A trip to Los Angeles a few years back solidified my decision to focus professionally on food, and each return voyage only strengthens this choice. The city's regional cuisine speaks to me time and again, (thanks Jonathan Gold), and the sense of discovery and variety is consistently inspirational. With many dips in the deep fryer and a meat-and-shellfish-heavy few days, this was not a particularly healthy week, but delicious, adventuresome and altogether delightful it was.
1. Cuttlefish/Squid Ink Croquetas - Manzanilla (New York, NY)
This dinner was spent with my father and due to his customary over-ordering practices, the table was soon festooned with myriad Spanish-inflected offerings, of which this was our shared favorite. A ceramic egg tray held six golden brown orbs, their outsides cratered from, you guessed it, a voyage in that great cure-all, the deep fryer. Each was decorated with a blob of chartreuse sauce making for a vaguely Freudian (see?) and extra-planetary sight. Once lightly pricked with a fork, they were breathtaking, the crispy outside coating giving way to a molten filling of sultry black squid ink and chewy morsels of cuttlefish. The dark funky ink wrote a sexy, complex tale, while the thin panels of mollusk provided texture and substance. The coriander and citrus aioli was cooling, adding a component both creamy and bright which lightened the dark and brooding fruits de mer. I'll go back for these Spaceballs of glory soon, I guarantee it.
2. Shrimp Taco - Marisco's Jalisco (Los Angeles, CA)
To decree something as the best is a dangerous endeavor, but one that I feel prepared to do with assistance from R&B crooner Drake. To Marisco's Jalisco's shrimp taco, I invoke the immortal words of the aforementioned "You the best I ever had, Best I ever had [x3]." This deep fried wondertaco (yes, I said it) brimmed with sweet, fresh crescents of rosy shrimp while its exterior was draped with epaulettes of ripe California avocado and anointed with two salsas: one a piquant onion-flecked salsa fresca and the second a spicy reduced chile-based concoction. With their contrasting effects, the various elements seduced and entranced the palate: succulent shrimp contrasted the salty, grainy corn tortilla; buttery avocado tempered acidic spicy salsa (making my mouth home to the most simple yet artful guacamole.) I arrived in Los Angeles with a taco craving, and Marisco's Jalisco satisfied it immediately and eternally. "Baby you're my everything, you're all I ever wanted" said Drake.
3. Short Rib Barbecue Bits - Chun Ki Wa (Los Angeles, CA)
Few trips to L.A. feel complete without a trip to one of the city's many Korean barbecue restaurants. With a soundtrack of smoky sizzling, we munched on a variety of ban chan (small pre-meal snacks), including a particularly arresting dish of crispy dried anchovies resembling tiny iridescent snakes. As the meat cooked, our ever-helpful waitress brandished scissors, first cutting the beef into smaller pieces and then slicing off the side of each short rib, isolating the decadent fatty pieces before returning them to the grill. These crunchy bits of decadent artery-attacking heaven spoke to me as only melted fat can, and I slathered them with gochujang (sweet chili paste) while convincing myself that they counted as protein in my diet.
4. Banh Beo Chen - Nem Nuong Ninh Hoa (Los Angeles, CA)
This restaurant trip did not begin auspiciously. A long night, empty stomach, confusing directions and power outage conspired against us, rendering us powerless and ready to stampede the nearest In-N-Out. However, the restaurant miraculously re-opened with slightly less power, and thus began one of my most unique meals to date. Two trays arrived laden with small white saucers, each identically sprinkled with auburn powder and a circle of bright green, accompanied by a bowl of caramel-hued liquid. These are "Banh Beo" a traditional Vietnamese specialty of rice pancakes with shrimp powder, scallions, a tiny crisp crouton and a light sauce. We assembled them by pouring a small quantity of sauce in the middle, scraping the sides of the gelatinous cake off the saucer, and then rolling it in on itself. These one-bite wonders were quite wonderful both in texture and taste, the thin cake toothsome and delicate, its mild blandness an appropriate conduit for the acidic sauce, pungent shrimp powder and fragrant scallions. The mini-crouton, no doubt an example of the French influence in Vietnamese cuisine, added a contrasting crunch. The slightly briny marine flavors, small circular shape and gelatinous texture reminded us immediately of oysters, which we took to heart by downing a dozen each.
5. Beef Roll - Chang's Garden (Los Angeles, CA)
Two Words: Beef Roll. Unless you're vegetarian or an utter lunatic, this dish sounds like a must-order and words (like hips) don't lie. Crunchy vegetables and tender, flavorful slivers of beef were coated with lashings of Hoisin sauce then rolled in a layer of fried scallion-pancake-without-the-scallion. The dish was reminiscent of both a Spring roll and a summer roll; perhaps making this hybrid a June 1st roll? The beef was rich and hefty, while the greens maintained a freshness; a perfect match for the sweet and tangy Hoisin. The rolled pancake was blistered from a swift drenching in hot oil, crispy but surprisingly non-greasy. Two words: more please.