because all seafood has some level of contamination. It boils down to a matter of statistics, what the probability is that something as large as tuna or small as sardines that you’re about to pop into your mouth will do you long-term harm. If you don’t want to be consumed or paralyzed by fear and worry, you just have to take your chances, unfortunately. Or do without.

Image from wikipedia

As appalling as the presence of poisons in our oceans is, within the past few years, journalistic exposés have uncovered human activity that is in a way even worse simply because it’s deliberate—the aquaculture of tilapia, which has become the dominant, if not sole white fish (no pun intended) to appear on restaurant menus. You fancy fish tacos? How about sweet-and-sour fish or Szechwan fish fillets? Pescado a la Veracruzana? Odds are, it’s tilapia. Diners like tilapia’s mild flavor and restauranteurs are happy about its low cost. Moreover, they are easy to raise on fish farms. To meet soaring demand, farms throughout the world, especially in Latin America, China and southeast Asia, have proliferated. There will be no foreseeable tilapia shortage.

Therein lies the problem, particularly the tilapia sourced from China and southeast Asia.

Back in 2011, the only issues raised by The New York Times were farm-raised tilapia’s questionable heart-healthy benefits (very little omega-3 and very high levels of omega-6 fatty acids) and ecologically troublesome waste pollution at fish farms. Yet, a year later, Bloomberg News reported that the tilapia raised in unregulated farms in China, the world’s largest producer, are being fed raw animal sewage or manure, though this practice has been known for years.

Yang Shuiquan, chairman of a government-sponsored tilapia aquaculture association in Lianjiang, 200 kilometers from Yangjiang, says he discourages using feces as food because it contaminates water and makes fish more susceptible to diseases. He says a growing number of Guangdong farmers adopt that practice anyway because of fierce competition.

“Many farmers have switched to feces and have stopped using commercial feed,” he says.

Do all farms in Asia practice this? No. I’m sure that many fish farmers have ethical standards.

In the wild, tilapia naturally feeds on algae and aquatic plants. It appears they thrive on poop, too. Because they aren’t carnivores, they’re touted as harboring very low levels of heavy metals. But, by feeding them fecal matter from farm animals, that “advantage” has been turned on its head so that consumers are exposed to pathogens like salmonella and E. coli instead. Won’t the FDA keep our food safe? Good luck with that. Would cooking the fish to high enough temperatures be enough to destroy these bacteria? Maybe. You’d be right to assume that in order to keep illness and infection in check, antibiotics, some of them carcinogenic, are heavily used.

To be objective, isn’t large-scale food production safety in general a problem? Yes, but the practices noted above emotionally are more revolting, nauseating even. Buyer beware! I’ve had my share of tilapia lately, but in protest, not anymore.

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Why This Little Problem at Trader Joe’s?

I am a big fan of Trader Joe’s. It’s my go-to store when I go shopping. Why? Because they have great values, no sale prices to worry about, have an increasing inventory of organic foods at excellent prices, and amazing variety for a store of its size. Furthermore, very few of their products have artificial ingredients. Trader Joe’s has a business model that works, high-quality and hard-to-find products at very fair prices. When I go grocery shopping at several stores during the day, I make it a point to go to TJ’s first because I will save a good deal of money.

That being said, there are some issues that have bugged me over the years.

When a new item is introduced—and each month brings new products—other things have to go. If those things include one of your favorites, you’re out of luck. With very limited shelf space, products that don’t sell well will be removed from stock, simple as that. Can I really blame them for that?

But, to me the most annoying problem is the tendency for some items not to be as fresh as they could be, so far confined to produce and food products that could go stale. Take, for example, their raspberries. I seek out organic berries whenever possible, since they are highly susceptible to pesticide contamination. Without chemicals, it’s pretty important that the time from farm to store be as brief as possible. I get the feeling that TJ’s sometimes gets their raspberries, a delicately soft fruit, toward the end of their freshness cycle in order to pass along good prices to shoppers. More than once, I’ve had to return raspberries that have spoiled within a day or two of purchase. By way of comparison, I’ve never had to do that for berries bought at Whole Foods or PCC. To be clear, I’m not saying this always happens, but it has enough times that I now closely examine all highly perishable groceries. (Tip: I’ve discovered that berries last much longer when removed to Mason jars than when left in their plastic clamshells.) Molding is not as much a problem with strawberries and blueberries.

Their organic Persian cucumbers are very prone to molding and organic onions to mildewing faster than when bought elsewhere.

On more than one occasion, I’ve bought avocados from TJ’s that absolutely refused to ripen.

In short, when it comes to produce at Trader Joe’s, while most of it is just fine, it does pay to be vigilant. To their credit, they will take back anything you don’t like.

I mentioned staleness. I no longer buy raw nuts from TJ’s. I’ve had to return many because they tasted stale straight out of the cellophane bag, a sign that the oils have gone rancid. One jar of an Egyptian-inspired mix called dukkah, consisting of fennel, anise, coriander and sesame seeds, ground almonds and kosher salt, a great accompaniment with olive oil and balsamic vinegar for dipping bread, has also tasted stale even though it was eaten well before the pull date.

Lately, I’ve noticed a lack of freshness in some of TJ’s packaged snacks. A bag each of sea salt and pepper lentil chips and of soy sauce-flavored savory thins were likewise stale, again opened before their pull dates.

So what gives with Trader Joe’s? With over 400 stores nationwide, one would think that the chain would exert its clout to ensure more stringent food safety. Low prices doesn’t have to mean relaxed standards. I’m not alone in my concern, as any search on the internet will show. Complaints have been posted for many years now, which seems to suggest that TJ’s doesn’t care. Could that be?

Regardless, I still love TJ’s. Along with countless other fans, I would be genuinely bummed if they were ever to go out of business.