On The Menu

Chapter 3

Comments (0) | Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The final installment.

Chapter 3

“Is Andy there? Tell him we just ate at Bouchon!” I screamed at my sister over my Samsung cell phone. I finally did something on the culinary checklist before my foodie sister Tina and husband Andy had a chance to do. Abby and I just had lunch at Thomas Keller’s bistro in Vegas. If you didn’t know, Thomas Keller is considered the greatest chef in America. And we ate at one of his restaurants before Tandy did. (My family has combined all my siblings and significant others into one name entities: Kthuy, Tilino, Tandy, Jerrudy, Cozy and Jabby.) Sure it was just his Parisian bistro in Vegas, but it was un-freaking-believable. This was no mere ham and cheese sandwich we just ate…I mean it had an egg on it. And the fries, oh the fries! I make some damn good French fries, but even if I made fries every night for the rest of my life I would never ever be able to make fries that were as good as Bouchon’s. We would finally make the oh so more important “in your face” move when we got to dine at Per Se before Tandy did too. (Sure they have since trumped us many times over, being served by Thomas Keller himself for some fancy dinner event…but hey, they got us on money and opportunity. We don’t mind being the poorer, better looking version of them.)

Passion. I’m a very passionate person. All my life I’ve been this way. When I find something I like, I want to make sure I know every single detail about it. Sports, comics, food, etc. I have to know who’s the leading rusher in OU history. (Billy Sims). I have to know who the original Robin is. (Dick Grayson.) I have to know what restaurants are Michelin rated. And it doesn’t stop with the basics: I need to know every minute detail there is out there. Where did the O-linemen we just recruited come from? What is the chronological order of women Batman has hooked up with? Is the chef at the new hot tapas joint really trained by Jose Andres? If I didn’t find all of this out, I wouldn’t feel like I’m a true fan. And that is key. See, this all goes back to me finding me. Basically, now that I know what defines me, I want to make sure I am no poser. I want to make sure that when someone questions me about something I love and something I have an interest in, that I know the answer. (A younger me once believed that if you didn’t show enough interest in whatever you like, then you are a fake fan. I now no longer have this close minded thinking. Who the hell am I to tell someone how to enjoy themselves? If you like a particular sports team because you grew up liking them, but couldn’t tell me who your QB even was, why should I scoff at that? Who am I to question your fandom? However, I do feel like there are some things certain fans should know. Lets face it, if you call yourself an OU fan and can’t tell me who our Heismans are or what color Little Joe’s shoes were, then I immediately throw you into the category of fake fans that just came along when Stoops was hired and decided they wanted to put up a car flag and…oh, sorry, I’m ranting again.) My friend Noah gave me one of the greatest compliments I’ve ever received in my life when one drunken night he called me genuine. I’m not sure if he knew how much that actually touched me. As I have described in the previous chapters of how hard I tried to be someone else in my early life, being true to myself is all that matters.

It’s funny, growing up I wanted to be a professional basketball player. Then in college, I wanted to be the best electrical engineer ever. Now I just want to eat. Not just haute cuisine either. I see these food travel shows and I am so freaking jealous. How can I get a job where I try out all the BBQ joints in Kansas City? How can I go on a hunt for the world’s greatest hot dogs? (I’d have to say Hot Dougs in Chicago is probably the correct answer.) How can I get chosen to go to Singapore and eat at every hawker stand? There are some experiences that I do not ever want to miss out on. For example, when we went to Per Se, I dropped more money than I have ever had before (and since) on lunch. Our final bill was over $700. And it was well worth it. After we ate there some people asked us, “Who would spend that much on a meal?” I definitely would…and I did and would do it again and again and again. Now I’m not going to be a regular for the full on tasting menu at Le Bernardin, but knowing that Eric Ripert is the chef there, when I get the opportunity to get a reservation next time I’m in NYC, I’m going to shell out the bucks to do it. (As we speak, Abby and I are saving a few bucks each month to get the minimum $1000 to pay for a meal at Masa in NYC. Can that money be used for other things? Can’t we get fine dining sushi somewhere it’s not $350 a head to just walk into the door? Sure to both those question. But that just wouldn’t be the same. We aren’t loaded by any means, but the year or so it’ll take us to save up for that meal will make that moment when we actually sit down to the gorgeous wood bar in the Columbus Center all worth it.) What I’ve learned these first 30 years on planet Earth is that it took me way too long to figure out what makes me happy. I’ve been trying all these years to just fit in, to be part of the crowd, when the best part of me was just being myself. It took me a while to be comfortable having my own opinion, then even longer to voice those opinions. (Whether anyone wants to hear them is another matter…) I look back at all the missed opportunities in my life, and the missed layup in a game or the girl I never asked out aren’t the ones sticking out. It’s the fact that I didn’t try to eat oysters earlier. It’s the fact that I once walked by a Wolfgang Puck restaurant without even knowing who he was. It’s the time when I was in Vietnam with my parents and even though I ate my fill of street vendor food, I know I should have eaten more. It really is strange that all the regrets I have in my life are all related to food somehow, but I really wouldn’t have it any other way now.

