Street Food Mondays at Angeli Caffe- Sri Lankan Hopper Night

If you live in Los Angeles and love food, chances are you’ve already had a ‘pop-up’ restaurant experience.  Whether you’ve sampled squid carbonara with pancetta at LudoBites 4.0 in downtown LA, or any of the monthly Hatchi dinners at the Breadbar in Century City, you know you love these limited pop-up engagements.  It’s a wonderful way for adventurous LA diners to taste new flavors while chefs get an opportunity to share their creativity and vision.  I’m a big supporter of pop-up events and always love to see what local chefs have in store for us.  Every pop-up dining experience has been amazing for me, but with famous chefs preparing deconstructed, liquified, powdered and all around reinterpreted food at most of these events, a new type of pop-up called Street Food Mondays comes as a breath of fresh air.  Bill Esparza from Street Gourmet LA has teamed up with Chef Evan Kleiman of Angeli Caffe to bring back, for some, and introduce, to others, the wonderful culture of street food.

When we travel to foreign countries, we don’t go to 3-Michelin starred restaurants to find out about their culture.  We venture into their local markets to take in the sights and aromas of the local bounties, and we taste the elements that fuel their energy by sampling local delicacies.  Street food is the very essence of culture, honoring food that nourishes many generations and defines who we are today.  Simple but hearty and comforting food that sings to the soul often evokes powerful childhood memories and comes with interesting life stores.  Street Food Mondays opens up these magical realms to us and brings us a step closer to understanding the world around us.

What better liaison to serve as our guide than Bill Esparza who is an avid seeker and connoisseur of international street food.  Street Food Mondays debuted last month with Ricky’s fish tacos, attracting a line of customers that spilled out onto the sidewalk.  The second in its series occurred this past Monday to feature Priyani Dissanayake’s Sri Lankan Hopper Night.  Priyani used to serve authentic Sri Lankan fare out of a restaurant called Priyan’s Ceylon Café in Northridge which has unfortunately recently closed.  It was a special treat to be able to enjoy her famous hoppers for this one-night only event.

Hoppers, or appam in the native language, are thin Sri Lankan pancakes made from a fermented batter of rice flour, coconut milk and palm toddy, and most often eaten for breakfast or dinner.  The batter is fried in a small wok-like pan called an appachatti with a little bit of oil to give it its characteristic bowl-like shape.  Plain hoppers were served with sime sambal, a chile based condiment.

Egg hoppers are these same hoppers but with an egg broken into the pancake as it cooks in the pan.  We ordered our egg hoppers with a wonderful mutton curry cooked on the bone with a rich and seductive blend of spices.

Although it has the same name, string hoppers, or idiyappam, are different from regular hoppers.  String hoppers are made from steamed rice flour and curled into flat spirals, similar to Vietnamese bun.  Our dish came with a light and aromatic coconut sambal made with grated coconuts and chile spices.  For the side we chose chicken curry that was fully infused with a perfect blend of flavorful exotic spices.  As much as India is famous for their curries, Sri Lanka is just as famous for their diversity of distinct spices.

Small round fish croquettes filled with moist fish flakes and elongated beef croquettes stuffed with a creamy minced beef filling served as satisfying bite-sized eats with the spicy chile sauce.

Sri Lankan biryanis are known for being spicier than Indian biryanis, but Priyani kept the heat level under control for her Los Angeles diners at this event.  Her chicken biryani was made with chicken curry, hard-boiled eggs, cashews and an unforgettable smokey eggplant curry.

My favorite dish of the evening was the lampreis, a Dutch-influenced Sri Lankan dish that derives its name from a Dutch word meaning ‘lump of rice’.  Lampreis generally constitute rice cooked in stock, eggplant curry, meat cutlet or frikkadel meatballs, plantain curry, blachan made from dried prawns and spices, and meat curry all wrapped up and steamed in a banana leaf.  Priyani’s lampreis had chicken curry, shrimp sambal, generous chunks of tender fish cutlet, sime sambal and sweet green banana curry all fully infused with the phenomenal aroma of the banana leaf.  Each component was carefully cooked with love, and combined together it was an explosion of wondrous flavors.

Our satisfying meal concluded with a Sri Lankan dessert called wattalapan, a steamed coconut custard made with coconut milk, eggs, jaggery and cashew nuts and seasoned with cardamom, cloves and nutmeg.  Jaggery is unrefined sugar made from sugarcane and palm tree, and used widely for both sweet and savory dishes in Sri Lanka.  Due to the use of jaggery instead of refined sugar, the custard had a dark, earthy sweetness that reminded me of pure molasses.

Thanks to Bill Esparza and this wonderful pop-up event, I was able to get a good introduction into Sri Lankan street food.  Despite the fact that Los Angeles is a melting pot of different cultures, authentic Sri Lankan food is hard to come by, and it’s unfortunate that Priyani’s restaurant closed down.  More Angelenos are showing interest in good food and making an effort to seek delectable eats these days- it’s my hope that they will support authentic street food and mom-and-pop stores just as much as celebrity chef restaurants.  Street food is where the heart is, and Street Food Mondays are where the food is.  Street Food Mondays at Angeli Caffe by Street Gourmet LA, which not only introduces new flavors to our community, but also embraces cultural diversity and the very essence of ‘soul’, is the most welcomed pop-up act to hit our food community today.

