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.

Mariscos Ruben- Tijuana, Mexico

I was never a big fan of the so-called ‘gourmet’ food trucks in Los Angeles that serve anything from kalbi tacos to shrimp har gow and rainbow rolls.  It’s a whole different story though when it comes to delicious Mexican street food trucks such as the ones that Bill Esparza from Street Gourmet LA has introduced me to.  I’ve enjoyed clayudas, tacos, huaraches and vampiros that exemplify the pure essence and spirit of street food.  Even then, the excessive food truck craze has somewhat miffed me enough to create a personal aversion to all trucks in general, including U-Hauls.   I’m more comfortable eating these tasty morsels off of a table or a cart on the sidewalk.

Fortunately, I got some positive biofeedback therapy for my mobilogrubophobia through Dr. Esparza when he took me down for a weekend culinary Baja trip a few months ago.  The fresh seafood tostadas at La Guerrerense in Ensenada were so unbelievably delicious that my strong yearning for Sabina’s food causes an anginal chest pain.  Another such place that still haunts me with its succulent and tasty food is Mariscos Ruben in Tijuana.   Given the scene in LA, I was imagining that the streets of Tijuana would be flooded with food trucks, but it was quite the opposite.  Mariscos Ruben is one of the few trucks in all of Mexico- in fact, it’s a truck, stall and grill squeezed into one delicious establishment.

This Sonoran seafood truck in Tijuana that Bill called a ‘seafood love shack’ on the Baja episode of Bizarre Foods is run by husband and wife team Ruben and Mirta Elena Rodriguez.  They’ve been in this business for 20 years where they started off in Mirta’s home town in Ciudad Obregón in Sonora, and have spent the last 15 operating out of this truck on this street corner in Tijuana.  On any given day there will be a crowd of locals both young and old, who line up along the counter for the freshly shucked clams and outstanding aguachiles skillfully prepared by Mirta and staff.

When our clan arrived at Mariscos Ruben, matriarch Mirta gave us a bright smile when she saw Bill’s face, but a split second later went back to her molcajete with a serious and stern look.  She was in the middle of preparing her famous aguachile brew in the volcanic rock mortar, using ground dried chile tepin, chipotle purée and lime juice, and she wasn’t about to let a few out of towners interrupt her tight operation.  Succulent raw shrimp and firm Sinaloan scallops were briefly marinated in the ‘firewater’, and served in the molcajete with a circumferential array of sliced cucumbers and cooked shrimp.

Meanwhile, in the tent behind the truck, patriarch Ruben tended to the marlin taquitos on the mesquite grill.  The pink marlin meat was as savory and hearty as pork, surprising me with its incredibly complex flavors.  The chargrilled taquitos, topped with cabbage, tomatoes, cilantro, onions, avocado salsa and a delicious chipotle mayo, were life changing for me.  At first there was the crunchy exterior of the perfectly grilled taquitos, followed by the smokiness of the juicy and salty marlin meat, intertwined with the freshness of the shredded cabbage and texture of the diced onions, mellowed out by the creaminess of the avocado salsa only to be invigorated again by the chipotle sauce.  How could this small parcel of food be so elaborate and intricate, and one of the most delicious unions of sea and land that I’ve ever tasted, yet served on an otherwise barren street corner out of a small truck in Tijuana?

One of Mariscos Ruben’s specialties is the Caguamanta con Aleta de Atun, a classic Sonoran soup of manta ray and tuna fin that used to be made as a turtle soup, but no longer so due to the ban on consumption of the endangered species.  Axial cuts of tender tuna fins with white gelatinous flesh and dark skin looked like little sailboats floating in the rich tomato based broth that was packed with comforting flavors, while delicate chunks of white manta ray meat were contrasted by the slight crunch of the finely chopped red onions and cilantro.  Like homemade chicken soup for a bad case of the flu, this bowl of caguamanta was comforting, soulful and therapeutic.

Freshly shucked Pismo clams were wrapped in foil with queso blanco and Maggi seasoning, and cooked in its shell over the mesquite grill for the clams au gratin dish.   Once the grilled clams were re-opened, a bit of Worcestershire sauce was splashed onto the succulent flesh for a flavor boost and served hot and steaming.  We got to sample another take on the dish, the mixto gratin with octopus, shrimp, scallops and clam, with an equally sweet and smokey flavor packed full of seafood essence.

We were lucky enough to have visited Mariscos Ruben on a day that they had fresh pata de mula, small mangrove cockles from the local waters.  Freshly shucked by the skillful hands of the Mariscos staff, and flavored with a dash of Worcestershire sauce, these crunchy clams with a dense black color were perfectly and sensationally briny, teeming with the flavors of the Baja sea.  They were served alongside a generous serving of fresh Pismo clams with salsa fresca.

