Friday, November 23, 2007

Eating Oaxaqueno

DJ Un-G and Christine contemplate their orders after the opening round of chips, salsa and pan dulce.

If there's anywhere in the United States that has to have good Mexican food, it's here in Los Angeles. With just over half the people in California of Mexican/Hispanic ethnicity, there's got to be some authentic food because these people have to eat and I cannot imagine that Taco Bell and Del Taco will suffice for that crowd.

With that in mind and a sense of adventure, we made our way to West Los Angeles to check out Restaurante Monte Alban in the citys' "Little Oaxaca" - a strip of Oaxacan style joints on Santa Monica Boulevard just west of the 405 Freeway. The interior is pretty simple. Nothing fancy. Nothing about the interior design really struck a chord. Although the case of pan dulce greeting you as you enter warmed my heart because I felt good things were about to come.

The nice thing about being here in L.A. is that my friends here love to eat. No food is "too exotic" for them. If it's edible, they'll put it in their mouths and who can fault anyone for that? Besides myself, it was Al and Polly. Anna and Christian brought Ian in tow down from Woodland Hills. DJ Un-G and Christine came down from Silver Lake and we had a full table.

Clayuda con Quesillo, Cecina y Tazajo - corn tortilla with black beans, lettuce, tomato, avocado, salsa, cabbage, cilantro, beef, pork and strip cheese.

The chips and salsa landed on our table right away. These were proper tortilla chips. Thick and freshly fried as they should be. The salsa was a bit thin and runny but had decent flavor.

Since my visit to Mexico City where Senora Garcia had introduced me to the custom of pan dulce before the meal, I've been hooked and was excited to start off with a couple conchas and a pretzel shaped bread with a cup of chocolate con leche. Ah, muy delicioso!

Quesadilla de Queso y Pollo - deep fried corn dough with black beans, lettuce, tomato, avocado, salsa and cheese, stuffed with chicken and cheese.

From there, we went right into the first courses of empanada con queso y pollo and a large clayuda, both of which were just delicious.

Main courses different for everyone. I had the Mole Negro, the house specialty and the supposed heart of Oaxacan cuisine. This was the reason I had traveled to West L.A.. The dish is a chicken breast smothered with the mole and served with rice. The sauce was thinner than the mole negro served at Fiesta Mexicana in Baltimore, but the flavor was rich, complex and beautifully balanced. Unfortunately, the chicken breast was over cooked and a bit on the dry side. Luckily, these was enough mole to help cover the dryness up.

While I liked my mole Anna, on the other hand with her Mole Amarillo came to the conclusion tht she really doesn't find mole appealing. I got to sample a bite of her mole and found it to be a bit flat on the flavor. There was richness but nothing about the flavor popped. Perhaps a nice application of salt would help.

The House Specialty: Mole Negro - Chicken breast covered with Oaxacan black mole sauce made from 30 spices, dry chiles, seeds, herbs and chocolate with rice.

Christine ordered the Chilaquiles, which is a favorite dish of mine (and hers as well). These chilaquiles were far different than what we're used to. This one was definitely more brothy and lacked the textural contrast that I prefer in chilaquiles.

Overall, I think everyone enjoyed their first foray in Oaxacan cuisine. Personally, I think it's going to take a few more trips to Oaxacan restaurants before I can develop an understanding and proper appreciation for the cuisine, but so far so good.

Our meal decided for us that I would make chilaquiles the next afternoon for a late lunch and since we missed the opportunity to use the turkey fryer to fry some fresh tortillas, I ended up buying a couple of bags of Monte Alban's very tasty tortilla chips. If only these kinds of chips were easier to source...

Amarillo de Res - Yellow mole flavored with dry chiles, pepper and cumin with beef and rice.

Enchiladas de Pollo - Three tortillas dipped in black mole, folded and sprinkled with cheese, onions, parsley with chicken on the side.

Chilaquiles con Pollo - Tortilla pieces in a spicy tomato sauce, sprinkled with cheese, onion and green salsa.


Restaurante Monte Alban
11929 Santa Monica Boulevard
West Los Angeles, CA 90025

Tee Tea

While here in the South Bay of Los Angeles, I've been spending some time just touring the Mexican and Asian/Japanese markets. While I've always been a big defender of Baltimore and the variety of ingredients one can find in Maryland, I have to admit that some places trump the offerings back home. In Baltimore, there is one tortilleria. Here in L.A., there are plenty and we happened across the famous Diana's earlier today that offered not only fresh corn masa but the damp smell of boiling tripe filled the air for tomorrows' pozole. Evidently, Diana's is popular not only for their tortillas but their pozole as well - to the tune of nine very large stock pots filled with tripe that will be all gone by tomorrow afternoon and the boiling will commence once again.

After spending the afternoon visiting various Mexican markets and the Marukai supermarket filled with many of the Japanese ingredients I so crave, in a shopping center filled with numerous Asian stores, Polly and I decided to have our afternoon merienda at Tea Station.