Angeli Caffe

7274 Melrose Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90046
(323) 936-9086

Street Gourmet LA website:

www.streetgourmetla.com

Priyani’s Ceylon Fusion available for catering.  Contact Priyani at Priyanidisa@yahoo.com

Random trivia:  Did you know that raw cashews are caustic due to its outer lining that contains urushiol, the same chemical found in poison ivy?  Exposure to urushiol can cause a severe skin reaction, which is why all cashews available for consumption are steamed or roasted.

Japa Dog- Vancouver, BC Canada

“Travel north.  It will bring you good luck,” my feng-shui studying friend told me one day.  And with that, my trip to Vancouver, Canada was planned on a whim.  Despite having traveled all over the world from Sierra Leone to Laos, and Cuba to the Canary Islands, I had never set foot in Canada.  I suppose it’s the comfort of knowing that I could go any day, given the proximity to the US- the same excuse of ‘local laziness syndrome’ that applies to trips within the US that I haven’t been able to materialize yet.  With the excitement of the Winter Olympics this year, it seemed only natural to travel way north past Napa, Portland and Seattle up to Vancouver to seek good luck, good fortune and of course good food.  Once my plane ticket and accomodations were secured I started researching Vancouver restaurants online, and was quite surprised to find the most buzz not in a 5 star hotel restaurant or in a harbor-view seafood dining establishment, but in a street food cart called Japa Dog.

Japa Dog, a street vendor specializing in hot dogs reinterpreted with Japanese flavors, was started by Noriki Tamura who moved to Vancouver in 2005.  Combining traditional comfort food with haute ingredients and giving it a fresh new twist seems to be the trend these days- maple bacon cupcakes, squash blossom & burratta pizza, kimchi kalbi tacos and black truffle & foie gras burgers.  Who isn’t reinventing our beloved staples?  Spruced up hot dogs aren’t a new concept either.  Hot Doug’s in Chicago is probably the first place that comes to mind for their innovative ingredients and flavor combinations.  Their signature foie gras dog had to be removed from the menu for obvious reasons, but they’re still an epic establishment.   Los Angeles has its share of gourmet wiener joints too.  Let’s Be Frank tops their grass-fed beef dogs with a marvelous Indian pickled pepper relish, Downtown Dogs serves a beef dog with avocado, arugula, basil aioli, tomatoes and fried onions,  Dogzilla demonstrates Japanese flair with their yakisoba and furikake dogs, and Wurstküche offers exotic dogs such as buffalo, alligator, duck, and my favorite rattlesnake and rabbit with jalapeño .

Japa Dog has several locations, and I was happy to discover that there was one practically outside of my hotel lobby on the corner of Burrard and Smithe.  The Burrard strip, lined with boutiques, hotels, tall office buildings, restaurants and the occasional historical church has an energetic Manhattan vibe.  Buses and yellow taxis whiz through the city grid as pedestrians with the haste and determination of a New Yorker scurry by.  It’s the perfect backdrop for a hot dog stand, only this one has happy and energetic Japanese staff in bright orange uniform ready to shower you with plenty of pep.  It was after the lunch rush on a weekday, but there was still a long line of tourists and locals waiting for their Japanese dogs.  I can’t imagine the craziness that these street corners experienced during the Olympics- news reports say that Japa Dog was one of the most popular pit stops for international visitors who waited for up to an hour in the winter chill for their hot dogs.

Japa Dog offers standard dogs such as all-beef, Kobe beef , turkey, kurobuta pork, jalapeño & cheese, bratwurst and veggie, but these are not what attract the masses. It’s the unique themed dogs, dressed up with classic Japanese ingredients like daikon radish and dried seaweed, that diners adore.  In true Japanese spirit, Japa Dog carts even sell dagashi, old-fashioned snacks and candies that evoke a strong sense of nostalgia for people like myself who grew up in Japan.

The Japa Dog staff recommended the Terimayo dog, the most popular selling item.  An all-beef dog tucked in a soft steamed sesame bun with teriyaki sauce, drizzles of sweet Japanese mayonnaise, fried onion and dried nori.  Japa Dog’s slit sausages are first boiled then lightly grilled to order, giving them a nice snappy crunch with a juicy moist interior.  Due to the immense popularity of the Terimayo concept, all of their other dogs can be made Terimayo style.

My favorite was hands down the Oroshi dog, a bratwurst topped with generous heaps of tangy grated daikon radish, special soy sauce and chopped green onions.  The light flavor of the bratwurst with the refreshing bitterness of the oroshi daikon was amazing.  Oroshi daikon is a staple in Japanese cuisine, adding texture and flavor to grilled fish, shabu-shabu, tofu and minced meat patties, but who knew that it could liven up a hot dog so perfectly?

