Golden Deli Holds Court in San Gabriel Valley


Jonathan Gold knows a thing or two about Southern California food. (He no longer is with us, though his legacy and influence remain.) The Pulitzer Prize-winning food writer once named Golden Deli one of L.A. area’s 99 essential restaurants. 

Located in a strip mall in the food mecca of San Gabriel Valley (SGV), doing business since 1981, it routinely draws legions of ardent customers who are willing to wait for a half hour or more to get seated. I’ve eaten here several times when visiting relatives nearby. 

Though the menu is substantial (intimidating actually), Golden Deli is popular for its pho. The broth is well-balanced and soup noodly, by which I mean that Golden Deli is very generous with the rice noodles. If the soup isn’t eaten fast enough, the pasta will soften and swell to fill up the bowl. A solid pho. 

On warmer days especially, bun calls out to me, a salad of cold rice noodles, plenty of lettuce and bean sprouts, herbs, nuoc cham dressing and choice of topping. GD makes one of the better bun thit nuong (charbroiled pork). Instead of more common do chua, pickled scallions provide the familiar vinegary-sweet accent. And praise to the kitchen for scattering fried shallots on top. I can’t have enough of the stuff. 

Bo kho (beef stew) is another Vietnamese specialty, similar to French pot au feu but with Vietnamese flavors, served with either banh mi bread on the side or ladled on rice noodles, take your pick. Five-spice, tomatoes, curry powder and lemongrass are the usual broth ingredients. The broth made at Golden Deli is intensely reddish-orange in color, likely from annatto, and thinner than some but complex and delicious. The beef is meltingly tender, accompanied on a recent visit by a single carrot. More would’ve been nice. 

Customers sing praises of their cha gio, otherwise simply referred to as egg rolls. It’s a superlative version, savory and bigger than most versions, an umami bomb of ground pork and woodear mushrooms. These are not delicate, bite-sized pieces either, but bigger than cigars. Oily on the surface, their fried rice paper skins are shatteringly crispy if not aesthetically pleasing. Fresh lettuce and herbs come on the side: mint, cilantro, perilla leaves, bean sprouts, sliced cucumbers. Eaten by itself or wrapped in lettuce with herbs and dipped in nuoc cham, Golden Deli’s cha gio is impressive. 

Cha gio (image on Yelp by Jeff T.)

The general consensus is that Banh Mi My Tho rules in the 626 area code for their namesake sandwiches. Lost in its encyclopedic menu is Golden Deli’s own that if for no other reason than its perfect bread surely should be regarded as royalty in this highly competitive market. It’s the kind of bread that’s supple on the inside and so crackly on the outside that shards rain down on the table and clothes with every bite.

Pork banh mi

While one can argue that this place or that in SGV serves a better such-and-such, for sheer variety and quality, Golden Deli continues to hold court.

Golden Deli
815 W Las Tunas Dr
San Gabriel, CA 91776
626.308.0803

The Majesties of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks


The park ranger held it up between her thumb and forefinger. It was a mere two inches long.

“This is a sequoia cone.”

Sequoia cone on forest floor

Behind us was a colossus, the General Grant sequoia, the second largest in the world and located in Kings Canyon National Park, standing at a prodigious 268 feet in height. That a seed from a cone can produce one of these giants is one of nature’s wonders. 

General Grant tree, Kings Canyon National Park

The word majestic doesn’t enter into my vocabulary often. I seem to use it when I travel because of amazing things I see. It’s even more rare for me to apply it to a living thing. The giant sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum) is one of them, a tree so massive and tall that on first sight you’re likely to be left speechless, in awe. Today, they are endemic only to the western slopes of the Sierra Nevadas in California.

The ranger continued to describe additional interesting facts about the tree as well as its historical and political importance. The sequoia isn’t the tallest tree. That distinction belongs to its cousin, the coastal redwood (S. sempervirens), though the sequoia’s height is no slouch, mature specimens reaching 250ft or more. But by the sheer volume of its height and massive, slowly tapering trunk bottom-to-top that can reach 20 feet in diameter, it is earth’s biggest tree. When looking straight up from the base, I was unable to appreciate its relative size.

However, on the Giant Forest Loop, I got to see just how big it is in relation to us mere humans.

