California Food Odyssey

Strohltopia will always be cinema-centric, but I’m going to try to incorporate occasional food writing, including this report on my recent trip to California.

By an incredible stroke of good fortune, the Pacific meeting of the American Society for Aesthetics happened to fall immediately before my spring break this year. I thought about the prospect for two seconds and spoke the words aloud: California food odyssey!

As far as I’m concerned, LA is by far the best place in the USA to eat food. It’s not even close. Sure, there are some particular categories that are superior in other places: NYC for pizza and bagels, NJ for Indian food, Seattle for oysters, Texas for BBQ. But no place has anywhere near the breadth and depth of amazingness that LA does.

The plan was to drive along with my wife Angela to Berkeley for the conference, hang out an extra day or two in San Francisco, drive down the coast, and then spend a few days doing some world class eating in LA, punctuated by a quick trip down to San Diego to visit the Riggles.

We had to narrow down our food agenda. LA is just too overwhelming, and I knew that rubber necking would be a bad strategy. We decided to totally cut Mexican food out of the picture. We spent two weeks in Oaxaca last year eating everything in sight and I spent another 5 days in San Diego, during which time I ate like 40 tacos. That itch has been scratched. We decided to focus on two other categories that are particularly well represented in LA: Chinese and Korean. I ate a ton of Chinese food in Flushing last fall and I’m headed to Vancouver/Richmond BC soon, and so I will have visited the three best places to eat Chinese food in North America within one year. We decided we would also fit in one or two Thai meals and a single Persian lunch, and I figured that since it’s Angela’s first visit to California I absolutely had to get her to In-N-Out Burger and Roscoe’s House of Chicken and Waffles. She was appropriately impressed by both.

Here’s a trip report with up-to-date California food recommendations, followed by a brief excursus on my methodology for culinary tourism.

Berkeley

We ate well in Berkeley! Better than I expected, honestly.

Top recommendations:

Royal Egyptian Cuisine

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This is by far my top recommendation for the Bay area. I have to thank my friend Autumn for sending us to this place.  It’s a food truck that sets up by a sketchy little park on Folger Ave. You have to check twitter in the morning to see if he’s going to be there or not: https://twitter.com/EgyptianCuisine?ref_src=twsrc%5Egoogle%7Ctwcamp%5Eserp%7Ctwgr%5Eauthor

If you catch him, the trick is to show up and just say “I’m hungry, Chef Elmy, please feed me,” and then specify any dietary restrictions. I went with Angela and Anthony Cross and it was the best damn food truck omakase we’ve ever had. Elmy himself is hilarious and utterly charming, and the food he served us was a uniformly delicious mix of traditional and bizarre. He served fried polenta seasoned like a samosa. There was a rice and grain pilaf with fucking Roquefort on it. He gave each of us a gyro with fresh flatbread. There were freshly made dolmas and fried peppers and falafel. It was a feast, and it was obscenely cheap. He basically said that he likes to undercharge so that you know that he’s cooking for you out of love rather than a desire for profit. Elmy is a being of pure culinary light. Bask in it. And tip well.

Fournée Bakery

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This was way the hell out of the way but I’m glad I tried it. I had a couple croissant variations and a canelé. The canelé was just okay but the croissants were some of the best I’ve ever had. I started eating the fruit croissant above and then realized I’d better document it. Look at that fucking lamination! This place had a long, annoying line on Saturday morning and it’s in a very inconvenient location but they seemed to have tons of extra trays of each item, so at least you don’t have to race there first thing in the morning lest they sell out. I took two Ubers to get these croissants and I’d do it again without hesitation

Others:

Udupi Palace

This is a fantastic little south Indian place close to campus. I will try to have lunch here every time I come to Berkeley from now on.

Chengdu Style

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This is an absolutely perfect place to take a big group after a conference.  Big tables in a big room with a delightful cafeteria feel. The menu is super legit and we ordered a feast. It was all really good and very inexpensive. Highlights: husband and wife cold beef slices, toothpick lamb, stir fried cabbage, and a gruesome crimson bowl of various innards and cubes of duck blood bobbing in molten chili oil that Thi ate like half of himself before I realized what he was up to and commandeered the remains.

Pyeong Chang Tofu

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Super legit Korean soft tofu joint. I believe it’s an outpost of a popular spot in Oakland. Very spicy broth, beautiful tofu texture, good banchan. Not too expensive. Highly recommended.