I’m a very, very blessed man. I come from a very close knit family. I have no shame in saying that my brothers and sisters are my best friends. I somehow lucked out in getting a fantastic and beautiful wife. Even though I’m not always happy with it, I have a great job. Hell, I even own a condo. If I can look back at my life and the only regrets are food related, then things must be going very well for me. Lets hope the next 30 plus years can be as equally fruitful (and tasty).

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Chapter 2

Comments (0) | Monday, October 19, 2009

Here is part 2 of my mini-memoirs.

Chapter 2

Oklahoma. The first thing most people think of when they think of Oklahoma is probably something like the Trail of Tears or the Land Run or maybe the great Oklahoma Sooners Football team. Most people would think that being in the southwest there wasn’t much diversity in Oklahoma. (Charles Barkley even stated something along the lines of the only brothers in Oklahoma were on the Sooners football team.) This is both true and false. While I did get my fair share of racism growing up (and I really thought then that this was from being of Vietnamese descent growing up in Oklahoma, I’ve come to realize that people are ignorant no matter where you are), I did attend an elementary school that had an abundance of Hispanic kids, a handful of Asians (albeit they were all related to me) and two or three black kids. It wasn’t until after I left Sacred Heart to go to Kingsgate Elementary is when I noticed that there were a lot more kids that were white than yellow. Other factors also contributed to the feeling of not fitting in: things such as being into D&D and comic books and anime and that I was a little runt. It’s funny that it wasn’t until I beat the coolest kid in 6th grade in a game of teatherball that people started to actually notice me. In any case, I tried very hard to fit in even denying myself who I really was. Even when I made the basketball team my sophomore year in high school I still didn’t really fit in. Then I got accepted into the great Oklahoma School of Science and Mathematics. (The only reason I got into the “prestigious” school was my sister Suzy. They very rarely reject legacy students. I mean I even knew at the time that I was not smart enough to go to that school. I also wanted to stay at Westmoore because my basketball coach wanted me to play on his AAU team that summer, rightfully assuming that I’d finally grow and fill into my size 11 shoes. But instead of learning how to be a good point guard that summer, I taught myself trigonometry.)

OSSM is as diverse as you can get in Oklahoma, and quite possibly is still to this day the most per capita diverse place I’ve ever been included in. More so than U-DUB, more so than Boston. There were over 70 of us in my junior class and we had at least one of everything: Indian (both dot and feather), Chinese, Vietnamese, African-American, gay, straight, and of course country hick. Here no one was pretending to be something they weren’t. There was the football quarterback and the cheerleader that chose to leave their popularity to try to get ahead. There were the kids from the small country schools in rural OK that could now get the attention and higher level of education they deserved. And of course there was me, a very confused 15 year old kid who didn’t really know who he was but definitely knew who he wanted to be….which was anybody else.

I could write a whole book on my experience at this school. Living on the campus of OU (they have since built dorms closer to the school itself) for my junior and senior years of high school has given me more than a few stories and that’s before I get into the educational experience. In fact, I’m very surprised that none of my former classmates have written an OSSM memoir yet. Then again, maybe the experience there is just like at any boarding school across this world and not worth writing about. (I mean, Harry Potter has already given his great boarding school experience and no one can possibly top that.) But the point of these mini-memoirs is to discuss how food has impacted my life and OSSM had a large part to play, so I won’t get into anything that would distract me from the main topic at hand.

