Archive for ‘cheap food’

January 7th, 2012

When size meets taste…

A friend of my husband’s sent him this photo.

It’s a hammered pork sandwich from a restaurant in Las Vegas called Hash House a go go.  What made a mere sandwich so noteworthy?  The plate is as big as 3 adult faces!  On a recent trip to Japan, this one picture helped bridge the language gap as my non-Japanese speaking husband was able to ‘wow’ my Japanese friends and family with it, as they marveled at the sandwich’s size.   Both amused and appalled, Japanese people already think American portion sizes are huge, but this picture was beyond their imaginations.  Immediately, they asked if this was something we ate in the States everyday.  I knew the answer they wanted to hear, was ‘yes’, as that pretty much goes in line with how they already picture America–huge EVERYTHING, but the answer, as you could guess is a realistic ‘no’.  Sure, compared to Japanese food, American portions are usually twice as big, but to find truly huge portions like that, you have to do a bit of searching.

When we were in Las Vegas, my husband suggested we go to Hash House a go go, for breakfast.  I was reluctant because usually the best part of a big portioned meal is its size and not its flavor.  Also, call me a snob, but who’d believe a restaurant found in a dingy casino on the strip would be good?  As we walked over, I was thinking, “There are many, many great places to eat in Vegas, but marriage is a give and take.”  Since he took me to a four star restaurant the day before, I should let the next meal choice be his, right?  My stomach clenched in horror as I realized that my next stop would be home to something I’m still learning to appreciate, big portioned, hearty American food.

Talk about surprises!  Oh my goodness.  Fried Chicken with bacon (!!) waffles, where the waffles and chicken were bigger than an adult male’s enlarged heart.  But what about the taste?  The waffles were delicious; very dense, yet fluffy, and not airy at all.  It tasted great with the fried leek garish that came with it.  The fried chicken was delicious, with a moist inside and crispy outside, and as an added plus, it was kindly de-boned!!  Sure, having actual strips of bacon instead of bits, baked into their waffles and preparing well seasoned fried chicken shows that the chefs cook with care, but serving de-boned chicken demonstrates that bit of extra love that’s so often lacking.  Without a doubt, I can say that this is possibly some of the best fried chicken I’ve ever had.  I’d never thought I’d say this, but I’m so glad my husband took me to that diner in that run-down casino!    Since we got back, I’ve semi-seriously suggested several times, that we drive to Vegas just for one more taste.  I found there’s the original location in San Diego, which is shorter drive from Los Angeles… totally doable.

Sure, they might laugh at a picture of what I’ve just described, but would Japanese people actually like this dish?  The one hurdle to overcome is the combination of sweet and savory, which Japanese people usually don’t like.  In this case, serving fried chicken alongside maple syrup might seem scary at first, but with a dish like this, I’m confident that this huge plate of food will please their senses of taste as much as it dazzles their senses of sight.  Viva America!

October 9th, 2011

Burger (on Yom Kippur)

It’s not that I forgot (ok, yes I did forget…but that’s not the point) that it was Yom Kippur, but it’s just that I’m still new to the Jewish culture.  After I came home from long hours of work preceded by short hours of sleep, the only thing that registered in my mind was ‘hungry’.  Plus, wouldn’t you agree that a good burger beats a day of fasting and atoning?  At least my Jewish husband agreed, so off we went to our favorite burger joint, Blue Dog Beer Tavern.

If you’re like me, I’m sure you’ve watched at least one episode of a show, most likely on the travel or food channel, that claim to have scoured the globe in search of the best hamburger around.  Never left off the ultimate list is Louis’ Lunch in New Haven, Connecticut, which is reputed to be the originator of the American hamburger, serving them just as they did when Grover Cleveland was president (1895).  In tribute to faceless and nameless genius, I honor whomever first transformed the original German hamburg steak into the classic American hamburger, because no matter how much American cuisine is elevated, I’ll stick to a good burger on the ground floor.

While I would love to, it’s impossible to eat burgers every day without buying heart medication in bulk at Costco.  How about turkey or veggie burgers?  Well, they’re fine, but do they really replace the aroma and taste of that charbroiled, juicy beef patty?  I don’t know about you, but I’ve never salivated in anticipation when a piece of soy falls off my veggie patty and sizzles against the coals.  By the same token, when I do splurge on the real thing, I want the best; not a 59 cent menu special that hopes melted cheese will cover up heinous beef sins.   For this reason, I wish every neighborhood had a joint like the Blue Dog, where you can relax in a casual setting, with a great beer and an even better burger. 