With room only for one more dog, I skipped the Okonomi dog made with kurobuta pork sausage, okonomi-yaki sauce, Japanese mayonnaise, fried cabbage and shaved bonito flakes, and instead went for the Ume dog.  The light flavors of the oroshi dog made me want something even more refreshing.  Ume is short for umeboshi, salty and sour pickled plums, and it was used to garnish a bratwurst with thinly shaved onions.  I was hoping for a prominent ume flavor, one so strong and sour that it would make me pucker my lips and squeeze my eyes shut, but it was rather mild, possibly tempered for non-Japanese palates.

Other unique wieners at Japa Dog include the Edamame dog, a bratwurst impregnanted with whole green edamame beans, and a Kurogoma kimchi dog made with a turkey smokie with toppings of black sesame and kimchi.  Research revealed a Misomayo dog with Japanese mayonnaise and miso paste, but perhaps it’s been buried in the Japa Dog vault as I didn’t see it at any of the current carts.

Eating a juicy hot dog on the busy street corners of an urban jungle makes for a satisfying meal, but enjoying a delicious gourmet dog with Japanese flavor and flair is a special experience.  Vancouver’s got a good thing going in Japa Dog, which is why the owner has his eye on expanding to the US.  What better place to start than New York, where he plans to open a Japan Dog by the end of the year.  City dwellers will undoubtedly take to these loveable trendy wieners that have already gotten a stamp of approval by Anthony Bourdain in the Vancouver episode of No Reservations.

Japa Dog

available at various street corners in Vancouver, BC Canada

Random trivia: Did you know that the average hot dog is consumed in 6 bites?

“The noblest of all dogs is the hot dog- it feeds the hand that bites it.”  -Lawrence J. Peter

Mercado Hidalgo- Tijuana, Mexico

The vibrant colors of locally grown peppers, the hefty weight of native root vegetables in your hand, the prickly skin of tropical fruits at its peak, the seductive aromas wafting from busy food stalls that activate your hunger, the energetic sounds of lively exchanges and transactions- these are the very elements that define markets and in turn local cultures.  Whether it’s a visit to your neighborhood farmer’s market in the US, a night market in Turkey or a floating market on the Mekong River, these are the places where you can get a vivid glimpse into the kaleidoscope of the local customs.

Nothing defines our traditions more than the food that we eat, and nothing reflects who we are more clearly than our local markets.  A morning spent weaving through labyrinths of vendors and stalls can transport you into the warmth and comfort of a cocina where families gather for their daily meals.  It is here, in the city’s biggest kitchen, where you can feel the heartbeat of the city’s core from where food trickles through its blood vessels into every household.  In return, bountiful offerings from the land and the sea are brought back to the market every day to continue the endless circle of life.  The market is a place of nourishment and a way of life.

One such market is Mercado Hidalgo, a sprawling indoor-outdoor market in the middle of Tijuana’s urban jungle.  This mercado got its start in the mid 1900’s when a group of Tijuana vendors selling produce out of their car decided to establish a permanent location.  After several moves, it settled into its final and current location at Boulevard Sanchez Taboada and Avenida Independencia in 1984.  In keeping with the true spirit of local markets, Hidalgo is owned by its merchants who run the 80 open air stalls.  3 generations of families have worked here, creating a unique community with its own history and culture.

The market even has its own chapel, honoring the Virgin of Guadalupe, where vendors make their final rite of passage upon passing away.  This market is not only a place of tradition, it is a place of family, home and life.

Even as a tourist, it’s easy to feel the rhythm of this unique marketplace where you can feel, taste, touch and smell the essence of a Mexican pueblo.  There is a palpable richness in the air and an abundance of resonant energy- it’s everywhere you look, in the frijoles, the maiz, hierbas and frutas.  A diversity of dried chiles line the racks, reflecting the unique flavors of Mexican cuisine- chile de arbol, pasilla, chipotle, guajillo, ancho, morita, and California.

Skillful men and women shave prickly spines off of nopales, preparing them for the scrumptious dinners that will nourish the mass. It is in the conversations and interactions with these merchants that one can begin to get an understanding of the deep roots of Hidalgo.

Jamaica, tamarindo and chayote from my memorable dinners in Tijuana were displayed in various shapes and sizes.

Carnicerias and queserias piled high with fresh food stood back to back in the tight hallway spaces that never ceased to attract both locals and tourists alike.  Deep fried crispy chicharrones looked familiar to me, and large jars of pickled white strips of tender chicharrones were a novelty, but nothing grabbed my attention quite like the chicharrones prensado, a gigantic mound of densely compressed pig parts so real that it flaunted the occasional tufts of pig hair.

Little girls squealed with delight in the crammed dulcerias where they jumped in joy for caramels and chocolates while older folks took to tequila flavored gummies and frutas cristalizadas with nostalgia.  Dried and candied oranges, pineapples and papayas proved to be cheap and satisfying treats to chew on while perusing through neighboring stores selling ceramics, tableware, cookware and molcajetes.

It’s not just about browsing and being a passive observer- one must be willing to fully plunge into the rhythm of a market with an open mind, for it is only through meaningful intimate interactions with the vendors that you can even begin to comprehend the local way of life.  Perhaps an old lady will give you a few extra oranges with your purchase and ask you to come back again the following day for her lemons.  A street vendor may invite you to their home for dinner after seeing the way you marveled over their tacos de lengua.  That grumpy old butcher, who isn’t grumpy at all once you get to know him, will tell you which stand to go to for the juiciest tomatoes. You never know what can happen at a market, but you’ll always know that whatever does will become a magical experience and a beautiful memory, and be translated into an appreciation for life that you will take back to your culture.