Seeing all these other kids, from different backgrounds, just being themselves was the big freight train to the head I needed. None of these kids were afraid or ashamed to eat the rice or noodle or curry dishes their parents gave them to bring into the dorms. In fact, compared to the alternative (the OU cafeteria) these meals were a godsend. This was the first time, outside of any of my relatives, that I could tell someone I had soy or chao and not have to explain what these dishes were. Quite a revelation.

At this time I also got an education in other cultures’ food. Vivek (when he wasn’t getting Taco Mayo from the student union) and Aswin would bring various Indian meals prepared by their moms. I remember them being not only spicy, but full of flavors I have never had before. I also started getting into debates with the Chinese, Pakistani and Iranian classmates over what the best ethnic food was. Of course not many people have tried Vietnamese food before, thinking it was just like Chinese food, but that didn’t stop me from trying to get everyone to know that there was no better noodle soup than pho. Since we lived in the dorms Monday through Friday, on the weekends I’d go home and ask my mom to make me Vietnamese food, enough so I could bring some back to the dorms to share. I rarely did though, because I would eat it all before my dad or Tino took me back to the dorms on Sunday night. By the time I had left OSSM, I now knew enough about different ethnic foods to go to any restaurant and order comfortably. What I didn’t know was that there were “normal” (read “white”) people that were already as comfortable and knowledgeable eating this non-normal food.

Thanks to OSSM I was now more comfortable being inside my own skin and also with a newfound pride for my parent’s heritage. When I got to Seattle, I found myself being very proud of being an Oklahoman. I chose to go to the University of Washington (aka U-DUB, UW, Washington) over RPI, Georgia Tech, and a few other colleges for many reasons. Great engineering school, great location as far away from Oklahoma as I could get, over thirty-five thousand students, and a 52/48 female to male ratio. I was ok with the shear size of the campus and the fact that I just went from OKC to Seattle wasn’t nearly as mind-blowing as I thought it was. That first day in Hagget Hall 1/2 south I had already met someone who loved pho as much as I did, and he was a white boy from Portland. Rob grew up with plenty of Korean and Vietnamese friends. He knew how to use chopsticks. Up to this point the only people I knew who ate Vietnamese food and could use chopsticks were my own relatives. This completely shook my whole notion that white people only ate tacos and spaghetti. Then there was Jason and Vince, two guys who grew up in various places around the world thanks to being army brats. They knew about Korean kim chee and bulgoki. They too knew how to use chopsticks and didn’t even flinch when I described the food my mom would cook at home. In fact, they were drooling and telling me to have her send some food to the great Northwest. Immediately I was falling in love with Seattle. Here was a place that not only I fitting in, but I was doing so by being myself.

The Ave is a stretch of 10-15 blocks of University Ave in the U-district of Seattle. Up and down this street holds the greatest collection of ethnic food I’ve ever come across. It wasn’t the greatest food mind you, at least not all of it was…but there was Mongolian, Greek, Vietnamese, Thai, Japanese, and German among others. I can’t quite recall whether the idea came from my friend Little Jeff or if I came up with it on my own, but by the time we graduate I was going to eat at every restaurant on the Ave. I can sadly say that this did not happen. I found one too many favorites and would just keep eating at the same places over and over again. My favorite times eating was when we’d introduce someone new to pho. Pho, the quintessential Vietnamese dish, is probably one of the few meals that everyone will eat differently. Everyone has their own way of eating pho and its great watching people eating it for the first time try to find out how they want to eat it best. (In fact, this became my go-to 1st date. I thought I could find out enough about a girl from watching her eat pho. Now I realized that they found out too much about me, the slurping, the spilling broth everywhere, the ability to speak Vietnamese at a barely pre-kindergarten level. This is probably why none of those dates every panned out. The best one had to be when I took this beautiful coed to Thanh Vi on the Ave and this little girl walks in with her dog. I point to the little girl and say something like, “It’s great that they let you bring in your own lunch here.” My advice to people out there, don’t make dog eating jokes on the 1st date…girls normally don’t call you back. I actually didn’t take Abby out to pho until our second date, and she ordered a Chinese dish too. I really thought I’d never go out with her again…good thing I didn’t let that clearly erroneous food sin affect my better judgment and now she’s my wife.) I wish I could relate how people ate pho to their own personality, but I’m just not smart enough to do that. For example, Vince loves his pho with so much sriracha that the broth turns a dark orange/reddish color and you can feel the heat from across the table. Does this mean he has a fiery personality? Or how about Jason, and his one spoon at a time technique, where he’d put some noodles and broth in the spoon and then squeeze a little sriracha and hoisin sauce on it before he slurps it up. Then he would repeat for the rest of the bowl in the same manner, making him always the last to finish. Does this mean he’s meticulous in everything else he does? Someone out there working on their Ph.D in human studies should do this as their thesis. Correlating pho eating to personality. As for me, I like my pho with a lot of lime juice, a few drops of sriracha, tons of bean sprouts and hoisin sauce on a side plate to dip the beef into. After I finish all the noodles I will then spoonful as much broth into my mouth as my belly can take. Man, I want a bowl of pho now…