When I moved to America, my burger standards weren’t as high as they are today.  Back then, I thought a diner burger was the best you could do.  I’m sure you’re thinking you could do better than Denny’s at that place around the corner, but if you would have grown up in Japan like I did, you would have seen a dismal variety of burgers.  We looked up to McDonald’s as being the perfect American burger, and modeled after that, opened our own Japanese burger chains.  Since those unenlightened days, I’ve learned a lot about what makes one burger better than another.  Most important, the best burger is the one that’s the least processed.  Find a place that grinds their own meat and forms their own patties and you’re in business.  Add grass fed instead of corn fed beef and you’ve really got something delicious.  So, not having sinned too heavily this past year, I used this year’s day of atonement, Yom Kippur, to atone for all those lesser quality burgers I endured during the learning process.  If you’re going to eat on a day devoted to fasting, at least eat something great.  Blue Dog was the answer to my prayers!

August 25th, 2011

The day I became a fan of tacos

Growing up in Japan, when I heard the word ‘taco’, I knew a good meal was coming.  No, it’s not what you’re thinking, because sadly, there’s no good Mexican place in Tokyo.  When a Japanese diner hears the Japanese word ‘taco’, he or she knows they’re not going to be served a Mexican classic, but instead, about to enjoy…octopus, tako.   Most Japanese people wouldn’t know what a Mexican taco even looks like.  I, however, was different. Thanks to a fancy grocery store that sold imported luxury items, I was familiar with the western version, having once seen a festive yellow box with some mysteriously shaped item inside.  In the dark recesses of my mind, I wondered what this taco thing was all about.  Can you imagine my excitement when I finally got my hands around a real taco?  It was my turn, as now I was invited to this party of ground beef, shredded lettuce, and salsa.
Wouldn’t a place with the word ‘taco’ in its name, be the perfect restaurant to sample this Mexican delight?  One of my college friends believed that theory and convinced me that my ‘introduction’ to tacos, be at Taco Bell.  Unfortunately, the excitement transformed into annoyance upon my first bite.  The sensation to hit my lips was salty, and the first chew led to crumble.  I guess it happens to all rookie taco eaters at least once in their lifetimes — taco shell shatter.  After one bite, my mighty taco had turned into a messy taco salad.  The experience was so disappointing, that it derailed any curiosity I might have had about Mexican food for years to come. Until…

…about 10 years ago, I was sent on assignment to Los Angeles to study the culture of…low riders.  Looking back, maybe they just wanted me killed?  Anyway, I was happy that finally, my anthropology degree would pay off!   During our lunch break, one of the coordinators took me to a Mexican place for lunch; an unassuming little taco stand in some industrial area of East Los Angeles that was equipped with metal bars that separated customers from cashier.  In addition to that comforting scene, I noticed that all the menus were in Spanish.  Feeling awkward, I was about to ask him if we could change our lunch plan.  Surely there must be a sushi place somewhere nearby, right?  Well, somehow we found the only block in Los Angeles without one.  At that point, I would’ve settled for even a Yoshinoya, but all I could see around me were car repair shops and factories.  ‘Ok’, I though, I would just have to dig in my heels and try to enjoy the experience.

Finally, the food came.  I was shocked.  I ordered tacos but there were no shatter-prone yellow shells.  Instead, I found flour tortillas wrapped around delicious smelling grilled meat.  I was then led to the topping bar, where before my eyes, lay salsas the color of the rainbow, alongside cilantro and onion.  This time, my first bite was a colorful explosion of flavors with a spicy kick.  And more important, thanks to the soft tortilla…no crumble!  This experience left me a couple of questions.  Why there’re two pieces of tortillas come as one taco?   How will I find my way back to this taco stand my own?

August 23rd, 2011

Chinese take out 2

Is it me, or do you agree that the perfect, white Chinese take out container is a classic piece of pop art?From pop art to pop culture, Chinese food has become a big part of American life. Don’t believe me? Just turn on your TV.  What, it’s already on? Good.  Then you’ve probably noticed, as I have, that every American TV show has at least one scene where the characters are eating, ordering or running-over-the-bringer of Chinese food. From the drama around the dinner table at Tony Soprano’s house, to the nothing-ness across the river at Jerry Seinfeld’s place, Chinese food is everywhere and I want to join them for every meal.

Ready for the educational part of the show? The classic container I was raving about was actually invented for carrying oysters. Somehow this odd device was given the name, the Oyster Pail. Once the take out food became popular, Chinese restaurants adopted them and the oysters were replaced by orange chicken.

This should make you want a Chinese tonight!