Tacos Sinaloa

Mediocre taco joint near campus. The al pastor was alright but definitely not worth wasting a meal on this place.

Chaat Café

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Fish pakoras were a hit and the chaat was solid. Close to campus, recommended.

KoJa Kitchen

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I wound up here with the motley crew of Angela, Susan Feagin, Corey Reed and John Dyck after Saturday’s talks. We chose this place because Angela was super hungry and we needed something fast. KoJa stands for “Korean-Japanese” which would have ordinarily deterred me, given my distrust of all things fusion, but I’m glad I bracketed my skepticism because this shit is delicious. The main event is what they call a KoJA: a sandwich where the “buns” are lightly deep fried garlic rice cakes and the filling is Korean BBQ. Holy shit, these Berkeley undergrads are lucky. If I had access to this place late at night in my undergrad days I would have massacred some KoJa. We also had Kamikaze waffle fries topped with bbq beef, kimchi, hot sauce, and Japanese mayo. Very craveable food.

Royal Rangoon

I had in mind to go to Burma Superstar, but a friend of a friend suggested this place as a less-hipster and lower key Burmese alternative run by former affiliates of Burma Superstar. There were some good starters but the curries were boring and the noodles were bad. Seemed like the food could have benefited from some hipsterization? In any case, not recommended.

Rainbow Donuts

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This place is far from campus but near where we stayed and it’s hella good, though not worth a big expedition if it’s out of the way.

San Francisco

San Francisco sucks now! Wow, does it suck. I remember when there was a legitimate conversation to be had about whether SF or LA is better (I certainly always thought LA), but that conversation is over. San Francisco is tech douchebag purgatory. Everything is outrageously expensive and everyone sucks. Anecdotally, we shared an Uber with some Trader Joe’s shopper who refused to put her groceries in the back because “it’s dirty back there.” The driver, Muhammad, protested, “but the food is completely contained within a grocery bag!” She insisted on bringing three full bags of groceries into the front seat with her, “it’s food, and I don’t want it to get dirty, does that make sense?” Much to my pleasure, Muhammad held onto the truth despite the imminent threat of a bad review: “To me, this does NOT make sense.” No, it certainly doesn’t. We did have some good dim sum, though.

Top Recommendation:

Yank Sing

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Famous dim sum place in a central location, on the expensive side but super amazing. I think it’s justifiable to pay a little extra to eat here if you’re in this part of town rather than schlepping out to a cheaper dim sum place in the environs. I went with Angela and John Dyck and we frickin’ loved it. The highlight for me was the seafood and basil dumpling. Angela went nuts over the honey walnut shrimp and the baked pork bao.

Other:

State Bird Provisions

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This was the splurgiest meal we went for. I was intrigued by the concept: dim sum style service, dim sum inspired dishes, but localvore seasonal farm-to-table Michelin star kinda shit. Alas, I can’t say I’m too surprised to report that it was a bit underwhelming. It wasn’t crazy expensive but you could eat at Yank Sing two or three times for the price of eating here once, and Yank Sing is way better. This is a fun place to eat with friends, though, (in my case, Angela, Samantha Matherne, and Thi) and it’s entertaining to see surprising things roll out of the kitchen and conduct quick negotiations about what to order. I thought the food was generally weak when it tried to imitate dim sum (e.g., the dumpling skins were too thick and a bit under-cooked) and much better when it went off into left field. In retrospect, the most memorable dish was definitely a cube of pork belly that was crispy on the outside and silky on the inside, served with fish sauce vinaigrette and fresh fruit.

Golden Gate Bakery

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Famous egg tarts. The pastry is incredible, the filling is unremarkable. The other pastries they sell are at least as good so don’t stop at the tarts. Overall, I wasn’t as thrilled by this place as I was by the New Flushing Bakery in NY.

Barnzu Korean

We had dinner with an old friend of mine here (the one and only Gary Tsifrin). The sweet and spicy Korean fried chicken was great (skip the garlic soy variant) but this place was just okay overall. It’s the sort of newfangled hipster Korean restaurant where they don’t give you banchan by default. In addition to the chicken, we had a big braised pork hock, which was good but nothing special, a nice seafood pancake, and some very disappointing salty Brussels sprouts.