If you've never been to one of these modern Chinese style tea rooms, I think it should be a "must visit". I've been to other American-owned tea joints and they always seem to try too hard to be "Asian" or "Asian influenced." At places like Tea Station, its' understated elegance. The Chinese made chairs and merchandise displays are refined and not the gaudy "this is an Asian place" kind of interior design. It's comfortable without losing respect for the tea.

And unlike the "Asian Tea Joints" I've been to, there's no weird smelling patchouli incense lingering over your nostrils or menu items that reek of being "Asian inspired." No, my friends, there is none of that "Cumin Spiced Brown Rice with mango chutney" nonsense. Just simple East Asian delicacies like Sweet Milk Butter Toast, Fried Taro Balls and maybe the odd-ish sounding Tea Flavored Spiced Pork Slices.

At Tea Station, the menu is intense. It's large and varied. Well, sort of. It's got a lot of options for the tea drinker. Whether you like it hot, cold, with boba, with milk, traditional, with crushed ice, with jelly ice, as a healthy drink or with flavors, there's something for just about everyone. Don't know if this is good or bad but since they stick with tea (and maybe the odd coffee drink), they at least remain somewhat focused and that usually augurs something tasty to come.

For our merienda, Polly ordered the Milk Tea while I ordered the Royal Tea with boba. If you've heard of "bubble tea" then you know what boba is all about (and it has nothing to do with Fett). If you don't know what either of those are then they're basically large tapioca balls that adds texture to your beverage. If you're not Asian and you don't understand, not to worry, you'll get to try it sooner or later. If you're Asian and don't understand, well, I can't help you.

As you can see in the photo above, Polly's Milk Tea came in a rather traditional pot with a cup. My Royal Tea with boba came in a large bowl with a spoon. So while Polly was able to drink her tea fashionably with style, I ended up drinking mine like a soup and looking rather neanderthal about it. The tea was good, hot, with milk and sweet. The tapioca balls were just right. Soft, spongy and with a nice resilience. Not hardened like they had been sitting around too long - which, in the world of bubble tea is an indication on how busy the place is.

As an accompaniment, we sampled the Sweet Milk Butter Toast. A slice of my favorite Japanese style white bread toasted with butter and broiled with condensed milk on top. A sweet and tasty accompaniment to the teas.

It was a pleasant way to spend the afternoon chatting about friends, family and the latest gossip pertaining to each group.

Tea Station
1610 West Redondo Beach Boulevard
Gardena, CA 90247

Big Bruddah's

Briased Short Ribs Special.

Some of you may know that I used to live in Honolulu. Those were the bright years. Can't believe they were so long ago. During those years living in the islands, I got used to the food, specifically the Plate Lunches. They're impossible to find in Maryland so whenever I head out west, I always make a couple stops for some proper plate lunch.

One of Al and Polly's favorite places is Bruddah's Hawaiian Foods in the heart of Gardena, California. It's by no means fancy and is just barely a notch above "hole in the wall" but it is good and it is plentiful. Loads of pictures adorn the walls but unless you've lived in the islands and know island entertainers, they won't mean much to you. However, if you do know island entertainers then you'll notice that comedian Frank DeLima has been here, along with plenny others (and no, that's not a typo).

Kalua Pig Plate.

For the uninitiated, a Hawaiian-style plate lunch is typically some sort of main item (like a meat or fish) that's accompanied by two scoops of steamed white rice and one scoop of macaroni salad. It's decidedly low brow fare that's meant to fill and nourish and Bruddah's does not disappoint. Al's Kalua Pig plate had choke (the local term for "a lot") kalua (the local term for "smoked pork", sort of) and had just the right amount of saltiness and smokiness, not to mention wonderfully tender.

Polly went for the Braised Short Rib special. Two thick cuts of beef short ribs without the bones. The meat was tender and flavorful and covered with a light gravy. Simple. Tasty.

I chose the Chicken Adobo special and I almost regretted my choice. Not because it wasn't tasty, in fact the adobo flavor was a flawless example of proper Filipino chicken adobo. The proper balance of vinegar and soy sauce accented with bay leaf and black peppercorns. Delicious. The problem was the size: fricken' huge. Four thigh pieces floating in that magic sabaw (Filipino for "sauce") that were succulent and tender, but FOUR. That's enough to feed a small Filipino family but definitely worth the $6.95 price.

Chicken Adobo and Chow Fun.

My personal preference for plate lunch is to drizzle a little Aloha Shoyu (this is soy sauce made is Hawaii and the only acceptable soy sauce for plate lunches) over the rice and a lot of Tabasco over the macaroni salad and I'm lovin' it. Most macaroni salads use macaroni for the pasta, Bruddah's uses spaghetti noodles that are chopped for the salad. It's different. It's tasty but the different pasta makes it seem, well, different. Not bad, just different. Maybe it's just the nostalgic part of me, but I think I prefer the macaroni pasta for the mac salad.

Either way, the food is good. The food is plentiful. It's a true Hawaiian experience that offers Hawaiian Sun drinks and real Aloha Shoyu. That alone makes it worth the trip.

Bruddah's Hawaiian Foods
1033 West Gardena Boulevard
Gardena, CA 90247