LQ@SK- Los Angeles

An f-bomb bellowing lad in a yellow banana suit hardly seems like a fitting partner for a classically trained French chef, but when the stars aligned for the unlikely duo that is Starry Kitchen’s Nguyen Tran and Chef Laurent Quenioux, a delicious culinary project was born.  Los Angeles diners were saddened with the news of Quenioux’s Bistro LQ closing earlier this year, one of the few restaurants in the city that offered a wonderfully stocked cheese cart and a vivid menu of non-traditional fare like calves’ tongue, duck neck and goat tripe, proteins perhaps too adventurous and ambitious for the local audience. While Quenioux has since kept busy in the kitchens of Vertical Wine Bistro as Executive Chef, his enthusiasm and creativity needed an extra outlet, and a pop-up project called LQ@SK (Laurent Quenioux at Starry Kitchen) was born.

What started out as an underground food operation out of Nguyen and Thi Tran’s apartment has now become a famous joint called Starry Kitchen where downtowners nosh on lemongrass chicken bánh mì and crispy green tofu balls for lunch, and spicy Korean black pork belly for dinner on Thursday and Friday evenings.  Starry Kitchen has a loyal following, a spacious dining room, an energetic staff, a large kitchen, an available venue for dinners most nights of the week, and a signature mascot/owner whose banana suit has become just as famous as his radiant smile and dirty mouth- it’s a near perfect location for a pop-up.  Near perfect, that is, as there is no gas stove- only an induction cooker that may scare off most chefs, but not our French renegade whose LQ@SK ‘Fooding Around in LA’ pop-up dinner shows no sign of such kitchen shortcomings in his dynamic food. The first successful run of LQ@SK last month showcased delectable whimsies of global delicacies like escamoles tacos and teriyaki rabbit albondigas. This year, he started his tasting menu with another Mexican delicacy in his amuse bouche, huitlacoche.

Amuse  – Little neck clam, huitlacoche, epazote, sauerkraut sushi

Poached and chopped little neck clams were neatly tucked into a bite sized sushi with huitlacoche, sauerkraut and epazote flavoring for a light and crunchy amuse.  The earthy seduction of huitlacoche, dark maize fungus also known as corn smut (and raven’s excrement in Nahuatl), came through very slowly through each successive bite.

Warm veal feet, “ravigote”, anchovy, piquillo varnish, “gargouillou” of summer vegetables

One of my favorite courses of the evening was the warm veal feet, a delightfully gelatinous and tender serving of buttery meat, classically paired with an acidic ravigote sauce and an anchovy fillet that added a whole new dimension of flavors to the dish.  That alone would have sufficed to make for a satisfying course, but the addition of bright orange piquillo varnish with an assortment of summer vegetables (cucumber, tomato, radish, carrot and beets) transformed each bite into a memorable marriage of bright festive flavors.

Scallops 2 Ways, (tartar and sautéed), beet ribbons, zucchini smear, vermouth demi glace

Minced scallops perfumed with yuzu and a sprig of dill glided across a carpet of red and yellow beet sauce while a meaty scallop, perfectly pan seared to exquisite tenderness, soaked up the flavorful juices of the vermouth demi glace and zucchini smear.

Lemongrass galanga Consommé, Sautéed Foie Gras, Dungeness crab, roasted nectarine

The other memorable success of the evening was the Dungeness crab and roasted nectarine dish, not only for the complex flavors and light seductive aromas of the beautifully done broth, but for the surprising fact that the foie gras, which would normally take center stage, was outshined by the summer nectarines.  The foie was transformed into a docile and subtle accent under the sweet spell of the fruits and soup, making for an unexpectedly light dish that was easy to eat and enjoy.

Lamb loin, lamb kidney, lamb sweetbreads, chipotle, sweet peas

The lamb trio, reminiscent of Chef Quenioux’s Bistro LQ days, presented a trio of lamb loin with peas and tarragon, lamb kidney with a spicy chipotle sauce and lamb sweetbreads with Meyer lemon and thyme. Each told a completely different story, and the one that lured me in the strongest with its unique texture and lingering spiciness was the lamb kidney with chipotle.

Pandan pana cotta, grenadine, prickly pears, cherry apricot sorbet

Colorful Crayola hues and playful contemporary plating popped against the white background, each component with a strong personality that delighted my palate.   Bright magenta prickly pear smear, grenadine Thai basil seeds with a quiet crunch and a quenelle of cherry apricot sorbet were fun components to this dessert plate, but the Kaffir lime and pandan panna cotta, with an unusual lime green color, was the most memorable, for it lingered for almost half an hour on my palate.

Techno music, friendly staff and a laid back vibe created an atmosphere that made it seem like a casual gathering of friends more than a restaurant pop-up, a refreshing experience in this phase of LA dining where guest chef stints and pop-ups are becoming all too common.  $45 for 5 solid delicious courses was also appealing, reminding me that great food and a fun dining experience can still be had for an affordable price and not exclude budget conscious diners.  This second round of LQ@SK will only be around for a few more weeks, and we can only hope that there will be more to come.

*August 7th at 7pm, LQ@SK will be doing a special 1 night-only dinner event for LA Gastronauts. Fancy some duck hearts, bear tenderloin, cockscombs, sea cucumbers and…..beaver? Sign up for this unique dining experience before it sells out!

LQ@SK

Starry Kitchen                                                                                                                 350 S Grand Ave
Los Angeles, CA 90071                                                                                                   (213) 617-3474

Random trivia:  Did you know that epazote, a pungent Mexican herb, is frequently used to season beans as it is believed to help relieve abdominal discomfort and gassiness from eating beans?

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’.