LA part 1: Koreatown and West LA

We started the Southern California portion of the trip with a brief stay in Koreatown, then hopped down to San Diego for one night, and then spent the last stretch of the trip in the San Gabriel Valley. I totally recommend both Koreatown and the SGV as places to stay. They were cheaper than other areas and you are totally surrounded by amazing food and boba joints. Koreatown also features the famous, fully amazing 24 hour Korean Wi Spa where you can get totally naked (on gender segregated floors) and then sit in a 200 degree sauna (!) before plunging in an ice bath. I love this place: it has just the right mix of shamelessness and extremity for me.

Top Recommendations:

Eighth Street Soondae

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This was a deeply soul satisfying meal. I love everything about this place. You walk into a disconcertingly large, mostly empty room but are immediately beckoned through a door to the cramped backroom dining area. There isn’t much on the menu—mostly variations of soondae and broth—but it all sounds hella good. We ordered a combo platter for me and a bowl of tofu for Angela. The banchan were tremendous. The combo platter turned out to be enough food for four people. There was a big stack of soondae (vermicelli, blood, onions, seasoning, etc stuffed into a casing) and then there were generous piles of intestines and sliced heart, tongue, and liver. I found the overcooked liver unpleasant but everything else was amazing, especially the silky, luscious, mild soondae. If I had to eat one meal for all of eternity this would be a strong contender. The ladies who run the place were impressed by the zeal with which I attacked the family-sized portion.  “You like it?!” “Why yes, I most certainly do.”

Naan Hut

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Sangak bread from the gods. I was going to skip this place but my eating associate Thi Nguyen absolutely insisted that I eat here and then he brought it up five times reminding me to make sure I don’t miss it. I was a bit dismissive at first: how good could naan be? But I decided that Thi is at that highest echelon of aesthetic trustworthiness where I would be a fool not to take such an insistent recommendation from him. I was told to get sangak with kashk and eggplant. And yeah, Thi was right. Do not miss this place. Make sure you try the bread both toasted and untoasted. Toasting brings out more depth of flavor but one also needs to experience the impossibly stretchy texture of the untoasted bread.

Saffron & Rose

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Persian ice cream place not too far from Naan Hut serving some of the best ice cream we’ve ever had. Normally I’m ambivalent about floral ice cream but this is on another level. Angela and I both thought Orange Blossom was the best. Stick with the Persian flavors, I sampled a couple others and they were nowhere near as good.

Others:

Dan Sung Sa

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This is a dark, atmospheric bar with tasty grilled skewers, open late. It isn’t an ideal place to sit down and eat dinner but it would be a great place to party with friends.

Oakobing

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What is this sorcery? I don’t even know. It seemed like some sort of lighter-than-air shaved ice construction but it’s not shaved ice in any normal sense, it’s some ethereal but painfully cold substance from another dimension.

Jitlada Thai Restaurant

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I ate at Jitlada like a decade ago and remember feeling so overwhelmed by the menu that no matter how indulgently we ordered I was never going to be satisfied. I vowed to go back and order completely different things. I’ve finally lived up to that vow, but I still feel like I have to go back a half a dozen more times before I’ll even begin to make headway on that damn menu. This is vibrant, gorgeous southern Thai food, with a lot of unusual regional preparations that you’re not likely to see anywhere else in the US. I’m still dreaming of the pomelo salad. The pork and jackfruit curry was spicy and pungent and the Dungeness crab with chili-garlic sauce was delicious (though they didn’t even attempt to retain any of the delicacy of the crab).

Night + Market

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This is the other really famous Thai restaurant in LA. I had never eaten here before. This place does two totally different things: crowd-pleasing party food and aggressive pork-centric regional food from Northern Thailand. You can only get the really aggressive dishes at dinner time. I was fighting with myself over whether we should spend a dinner slot on this place over Chinese, and I was finally deterred by a trusted friend who told me he had ordered much of the menu and was unimpressed. As it turned out, we drove right by this place at lunchtime and made a snap decision to try out the party favorites. Some of it was pretty good, like sweet and salty wings and a fried chicken sandwich piled with papaya slaw, but this stuff was also quite predictable. The very spicy grilled pork salad was more adventurous but way the hell out of balance: too much acid and salt. It seemed like it had been seasoned indiscriminately. The crispy rice salad was both boring and too acidic.

Attari Sandwich Shop

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Good Persian lunch spot but would not recommend over Naan Hut. Bland but pleasant osh, tender sliced tongue sandwiches. The star is the super interesting kuku sandwich, which contains a frittata-like egg filling that’s about 50% herbs.