Go to Mercado Hidalgo on your next visit to Baja California and feel the spirit of Tijuana with your own skin, and be sure to wash down those buttery tacos de sesos with a cup of freshly squeezed cane juice to complete the experience.  Repeat as necessary.

Street food in LA

Los Angeles has seen many food trends in the past few years- wine bars, gastropubs, burger wars, Top Chef contestant restaurant openings, temporary dining events, molecular gastronomy, mixology and food trucks .  Last year attracted much talk with the surge of food trucks galore, starting with the ever popular Kogi BBQ truck famous for their kalbi tacos, to others serving ‘gourmet’ delights like Vietnamese bánh mì sandwiches and Peruvian saltado.  A little over a week ago on February 13th, the very first LA Street Food Festival in downtown gathered a massive crowd of food truck enthusiasts who endured an unusually hot day and 2 hour lines to get their street food fix.  It was an incomprehensible mayhem of snaking lines and piles of trash, which I don’t think that I would have had the patience to tolerate if it weren’t for having a bit of an insider’s edge and some kindness from strangers.

On board for the big festival that day were already popular trucks like Baby’s Badass Burgers, Fishlips Sushi, CoolHaus, The Grilled Cheese Truck and Gastrobus.  There were a few that were about to make their LA debut, like the Dim Sum truck and a cart selling freshly fried baby donuts in the upstairs VIP lounge.  My favorite chef Ludo Lefebvre, in his now signature pop-up guerrilla style, overtook the spotlight of the festival with his LFC truck.  Decked out in bright red and white colors, his truck, which served his succulent Ludo’s Fried Chicken, proved to be the most popular truck on the grounds.  Hungry patrons were known to wait in line for more than 2 hours and an additional 1 to collect the food.  I cued in line for LFC, but after 10 minutes gave up at the insanity of wasting that much time for a couple of bites of food, even though it was Ludo’s food.  And then a miracle happened.  As we were eating savory shrimp har gow with a sesame soy sauce, and an awful peking duck taco served on a dry corn tortilla from the Dim Sum truck, a friendly group of people who sat on the lawn next to us offered to share their LFC.  They waited for 2 hours, yet they shared these golden morsels with us for free.  The dark meat chicken, which was brined for 2 days, was juicy and plump with a crispy rosemary crust that complemented the home made BBQ sauce.  Ludo, je t’aime.

I believe in reciprocating good gestures and random acts of kindness, so I quickly ran up to the VIP lounge to fetch all of us some hot mini donuts seasoned with confectioners sugar and cinnamon sugar.  They were delicious, especially shared with our new friends.

My friend and fellow food blogger Bill Esparza from Street Gourmet LA took me around this chaotic street fest.  He was responsible for recruiting the 2 food stands which to me really depicted the true meaning of street food. Sabor de Bahia served Brazilian street food like acarajé, which are beautiful ground black eyed pea fritters deep fried in red palm oil, then stuffed with chopped tomatoes, a creamy shrimp paste and topped with a tangy chili sauce called pimenta.  This was my favorite item of the day.

We also tried coxinha de frango, Portuguese for little chicken legs.  These small but dense deep fried dumplings were made with flour dough and filled with shredded chicken, chopped vegetables and cream cheese.  They’re formed into their classic tear drop shape before they’re battered and fried up.  The coxinha were the size of a golf ball, but they deceptively weighed heavier than a dumbbell.  Packed with power and savor, these balls delivered.  With a squeeze of ketchup right out of the bottle in true Brazilian style (according to Bill), we thoroughly enjoyed these Brazilian delights.

Antojitos de la Abuelita came strong with their tlayuda, the Oaxacan version of thin crust pizza.  3 types of succulent meats lay atop a  generous slab of beans, tomatoes, onions and shredded cabbage.  Chili marinated pork called cecina and salted beef called tasajo were both mouthwatering and delicious, but my favorite morsel of meat was the homemade chorizo.  We also had a fantastic plate of chicken in green mole sauce.

As we finished our day at the street food festival with some Hawaiian style shaved ice which wasn’t anything like the refreshing cups of shaved iced that I’ve had on the islands, I pondered once again over this food truck craze in LA.  Although I am not a big fan of this so-called ‘gourmet’ food truck phenomenon as previously posted in my blog, I accept its popularity and presence all over the streets of LA.  I think it’s great that there is something food related that people can get excited about, but just like the economic bubble, this food truck bubble is bound to burst very soon.  It’s impossible for these trucks to keep multiplying at the same pace.  Sooner or later, the really bad ones will be weeded out and only a few will remain.

What I have more of a problem accepting is for these young food trucks, serving outrageous new food combinations, to be called ‘street food’.  Street food to me depicts regional cuisine and local flavors which have been painstakingly protected and honored by its people.  It doesn’t matter where it’s sold- out of an apartment, a street corner, a food truck or a restaurant- but it should reflect a long history of tradition and culture that has remained untainted by modern trends.  I got a taste for real street food in East LA a couple of weeks ago when Bill took me on a food crawl to meet some of his trusted vendors.