They were out of the house specialty, crab claws, but with the inspirational marlin tacos that rocked my world, and a virgin encounter with pata de mula cockles, I wasn’t the least bit upset.  I was fully enraptured by the workings of this food truck, where I had fresh clams being thrown at me from one side, and smokey grilled treasures being tossed from the other.  It was a tight ship that this couple ran, and with such fresh Baja treasures that were being made in this mobile joint, I was healed from my phobia of food trucks and converted into a believer.  After our meal, Ruben took me outside to the small park by the truck to show me the local vegetation and give me a botany lesson.  “In our culture, we would take these flowers and leaves…”, he would say, as he explained Baja folklore and superstition to me over the sound of local traffic.  Meanwhile, dining companions Barbara Hansen munched on the last of the Pismo clams as she listened to a street singer who broke out in a loud performance and Bill climbed into the truck kitchen to check out Mirta’s cooler full of Sinaloan scallops as Chef John Rivera Sedlar was getting his shoes shined at the front of the truck.  The true essence of street food culture…it doesn’t get any better than that.

Mariscos Ruben
Corner of 8th & Quintana Roo
Tijuana, Mexico

Open 7 days a week, 8am-8pm

Random trivia:  A molcajete is a Mexican mortar and pestle, a 3 legged bowl carved out of basalt volcanic rock.  Since the porous basalt absorbs flavors, molcajetes are known to ‘season’ with time and use much like a cast iron skillet, and are passed down through generations.

La Guerrerense- Ensenada, Mexico

The last time that I crossed the border down to Baja California was back in 1997 when a group of us piled into a pick up truck with sleeping bags and bathing suits for a week long vacation.  There were 8 of us, adventurous and reckless hippie students, who made the long trek through the chaotic streets of Tijuana, along the beaches of Rosarito, past the town of Ensenada and through the barren Dr. Seuss deserts of Baja Norte until we parked our vehicle at Mulege.  From there, we loaded up sea kayaks with a week’s worth of food and water along with a tortilla press that we borrowed from a local fish taco stand, and paddled off into the Sea of Cortez for an island hopping adventure.  Our daily proteins had to be hunted and scavenged; the men went line and spear fishing while I skin dived with a hunting knife in hand for mussels and clams.  The Sea of Cortez was rich with fresh and tasty offerings, and we ate like kings and queens.  We honored the food that was given to us by the spirits of Baja and we never took more than what was necessary.  We slept on the beach under the shooting stars,  took midnight dips in the warm bioluminescent waters and kayaked in tranquil waters alongside pods of dolphins that numbered in the 300′s.  Baja California is and will always be a special and magical place for me where I felt at one with the energy of the land and the sea.

When my good friend Bill Esparza of Street Gourmet LA invited me to join him for a weekend culinary Baja trip, I didn’t hesitate to say yes.  A chance to revisit my long lost love, Baja California?  Tears almost welled up in my eyes as I flashed back to how peaceful and happy I felt on my 2 previous sea kayaking trips to Baja.  But Bill’s itinerary wasn’t bound for the Bay of Concepción- it was for Tijuana and Ensenada.  The crazy city where college kids party at Senor Frog’s?  I cringed for a split second, but by this time I knew Bill well enough to completely trust that he had something special up his sleeves.  With Chef John Rivera Sedlar, food writer Barbara Hansen, and gourmand Brian Saltsburg in tow, we crossed the border down to Mexico for what would end up being an unforgettable weekend.

Bill knows these cities like the back of his hand, and he knows all of the chefs and owners like his family.  One of the most memorable stops that we made was on the street corner of First and Alvarado in Ensenada, a small unassuming food cart under the watchful eye of the majestic flag of Mexico.  At this cebicheria called La Guerrerense, matriarch Sabina Bandera Gonzalez whips out the most mindblowingly scrumptious seafood tostadas to a never ceasing crowd of locals and tourists.

Crunchy tostadas are made with a variety of fresh ocean delights, from fish, shrimp and octopus to clams, abalone and even sea cucumbers.  Due to the ocean-to-cart concept of this wonderful tostada cart which is famed for being Chef Benito Molina’s favorite lunch spot, there may be days when they’re out of certain products.  Much to my dismay they were out of sea cucumbers, pata de mula black clams and abalone which are some of my most favorite foods, but I was quickly distracted with Sabina’s first offering, a rich and flavorful bacalao lincod tostada teeming with earthy chili aromas and a spike of green olive saltiness.

The flat tortillas were light and crunchy, but sturdy enough to withstand falling apart to my big bites, allowing for smooth and mess-less eats.  Within seconds the bacalao tostada was in my happy belly and I contemplated my next move, to which Sabina handed me an erizo sea urchin tostada with a wise and knowing nod.  I quickly pounced on it and was surprised by the first bite.