Roscoe’s House of Chicken and Waffles

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As Thi rightly put it, there are places with better fried chicken and places with better waffles, but no place with better chicken-waffle gestalt. The soft, fluffy waffles demand to be wrapped around shreds of meat, skin, and syrup like a little taco.

LA part 2: San Gabriel Valley

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There’s not as much to do in this area aside from food but if you’re out this way definitely hit the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena. It has a small but densely wonderful collection and– best of all– it’s not crowded. There were no kids and very few selfie-taking philistines.  We also enjoyed visiting Imen at Tea Habitat (pictured above) to sample the best Dancong oolong collection outside of China. This is very advanced and expensive tea, but if you’re into this kind of thing it shouldn’t be missed.

Top Recommendations:

101 Noodle Express
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The best bite of food I ate on the entire trip was the beef roll at 101 Noodle Express. If aliens visited the Earth and were like “Earthling, show us your most delicious Earth food.” I would be like “yo get that beef roll at 101 Noodle Express.” This paragon of human culinary achievement consists of a thin pancake, lightly smeared with the world’s best sweet bean paste, judiciously studded with shreds of five spice-scented braised beef, generously piled with cilantro, rolled up and fried crisp. It looks intimidating but is actually light, airy, and herb-forward. It’s a crispy, crackly umami bomb of profound deliciousness. I cocked my head back and bellowed “yuuuuuuuuummm.” I’m told their dumplings are also great but I had no eating capability left after the late night beef roll.

Chengdu Taste

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This is widely thought to be the gold  standard for Sichuan restaurants in North America and I don’t disagree. It’s awesome. It will make you sweat and thoroughly anesthetize your mouth, but at the same time it is very refined. The husband and wife beef slices are the best I’ve ever had (though I have to dissent on the dan dan noodles: good but I still think I prefer the ones at Han Dynasty in Philadelphia). One absolutely must order the green pepper fish, which is a nuclear Sichuan bomb. The broth is generously seasoned with green Sichuan peppercorns and raw green chilies and loaded with tender fish slices and crunchy bean sprouts. It’s intensely grassy and floral and it will definitely clear out your sinuses.

Huge Tree Pastry

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Taiwanese breakfast joint, not to be missed. I frickin loved the fan tuan: it’s a savory donut, some fried pork fluff, an egg, and some pickled mustard greens wrapped in rice. The layered textures and balanced, mild flavors made my heart sing.

Beijing Pie House

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These are really damn good Northern Chinese meat “pies.” The shell is thin and light but effective at containing the juices, which dramatically squirt out when the pie is bitten into without appropriate caution. We had lamb with squash and pork with leek and they were stellar.

Others:

Savoy Kitchen

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A longtime institution, serving Hainan chicken in a tiny little corner spot. Hainan chicken is a simple dish of plain poached chicken and rice cooked in the resulting chicken broth, served with three condiments: soy sauce, ginger sauce, and chili sauce. The simplicity of the dish lets the main points stand out: the texture of the chicken, the savory unctuousness of the rice, and the bracing pungency of the condiments. This was a very nice version of the dish, though didn’t stand out among the wealth of SGV treasures.

Hui Tou Xiang Noodles House

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The thing to get here are the hui tou, which are the rectangular pork dumplings pictured above. They have a perfect crispy texture and the oniony filling is delicious.

Shaanxi Garden

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We ate here in honor of my beloved Jia Zhangke (who hails from Shaanxi) after seeing Ash is Purest White (which is an extraordinary film). The specials here are the biang biang noodles and the rou jia mo, which they refer to as a “Chinese hamburger.” It’s a crispy bun filled with braised pork. The noodles had a nice toothsome texture and were long enough to be served with scissors, which is always a good sign. I’d pass on the wontons in hot sauce next time. Angela particularly liked the noodles.

Phoenix Desserts

Hong Kong dessert chain with a couple locations in the SGV. Definitely enjoyed it but I admit I struggled with the Durian mochi rolls.

Banh Mi My Tho

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Anthony Cross absolutely insisted I try this place. It was low commitment to split one with Angela and it was indeed extremely good, though we had even better Banh Mi at Dakao Sandwiches in Vegas on the way home.

Miscellaneous:

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The Riggles have been known to set a damn fine table! Great to see them.