Our first stop was a food truck on a street corner close to Olympic Boulevard and Dakota.  There were actually 2 similar food trucks in close proximity to each other.  One had a long line of customers, and I assumed that this was where we were going.  These customers don’t know what they’re doing, Bill muttered under his breath, as he escorted me to the one with no line called Mariscos Jalisco.  Hailing all the way from San Juan de los Lagos in Jalisco, these vendors specialized in Mexican seafood delights.  You can get shrimp and octopus cocteles, and even some fresh oysters by the dozen, but we were here for one thing- the shrimp tacos, taco dorado de camaron.  The deep fried morsels of shrimp were so tender they were almost creamy, contrasted by the crunchy texture of the fried taco shells.  The taco was topped with a generous heap of buttery avocados and a tangy salsa with chopped cabbage, cilantro, onions and tomatoes.  Simple.  Comforting. Delicious.

Our next stop was at Tamales Elena in the deep ghetto neighborhood of Watts.  As Bill told me about the history of gang violence in the area, I couldn’t help but wonder if we were talking about the same place.  Granted we went in broad daylight on a beautiful sunny LA day, but there was a sense of peace and chill on the streets as we pulled up behind this unassuming food truck on the corner of Wilmington and 111th.  We were greeted by the patrons of the truck with bright welcoming smiles as we dug our forks into their fantastic pork tamales.  Should we go with the red or green salsa?  No need to make a decision, the friendly patron brought out another complimentary tamale for us to enjoy.  I loved the hearty consistency of the masa and the smoky flavors of the succulent pork filling.

They even let me inside the truck for my very first food truck tour.  It’s not a big space, but just big and comfortable enough to create culinary wonders to please the mass.  A big pot of tamales was quietly steaming away in the far corner, while a pot of stewed meats seduced me to take a peek inside.  Again, delicious and satisfying food for such a low price.  Can you believe that these tamales are only $1?

My favorite part of the food crawl was when I met Rodolfo, who had a food stall on the sidewalks of Soto and Michigan.  This was real street food in the literary sense- it was just a grill and a table on an otherwise vacant sidewalk with a handwritten ‘Barbacoa’ sign hanging on the chain linked fence.  When we commenced our food crawl, I told Bill that I was a big offal lover, so he made this compulsory stop for me to get my pancita fix.  Pancita is lamb’s stomach stuffed with all kinds of offal with chiles and spices, and cooked for hours until the meat becomes tender and flavorful.  It may not sound like your cup of tea, but when Bill started describing this dish to me, I got pretty hot and sweaty.  This is the kind of stuff that turns me on.

The pancita that day was stewed with guajillo peppers, and contained a cheerful assortment of heart, testicles, tripe, lung, liver and stomach.  It wasn’t that gamey but it had just the perfect amount of iron undertone, and the luscious pieces of juicy organ meats made me flutter my eyelashes in ecstasy.  It went particularly well with a splash of chopped onions, a smidgen of cilantro, a squeeze of lime and a dollop of Rodolfo’s red salsa made with habanero, chipotle and chile de arbol peppers and some tomatillo.

We also got to try the lamb tacos, made this particular time with a young 1 year old lamb.  The meat was surprisingly tender with a light flavor, and again went well with all of the condiments.  I loved the comforting and soothing flavors of the lamb consommé, made from the meat drippings of the braised lamb and served with chick peas.  We enjoyed this warm cup of delicious lamb juice in its simple and unadulterated state, but Bill told me that some people add onions and cilantro to it.

Although I really enjoyed the food here, what was most memorable for me was the interaction that I had with Rodolfo.  Rodolfo immigrated from Michoacan, and has been in Los Angeles for many years in order to pursue a better life for his family.  He has been cooking food for as long as he can remember, and really loves what he does.  Since his lamb dishes were so divine, I assumed that he had been doing this for his whole career, but he divulged to us that his specialty is actually seafood.  He looked truly sad when he told us that he wasn’t doing that anymore because he couldn’t find good quality seafood here that was worthy of his dishes.  We talked about his family, his life, his struggles and his passion, all on this street corner in the middle of East LA as cars and buses whizzed by.  I was starting to see the real meaning of ‘street food’.  It’s definitely about the food, but it’s really about the human spirit creating the food.  I was so touched by this man’s humility and dedication, and I didn’t want to leave that street corner.  I wanted to keep talking to him and finding out more about his life, but we had to go to our next stop.

Our next stop was Antojitos Carmen Restaurant on Cesar E. Chavez Avenue.  This is a true rags to riches story, as they used to be a food stall but became so successful that they opened a restaurant.  We started with their pambazo, a torta drenched in chile and fried to a nice black sear.  The one we had was filled with potatoes, lettuce and chorizo.  This, Bill taught me, was real street grub.  This Latin hamburger of sorts was hearty and filling, and the kind of food that would satiate any late night cravings.