There’s another impressive attribute. At Sequoia National Park’s General Sherman Tree, I pondered its extreme age, estimated to be 2,100 years old, earth’s largest living organism. At the signing of the Declaration of Independence, it would’ve been 1,850 years old. When it was just a sapling, Caesar would’ve uttered his mortified words to Brutus. These trees are some of the oldest living things on earth. There’s no telling how long they can exist if left unmolested. Some are estimated to be over 3,000 years old. (BTW, if that age astonishes you, the oldest living bristlecone pine, also found in California as well as Utah and Nevada, is estimated to be more than 5,000 years old, making it more ancient than The Great Pyramid of Giza.)

Here’s a curious fact. The longer a sequoia lives, the better it’s able to defend itself against intruders. Tannins will foil bugs and fungi and the thick bark and resin-free sapwood will hinder fires. Lightning can scorch the tree, blackening the exterior and core, but the sequoia remarkably heals itself. I should be so tough in my golden years.

Sequoia is resistant to fire and insects

For all its hardiness, the sequoia is defenseless against humans. Some very large specimens were cut down in the latter half of the nineteenth century. What it took for a tree to grow in excess of a thousand years was undone in three weeks by two-man saw and axe. Even in the age of Manifest Destiny, people were outraged that trees much older than Methuselah were destroyed. Many stumps can still be seen along the Big Stump Trail in Kings Canyon.

USNPS ranger hat (image from askaranger.blogspot.com)

The fight to save the sequoia was so seminal to the conservation movement and establishment of our national park system that the ranger I mentioned above informed us the sequoia cone symbol appears on every Park Service ranger’s hat band. I will be sure to look for it when I visit the next national park.

 

Fall Colors of Sequoia National Park


To say that I was privileged to see fall colors at Sequoia National Park is an understatement. This gift was totally unexpected. The plan was simply to experience the giant sequoias. While the ancient trees lived up to expectation, it was a bonus that the dogwoods, maples, aspens, cottonwoods, oaks and willows were changing color to give the forest understory a radiance, a shimmering glow of yellows, oranges and reds. Serendipity doesn’t strike often.

Sequoia National Park’s Other Attraction, Moro Rock


It’s a breathless exercise to climb the roughly 350 steps to the top of Moro Rock, which summits at 6,725 ft ASL. No, this is not the Morro Rock along the California coast but a granite monolith in Sequoia National Park. The effort to complete the climb of 300 feet is worth it for the views. If you’re prone to acrophobia, it’s likely you’ll not get very far, because the stairway winds tightly around the granite rock’s contours, one side sometimes facing the dropoff of a thousand or more feet, and the passageway occasionally is wide enough for only one person to pass.

All along the ascent, every view was more splendid than the last.

Looking westward toward the San Joaquin Valley

At the summit, I was rewarded with a spectacular vista of the Sierra Nevadas’ Great Western Divide.

The catwalk at the summit (image from nps.gov)

Panoramic view of the Great Western Divide atop Moro Rock

Granite domes like Moro Rock are common in the Sierras (think Half Dome in Yosemite), shaped over eons by a process called exfoliation where sheets of rock get shed (spalled) because of upward expansion. There are several more in the park that are relatively easily accessible.

This amazing rock-cut and concrete stairway construction is not recent, but another formidable achievement of the Civilian Conservation Corps. It was built in 1931 and extends almost 800 feet bottom to top. Why weren’t similar public works projects launched after The Great Recession of 2008?

Moro Rock is not as popular as other attractions, maybe because it’s located just inside the park’s southern entrance and visitors are anxious to see the giant sequoia trees. Still, it should be on everyone’s list of things to do, just be sure there isn’t a lightning storm before the climb.

Suck It To ‘Em


So what’s a giant sequoia supposed to do when a huge boulder gets in its way? Why, suck it up, of course.

There’s Something Shrimpy About Fresno’s Don Pepe Taqueria


I had my doubts that I could find a shrimp dish to equal the ones from Fumi’s Shrimp Truck in Kahuku. Their shrimp is reason enough to trek out to the North Shore of Oahu. My favored combination of garlic, butter and sriracha (optional) sauce is a heaven-sent recipe.

That was before I found Don Pepe Taqueria, an institution in Fresno since 1995. You could order standard Mexican fare (tacos, burritos, tortas, quesadillas) but you’d be doing yourself a disservice if you passed on their specialty: shrimp. The location on N Blackstone has drawn so many loyal customers over the years that two more outlets opened to satisfy growing popularity. Pick any day of the week, any hour, and you’re likely to find the place packed. To be heard over the noise inside, you may have to shout out your order at the counter. If you don’t know what you want, you’ll feel rushed to decide when people line up behind you. If dining in, you might have to wait for a table to free up. But service is fast and you’ll be eating soon enough.

