Tag Archives: Japanese

Food Alley at Westfield Santa Anita, Arcadia

For a couple of years now I have heard about the growth of exciting, quality Asian dining establishments in Westfield’s Santa Anita Mall. First, it was Hai Di Lao, the first American branch of the pricey Sichuanese hot pot chain. Then it was the development of Meizhou Dongpo’s second US location and Din Tai Fung’s new larger 3rd Arcadia location. 

All this development has not been limited to big Chinese or Taiwanese chain restaurants. Late last year Westfield Santa Anita opened “Food Alley”, a food court of sorts between the Nordstrom and Din Tai Fung that doesn’t have your typical Panda Express or Sbarro mall food court options. To be clear, there still is a regular food court at Westfield Santa Anita on the first floor near JC Penney’s for all your McDonald’s and Sarku Japan cravings. However, Food Alley contains some out of the box, Asian oriented stores with food that I have never seen in any American mall.

Thus, I had to try out these eateries and see how they matched to all the great restaurants that dot the strip malls elsewhere in the San Gabriel Valley. Since it would be very difficult to try them all by myself, I asked a friend if she would be interested in joining me and she thankfully said yes. These are the dishes and places we tried:

Hainanese Chicken Rice at Side Chick

Hainanese Chicken Rice at Side Chick

  • Hainanese Chicken Rice at Side Chick – Our first stop was at Side Chick, where the star dish is the Hainanese Chicken Rice. The chicken was moist and flavorful while the rice was a little dryer than I like (though saved a little by the church of the fried garlic). I loved the ginger scallion, sambal, and vinegary soy sauces that accompanied the chicken. While the rice is not as good as Savoy, the vaunted Hainanese Chicken Rice slinger in Alhambra, I think Side Chick has the edge as my favorite Southern Californian chicken rice spot for the chicken.
Spicy Niku Udon at Tsurumaru Udon Honpo

Spicy Niku Udon at Tsurumaru Udon Honpo

  • Spicy Niku Udon at Tsurumaru Udon Honpo – While I would have wanted to try more bowls of udon, we were starting to get full from the Hainanese Chicken Rice. We settled on the spicy niku udon. I liked the chewy udon and tender beef slices, but wasn’t really feeling the thicker, kimchi laden broth. While I wouldn’t get the spicy niku udon, the udon and beef were definitely good enough that I am eager to try other bowls of udon the next time I am there.
Pork Soup Dumplings at Din Tai Fung in Westfield Santa Anita

Pork Soup Dumplings at Din Tai Fung in Westfield Santa Anita

  • Pork Soup Dumplings at Din Tai Fung – Since the new Din Tai Fung was around the corner, I just had to try some soup dumplings. I ordered a half order of 5 soup dumplings. While none of them broke (making them better than the Glendale and South Coast locations), there were a couple with dumpling skin tops that were a little thick and chewy. They were certainly good but not up to the standard of the original Din Tai Fung in Taiwan.
Japanese cheesecake at Uncle Tetsu

Japanese cheesecake at Uncle Tetsu

  • Japanese Cheesecake at Uncle Tetsu – For dessert we had the Japanese cheesecake at Uncle Tetsu. The several slices were, in a word, sublime. It was like a creamier sponge cake that was light and fluffy and just a touch sweet. Honestly, if I didn’t have as much self control that night, I might have eaten an entire cake.

All in all, Food Alley blew away my expectations and definitely was the tastiest mall food court I have eaten at this side of the Pacific. And yet, I didn’t even try any ramen or skewers at the Backhouse nor any drinks at Matcha Matcha. If this is what new, modern mall food courts will be like from now on, I guess I’ll be spending more money shopping at Nordstrom and slurping noodles across the country.

 

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O Ramen, Albuquerque

O Ramen
2114 Central Ave SE
Albuquerque, NM 87106

I’m not quite in Vancouver yet, but before I bombarded my blog with a number of posts from British Columbia, I wanted to take a brief detour to my current home of Albuquerque.

Ramen, as some of my friends may know, has become an absolute craze in Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, and other coastal cities in the past 7-8 years. While bowls of fresh, rich ramen have been a staple in Japan for a long time, David Chang’s Momofuku is often credited as sparking the proliferation of Japanese style ramen shops in the United States. The spread of ramen’s cult following has been huge in coastal cities, but it remained notable absent from Albuquerque and other inland cities, until now.