They gave us a special salsa to augment our meal.  I don’t think this is on the menu, and it’s something you have to ask for if you know about it.  It was a decadent and heavenly salsa made with different types of seeds and nuts, and brought together with a fiery chile de arbol paste.  It was really delicious, and reminded me a little of Korean gochujang. The mezcla of different textures and flavors in each powerful spoonful was intense and inspiring.

Everything that I tried at this restaurant was new to me, including the huarache with a half portion of huitlacoche and half of chicharrones. Huaraches, named after sandals which resemble its shape, are oblong deep fried masa tortillas with any number of toppings.  I had been dying to try huitlacoche, corn fungus, and I’m glad that I entrusted Bill to guide me to the best place in town.  These tender silky pieces of corn fungus had an earthy and smokey flavor to them that was almost like eggplant.  The other half with chicharrones was fatty and crispy, and evenly tempered by the fresh ribbons of lettuce.

I also got to try a bowl of migas, a pork soup with soaked bolillo bread.  The pork bits, in all its meat, cartilage and fatty glory, had been braised for hours and hours, rendering the cartilage into a soft gelatinous delight and the meat into a tender fall-off-the-bones wonder.  The smokey and intense flavors of the soup reminded me of the heartiness of Taiwanese beef noodle soup.  This wonderful bowl of soup that I had at Antojitos, is something that I would crave when I’m feeling sick, hungover, or even sad.  I can see myself gulping down this entire bowl in silence as the comforting and loving essences of the soup circulate through my body and permeate my cells.

Although my street food crawl, so wonderfully orchestrated by Bill Esparza, taught me the real meaning of street food, I know that I only grazed the surface.  I cannot claim to know the first thing about the Latin street food culture in LA, which penetrates deeper into the veins of this city than anybody can imagine, but I can tell you that the genuine feeling that I got in my heart as I ate this wonderful food and met the even more wonderful people behind it was real.  The so-called ‘gourmet’ food trucks may appeal to the trend seeking part of the brain, but it doesn’t grab your heart or embrace your soul.  Go explore the streets of Los Angeles and experience for yourself the true spirit of street food.  Take the time to talk to the vendors, and you will be sure to hear an inspiring and brave life story that spans many generations and crosses many borders.  Go taste the traditional foods that are all lovingly prepared by hand and let these flavors open up your heart.

Random trivia: Did you know that huitlacoche is a type of fungus that grows on corn and destroys it?  Also known as corn smut or corn fungus, these blue-black spores are considered delicacies in many Latin cultures, and are harvested specifically for human consumption, hence its other name which is Mexican truffle.  Huitlacoche, in Nahuan culture, means ‘raven’s excrement’.

Susan Feniger’s STREET

IMG_0408Chef Susan Feniger of Border Grill in Santa Monica launched her solo debut restaurant Street, on Highland and Melrose, a few months ago.  The inspiration for the restaurant is global street food cuisine, the exotic comfort foods that give every culture its unique identity and flare.  Stemming from her extensive travels and appetite for adventure, Feniger composed an interesting and diverse menu with treats from countries like Japan, Singapore, India and Thailand.  As I perused the busy and somewhat scattered menu, I was curious to see if she could pull this all off.  Los Angeles already offers authentic delicious global cuisine- you can get satiating charcoal BBQ kalbi in Koreatown, the best papaya salads in Thai Town, mouthwatering pho in Little Saigon, and delectable dim sum in Chinatown.  Can one restaurant offer everything and still satisfy the most discerning palates of fussy Angelenos?

The interior of the restaurant is themed in black and orange, with glowing orange neon tubes on the walls interspersed between large sketches of stick figures which looked like messy graffiti.  I felt like I was back in the 80’s- the decor was old, outdated and frankly a bit cheesy.

As my friends and I toasted with a bottle of Prosecco, we immediately entered into a heated debate about what to order.  We knew what most of these dishes were supposed to taste like in its perfect state; should we trust this American chef, take the plunge, and order these items?  Will we only be disappointed or pleasantly surprised?  Should we not take the risk and order the ‘safer’ items instead?

We started off with the New Jerusalem Bread salad with Jerusalem artichokes, Persian cucumbers, tomato, olives, feta cheese, parsley, cumin toasted olive bread with a warm sumac oil and lemon dressing.  It seemed like a safe bet to start with.  The salad was refreshing with a nice acidic dressing, tart freshness of the parsley, and juicy tomatoes.  The olive bread was too chewy and moist for the salad, but it was a nice dish overall.

The Indian Vada dumplings, homemade urid dal fritters with yogurt sauce, mint and tamarind date chutney.  The mint sauce was refreshing and light, and the flavors melded well together, though the dumplings were too chewy.

The Hawaiian Alanui poke with diced ono fillet and avocado on crispy sesame rice cakes.  The fish was fresh and tender with a nice subdued acidity to the marinade, and the avocado brought an additional layer of rich buttery texture to the dish.  The rice cakes were nice and crispy, though a lot thicker than I imagined it would be.

The Moldavian meatballs, ground beef and kasha meatballs simmered in a sweet and sour tomato sauce with dill sour cream.  This was my favorite dish of the evening- the meatballs were soft, tender and airy, and the dill sour cream sauce had a nice tart kick to it.

