>> Eat the World LA

Thursday, 12 December 2019

Ngu Binh Restaurant


Have you ever been able to park close to your destination shop when pulling into the parking lot of Magnolia Plaza? It is already clear that places like Ngu Binh are going to require some obligatory waiting times, but the hunger only builds as you determine whether that slow moving minivan is trying to get in or out of a spot. It is going to happen anyways so just give up, head to the opposite end, and walk back.

Plenty of other storefronts will also call for your attention with banh mi offerings, seafood feasts, and markets with pastries and fresh tropical fruits, but keep your head down and get your name on the list. Ngu Binh has some of the best offerings from Hue, the main city in Central Vietnam, in all of the metropolitan area.

Ngu Binh is possibly most well-known for their rendition of the ultimate Central Vietnamese bowl of bun bo hue, which is undeniably excellent. It arrives at the table with a slick of bright red chili oil on top, almost as if there was a knife accident in the kitchen. Everything about the bowl is almost perfect, including the fresh greens and banana flowers that accompany it.

You know it never gets super cold in Hue, but there is something of a shared mild winter going on. It dips a bit colder here in Orange County, and that is only more reason to enjoy these thick and chewy round rice noodles in a deeply warming broth. Pork still on the bone is joined by pork meatballs and cubes of blood, as well as beef shank that is magically tender.

The most recent visit to Ngu Binh was ultimately not about bun bo hue though and rather demolishing a tray of banh beo chen ($8.75, above and below), steamed rice cakes served on ten individual small plates. Like almost everything on the menu, banh beo is a specialty of Hue. This one originated in street stalls, its compact nature great for ordering many one by one over a period of time while you chat with other customers and the proprietor.

Each little plate, since prepared by a human, has a bit of variance. Some have a bit more dried shrimp and its associated brine, some a bit more crunch from the shrimp chip or spice from chopped green onions. The steamed rice cake itself would slip down your throat as easy as a water slide if it was on its own, especially with a healthy spoon of nuoc cham as is customary for each bite.

Banh beo is a delight, it is hard to describe it any other way. It is available as one plate as well for the same price, but ordering it this way is a better connection to the roots of the dish, and somehow much more fun.

Continuing to ride the train of rice in other forms, the mysterious banh it kep banh ram ($9.75, below) was ordered for the first time. If there is no other warning given, the best thing to keep in mind might be to attack this with at least a group of four so that no one needs to eat more than one portion.

If you do proceed, order it first because it requires a lead time of 15 or 20 minutes. This might not seem like much, but other dishes will start arriving almost immediately since their menu is so focused and most everything just needs to be combined or cooked lightly.

The glutinous rice is overwhelming, one portion steamed on top while another remains hidden inside of the fried portion (and very hot!). The crisp texture and the very minimal amounts of shrimp and pork within the balls are just not enough to compete with the rice, so the undertaking is real. Again you can douse it with ample amounts of nuoc cham.

At a table with only one other, it was sad to say that quite a bit of this dish went to waste, as each felt like eating an entire bowl of rice condensed into something the size of a tangerine. On this day, faces were not saved.

But returns will be made! Other Central Vietnamese favorites like the tapioca dumplings called banh bot loc, the jackfruit salad known as mit xuc banh trang, and of course the dry egg noodles dish mi quang. Reports when that happens will of course be posted here.


Monday, 9 December 2019

Tacos El Gordo

Even the fucking CBP likes Tacos El Gordo.

Do you ever hear about something so good and for so long, that eventually it just gets filed away in the brain and never tried? This was the case until a recent brief trip to San Diego finally remedied the situation. With one new location downtown and two in Chula Vista, the chain is so easy to enjoy, depending on the length of the lines for adobada and carne asada.

In its 21 years of life in San Diego (and almost 50 in Tijuana), Tacos El Gordo has reached essential status. You would think the heart and soul of Tijuana-style tacos would be easy to replicate so close to the border and in Southern California in general, but as with everything the scene takes on a life of its own and goes elsewhere.