Though I did go get Vietnamese food a lot, I found other favorites along the Ave. There were tons of Thai places on the street, but Thaiger Room and Thai Tom (owned by the same family) were the best of the best. To this day I still think that’s the best Thai food I’ve ever had in the States. Aladdin’s gave me my first taste of Greek food. Sure it was just gyros and baklava, but really, what else do you want from Greek food? The fact that they were open until 4AM every night meant many mornings waking up still drunk with a gyro wrapper and some lettuce on me. (And god I really hope that was just tzaziki sauce…) I already knew about sushi, but I didn’t know about teriyaki, and the Ave had no less than 5 of these little Japanese places. We would argue over which ones were the best, and I can’t quite recall the name of the one I liked most. (It’s on the corner of 45th.) But the amount of chicken or beef you got for $4.99 with the side salad with the orange colored vinaigrette (which was very similar to the salad dressing my sister Tina would make for us) was one of the best bargains around.

It was at this time that I was opening up my palate, not only for taste but also as a human being. I used to say, “That sucks” or “I hate that” to things I’ve never even experienced before, judging books by their covers. This was for both food and life experiences. Now I was opening up more and was willing to give everything the benefit of the doubt. I used to hate mushrooms on any dish. If any hint of mushrooms happened to be on an entrée on a menu I’d avoid that dish like the plague. Even though I probably won’t ever eat a mushroom on it’s own, I’ve grown to enjoy the earthiness and deep woody flavors these fungi add to various dishes. (I actually love them on pizzas now.)

When I graduated from college, I had not only a degree in Electrical Engineering, but also a degree in being John Paul Nguyenkim. I was also getting into the Food Network and cooking for myself and others. I was reading books by Anthony Bourdain and staring at fancy cookbooks by famous chefs every time I passed a bookstore. I wanted to know how to use a shallot correctly. I wanted to own my very own Global chef’s knife. Most importantly, I wanted to travel far and wide to eat everything this world had to offer. It was strange, I once was motivated to go on vacations for beaches or for partying. Now I wanted to travel solely to trek to Thomas Keller, Jose Andres, Gordon Ramsey, etc’s food meccas. Food: The Final Destination.

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Chapter 1

Comments (0) | Monday, October 12, 2009

No one has asked for it, but here it is anyways: JP’s mini memoirs. Before I hit the ripe old age of 30, I will attempt to write 3 chapters that will define my life up to this point. (Or maybe this is just me self-promoting my food blog, hoping to gather enough of an audience to become the next Steve Plotnicki.) What will you, casual reader, gain from this rather open and exhibitionist-esque writeup? Probably not much. Most of you already know who I am and I’m a fairly honest person, so you already know everything I’m about to write. Or maybe you don’t know a lick about me have been dying to know what the hell is behind this incredible mind. Or maybe you are just bored and wanted to kill time at work/school/masturbating and needed something to read. This is for all of you.

Chapter 1

Food. Most of my earliest memories come from remembering various dinners. Oh, I was not a gourmand nor was I ever a budding foodie. (I didn’t even know what that term was until my senior year at Washington.) And this story isn’t about how I became a world famous chef or food critic because of my love for food when I was younger. Because, obviously, I am neither of those things…I’m just a plain old boring electrical engineer, one that specializes in FPGA designs. (Not going to explain what that is/or means…I hate talking about work and don’t really ever want to get into it and when I do, I rant on forever…feel sorry for my wife who has to listen to me.) No, food didn’t really affect me in some profound manner, but what I remember the most was that food was one of the factors that made me different and ultimately help make me, me.