The Singaporian Kaya toast dish with coconut jam-spread toast served with softboiled egg with soy sauce and white pepper.  The egg was perfectly cooked, and the runny yolk coupled with the dark rich soy sauce made for a nice dipping sauce for the toast.  The bitter bite of the fresh watercress was a nice contrast to the sweetness of the coconut jam.  This dish seemed to exemplify the true notion behind simple but good street food- but at $10, it wasn’t street food priced.

We ordered the Tatsuta-age Japanese fried chicken dish to see how well Feniger understood Japanese food.  The chicken was marinated in soy, mirin and sake, deep fried in a rice batter, and served with kewpie mayonnaise sauce, pickled vegetable slaw and chilled soba noodles.  I was really hoping that she wouldn’t butcher this wonderful Japanese dish, but unfortunately she did.  Tatsuta-age is usually made with small bite sized pieces of tender chicken meat that are individually battered and fried, so I was quite surprised when we were presented with 1 enormous piece of deep fried chicken that was cut into 4 huge pieces.  The soba noodles were mediocre at best, and we were all sorely disappointed and let down.  And for $22? Even in Tokyo, one of the most expensive cities in the world, Japanese people wouldn’t pay that much money for a tatsuta-age plate at a restaurant.  At this point we decided not to order any more Japanese dishes, especially not the shio ramen (which I could not believe was going for $15).  It would be a miracle if they could execute a half decent bowl of ramen.

The Korean barbecued short ribs in a sweet and spicy Korean glaze, served with asian pear salad and roasted mushrooms, was also a failure.  Although the meat was tender and juicy, the glaze was unpleasantly sweet and nothing like the real deal that I can get in Koreatown. The enoki mushrooms and pear salad did not complement the flavors of the short ribs either, and none of the essences of the individual components of this dish melded together.

The Massamun chicken curry with red yams and mushrooms in a coconut milk curry sauce had a very nice flavor with lots of beautiful spices, but we were all unhappy that it came already ladled over a bowl of rice.  The rice was completely drenched and saturated with curry sauce, and it would have been nice to have the curry and rice presented separately.  And for $16?

For dessert we had the Vietnamese yogurt panna cotta with damiana muscat and homemade marmalade.  The panna cotta, which tasted like plain store-bought yogurt, lacked richness and depth, and the marmalade sauce was overwhelmingly sweet.

The Egyptian Basbousa, a lime soaked semolina cake with macerated blueberries, lime curd and whipped cream was even worse.  The cake was dry and brittle, the blueberries not exactly macerated, and the lime curd quite boring.

Although Street is potentially a fun place to share a variety of different ethnic flavors, it doesn’t quite deliver.  I love the global street food concept, but none of the dishes truly captured the authentic native flavors or essence of the culture that it was representing.  On top of that, none of the dishes were priced at appropriate friendly street food prices.  Case in point: Street is now offering take-out bento boxes with 6 items, for $25.  A take-out box for $25?  Come on now…

Your money is better spent just down the street at Mozza.

Susan Feniger’s STREET

742 North Highland Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90038-3415
(323) 203-0500

Random trivia:  The Jerusalem artichoke (also called sunchoke) is not actually an artichoke, but a member of the North American sunflower family. The name comes from the Italian ‘girasole articiocco,’ or Sunflower artichoke. Mispronunciation in English accounts for the development of the modern name.

Rivera Restaurant

Culver City is SO last year.  Downtown LA is the hot culinary mecca of the moment in Los Angeles, as new bars and restaurants are opening just as quickly as the Ritz Carlton tower is going up.  From Liberty Grill to Wurstkuche, Drago Centro to Bottega IMG_9082Louie, there are more reasons to flock to downtown LA now.  Even after the exponential surge of kitchy downtown lofts and swank hotel bars a few years ago, it still seemed like downtown was dead; there never seemed to be a good enough reason to congregate there.  After events at the Staples Center or the Disney concert hall, my friends and I would opt to return to the west side for dinner and drinks.  Now Angelenos are willingly drudging through horrible freeway traffic and paying expensive parking fees in order to indulge in the latest dining adventures there.

IMG_9075The most notable on the scene is Rivera, a Latin-themed restaurant recently opened by chef John Rivera Sedlar.  The impressive menu incorporates Latin flavors from his extensive travels through South America, Mexico and Spain, southwestern comfort from his upbringing in New Mexico, and French techniques from his culinary training.  The large beautiful space is split into many sections, each with a unique theme and design.  IMG_9079A minimalist square communal table stands next to a sushi counter-esque ceviche bar that looks out onto the busy open kitchen.  On the other end is the elegant and dark Sangre room, illuminated in eerie shades of blood red from the large chandelier above and golden yellow through the backdrop of tequila bottles.  Flanked in the middle are specially made tequila tasting chairs, more dining tables with gorgeous leather banquettes, and the classy tequila bar.  They even have outdoor counter seating where you can get an unobstructed view of the majestically lit LA Live complex.  The contemporary space is sexy, dark and mysterious.