August 22nd, 2011

Chinese take out 1

 

Ready for a Geography pop quiz? Which country is closer to China, Japan or America?  Nice work! Japan is much closer to China than America.  So logically, you’d expect Chinese food to be as popular in Japan as Mexican food is in America, right?  Not quite.  Believe it or not, America has more Chinese restaurants than Japan does.  As a matter of fact, the number of Chinese restaurant in America exceeds the number of McDonald.  Need proof?  Look to my husband’s joke: He says that if you want to name a Chinese restaurant, just combine any of following words in any order: China, panda, bamboo, wok, happy, dragon, garden, golden, and cave.  See if it works in your town.  I’m sure it does.  To further prove my point, I’m willing to bet there are at least 3 different Chinese take out menus in your menu drawer, right now.  Go check, I’ll wait.
Well?

While yes, we do have Chinese food in Japan, it lacks THE most fun element its American cousin provides.  The take out experience.  How can Chinese food be enjoyed without those white containers and stale fortune cookies?  I can read your mind right now.  You’re thinking, why don’t I start a Panda Express franchise in Tokyo?  Well, nice idea, but don’t invest your life savings.  Why?  The overly-sweet sauces drenched upon overly fried food which we love, would definitely turn off the Japanese palate.

In Japan, Chinese restaurants are not for quick take out meals, but rather, are for dining.  Patrons usually enjoy a dozen dishes per table, with lower sugar but higher prices than in the U.S.

When I was a kid growing up in Tokyo, the closest we came to Chinese take out was our ramen delivery.  While ramen is as popular as burgers with American hipsters, delivery ramen hasn’t quite made the scene on these shores.  In Japan, having the convenience of door-to-door ramen has always been the go-to solution for busy mothers with hungry kids.  While they do deliver, Japanese ramen places don’t do “to go orders”.  Come to think of it, many restaurants in Japan don’t offer the “to go” option.  Besides the obvious fact that ramen needs to be consumed right away before the noodles absorb the soup and lose al dente, I think there’s a bigger reason.  For the most part, we eat on real plates, not paper or plastic containers.   When we call a restaurant for delivery, the delivery includes ramen, but it’s brought on real bowls, in plates etc.  After we eat, we wash everything and leave the dishes outside for the delivery person who makes a second trip, later in the evening, to pick them all up.  Could you imagine picking up your to-go order served in fine china?  Half of the dishes would spill and the rest would break.
I got used to the idea of take out Chinese food while I was in college, here in the States.  I was so excited to get affordable Chinese food that came in ample portions! I was even more excited to not have to wash dishes!   Even though most of dishes have the same, oily, heavy and sweet taste, I was hooked.  When I got married, my frequency for ordering take out Chinese food dropped significantly.  Although my husband loves every Chinese restaurant reference on Seinfeld, he rarely craves Chinese food like I do.  I shudder knowing that he’d actually prefer a bowl of cereal with a banana.  Of course, when he does want Chinese, he wants the most Americanized Chinese dish there is: Orange Chicken.  Believe it or not, I actually never had orange chicken before we met, because all I ever want is lo mein and fried rice, whose color should be white, not browned by seasoning.  I still prefer Chinese for my carb indulgence, and to be fair, orange chicken is not that bad when it’s hot, which is a good thing…considering I can’t tell the difference between it,  general tso’s chicken, and sesame chicken, I’ve tripled my menu options.

More on my Chinese obsession tomorrow.

August 1st, 2011

Mexican rice

As a Japanese person who only grew up with one kind of rice, short grain Japonica, it was an eye opening experience to see so many other varieties from around the world. I quickly learned that rice is not interchangeable.  For example, Indian rice is completely different from Chinese rice.  And while I love Japanese rice the most, I sadly learned that it doesn’t go well with Thai curry. As I’ve slowly begun to acquire a taste for Mexican food, I have to add another variety of rice to my plate.  Until recently, my only opinion of rice from south of the border was that it looked orange and had a saltier taste than I was used to.  Who would have thought a single visit to a Mexican restaurant in a questionable part of town would completely change my mind on the subject.

Salsa and Beer in Los Angeles is that restaurant.  Like most Mexican places, the menu includes  the traditional staples, like tacos, fajitas, and chimichangas, served in big portions with not so big prices. Thought the food is great, the service is sometimes slow, which isn’t a bad thing, as their large menu takes a good half an hour to get through.  On our first visit, I finally got to understand what my husband went through in Japan, as I asked him what practically every dish was on the menu.  I’m still not fluent in Mexican food, but luckily for my husband, I know exactly what I want: a side order of Mexican rice (which comes on a huge entree plate) and a green salad.  When I place my order, I know deep down that the server is really thinking, “Just because you’re Asian, you don’t have to order rice you know…we have lots of good food!” Maybe that’s the reason I feel compelled to mention each time that, “you have the BEST Mexican rice!”