When I heard that there was Japanese style ramen in Albuquerque, I jumped to try it. I went on a date a few weeks ago to try the tonkatsu ramen (their deluxe ramen) and curry (but did not blog about it due to the birthday post backlog). Last week, a friend and I went for lunch where I was able to try their vegetarian ramen. Thoughts on the items below:

Deluxe Ramen

Deluxe Ramen

  • Deluxe ramen – excellent, rich, but not too thick, pork broth broth. The noodles were perfectly done and had the perfect amount. Unfortunately, while the chashu pork fat was melt in your mouth luxurious, the pork meat was dry and tough. I also liked the nori and the perfectly soft-boiled egg.
Chicken Katsu Curry

Chicken Katsu Curry

  • Chicken Katsu Curry – The chicken was breaded very nicely, locking the tender juices of the chicken while having just enough crispiness for crunch. The curry was milder than I like (even for Japanese curry, which is more sweet than spicy), but you can tell that the curry was home made with small chunks of lightly pureed peas and other vegetables
Vegetarian Ramen

Vegetarian Ramen

  • Vegetarian Ramen – whoever says that vegetarian broth is always bland can use a lesson or two from O Ramen. There was a very rich, umami laden broth with a base of several tasty mushrooms, in addition to the herbs and seasoning on top. The tofu was nice and crispy too, though the breading became very soggy, very quickly in the broth (but that was to be expected). This bowl of ramen absolutely defeated my appetite and while I wanted to drink more of the broth and eat more noodles, I could not 3/4 of the way in.

The service is pretty good as well. There are generous refills of water and the check came just right after we finished the meal.

All in all, the quality of the ramen is arguably even better than lesser ramen crazed cities like San Diego and puts O Ramen near the top of my list of Albuquerque area eats.

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Daikaya, Washington D.C.

Daikaya
705 6th Street NW
Washington, DC 20001

Mother’s Day one year ago I started this blog in memory and honor of my wonderful mama, who introduced me to the world of delicious food across East and Southeast Asia. Given that this is a one year anniversary of sorts, I was debating on what to write about. Do I write about a restaurant I have already posted about because I would be eating dishes that my mother would love? Do I write about a new restaurant eating dishes my mom would order, but the execution was subpar? Finally, do I write about a restaurant that serves dishes that my mom would be less experienced in, but is just really good?

I opted for the latter because, at the end of the day, my mom was about eating good food around magnificent company and, on occasion, experiencing new things.

Daikaya

A few weeks ago when I was in DC, I had a quick lunch with a friend of mine after touring the NPR building. We decided on Daikaya, a restaurant serving ramen that has a good reputation and was between where I was visiting and where my friend was working. Given Daikaya’s rave reviews, I was ready to see how it stacked up not just to Toki Underground, the previous king of ramen in DC, but to the great ramen joints in Southern California and New York City.

Fortunately we arrived at Daikaya just before the DC lunch rush started crowding the restaurant. Within about 10 minutes we were seated in their modern bar-esque type seating arrangement. We were promptly served water and ordered relatively quickly. I got the spicy miso ramen with chashu and soft boiled egg.

After waiting for about 10-15 minutes, the bowls of ramen came to our table. The first sip of the soup was heavenly, with a perfect amount of spice and salt. As a person who usually eats Hakata style tonkotsu ramen, which can be a bit salty, I was pleasantly surprised with the lightness but also complexity of the spicy miso flavor. The ramen noodles were cooked just right, which was wonderful given that Toki Underground can have a tendency to overcook their noodles. The soft boiled eggs were also cooked just right with the flavors balancing the spice of the broth really well. The chashu was the only disappointment. It wasn’t bad, per se, but could have been sliced thicker as well as had juicier and fattier cuts of pork.

Overall, Daikaya definitely beat Toki Underground to take the title of “Best Ramen in DC” in my book. As for the comparison between Daikaya and ramen shops in LA or NYC? I feel Daikaya was comparable, but I probably need to eat more Sapporo style ramen shops in either city before I can really judge.

