Saturday, December 29, 2007

Happiness is...

... being on vacation.

Baby Chucks!!

i don't know why i'm on a photo-posting kick right now, but these shoes, belonging to my nephew, are ridiculously adorable.

Monday, December 17, 2007

The Man Behind the Noodle

I get a certain thrill when I meet a person who's solidly interesting. It's always fun to hear a new set of stories, especially when they take you to exotic lands and out-of-city experiences. I had just this kind of experience the other night, chatting with Viet, the owner of Viet Soy Cafe in Silver Lake and the new Viet Noodle Bar in Atwater Village, my personal Tuesday night dinner table.

My cousin Mikey, a USC film student, lives upstairs from Kaldi Coffee House on Glendale Boulevard. His roommate is the son of a man named Avo. Avo owns Kaldi, the apartment upstairs, and a good chunk of the block, including the space now filled with Viet Noodle Bar. Thanks to his associations with Avo and his son, Mikey is very much part of the boulevard's community. So, as we finished up dinner, Viet came over, and a compliment from Mikey on the tastebud-singing C-shot rolled into a conversation that had us lingering at the table long after the last diners had left.

So what did we learn? Well, Viet came to the United States around 20 years ago, but took a seven year break a few years back. Two of those years he walked the earth, then planted himself in a small fishing village in northern Vietnam for the remaining five. From the locals, he picked up techniques: working with just-caught fish and rice straight from the local fields, they had to plan meals carefully, as there was no refrigeration. It was here that he learned the fundamentals that inform his menus today -- 'peasant' food in sharp contrast to the French-influenced bahn mi so beloved around here: rice noodles, soy milk and other soy products, fish cookery, and rice wine.

When I expressed an interest in the last item, he smiled and offered me a taste. He pulled out a curvy oversized green glass jug, holding a clear dark brown liquid, and poured a small glass. This particular batch, he'd flavored with crab apples, and its fruity flavor barely masked its potency. Nothing like soju or sake, this tangy, slightly sweet rice wine tasted unexpectedly familiar, warming, and thoroughly drinkable.

He's got some interesting ideas for the new space. The eponymous noodles are the focus, and now that winter is upon us, he's added two pho dishes to the menu: a chicken variety ('no hoisin and basil!' the menu warns us firmly; Viet states that hoisin is good with beef but overpowers delicate chicken.), and a vegetarian pho with meaty chunks of rolled soy skin, shiitake mushrooms, and lemongrass. I had the latter, and with its slightly sweet broth, soft noodles of irregular widths, and generous spray of cilantro and green onions, it hit the spot in the blustery night. But get the pho while you can: in the summer, he's planning to go with lighter noodle dishes like vermicelli. The menus at both of his restaurants are all-organic, and he plans to re-open Soy Cafe on Hyperion after the holidays.

Mikey prodded him about rumors of a night market. Nothing is set in stone, but he's talked with another local business owner about the possibility: stands selling produce and street foods in the wee hours on Friday nights. A far cry from the quiet nights in a fishing village, no doubt, but sure sounds interesting, doesn't it?

Thursday, December 13, 2007

For the Man Who Loves Popcorn

I never know what to get for my brother-in-law. Clothes are sort of daunting -- the man is six-foot-five, a towering height that barely-five-foot me can't really comprehend. Books and the like I'm similarly unlikely to touch: he tends to read about politics and policymakers, whereas I tend to stay naively oblivious. Then there's the fantasy football... need I say more about that?

But fortunately, we do see eye to eye on one topic: food. He likes food, I like food. I can work with that. Last year, I made him a variety of sweets, including raspberry truffles and these gorgeous chocolate-mint tiddlywinks. I packed them in cute little boxes that looked like miniature hat boxes, stacked the boxes into a tower, and tied it all with a pretty ribbon. The presentation was impressive, and I think there's some childlike fun to opening one box after another. And your own stash of chocolates that you don't have to share with anyone is a pretty nice prize.

This year, I was at a loss. Then, from somewhere in the December barrage of products vying for my attention and paycheck came inspiration. I happened upon a company selling 'gourmet' popcorn. Popped in olive oil, fancy flavors. Intriguing. After all, my brother-in-law loves popcorn. A lot. He lurves the stuff. It's great. I tasted the stuff these people were selling. It was... meh.

But the idea was sound. So, this year, I made him popcorn. Four different crazy wonderful flavors. I know he's not the only one with this particular hankering, so for any popcorn lover, it's a fun homemade gift, doesn't take too much time, and allows you to get creative. I started my flavor research with the trusty Improvisational Cook, who suggests amazing things like sprinkling popcorn with truffle oil, or with the godly liquid gold that is brown butter, or popping it in bacon fat.

I went with four flavors:
  • riffing on her brown butter, I added sea salt and sugar;
  • an orange spice flavor with chopped walnuts, cinnamon, and orange zest;
  • Italian herb: drizzled with good olive oil that had been infused with rosemary, basil, garlic, and crushed pepper, then tossed with grated parmesan cheese;
  • and breakfast-flavored popcorn, the funkiest of all: tossed with melted butter, real maple syrup, and that magical kosher, vegan wonder, Bacon Salt. Yes, a little crazy, but quite a satisfying salty-sweet treat!
Each one was a hit, although the brown butter seemed to be the frontrunner, and not surprisingly: brown butter could make a shoe taste like like heaven. I think that next year, the time will have come to buy dear brother-in-law a 'real' gift, but for now, I'm happy to help him revel in bag after bag of popcorny bliss.

Sunday, December 02, 2007


Going to the Hollywood Farmers' Market on a Sunday morning guarantees a sunny day.

Scientific testing proves it. I have a 100% success rate.

Ahh, fall in Los Angeles...