At the top of the seafood menu is Shrimp Botana, served ‘regular’ or spicy. A full dozen poached crustaceans, butterflied along the underside and in-shell, are piled on top of a cabbage-avocado-tomato slaw. There’s no way to eat these gracefully; it’s best to use your fingers. Besides, you’ll not want to waste time with decorum in getting these babies in your mouth.

I ordered mine spicy (top image). The shrimp were smothered in a glorious, bright reddish-orange hot sauce, reminding me in no small way of Fumi’s. The shells pulled off easily if messily. After polishing off the meat, I sucked on the shells to vacuum up every last drop of sauce, using a ton of napkins to wipe mouth and hands.

My wife’s Tostada Ceviche was unusual in the sense that the topping was a minced paste of raw fish, lime juice and cilantro, topped with two poached shrimp and avocado. Both fish and shrimp were very fresh. This too was an excellent dish.

I personally know of no other place that serves ice cold bottled beer with rim flecked with salt and plugged with shrimp and lime. A very nice touch.

Other ways to enjoy their shrimp are the tacos, burritos and shrimp cocktail.

I have relatives who live in Fresno. For you, Don Pepe is reason enough to stop.

Related post

Don Pepe Taqueria (original location)
4582 N Blackstone Ave
Fresno, CA 93726
(559) 224-1431

Don Pepe Taqueria
4950 N Woodrow Ave
Fresno, CA 93726
(559) 292-3188

Don Pepe Taqueria
7029 N Ingram Ave #108
Fresno, CA 93650
(559) 261-9744

Eggslut, More Than a Fatuous Name


It’s pretty much a sure thing that where there is a line out a restaurant’s door, therein lies good food. The first two times I walked past Eggslut in L.A.’s Grand Central Market (GCM), the queue was astonishingly long. No other food establishment in the Market came close to being as popular. I’m not particularly keen to wait in long lines for food, so I just made a mental note, check this place out.

As a restaurant name, Eggslut is a touch bawdy, provoking curious stares and skeptical ears. It isn’t so unusual anymore when expletives litter social media and words like ass, bitch and bastard now appear in business names. Eggslut didn’t have its beginning in the Market but as a food truck, a genre crossover no longer rare. After the ‘crash’ of 2008, vacancies at GCM went up. When owner Alvin Cailan saw the empty space facing Broadway, he jumped at the chance to set up a brick-and-mortar, recognizing the similarity of the new venture to his food truck operation: serving eager customers while facing the street in a semi-enclosed space. It opened in 2013 and was an immediate hit.

I went back to GCM with my wife and sister-in-law on a weekday morning. We got there at opening (8am) when the Eggslut crowds don’t yet materialize like they do on weekends when 1,000 eggs typically get served.

The Slut is the eponymous menu item. Picture a mason jar filled with puréed potatoes and topped with an egg, which gets coddled when the jar is immersed in hot water. What’s recommended is that you stir the whole thing together, then scoop out with the accompanying buttered baguette toasts. Quite a unique preparation, the whole greater than the sum of its parts. The potatoes are nicely seasoned and buttered. The egg is barely cooked, white and yolk still jiggly, sprinkled with chives and sea salt. If you’re averse to barely cooked eggs, you likely will pass on this. For the rest of us, the Slut is a revelation, an inspired, luscious combination of simple ingredients.

The Slut partially stirred

Though the Slut is the signature dish, what might have become more popular since the transformation from food truck to Grand Central Market stand is the morning breakfast sandwich known as the Fairfax, presumably named after the street in L.A. where the truck used to ply its trade. It’s not the usual sausage, cheese and egg in an English muffin but a glorious mess of soft-scrambled eggs, cheddar, caramelized onions and chives billeted in a brioche bun. The sandwich gets zing from sriracha mayo. Optional (and extra cost) is bacon. Unless preference or dietary laws prevent it, add the bacon. The mess factor is high. After the first bite, breakfast starts to fall apart: bits of egg drop, a slurry of mayo and cooked onion liquid pools in the hand and dribbles down the arm, bacon pulls out. I saw suits with ties flipped over their shoulder. The sandwich wrap does its valiant best to stem the tide. Eyes closed, I shifted into an alternate reality that I was sad to leave when breakfast was over. Sublime.