The Griddle

If you ever find yourself in Winnemucca, NV, eat breakfast here.

Fiesta Mexicana

Always delighted to get a chance to swing by the much-loved Dillon, MT taco bus. Some of the best food in the state of Montana.

Nomad Donut

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Made a brief stop in the morning after visiting Riggle in San Diego, and I continue to be impressed by these donuts (which I had a couple times the last time I was in San Diego).

Dakao Sandwiches

A few miles off the highway in Vegas but totally worth it. The best baguette texture of any banh mi I’ve ever had.

Methodology:

I do a fair amount of research for trips like this, and I think in general I get good results. Here’s a few notes on the various resources that are available.

Yelp/Tripadvisor/Google reviews

Borderline useless, especially Yelp. Yelp is so reliably bad that you can almost use it as a reverse predictor. There are many problems with these aggregators. They are too democratic.  Most people who post reviews just don’t know what they’re talking about. Typical reviewers harbor a preference for crowd-pleasing, Instagram-optimized, inoffensive, boring food. People who use these platforms tend to weigh service and cleanliness too highly, giving preference to over-attentive, obsequious service. Very, very often when there are two places in the same category and one place has 4.5 stars on Yelp while the other place has 3 stars, the 3 star place serves better food and doesn’t give a shit what you think of the service. Of the three I think Google reviews tends to be the most useful (the content of particular reviews, not the aggregate) and Tripadvisor is much better than Yelp.

Chowhound

Vastly more useful than Yelp et al, but still unreliable, attracts annoying self-styled foodies, and you have to wade through a lot of useless and outdated content to find useful tips. It can be a goldmine when you find someone who really knows what they’re talking about, though, and there are a lot of people on Chowhound who really know what they’re talking about. In general, negative reviews should trump positive reviews. Everyone wants to think their $200 dinner was good, it takes courage to admit that it wasn’t. Chowhound is California-centric and thus the California discussion threads are particularly overloaded. I only used Chowhound on this trip for cross-referencing recommendations from other sources, but I’ve used it extensively for visits to other cities and gotten very good results.

Asking random locals: Airbnb hosts, taxi drivers, etc.

I know some people who swear by this. It’s high risk but high reward. A lot of people like things that are bad, and it’s not easy to determine how much to trust an individual. If you get lucky with who you ask, though, you can get some of the most up to date and under the radar info.

Food critics

Publications like Eater, The Infatuation, Serious Eats, etc. provide a good starting point but they are extremely fallible and need to be cross-referenced with Chowhound or a friend. A lot of the listicles that these outlets put out (e.g. “15 Best Dumpling Joints in the SGV” or “22 Foods You Have to Try in San Francisco Before You Die”) are composed without much thought or care as ephemeral clickbait, but others are actually quite helpful. Unfortunately, many the critics working for these publications (let alone regional newspapers) are from my experience just unreliable. I’ll never forgive Kenji López-Alt for sending me way the hell out of my way for a mediocre Cuban pork sandwich. If you find someone whose sensibility works for you, it can be a godsend, but it’s a double-edged sword. LA of course long benefited from the work of one of the best and most reliable food critics of all time, Jonathan Gold, but anyplace he raved about was propelled into super popularity and as a result may no longer be as good as it was when he reviewed it. Still, his lists and guides (e.g., the wonderful Koreatown guide) are the best place to start for LA trip planning.

Friends

I don’t tend to crowd-source food recommendations, especially for big cities. You may get some good recs but it generates too much noise. People with limited knowledge of a city will recommend the two things they liked out of the four things they tried. And people are more likely to recommend farm-to-table small plates shit rather than the kind of stuff I like. I try to single out friends whose sensibility I trust and who have extensive knowledge of a given city.  I’m acquainted with some pretty hardcore food enthusiasts, and they are often sources of the very best information, but for a city as big as LA all individuals have blind spots and friends need to be supplemented with other sources.

So, then, my overall methodological recommendation is:

Narrow down your agenda to a few categories; use google, listicles, critics, and Chowhound to generate an initial list; cross reference questionable options with Chowhound and/or by Googling to find food bloggers; and then if you have a friend or two with knowledge of the area run everything by them to eliminate some places and add things you may have missed. Or you can just show up and ask a taxi driver what’s good and not be such a nerd about it.

2 thoughts on “California Food Odyssey”

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