Growing up my mom made bowls of chao (rice porridge) or soy (sticky rice) with Chinese sausage for breakfast. We might have had the occasional bowl of Coco Pebbles or Pops (actually they were the Malt-O-Meal brands because when you had to feed a family of 6, you had to go for the cheaper brands…though sometimes my parents did splurge and we got the name brand stuff, which I always thought I could tell the difference), but for the most part breakfast meant something savory not sweet. This will always be one of the first things I recall about growing up as a son of Vietnamese refugees in Oklahoma. One morning in 6th grade, Shelly Hall, the hottest blonde in our class, was sitting next to me as we waited for the bell to ring. I had just started going to public school because my parents couldn’t afford Sacred Heart Elementary anymore, forcing me to leave behind everyone I knew including my best friend Tyrone, and I was the smallest and youngest kid in my class as well as the only Asian. So basically I had no friends. (There was also an incident where I was ratted out by a fellow student for “witchcraft and Satanism” because I brought a Dungeons and Dragon novel to school that I was casually reading…this didn’t help me gain any friends.) But Shelly was always nice to me. I knew her before I started going to that school, seeing her at the neighborhood pool in the summers, and even though she was already part of the “cool” kids, she would say hi and chat with me from time to time. Well on this morning she was telling me about how bad her cereal was and then she asked me what I had for breakfast. I immediately told her how my mom left a big hot pot full of chao for all of us kids to eat. My parents were always already gone to work by the time it was for us kids to go to school. Of course she didn’t know what that was so she asked me to describe it. I told her it was like oatmeal (guessing because I’ve never had oatmeal before in my life, outside of the cookies) but with rice with strips of chicken and you add some fish sauce and stir it all up. She of course made a strange face and said that it sounded gross. Even though chao, and especially my mom’s chao, is one of my most favorite meals ever, I agreed with the cute blonde that it was gross and that I wish my parents would let me eat something normal. (One of my childhood Peter moments, denying I knew Jesus of Galilee.)

Ah “normal” food. How I dreamt of it all the time. The neighborhood kids would have their pizzas and tacos and spaghetti…and I got soupy noodles and rice. Every freaking day it was rice, rice and more rice. The sad part now is that it was all lovely food, all perfectly cooked by a woman working 18 hour days at a god-forsaken Laundromat (yes, we are the cliché through and through) who was able to take some rice, some chicken or pork and some veggies and feed 6 kids and one hungry hard working husband. But did her youngest, bed-wetting cry baby of a child care? No…I just always wanted to eat what the other kids were eating. And what did she do? She learned to make those dishes. Sure the spaghetti was nothing more than Ragu or Prego over sticky noodles, but boy did I love it. I’m not sure if my parents actually enjoyed eating these dinners like I did, but my dad seemed not to care too much and my mom…well my mom seldom ate the same things we ate growing up. She would always have a little bit of rice or some bread and she sat there watching us and telling us to eat every last bit. And even when she couldn’t cook something, she would get my oldest sister Tina to do it for us. Yes, my sister Tina, who was like the 2nd mom to all of us kids, was my gateway into Mexican food. She would make tacos for us and god-damn if they weren’t the best tasting tacos an 8 year old ever had. Sure it was just El Paso or some other brand out of a seasoning packet, but to me it was magical. It wasn’t rice, it wasn’t weird Asian noodles with weird Asian meat…this was straight up Mexican food just like how the rest of the people ate in Oklahoma. (My older brother Tino was my gateway into how messy Italian food can be…one day during dinner he shoved my face into a big bowl of hot slice of pizza for no good reason at all. Well, I’m sure I was annoying the hell out of him, me being the most annoying person in the world ever growing up. But Tina was there to clean me up and yelled at Tino about it. Suzy and Jerry…well they just sat there laughing. Not to say I wouldn’t have done the same thing if the roles were reversed…Tino is the funniest person in our family so anything he does makes us laugh, no matter how hot the meat sauce was.) I remember how we would not only have diced tomatoes and shredded lettuce to add to the tacos, but also sliced cucumbers. I was never sure where the idea to add cucumbers to tacos came from, but it is something I still add to this day whenever I make tacos at home. The crispness and freshness of the cucumber adds to the spiciness and saltiness of the taco meat. And since shredded cheese wasn’t available at the time at grocery stores like it is today or because we just didn’t buy it because it was too expensive, we would take slices of Kraft (or some no-name brand) cheese and rip them into thirds and just place it in the warm, toasted taco shells before adding the meat to help melt the cheese.