If you happen to come to Tacos El Gordo on H Street during a rare off hour, you might be bewildered by the amount of open space in the entry, seemingly unused. Normally this is crammed with humanity and multiple lines, some longer and more crooked than others. To be sure, the lines near the trompo and for carne asada are always hefty, and this should guide a meal for any beginner.

It should be stated that despite its casual feeling, Tacos El Gordo is not messing around. They recently had to close a location because they lacked the necessary amount of skilled taqueros to cook their meats. It is not a job that just anyone can handle. If you get the chance, watch the carne asada over the flame or the trompo fire being constantly adjusted as needed. There is a reason that each and every location has the same high level of quality.

If a meal can ever live up and surpass such lofty expectations, Tacos El Gordo is that meal. The system of lining up at each taquero is best navigated after the experience of a few visits, but ultimately is just fine. Bring a few friends, pool your resources, scout a line each, and dreams are within reach.

Shove some money down each station's brightly colored tip jar and prepare for some royal treatment.

When eating tacos here there are many things that set them apart, starting with the fresh little tortillas that are still warm from the station creating them. Tacos de adobada ($2.60 c/u, above) are a natural place to start, what the place is known for above all else, and just such a pleasure. They slather each with that legendary creamy runny avocado salsa that could never be replicated in a hundred attempts in your own kitchen.

The basic red and green salsas are also delicious in their own right, making sure every last bit of taste that reaches your tongue is of the highest quality. These can be applied to other selections like the taco de tripa ($2.60, below), an ultra-crispy and clean rendition of intestines piled high on two tortillas.

Tacos El Gordo also knows local history, and prepares what could be considered the National Dish of San Diego. You saw that steak being grilled while you ordered those tacos, so it was only natural to throw in an order of carne asada fries ($3.75 for a small portion, below) to round off the night.

The two differences between here and other places is the quality of the meat and another slather of that beautiful avocado cream sauce. A few scraggly afterthoughts of cheddar find their way on top, but these do not mean anything in the end. The salsa roja combines very well with the everything else on this if you don't mind some dirty fingers and probably a few stains in your lap.

Someone who decided to go to university in Cincinnati, Ohio really starts to regret their life decisions when these dishes are almost devoured. It is no wonder that San Diego has a good reputation as a town to get a good education. Nourishment is key.

Tacos El Gordo. After a bite or two you start looking around at your dining companions with distressed looks because the food is so good. Come alone and you'll strike up conversations with the neighboring booth. It is just too fucking delicious to be quiet.

CHULA VISTA California
689 H Street


Thursday, 5 December 2019

Un Rinconcito Argentino


Don't go to Un Rinconcito Argentino with the simple goal of procuring a few empanadas for takeout. The place will cast a spell on you, everywhere you look its baby blue and white rewarding the simplest interest in Argentina with almost everything you could put in your face from the country.

Opening the door reveals three directions of what can only be described as an assault. An overwhelming amount of stuff, from steam tables to wall mounted menus to cases full of mate and bombillas on sale vies for attention. And who could resist the offer of empanadas de dulce de leche now posted on its own sign?

At the counter there is more to resist. Stacked boxes of delicious alfajores full of more dulce de leche, slices of flan, and catering tins full of whatever happened to be made before you came inside. A look up and sandwiches full of steak or breaded chicken milanesa call your attention. Or how about a choripan? It does not get any more Argentinean than that.

But focus first on empanadas, the pride and joy of the shop available in many varieties. Pictures of empanadas de carne y pollo, as well as jamón y queso are there of course and delicious to take home, but they also carry ones with spinach, jalapeño cheese, Mexican-style beef and a Hawaiian version.

On a first visit the takeaway bag was filled with carne tipica argentina ($1.90 each, above and below), the most traditional version they offer, as well as some pollo. They are best eaten right away, with still crisp shells and hot interiors. Argentinos in Los Angeles will not be disappointed with these, full of flavors and spices and so satisfying.

