Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Two Fab Asian Dining Experiences in LA

여보세요, 안녕하세요

According to Babelfish, the above characters mean “Hello, how are you?” in Korean. I say this half kidding but I think we should all start learning some basic Korean if we want to continue going out for a meal in Koreatown. Especially deep in the soul of Koreatown...

Asian Place #1

…like when visiting a place called B.C.D. Tofu House.

There was a little bit of a language barrier when this pop tofu temple on Wilshire was recently visited after a USC Basketball game (Go Trojans!). Neil and I were hungry and he suggested going out to find hot soup, but what decent local place was still open at 10:30 p.m.?

Many times I’d driven past the brightly lit mecca “TOFU HOUSE” and remembered the sign "open 24 hours." So we ventured into the rainy night in search of soup, hoping this place would be okay.

Oh it was packed! A school bus or two worth of teenagers was just exiting the premises. While waiting, we viewed a framed articled on the wall from when this spot was included in Saveur's LA Koreatown issue (#46, Nov. '00). We learned there are branches of B.C.D. Tofu House in other parts of the world too, including Tokyo! And I will tell you now that I felt like I was in Tokyo or Korea while dining here because to me the place was real crazy different.

The menus were in Korean, with sparse English translations. We ordered #13 and #14: BBQ short rib & premium tofu combo + Beef bulgogi (sautéed beef) & premium tofu combo, about $17 or $18 per combo. (Note: #15 pork and #16 chicken sounded really good too.)

The waitress asked "How spicy?", and I confidently answered "Medium" (my standard buffalo wing response), and then quickly, “Is medium spicy here really medium, or is it hot?” and the lady said “Medium is medium.” Okey doke.

She walked away with our order and immediately came back with the myriad little dishes typical of a Korean restaurant, which covered our tiny table with scant room to spare. The dishes included kimchi, cold marinated tofu slices, two hard-boiled eggs, seasoned pickle, etc., and just when we thought that was it, they squeezed in two whole fried mackerel (each on its own plate).

In the next wave came the tofu soup. It was bright gorgeous red! It was filled with soft tofu and fresh seafood and maybe even some pork sausage. Our soup bowls were placed before us in full rolling boil. If I may admit, this shocked the hell out of me. I felt like I was in an Indiana Jones movie, probably the 2nd one. "How is the soup boiling??" I exclaimed to Neil, "What’s in there??" He'd already figured out that there was a hot plate under the soup, so in the end, alas, it was not crazy magic soup! We quickly learned too that the spice request was not for the main dishes, it was for the soup. And it was not medium hot... Nay, it was what I like to call “ow ow ow ow ow” hot soup. Don’t say you weren’t warned...

Along with the tofu soup came two metal crocks of white rice. The waitress scooped each of our rice crocks out and into small bowls, leaving some rice caked in the bottom of the crocks. Then she swiftly poured water into the rice crocks. Okay. Maybe because they're busy they do some pre-dish-soaking Korean thingy, but nope, they left the water in the rice crocks on our very crowded table and walked away. And then... a few moments later... the water started boiling! Ah, more magic! Oh oh, see there's a hot plate under that crock too. Damn this is a crazy place. (Or maybe it's just me being crazy, getting all riled up over boiling things.)

Finally (after oh 7 minutes?) our entrées arrived. They looked and tasted delicious. Happily we ate and chatted, and it seemed like a good time to douse my rice with some spicy tofu soup, then chopstick up some of that with sautéed beef for a sumptuous, tasty bite. That’s when my taste buds wanted more fabulousness, so I figured some hard-boiled egg would be a nice addition. I grabbed one of the eggs and cracked it over my plate of beef and immediately discovered the egg was raw. Yes, it was unarguably raw. That's also when I discovered that the boiling water in that metal empty rice crock was there to boil my egg. Ah. I get it now.

At the time, though, I thought this was all delightfully silly! Until my raw egg in the water didn’t really cook because I’d waited way too long for this stage of the game… you’re supposed to drop the egg in pretty much right away. Ten minutes later I had a somewhat cooked egg, and was able to scoop the yolk out and half throw/half flump it over the beef dish. It was worth it. And for a total of like $40 all in, we had a crazy, tasty, adventurous feast that I do recommend for everyone, even if you don’t love tofu.

Asian place #2

Hello, how are you?

According to Babelfish, the above characters mean “Hello, how are you?” in English. Oh I see you already got that. The words are in English this time because even though the next place is an Asian-fusion restaurant, it's quite American, so learning another language will not behoove an easier dining experience. Yes it is quite easy to dine at Red Pearl Kitchen, if not damn enjoyable.

My-Lien and I met there to have a bite to eat, shared some appetizers, and sure maybe I had a tad bit of non-entrée-ordering guilt. Turns out at Red Pearl Kitchen, with its red and black lacquered walls and non-deafening sound system, everyone comes in to chat over shared small plates, or even one large one.

We had:
- chicken & garlic roll $8
- crispy Japanese eggplant with shrimp $9
- miso salmon satay $11
- chicken pine nut, iceberg lettuce wraps $9


We smelled heaven when other people were served:
- caramel chicken, cashews
- fillet mignon, ginger, scallion
- Peking duck with pancakes (offered as a weekend special)
- s&p shishito peppers

Lucky for us the nice table next to us noticed our craning necks and offered a taste of their s&p shishito peppers. They were great! I later realized these ladies were TV character actresses (one from Everybody Loves Raymond), and what an actress she is because her TV characters are usually harsh and in real life this actress was friendly, generous and quite delightful.

One more thing to mention: Beyond the scenic ambiance of Red Pearl Kitchen, they have a pretty unique and refreshing wine & beer list, serving one of my favorite imported beers that a few years ago became ubiquitous on the NYC dining scene: Hitachino Nest White Ale from Japan. Oh it’s good… sorta like a non-sweet dessert beer, featuring a thick, apricot-y bouquet.

I will be going back to these places and soon. They're too enjoyable to ignore.

Until we eat again (and yes probably in Ktown),

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