We started with the patates xips, Kennebec potato chips with caviar, microgreens and chipotle lime cream.  It was a nice starter to complement our Brut champagne, although one thing I’ve learned about caviar is that ‘more is better’- another heap of caviar would have elevated this dish from great to perfect.

Tortillas florales, housemade Nixtamal tortillas with ‘Indian butter’.  Chef Sedlar explained to us that the maize was freshly ground in the kitchen and handmade the traditional way ‘by our señoras’.  With chives and edible flowers pressed into each warm piece, these adorable earthy tortillas with the smooth and creamy avocado butter brought me one step closer to understanding and appreciating the culinary history of the Americas.


Caballito de sopas dobles- 2 Latin soups with different flavors and different temperatures.  A layer of warm lamb velouté with black beans was layered on top of cold refreshing potato vichyssoise.  It was an interesting and inventive concept, and I especially loved the creaminess and flavor of the potato soup.  Although the lamb velouté tasted more like a sauce than a soup at first, once the 2 soups came together inside my mouth, I realized the delicious intention behind this dish.

At this time the sommelier opened an absolutely delicious bottle of 2006 Alto Moncayo Garnacha, Campo de Borja Spanish wine for us.  It was a good decision to trust him with the wine selection, as their wine list was overwhelmingly extensive.  It was an impressive collection that had selections from Portugal, Spain, Argentina, Chile and Uruguay, and an even more amazing selection of sherries, marsalas and ports.  The Alto Moncayo was one of the best Spanish wines that I have had in a long time.  After my meal at Rivera, I hunted it down at the Woodland Hills Wine Company and bought a half dozen for myself.

Chile pasilla relleno- pickled pasilla chile with burrata cheese, served chilled.  The pasilla chile was marinated for a day in vinegar, salt and sugar, and had a deep smokey flavor with an acid kick.  As Chef Sedlar proudly presented the dish to us, he explained that this was his interpretation of the classic chile relleno.  “People normally think of chile relleno as a big green chile with lots of goopy melted cheese.  You’ll find that this one has an intense flavor” he said, with kind gentle eyes and a friendly smile.  “It’s also a dish with a political statement”, he added with a wink. Indeed, stenciled above the pasilla in brick red chile powder was that street sign that most of us have seen near the Mexican border on the 5 South.

Choros al Vapor- mussels with aji amarillo-pisco broth.  Aji amarillos are yellow Peruvian chiles, and pisco is a South American grape liquor.  This dish to me was a bit too mellow and almost fruity and sweet, lacking in robustness and depth.

Jamón Ibérico de Bellota pata negra- of course, how can we not order this?  An absolute joy, as always, to have this succulent flavorful cut of the finest ham in the world.  Paired with the Alto Moncayo wine, I would have been happy just eating this all evening.

Mole Kurobuta pork chop- an intense mole sauce coating a juicy succulent kurobuta pork chop.  This dark and rich mole sauce was absolutely exquisite.  It was a perfect blend of smokey chile flavors with the slight bitterness of cacao.  I usually don’t like dark mole sauces as they tend to be too sweet for my taste, but this one was polished and flawless.

Carne churrasco prime ‘eye’ of rib-eye steak with cabrales cheese, onion foam, aji amarillo sauce, purple potatoes, yam, carrots and green onions.  It was a well-executed dish, but the fantastic pork chop with mole sauce was a hard act to follow.

Estudio en flan- three different styles of the classic flan with progressing degress of sweetness, with three complementary sauces.  The first flan was light and fresh like a panna cotta, made with vanilla beans and paired with a blackberry curry sauce.  The second flan was like a traditional custard flan with a medium consistency and smoky caramel flavor.  This, paired with a lime mint sauce, was my favorite flan.  The third flan, served with strawberry jus, was thick and dense like a block of cheese.  Overall this was a delightful and innovative dessert that paired wonderfully with a glass of tequila de mujer, a vanilla infused tequila that was a Rivera special.  Tequila with dessert?  I was hesitant at first, but the knowledgable sommelier was right again. This tequila was divine.

Olive oil cake with 2 sorbets (créme fraîche and strawberry), with spanish balsamic sherry vinegar marinated strawberries.  This was another winning dish with an incredibly moist cake and marinated strawberries that had a perfect balance of tart and sweet.

As I finished the fabulous meal, I listened to Chef Sedlar talk about his passion for tequila as he pointed to the beautiful walls of the Sangre room lined with glass bottles of high grade Jalisco tequila.  Each bottle is kept under lock and key, and for a $1200 membership, you can get your name engraved on the side of your bottle.

IMG_9068The dishes at Rivera were bursting with flavor and imagination, and the wine and tequila were amazing.  The ambiance was sexy, and the contemporary decor was avant-garde with a touch of class.  The staff was incredibly warm and attentive, and I fell in love with Chef Sedlar’s grace and charm.  Rivera is a new beacon of culinary radiance in the once lifeless downtown LA.

Rivera

1050 South Flower Street
Los Angeles, CA 90015-5100
(213) 749-1460

Random trivia:   Last year scientists discovered that they can make synthetic diamond crystals from tequila.  Even the cheapest brands of tequila, at $3 a bottle, were good enough to make diamonds.