My usual complaint regarding Mexican rice is the texture.  For some reason, it always reminded me of the prune-like fingers you get after staying in the bathtub too long. On a personal note, I never was a big fan of peas in a rice dish either, so I had my reservations on that first visit. But from the first taste of Salsa and Beer’s rice, I had to stop and think, what makes this rice so delicious?  I knew it wasn’t just me wondering that, because even my rice hating husband was cleaning his plate. What makes it so special? It looks perfectly cooked because it is perfectly cooked.  By itself, it’s a tiny bit salty, but when mixed with green salad and creamy habenero salsa, it becomes a savory explosion.  I’m so obsessed with this rice, I literally want to eat it every day.  And, as usual, I’ve been trying to duplicate this dish.  Have I been successful in finding the secret to its great taste? That’s a story for another day.

July 8th, 2011

Buffalo wings!

Hooters has the best wings”, I remember somebody saying when I first came to America.  So off I went to prove that theory.  I only had two concerns:  First, what is Hooters?  And second, What are wings?  I found Hooters and entered.  I have to say, it was a bit embarrassing sitting there by myself, especially, being female, but it was worth it, as I enjoyed my first plate of spicy buffalo wings.  While I probably won’t be going back for more of the Hooters experience, I did appreciate my introduction to this tangy, hot delicious mess.

Buffalo wings are an anomaly for my husband and me.  Finally, there’s an American comfort food that I love, that he has absolutely no enthusiasm for.  It’s as if he found a variety of Japanese fish that he loves but I avoid.  (which will never happen).  Why does he reply with, “Meh,” any time I bring up the idea of wings?  His reason–too messy!  The same criticism keeps us away from BBQ ribs as well.

So today was historic, as we ate hot wings together for the first time.  (He ate one, I ate the rest.)  The location for this fond memory– The Blue Dog Tavern in Sherman Oaks, CA, a hip beer pub with tasty versions of American bar food classics and an outdoor patio.  The perfect spot for a beautiful, breezy summer evening.  The beer was cold and my wings were hot, and if you can believe it, much better than Hooters’.

Americans aren’t the only ones who enjoy chicken wings–especially while drinking.  In Japan, wings are usually marinated in a soy sauce base then fried or broiled over the grill, yakitori style with salt and pepper.  My mother used to make fried wings for my little bento box when I was a kid.  Had my husband grown up in Japan, he would probably have appreciated wings more, as Japanese mothers have solved the ‘mess’ issue.  They either lollipop the wings, or cover the edges with foil, so kids’ oily fingers won’t ruin the furniture.  Korean wings are gaining popularity these days, but they are bit too sweet for my taste.  When it comes to wings, America is number one.  I love that mess.

We all know Buffalo wings don’t come from buffaloes thanks to Jessica Simpson, therefore, there must be a Buffalo, NY connection–and there is.  If you happen to be visiting Buffalo on July 28th, think of me as you enjoy Chicken Wing Day.  There will also be a wing eating contest in September reminiscent of the 4th of July hot dog eating contests around the country.  I guess you know a food has earned a place in America’s hearts when there’s an eating contest centered around it.

Want the buffalo wing taste but have no chicken?   Try this trick: a drop or two of Tabasco (not Tapatio, not Cholula, not Sriracha–it has to be Tabasco!) on a curly fry.  It’s not fancy nor scientific, but it does the trick.

June 23rd, 2011

Pizza

I don’t like pizza. Shocking, I know. I guess the universe balances out–when someone excitedly exclaims that they’ve ordered pizza, I react with the same indifference and disappointment as my husband does when he hears, “We’re all going out for sushi!” It’s as simple as that; he doesn’t want Asian food, I don’t want pizza. There are some exceptions.
I do like the New York tradition of pizza by the slice.  For 3 bucks, your hunger is greasily satisfied.We actually have many pizza places in Japan, from the world famous Domino’s to a Japanese delivery pizza place called “Pizza-la”.  My mother, who is 5’2″ and weighs 90lbs, actually loves pizza.  When my dad came home late, which was often enough, my family would have pizza night– but our pizzas barely resembled their American cousins.  Japanese pizzas have interesting toppings like tuna salad, mayonnaise, and seaweed, which might scare away the typical pepperoni loving American (no worries, we do have pepperoni).  More on this another time.
The first pizza that I really enjoyed was a 3am late dinner/early breakfast, on 11th Ave in NYC.  It was a cold January night and I was working on a movie set for 12 hours as a PA, starving and freezing. In those conditions, you can imagine how satisying a piping hot piece of plain cheese pizza from Famous and/or Original Ray’s tasted amazing.  That night, for the first time, I finally understood the English expression, “it hit the spot”.