There are a couple tables to sit and enjoy things, probably a good idea if you are far from home. Enjoy the scenery of signed Maradona jerseys and Boca Juniors thermoses used for hot water for your mate drinking at work.

They do know business though, and their neighbors in Norwalk, and offer a complete line of Mexican tamales as well. In fact the large red "TAMALES" sign in front dominates the storefront and can almost be seen from the long downslope of the 105 to 605 interchange. Be warned though that a quick perusal of online comments seems to indicate that the tamales are not up to snuff with some of the Mexican community.

As for future visits, sticking to the Argentinean side of things seems to be in order, maybe with a cup of mate tea after a sandwich de milanesa. As always, further reports will be here when they happen.


Sunday, 1 December 2019

Hokkaido Ramen Santouka


The first ever shop of this Hokkaido-based ramen chain was opened in 1988 in Asahikawa near the base of Mount Asahi, but the story begins a few years prior to that. The founder had been inspired by the 1985 film Tampopo, a comedy that was all about ramen, and felt that the options he and his family had available were not good enough.

Nowadays the company is located throughout Japan and even has a branch on tiny Okinawa. Its expansion to seven other countries in Asia and onto North America just seems natural. In the United States, many of the branches are located inside of Mitsuwa Marketplaces, like four of the five in Greater Los Angeles.

They do have other offerings, but the original and unique offering of Santouka is the tokusen toroniku ramen ($12.50 for small, below), a bowl of the shio (salt) ramen in white tonkotsu soup with toppings served on the side. This is the classic and what they promise will be mild and perfect, not too salty even to the last slurp.

In that side dish are six slices of perfectly cooked fatty pork cheek meat to supplement the pork bone broth, along with bamboo shoots, chopped green onion, and red pickled plum. This can be added as desired piece by piece or all at the beginning.

Not shown well here, but also of note is the story of Santouka's custom bowl, or donburi. They use a thick porcelain that retains the heat of the soup and are always a pleasing blue color with white rim. No matter where you eat Santouka in the world, the bowl will always be the same.

21515 S. Western Avenue


Friday, 29 November 2019

Golden Bird Chicken

USA 🇺🇸

[EDITOR'S NOTE: This visit was made by our Senior Fried Chicken Correspondent Rachel Skipor, all photos belong to her. She lives in New York City but does have a connection to the family through a son who is currently uninvolved with the restaurant. This piece was created without their knowledge.]

Cruising by on Western Avenue, whether the bright yellow sign and building are reflecting the sun or aglow at night, Golden Bird Chicken will set itself apart from the rest of the neighborhood. Currently under the care of Cecil McNab and his family, the restaurant has been handed down with pride from the original owner who opened in 1953. The entire family has had their hands involved in some way, creating an atmosphere of both pride and joy.

The classic charm of the original business still floats through the air along with the scents from the fryer. Even before that, collard greens grow along the edge of the building, a sign of both the care and the mission of providing the most flavorful, home-cooked experience.

A wall of endless soda options welcomes each guest from classic to crazy. Hopefully you will find Nydia behind the counter ready to take your order with a warm, welcoming, and contagious smile. The menu caters to any craving from sweet to salty to savory. Everything is made from scratch with carefully selected ingredients, evident when you touch, smell, and taste the food.

The creamy candied yams, each hand-mashed and never coming near a can, and sweet potato waffle are the perfect treats to accompany a meal.

The shining star of course is right in the name, the perfect golden fry of each piece of fried chicken. The skin has a crunch that contrasts well with with the juicy tender meat inside. And of course because Los Angeles is currently in a love affair with hot chicken, that is a available too upon request.

Hot chicken available upon request.

In the mood for a feast? Be sure to sample the salmon croquettes and chicken sausage as well. Like most everything else, they are handmade in the store. Sides do not disappoint either, especially the warm pillowy biscuits.

Before leaving be sure to grab some dessert, also handcrafted in house, a few of which have well-guarded recipes such as the BTS cake and banana pudding. It is hard to make the wrong choice.