I was expecting a mild buttery uni but La Guerrerense’s version had an overpowering salty flavor like conserved uni, leaving me a bit confused- only then did I realize that I had pulled a rookie move by biting into this tostada right away before Sabina could finish garnishing it.  I thought she would give me an ‘Ay, hija…’ look, but instead she responded with a loving smile before topping it off with succulent chunks of freshly shucked almejas pismo clams, slices of avocado and a few splashes of hot sauce.  This was when I had an epiphany about life, similar to the one that I had many years ago when I was knee deep in the Sea of Cortez on a deserted island with a net full of fresh mussels, salt crusted hair blowing in the hot wind as I engaged in a distant tête-à-tête with a curious sea lion. The tender and sweet clams engaged in a joyous dance with the brininess of the sea urchin and the silky textures of the buttery avocado, awakening my taste buds to the bountiful harvests of the local waters.

Thick slices of freshly prepared caracoles, sea snails, had a splendid meaty flavor with the texture of steamed abalone.

I couldn’t get enough of the almejas, pismo clams, that came with my sea urchin tostada, and I asked for a whole plate.  Even then, I wanted more of this heavenly clam that tasted even more fresh with a squirt of lime juice, a pinch of sea salt and a tinge of hot sauce.  The flesh had a nice subtle crunch like a geoduck clam, but was tender on the bite like a scallop.

We got to meet Sabina’s daughter Mariana, the master shucker and cocktailer who prepared all of the fresh clams for us.  With the precision, grace and confidence that Mariana worked with, you would think that this was her full time job, but she’s actually a full fledged PhD at UCSD who comes down on the weekends to help with the family business.

Another round of chopped pismo clams came on the shell with a half serving with avocado and salt and the other with lime and hot sauce.  Clams this fresh with the smell of cucumber and lettuce just can’t be found in California, even with expert handling, refrigeration and speedy transportation.  That’s the beauty of La Guerrerense- it’s an exceptional place that offers exclusive delicacies native to the region, and these discerning locals who run it really understand the food.  You will never find this type of seafood stall anywhere else in the world.  This is pura Baja.

We finished off our inspirational meal with a tostada of pate de pescado, smoked tuna fish pate, that paired magnificently with the house made pineapple salsa.

Many Mexican food trucks in Los Angeles will offer a salsa verde and salsa roja in addition to the bottled hot sauce staples like Tapatio and Cholula, but down on the coast of Baja, you’ll find homemade salsas of all colors and types.  Even then, it’ll be hard to top the impressive collection at La Guerrerense where Sabina and Mariana line the counter with endless jars of their original creations.  Each salsa has a unique name like ‘Beso de Angel’, ‘Chilito Exotico’, ‘Pepino Endiablado’ and ‘Chilito la Guerita’ which reflects its concept and flavor.  I was blown away by the ‘Chilito Exotico’, a pineapple based salsa with Japanese takanotsume pico de pajaro chiles.  The earthy and smokey aromas of the ‘Chilitos de Mi Jardin’ made with dried chiles, garlic, almonds and peanuts was too phenomenal for words.  I bought a jar of each of these favorite salsas to take home with me, and I savor every spoonful like liquid gold.

When I found out that Sabina had been operating this street cart in the same location for more than 30 years, I almost fainted- oh, if I only knew about this little treasure on my previous trips to Baja.  How my life would be different now- perhaps for better, perhaps for worse.  Had La Guerrerense been on my radar back then, I may never have made it past the stand to make the virgin passage down to Bahia de Concepción where I bathed my body in the sacred waters of the Sea of Cortez.  I may never have had the opportunity to study and understand the mystical properties of the Baja waters had I not fished its treasures with my bare hands and nourished my body with its salt.  There is a reason for everything that happens, and thankfully I’m now at a place in my life where I can appreciate the true magic of La Guerrerense.  Unfortunately, I’m presently also at a place that’s not close enough to La Guerrerense.

La Guerrerense is open every day from 10am to 5pm, except Tuesdays

La Guerrerense
Corner of 1st and Alvarado
Zona Centro, Ensenada
Baja California, Mexico

If you’re a fan of Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern, you may have watched the recent Baja episode.  Recognize the guy chomping on the tostada in the photo above?  That’s Bill Esparza from Street Gourmet LA, my trusted culinary Baja guide who not only guided Andrew Zimmern through the episode, but scouted out and chose the locations for the shoot.  You’ll be seeing posts on my blog about some of the same locations that were on the show.  If you didn’t get a chance to catch the episode last night, you can watch reruns or check out the Bizarre Foods website for more information.

Random trivia:  Did you know that the succulent orange flesh of sea urchins that we enjoy as buttery delicacies are technically the gonads?