In the end, I think my mama would have agreed with my decision on good food and great times with friends. Given that Daikaya also has an Izakaya upstairs, it looks like I will have more opportunities in the future for friends and food, just as my mom would have wanted it.

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Sushi King, Albuquerque

Sushi King
118 Central Ave SW
Albuquerque, NM 87102

I have driven by Sushi King many, many times on the way to work and back but I never had the chance to go inside. I decided to take the opportunity at lunch today given that I had no food in my fridge. At about 1:30, after having slept in past daylight savings time from an exhaustive, but fun, trip to the Democratic pre-primary convention yesterday, I drove down Central to satisfy my curiosity.

It was surprisingly busy, given the time of day on a Sunday, but there were enough tables empty that my server told me to sit wherever I liked. I sat down and took a look at the sushi menu as well as their regular menu, which were both surprisingly short compared to Asian restaurants in the area who love to inundate you with options. The menu was quite simple and limited to only sushi, noodles, and Japanese curry. Seeing that the type of Japanese noodles I really wanted to taste was not on the menu (ramen), I decided to forsake both the sushi and noodles by ordering Japanese curry with chicken.

Sushi King 1

Now, Chinese and Japanese curry are a little bit different than the curries you would find at an Indian or Thai restaurant. One, Chinese and Japanese curry are less spicy to the point of being what most of us would call mild. Two, Chinese and Japanese curry is fairly simple in that it consistently has three main ingredients aside from the curry: a choice of meat, potato chunks, and cooked medium slices of carrots. Occasionally some places and homes will add onions.

The curry came out in a medium sized bowl with curry that was more like a soup than a thick gravy/paste that I have seen at other Japanese place. Upon tasting the curry, I realized that the problem was the overuse of water, which basically made the dish bland. The chicken, potatoes, and carrots were definitely cooked well, but the curry flavor was not as rich as I was used to. The rice, however, was well cooked and had a sprinkling of sesame seeds on top, which I liked.

Sushi King 2

I should mention that I also ordered 2 pieces of inari (the bean curd skin roll), which they did pretty well. It was tightly wrapped with a very good chunk of well packed sushi rice and a piece of dried seaweed rolled around it in the middle. It’s probably the best inari I have had in years, much better than the laziness of some restaurants which just dollop rice in the fold of the bean curd skin, plop it down on a plate, and call it a day.

In terms of service, the server could have done better. The server was very pleasant and efficient, but not as aware and understanding as I would have hoped. While I was waiting for food, I was asked to move to a smaller table because they were notified that a table of 5 was coming in. This is despite the fact that the restaurant wasn’t very full and I was asked to sit wherever I liked in the beginning. Albeit, this incident could be more about recognizing and checking my privilege given that this isn’t really a big deal in the grand scheme of things. The server could have refilled waters though. I did notice the water glasses of other tables equally parched, yet lacking attention.

All in all, my experience was mediocre, but it seems like I should have headed the restaurant’s advice when the sign explicitly says “sushi and noodles”. Perhaps next time I will have a better experience when I order some nigiri along with a plate of yakisoba or bowl of udon.

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Sumo Sushi, Albuquerque

Sumo Sushi
800 3rd Street NW
Albuquerque, NM 87102

A few months ago I gave a very disparaging review to Amerasia, Sumo Sushi’s sister restaurant which serves good, authentic Dim Sum as much as Taco Bell serves good, authentic Mexican food (though even that is generous to Amerasia). However, I had a pleasant experience in 2012 next door at Sumo Sushi and decided to go their yesterday when my fridge was absolutely bare and I was too tired to buy groceries and cook.

After parking in their gravel parking lot, I entered the restaurant and was promptly seated after a family of three. After a few minutes of serving the family ahead of me, my server gave me a glass of ice water and asked if I was ready to order. I asked for her recommendations on the Donburi and udon bowls, but she said “they’re different” and refused to give a recommendation because she “didn’t want me to complain later.” I was a little surprised at such a defensive response, but nonetheless I decided to go order salmon nigiri, inari (sushi rice wrapped in fried tofu), and Oyakodon (bowl of rice with simmered eggs, chicken, and vegetables).