Golden Bird Chicken is not just soul food, it is a soulful experience.


Tuesday, 26 November 2019

Natas Pastries


There is a particularly good Portuguese bakery and restaurant tucked into the sometimes shady corner of a two story shopping plaza called the Sherman Oaks Village. It is the anchor for a building that seems to split its style inspirations between Japan and the Alps. Grab one of the few parking spots and slip into the seats at one of its outdoor tables, just far enough from Ventura to be pleasant.

Opening the doors is even more of a transformation from the busy boulevard, the signature white and blue tiles of Portugal are combined with dark woods to create the ambiance of a peaceful cafe back home. It has been almost 15 years since Natas Pastries opened back at the beginning of summer 2005, filling a void that Los Angeles had at the time for the beloved pastry enjoyed throughout the Lusophone world.

The cafe is still going strong, and has even recently expanded to a second location in Thousand Oaks, for the simple reason that the pastel de nata ($3.25 each, below) is outstanding. But grab anything from the pastry case and it is hard to be disappointed. Possibly the most delicious way to enjoy the yolk of an egg, the pastry has made its way around the world and back. Versions of it can be found in many other cuisines from Brazil to Macau.

The exterior cup of true Portuguese pasteis de nata will be buttery and flaky yet crisp, a complete opposite texture of the creamy custard. Somewhere between a puff pastry and phyllo dough, or maybe it is both.

This recent visit was meant for satisfying a sweet tooth and getting some gifts, both of which were done successfully. But what was not known is that Natas is more than pastries. The small dining room had guests tearing into plates of chicken madeira and spooning bowls of caldo verde. A full menu of Portuguese favorites is available from breakfast through dinner, an expansion of the offerings that came in 2010. Must return.

While the pastel de nata will always remain at the top, be sure to give other tarts like this pastel de feijão ($3.75, below), made with almonds and white beans. The ingredients are topped with fondant icing and then drizzled with chocolate.

Nowadays there are a few more options around town like Portugal Imports in Artesia, a community that used to have a relatively significant Portuguese community, but Natas Pastries remains a worthy destination from anywhere.



Friday, 22 November 2019

Cariaco Venezuelan Food


The busy downtown core of Glendale between Brand and Central can seem like an area to stay away from, with malls, chains galore, and probably the longest line at any Porto's throughout the entire city. Good news has come to those that work here though, in the form of a buzzing little Venezuelan cafe that is fairly new.

Cariaco gets straight to the point, its name is the demonym for someone hailing from the capital city of Caracas, and the promise of Venezuelan food is right there in the window. The tiny space is more set up for takeout and delivery, but it is cute and a few small tables can be taken advantage of for dining in. Take a look at the menu, confer with the staff, order at the counter, and take a seat.

Unlike their Colombian brethren with simple toppings placed on top of a grilled corn cake, Venezuelan arepas can become intense with many ingredients and more comparable to a sandwich. Cariaco does an excellent job with their light and thin arepa, which is grilled nicely and split open to be stuffed.

When your order is called, a tray with your arepa will be presented with an assortment of sauces (above). Whether it be fast food dishes like arepas and patacones or plated meals, Venezuelans always seem to want to be surrounded with a variety of sauce options, and Cariaco does not disappoint in that regard.

Pabellón, the shredded stewed beef that can be found anywhere in Venezuela in many forms, is celebrated as the national dish. You can get a plate here that includes rice, beans, and fried plantains, but having an arepa de pabellón ($10.50, above) really cuts to the heart of the matter if you arrive with only one stomach. Besides the rice, the rest of the plate is all there, with healthy portions of each component stacked to give an eye-popping first impression.

It would be completely delicious to eat this without sauces, but why not go full-Cariaco and squeeze some of those bottles. A combination of the guasacaca, made green from avocado and green peppers but also full of garlic and onion, and "hot" sauces were perfect for this arepa de pabellón.

Wash everything down with a bottle of Maltín, a non-alcoholic malt drink that like almost every other beverage in Venezuela is a product of Polar.