It didn’t just stop at regular dinners either where I would crave non-Vietnamese food.. Thanksgiving always meant tons of relatives in someone’s house, normally stretching into the garage since there were always tons of relatives. Three or four of portable, foldable tables were laid out and paper plates and napkins were placed on top. And lots and lots of Vietnamese food. But, to appease the kids, and some of the uncles, we always ordered up a pre-made Thanksgiving dinner from Safeway or Pratts and that was the part I loved best of these gatherings. My siblings and I and some of our cousins would always devour the “American” dinner, me always trying to grab a drumstick. My aunt Di Loan would always try to cook something that was non-Vietnamese for us kids too and it was normally her green bean casserole. I be damned if I can recall anyone else eating it, but I loved it. The fried onions on top were like icing on the cake to me. And how can you have Thanksgiving without the canned cranberry sauce? Even to this day, as much as I enjoy homemade cranberry sauce, nothing beats the fifty cents can of Ocean Spray jellied cranberry sauce. The gurgled “pop” sound as it slides out of the can. The way that it retains it’s can shape hours after it was placed in the bowl or plate, so much so you can see the ridges from the can indented into the purplish, redish jelly. Yum, yum, yum. Of course, that’s not all I remember about Thanksgiving (or X-mas for that matter). Yeah the food was good, but after the food was done, the kids just sat in the living rooms and waited until the grownups were done drinking and yelling at each other. The times it was at my cousins’ house and they had a computer and a Nintendo were the best because we could pass the time away playing games. Other times we’d sit in some cramped living room that smelled of moth balls on unfamiliar smelly couches watching football on TV. (Luckily I was raised in Oklahoma so I already knew everything there is to know about football by the age of 4.) Uncles would try to sneak beers to us kids, my oldest brothers Kim and Tino sometimes sneaking one or two in before my mom caught them and yelled at my Uncles. Someone would start arguing big time and then we’d get driven home and my dad would puke in the drive way or front yard…I’d always wondered where I got that trait.

However, I was able to get a nice steady stream of “normal” food everyday from lunch at school. At Sacred Heart we would be served in the cafeteria adjacent to the gym by nuns who would rarely smile at us. And what glorious lunches they were! Meat loaf, mac and cheese, and hot dogs. But the greatest meal ever for a grade school child in Oklahoma is what surely should be the State’s Official Meal: Frito Chili Pie. (Now I know that the official state dish is actually the Chicken Fried Steak, which is in my top 3 all time favorite meals, but whenever it was Frito Chili Pie day at school I was never happier to be in my ugly blue uniforms getting yelled at by nuns.) Frito Chili Pie, if you do not know, is Frito Lays covered in chili and cheese. Yes ladies and gentlemen, this was served to the youth of Oklahoma on a weekly or bi-weekly rate (I can’t quite seem to remember how often it was served.) Insert fat, obese middle America jokes here. Forget about the calories, the sodium, and the saturated fat for just a few minutes and just imagine that beautiful brown bowl of ungodly perfection. This is a dish that I introduced to my wife while we were dating and while she at first scoffed at the idea of such a combination, I believe she is now a true believer and lover of this example of gourmet greatness.