Sumo Sushi 1

A bowl of complimentary miso soup and it was fairly generic, though nice given the brisk night. Then the nigiri and inari came. I was a little puzzled at only getting two inari pieces as I generally am used to three, but the inari was good if a little understuffed with rice. The salmon nigiri was decent with big pieces of salmon, albeit it wasn’t quite melt in your mouth good. The rice was a little dry and small, but all in all not bad. It could have used some freshly grated wasabi, but in general it’s rare to get fresh wasabi at any sushi restaurant that’s not high end and in a super big coastal city (and even then, you’ll likely get generic wasabi paste a lot anyway).

Sumo Sushi 2

The Oyakodon came last and was definitely redemption for the night. The broth mixed elegantly with the rice, with a slightly subtle but very clean and fresh flavor. It complimented the eggs, chicken, onion, and bell pepper slices as well. While clay pot rices of Chinese cuisine and bibimbap of Korean cuisine are divine in their own right, the Oyakodon here definitely reminded me why I liked donburi best among small mixed rice bowls in East Asian cuisine.

Once I was done, the second server refilled my water glass and cleared my table. Finally the bill was presented to me as the final seconds of the Duke-Syracuse NCAA men’s basketball were being played. It came to about $20, not including tip. While the service wasn’t great, the Oyakodon and the pleasant atmosphere more than made up for it. I’ll definitely be back again, but definitely not for the Dim Sum and hopefully with a different server.

As a side note, if you want to listen to an excellent NPR program episode on Japanese food, I recommend listening to this January episode of Good Food with Evan Kleiman.

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Sushi Hana, Albuquerque

Sushi Hana
521 Central Ave NW
Albuquerque, NM 87102

Wow, first of all I want to say thank you for all your thoughts, support, and positive comments about my last post, “One Year.” It’s truly inspiring to see my family, my friends, and my friend’s friends read my personal tribute to my mom and how much she inspires me to this day as evident by this blog. Thank you so much for joining me on this culinary journey in honor of her.

Speaking of culinary journeys, I am truly privileged that my food adventures started in Southern California. After all, I can pick and choose which of the several dozen Dim Sum parlors I want to eat at in the San Gabriel Valley on any given day. If I don’t want to eat beef pho, I can go a few blocks down Bolsa or Brookhurst in Westminster, CA, to eat a delicious bowl of chicken pho or pick up a banh mi sandwich. Likewise in San Diego I can choose between sushi, ramen, teppan, and other types of Japanese restaurant at my leisure. In just one relatively small strip mall in Irvine I can choose between five shops that serve their variations of Taiwanese beef noodle soup.

Albuquerque, like most of America, is different. There’s only one place that serves authentic dim sum (sorry, Amerasia doesn’t count) and one place that does Taiwanese food. Given the relative lack of Asian people in the city, aside from the sizable Hoa (Vietnamese from China) population, it’s natural that some restaurants serving Asian food would combine different cuisines to offer people a chance to try different foods without needing to go to larger cities like Phoenix or Denver.

Sushi Hana

One such restaurant is Sushi Hana, which predominantly serves sushi and other Japanese items, but also sells a few Korean dishes too. Since that intrigued me a little bit, I decided to try a bulgogi bento box and an order of salmon nigiri. This might not be the most authentic thing on the menu, but it also killed two birds with one stone in terms of seeing at least how one restaurant tries to navigate the foods of Korea and Japan together.

The bulgogi actually turned out well. It was tastefully marinated without being overpowered by the sauce. The beef was cooked nicely too. The bento box also included a small portion of seaweed salad (decent), California roll (filled with imitation crab meat with some type of creamy sauce that tasted just off, but at least the avocados were good!), tempura (decently battered), and an egg roll (nothing special). There was also miso soup with mushrooms as well, which I did like. As for the nigiri, the salmon was reasonably fresh for a non-coastal city and the rice was cooked well, however they didn’t quite come together seamlessly and could have used a dab of wasabi.

The service was pretty good though with attentive, but not overly pushy, waitstaff that made sure I was treated well. All in all it was a nice experience, with some flaws balanced by other highlights. Sushi Hana certainly wouldn’t compare to, say, Sushi Ota in San Diego, but it does a good job in attempting to execute quality Japanese and Korean food. It’s not easy trying to balance two food traditions, as it would be similar to a Mexican restaurant with Salvadorean items or a French restaurant with Spanish items. However, in many places it is the reality and you just have the admire the chefs who do a good job.