The Fairfax

If you insist on more familiar grub, also on the menu are bacon or turkey sausage sandwiches with medium-fried egg and cheddar. There’s also a cheeseburger.

Angelinos no longer have a monopoly on such goodness. If you live in Las Vegas or NYC, there’s an Eggslut near you, too.

Eggslut
317 S. Broadway, Stall D-1
Los Angeles, CA 90013
213.625.0292

Wow, Vegan Ramen? You Betcha!


OG Ramen (image from ramenhoodla.com)

Any pretensions I had that a good vegetarian ramen could never be made was dashed recently. The revelation happened when my sister-in-law had me sample her OG Ramen from Ramen Hood, a completely vegan stall in Los Angeles’ Grand Central Market. Visually, it looks like a ‘typical’ ramen, broth like milky tonkotsu, slices of chashu floating on top, a square of nori poking up along bowl’s edge, a pinch of chile threads sprinkled on top. It lacked for nothing in presentation. Yet, as I was ready to taste the broth, I had serious doubts that it would be remotely interesting. So imagine how stunned I was, not that it was anything like meat-based ramen broth but that it was in and of itself so savory, complex and substantial.

How in the world did the chefs pull this off? This from their website:

Our broth is made by simmering kelp and shiitake mushrooms to extract their maximum umami. Then we roast sunflower seeds with white miso and combine that mixture with the kelp/mushroom stock. Then it is all pressure cooked to release the natural oils and starches from the seeds. What’s left is a rich, creamy, broth that rivals it’s non-vegan counterparts flavor and texture.

Never underestimate the genius of creative chefs. The ramen tastes genuine. Recent converts to vegetarianism might be moved to tears, genuflect at the feet of its creators. I still prefer tonkotsu or miso ramen, more because slices of king oyster mushrooms would never replace slices of tender chashu, and vegan ‘eggs,’ though they’re ingeniously made at Ramen Hood (including yolk that oozes), can’t substitute for perfectly made ajitsuke tamago. But, as a change of pace or to take a break from animal products, I wouldn’t hesitate to devour a bowl of OG ramen. A wondrous achievement.

Ramen Hood
(Grand Central Market, Stall C2)
317 S. Broadway Street
Los Angeles, CA 90013

Northern Chinese Treats at Beijing Restaurant (San Gabriel, CA)


Exasperation sometimes ends up for the better. Along the San Gabriel Valley Asian food mecca of Valley Boulevard, I was looking for a restaurant (whose name I couldn’t recall) where several of us had wonderful noodle soups many years ago. (At my age, my memory plays tricks; Kam Hong Garden is in fact in Monterey Park on Garvey Avenue, less than a mile away.) After searching along most of ‘The Magic Mile,’  I turned into a mini-mall I recognized and came to an agreement with my wife and sister-in-law that we’d eat somewhere here regardless. Kam Hong wasn’t there of course, but Shanghai No. 1 Seafood Village was, and so was Beijing Restaurant, both on the second floor. Our less than impressive visit to the former two years ago made the decision for us.

Beijing Restaurant was packed for lunch, a good sign. The impressive menu is more like a slick catalog than something to order from. This was no ordinary menu. The restaurant serves what is regarded as authentic Beijing-style food where wheat, lamb, pork, offal and river fish rule. Boiled yellow croaker, braised intestines in brown sauce, ‘sizzling squid head,’ spicy kidney, ‘wandering liver tips,’ lamb spine hot pot and fried lamb bones appear alongside chicken hot pot, kung pao chicken, moo shu pork and sweet-and-sour pork ribs. Fish here tends to get served whole. Beijing duck is on the menu.

Beijing Restaurant

Our inability to read Chinese limited us pretty much, so the English ‘translations’ had to suffice. I often wonder how much more non-Chinese-reading customers would order from better descriptions.

Sauteed Green String Beans was impressive, both in size and appearance. The seared beans reminded me of blistered shishito peppers. These would’ve been perfect if the beans retained crispiness, but they were a little mealy. Still, the sauce of sliced garlic and savory ingredients raised the dish above the ordinary. Even with dried red chiles, the beans were only a touch spicy.