All the while I was denying the wonderful food of my parent’s homeland, I was also learning which dishes were my favorites. (It never occurred to me that the food my mom was trying to get me to eat would one day become the basis of haute cuisine in some restaurants all across the country.) I’ve already mentioned my mom’s chao, but there were a few other dishes too good for me to deny enjoying. Pho Bo Vien became the clubhouse leader for me and was what I always ordered whenever we went to a pho restaurant after mass on Sunday. Banh Mi: Vietnamese sandwiches are all the rage now, but back in the 80’s I doubt if you could find any non-Vietnamese person eating them. Before any road trip or on random weekend mornings, I’d wake up to the smell of baguettes being toasted in the small toaster oven. Think to the best freshly baked bread you’ve ever had a whiff of. This was better. No way, no how can you top how amazing the bread smelled. How it filled the entire kitchen area with not only smoke (our toaster oven caught on fire from time to time) but also with an aroma that could make you feel like you were in Paris. And remember the scene in Ratatouille where Colette was describing to Linguini how you can tell if the bread is fresh and perfect not by the smell but by the sound? The crunchiness of these baguettes was nothing short of music from the angels. My mom would slice the bread and add in some butter and Miracle Whip and toss in a few slices of Vietnamese spam and there you have the perfect sandwich. Back then my dad would add into his sandwich some pickled carrots and some cilantro, but I liked it without any of these veggie additions. And I think I even surprised my parents once when, while on a family vacation in California, we went to a Vietnamese restaurant and I ordered the “Summer Rolls”. Goi Cuon, the Vietnamese name, are pork and shrimp and rice vermicelli rolled up in a rice wrapper. I recognized them by their picture in the menu as something my mom would make from time to time and when my mom and dad tried to order for me, I quickly told the waiter what I wanted along with a Café Sua Da. (It might sound strange, but even at a very young age my mom and dad were ok with letting me drink the very strong Vietnamese Ice Coffee. To this day my family and I believe this was the reason for my late development in height, being under 5 feet tall until the summer between my sophomore and junior years in high school when I grew 7 inches in 2 months.) When my meal came, three of these lovely and fresh rolls, filled with pork, shrimp, mint and bun (rice vermicelli) were placed in front of me with a small bowl that held a peanut dipping sauce. For the rest of that trip, whenever we went out to eat my mom and dad let me order for myself. Though, that wasn’t that often because we would eat a lot of meals at relatives who I can barely recall now and I’d whine about how much I wanted McDonalds.

There were other times in my youth where I didn’t fully bash my parent’s food and that was when I’d help my mom cook. My mom, if you couldn’t tell by now or have never had the luxury and good favor to try any of her cooking, was and still is the greatest cook whose food I’ve ever had the pleasure to eat. (Sorry Thomas Keller, April Bloomfield, Ming Tsai and all the other great chefs I like to rave about…Mommy knows best.) And the Nguyenkim clan (“ain’t nothing to eff with”) weren’t the only ones that knew of her greatness. My mom would get called upon to do catering for random Vietnamese weddings and gatherings. I’d wake up early (and to this day I’m still an early riser, even on the weekends) to the smell of whatever my mom happened to be cooking. I’d walk into the kitchen and there was my mom singing aloud some Vietnamese song (which I’m ashamed to have never asked what the song was about) or yelling on the phone to one of her sisters. (We yell a lot in our family, and most of the time it’s not out of anger…we are just loud.) I’d sit down at the table and watch her as she did her thing. Then I’d start mimicking her movements and helping out wherever she needed help, whether that be pulling apart egg roll wrappers or brushing egg over the Pate Choux dough before they get put into the oven. Sometimes my mom would even let me handle the deep fryer to cook battered shrimp or egg rolls. These early frying lessons were my favorite, as I got to work with hot oil in the Fry Jr. My mom would always do the frying in the garage and the Fry Jr would be placed over old brown paper bags from the grocery store to collect the splashing from the hot oil. I’d man the food while my mom stayed in the kitchen to finish whatever else she needed to finish. I’d like to think that this is the reason why I make such great buffalo wings now, with the chicken always perfectly cooked: tender on the outside with crispy skin on the outside. Who knew my mom was training a wanna be fry cook?

But while I was able to enjoy eating and cooking some family dishes, I was still hiding this fact from anyone that asked. I’d go into brat mode and complain about how poorly I was being treated and how unfair it was that I had to eat such horrible food. Whenever I was at school or around other kids, I’d lie and tell people that we ate “normal” food at home just like them. It wasn’t until later in my life when I met other people who didn’t always eat “normal” food either that I fully understood that I was already eating the normal food I craved so much.

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Fancy Ramen

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I have been seeing all these damn ramen websites lately, and I wanted to try something on my own to rival these recipes. I took some Nong Shim Bowl Noodles, some shrimp, and some veggies and mixed it all together. Turned out very good, though I think I'd make it a little more spicy next time.

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San Diego

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Went to San Diego a couple of weekends ago for our friend's wedding. We had a lovely time. I wanted to make sure I got my fill of good Tex-Mex food, since we can't get that very often in Boston.