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Uncle, Denver

Uncle
2215 W. 32nd Ave.
Denver, CO 80211

tofu

My first foray into authentic Japanese style ramen that you could find bountifully in Tokyo was the much vaunted Momofuku Noodle Bar, the restaurant that helped launch celebrity chef David Chang to fame. I came into the bar knowing about the rave reviews, but still a skeptic because I had been trained to believe that ramen was just cheap noddles to be thrown together in an instant if you’re hungry, like most Americans. The first bite at Momofuku, however, converted me to a ramen lover in an instant.

To be sure, the price was expensive. If my memory is correct, the ramen itself was $20-25, a rament splurge even by New York standards. However, the pork was so tender, the broth so refreshing, and the egg so perfectly soft poached. I remember coming back to California in the winter of 2009 searching for anywhere that had ramen, and I was fortunate given that Southern California was in the midst of a ramen craze.

Moving to Denver, I was searching for a ramen place to fill the void. Most places I saw that might have it were either way to far or very lowly rated, until I read a copy of 5280’s 10 Best New Restaurants. That is where I found Uncle, which has win other numerous awards and been named one of the city’s best restaurants in less than a year since its opening.

On Friday, having no dinner plans and needing aid to fight a potential cold, I decided to drive to the LoHi neighborhood of Denver to eat at Uncle. The food and the service did not disappoint.

Let’s start with the service. When I entered the restaurant the hostess put down my name and gave me an estimated wait time. That is all standard procedure, but then she asked if I wanted something to drink. She immediately delivered my birch beer and glass water with no hesitation. After I was seated, it took a little time for my server to get to me, but after our initial greetings she was very attentive without being overbearing.

ramen

As for the food, it is as good as any place I would find in LA or NYC. I ordered the chilled tofu appetizer and kimchi ramen. The chilled tofu was perfectly marinated, with a light refreshing soy sauce, fried green onions, and sesame seeds. There was a perfect balance between soft and crunch. The kimchi ramen was pretty good too, with house made kimchi, a broth with good balance of spiciness and sourness (from the kimchi), and a perfectly soft poached egg. My one fault of the dish was the fact that they used braised, shredded pork instead of the more traditional slices of chashu (marinated barbeque pork), which made the dish less full. It was not a huge turnoff, but a minor disappointment to what I thought would be a heartier meal.

In total I spent about $20, plus tax (ramen – $14, tofu – $3, birch beer – $3), which is certainly not bad for a well regarded restaurant in such a trendy neighborhood like LoHi. I have yet to try their oft-praised pork buns or their traditional ramen yet, but given my rewarding first experience I bet I will b their soon.

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Mother’s Day Tribute

As my brother and his girlfriend know, I originally wanted to start this a year ago with the idea of having a blog dedicated to Chinese food in Orange County and San Diego. Specifically, I wanted to focus on Orange County as it has a growing Chinese food scene with the explosive development of Chinese restaurants in Irvine and the rest of the 949. Given such an increase in quality Chinese food, but with a dearth of blogs covering it, as most of them focus on LA/San Gabriel Valley or San Diego.

However, I had several events in my life that pulled me away from the project. I got a job in New Mexico working to elect Congresswoman Michelle Lujan Grisham. Then my mom had a cardiac arrest and eventually passed away in October. Finally, I moved to Denver to work for a nonprofit. Needless to say, a project focusing on the fabulous Chinese food of Orange County had to be shelved temporarily.

Now that I have settled down a little bit, I have decided to relaunch this blog as a tribute to my mom for mother’s day. My mom loved all types of Asian food, especially Chinese, Korean, and Vietnamese and it would seem appropriate to write this blog on behalf of her memory.

Of course, now that I live in Denver we will have to shift the focus from Orange County to Asian places across the country that I have and will be eating at. A lot of the focus will be in Denver, where I live now, and Southern California, where I visit a few times a year. However, from time to time I’ll also write about the Asian food I have eaten in places where I lived before, like Baltimore, and visited, like New York City. I hope this will be a tribute that would make my mom proud.

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