Sauteed Green String Beans

Sauteed Green Beans

It wasn’t advertised as a clay hot pot dish, but Stewed Pork with Rice Noodles and Napa was served in such a vessel, the meat a combination of pork belly and a less fatty cut. The whole wonderful thing was glistening with sauce and fat, the bottom layered with glass noodles (not rice noodles) that soaked up flavors of oyster sauce, soy sauce, ginger and star anise, that are next to impossible to serve with just the accompanying spoon without slithering back into the casserole. The sauce begged to be lapped over rice.

Stewed Pork with Rice Noodle and Napa

Stewed Pork with Rice Noodles and Napa

The best preparation, a remarkable creation simply ‘translated’ as Eggplant Cakes in Garlic Sauce (pictured at the top), is a layered surprise of Chinese eggplant, shrimp and minced meat or sausage, bound together in the lightest batter and bathed in a most subtle sweet-and-sour sauce.

On getting seated, I walked by other diners who were having eye-popping things I’d never seen before, making me regret not knowing what they are on the menu. The service tends to be pokey. This time, I’ll burn into my memory where the restaurant is located for I definitely plan to be back.

Beijing Restaurant
250 W. Valley Boulevard
San Gabriel, CA 91776
206.570.8598

A Blooming Spectacle at Anza-Borrego Desert State Park


I kept my eyes open throughout Death Valley for signs of wildflowers. It was one reason why we wanted to visit. Last year, the national park experienced a superbloom that happens once in a blue moon because of specific environmental conditions. It’s not enough that California got literally drenched this January and February, a record downpour that broke a years-long drought, certainly grounds for optimism. A park ranger told me that a good rain in October is a prerequisite for a great flower display. One that happened in October 2015 led to the superbloom of 2016, only rivaled before then in 2005. It didn’t happen this year. Flowers were barely to be seen anywhere. Big disappointment, to say the least, but of course Death Valley has much more to offer than flowers.

Meanwhile, the internet was abuzz with reports that Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, located northeast of San Diego near the Mexican border, was in fact experiencing a superbloom unrivalled in years. DesertUSA, which reports on Southwest wildflower displays, gave Anza-Borrego an almost perfect ’10’ rating, while Death Valley managed only a ‘4’ during the same time. That pretty much settled it. I saw this as an opportunity not to be passed up. My wife and I decided to make an unplanned visit, with an overnight stay in Borrego Springs (which I was very lucky to get as there were no other vacancies anywhere).

We weren’t let down this time. The timing couldn’t have been better; the flowers were barely beginning to fade.

We entered the park through Montezuma Valley Road (S22) on the west side. Intending to go to the visitor center, I made a wrong turn onto Hwy 78 toward Tamarisk Grove Campground when we came across hillsides covered in brilliant yellow brittlebush, hummingbird bushocotillo and a few less conspicuous. The moment was breathtaking, as it was for other passersby who likewise gawked.

A fellow visitor informed us that a herd of bighorn sheep was seen at the ranger station down the road. It was pointless to jump in the car; the animals would have long been gone by the time we got there.

We continued on Hwy 78. Across from the campground, we spotted some flowering cacti, parked the car and hiked the mile-long cactus loop trail. While the peak flowering month for the spiny plants is April, there was already plenty to see then (March 23).

A crowd was already overwhelming the visitor center, even on a weekday. I read that the past weekend was much worse with bumper-to-bumper traffic. Word got out that Anza-Borrego was exploding with flowers. A volunteer was handing out a map that identified the best spots for wildflower-viewing. At the rear of the building, a garden with walking paths had many specimens. I wish I’d spent more time there.

In the valley surrounding Borrego Springs, different flowers were popping up along the roadsides. In normal years, these would be easy to overlook but this year their abundance was hard to ignore: evening primroses, sand verbenas, lupines and desert sunflowers.

The field of desert sunflowers along Henderson Canyon Road, in particular, was unusual in another respect: they were crawling with sphinx moth caterpillars in such numbers that I had to be careful where I stepped. These weren’t little critters either, but big, fat ones, easily 3-4″ long.

Sphinx moth caterpillars

Our final outing was a hike up into the hills of Palm Canyon where the concentration of brittlebush was as plentiful as the first encounter along Hwy 78. The hills were awash in yellow, with excellent specimens of ocotillo, agave and cacti for variety. The ocotillo here were more richly tipped with their red flowers than elsewhere in the park.

Brittlebush

As harsh as the Mojave Desert can be, there is a rich life of plants and animals. It takes the right conditions to see them. Once in a long while, I get lucky and catch a rare glimpse of something special like a wildflower superbloom that I may never experience again.

Desert iguana

Desert iguana