The Mission

We got up early on Saturday, still being on East Coast time, and used Abby's Iphone to look for the best breakfast place in town. The Mission was rated very high and was not a long walk from our hotel in the Gaslamp district.

Taken from their website:

"The Mission is our concept of a café specializing in simple, healthy, tasty food, with a whimsical edge and a focus on artful presentation at an affordable price. The simplicity and fresh ingredients are produced with dedication to the cause of living in a more conscientious world. This modern concept in healthy dining, combined with pleasant surroundings, is our specialty. We hope you will enjoy your experience of eating at The Mission."

I like the sign that states that one should seat oneself. So many times we've walked into a restaurant not knowing if we need to be seated or not and so we stand there waiting awkwardly until someone is kind enough to tell us. We choose a nice booth in the back and order a coffee for Abby and an orange juice for me. There is very nice cartoonish art on the wall, and only one or two empty tables.

The menu is full of local ingredients with a California/Mexican flare. I ordered the Rancheros Verde and Abby got the Chicken Apple Sausage with scrambled eggs. (I can't remember the name of her dish.)

First, I love huevos rancheros, and this was a very good take on the dish. The Verde sauce (green sauce, normally made from tomatillios) was sweet and savory and had a little kick to it. The eggs were cooked perfectly (just like any other place would cook it) but when I broke the yolk and combined it with the black beans and tortilla it was a perfect marriage. Abby's chicken sausage was very good with a nice sweetness to it. The salsa that came with her plate was absolutely incredible. I wish I could make salsa that good.

Overall, I thought the food was very good but the prices seemed a dollar or two too high. The service was fantastic with Abby getting her coffee refilled in a timely manner and I liked the entire look of the place. I give The Mission a very above average 3 1/2 out of 5.

The Mission SoMa on Urbanspoon

Casa Guadalajara

On our flight, I sat next to a local San Diego man and asked him were I should eat. He told me to check out Cafe Pico in Old Town. So sure enough, once in Old Town I kept my eye out for this restaurant. Sadly, I could not find it. So I asked the friendly Old Town Trolley men if they knew were it was. They informed me that, yes Cafe Pico is a great place to eat but it closed down recently. However, the owners also own Casa Guadalajara and all the Trolley men agreed that it was a very good restaurant.

So we walked there and was told that the wait for a table would be a few mins. We noticed a mostly empty bar so we sat there instead. Abby of course had to order the largest margarita on the menu:

Luckily, she wasn't driving later...

While we weren't exactly starving, we did order lunch. I got the Especial de Casa or something like that and Abby got the Carnitas tacos.

My plate contained a flat steak, two cheese enchiladas and tortillas. I definitely didn't need all this food. The enchiladas were respectable, but tasted like every other enchilada I've ever hard. The steak, while a little tough, had a lot of flavor and I was able to make my own fajitas out of it and the tortillas adding lettuce and beans and guacamole. Abby's tacos were the better menu choice. Large and very flavorfull, the carnitas perfectly cooked, these were good tacos.

The bartender, and I forget his name, was a pro. Friendly and in charge of every situation, including the drunk lady down the bar that was spilling bloody marys everywhere.

I give Casa Guadalajara a very strong 3 1/2 out of 5.

Casa Guadalajara on Urbanspoon

Brian's 24

A suggestion from the doorman at our hotel, Brian's 24 has a diner feel in a slightly trendy bar atmosphere. We beat the rush on Sunday morning by about 10 minutes, because after we sat down at the bar a line started to form at the front door. Brian's advertises that their hot cakes were the best ever and if you disagreed you can return them. Of course, even if they were the worst thing I've ever eaten, I probably wouldn't have the balls to return back the hotcakes. So I chose not to go for them, and instead for the biscuits and gravy breakfast. Abby got the hot cakes though.

This was a great, great breakfast. The biscuits were light and fluffy and the gravy was creamy and smooth with a nice sausage taste to it. My eggs were eggs and the home fries were home fries. The bacon was nicely cooked and not very greasy at all. Abby's hot cakes were fluffy and huge. They were also very very good. Not sure if it's the best I've ever had, but they were definitely in the top 5.

I wish Brian's 24 was in my neighborhood. This is a place I could go any time of the day. I give Brian's 24 a 4 out of 5.

Brian's 24 on Urbanspoon

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