Saturday, November 26, 2011

The UnderBelly Ramen @ UnderBelly

Drove down to Little Italy today to check out the Mercato then dropped in UnderBelly to try again their no holds barred ode to pork in ramen form. Was actually my second bowl there, the first went with friends last week and didn't take pictures. I already kind of knew what to expect the time after reading my friend Kirk's post on mmm-yoso but it's always fun and exciting to try a new bowl in town, supposed fusioned, Americanized, "inspired" or whatnot.
The last I did have ramen at an American restaurant was eons ago at the now defunct Modus Supper Club. Made for a nice light chicken noodle soup but as a ramen an utter failure. The one bellowing at the UnderBelly however I could tell would be a lot more memorable in a good way. With all that pork, how can it not be!?? ;)

But first, a couple things to get out of the way... There is this annoyance of a "no spoons available" policy here. There was some funny reads about it on Chowhound but I think the creators of UnderBelly might be mistaken with maybe how Miso Soup is typically had.(?) Miso soup is never served with a spoon in Japan. Chopsticks in your good hand, you pick up the piping hot lacquer bowl with the other and sip directly. Ramen on the other hand while also occasionally carefully sipped directly from the bowl lip is almost always served with a spoon. If there already isn't one perched in your bowl you'd be sure to find them available clustered on the counter or table. My point: There is no reasonable reason for UnderBelly to not offer spoons.

The other was that they need to train the staff to say the word properly. It's Ton-k"o"tsu, not Ton-k"a"tsu, the latter - deep fried panko crusted pork cutlet. My friends make the mistake all the time, but since it is easy to see a considerable amount of effort being put into their flagship meal I feel it's only right.

Having said that I would almost bet UnderBelly's ramen is technically a Tonkotsu-Shoyu. The tinted color is a hint (though pure tonkotsu soups aren't necessarily always milky white) but I thought there was a nuance of sweet soy sauce present. May have leached from the toppings but it is a nice way to cut some of the funk associated with a 100% pure pork bone tonkotsu. Santouka uses a little marine based umami to accomplish this (characteristic of Hokkaido, Asahikawa ramen) while yet others can include the addition of chicken bones to mellow.

The soup is pretty creamy rich, my first more so than the second, and at least in the beginning not too salty. The amount of oil on the surface seemed more conservative than in the photo of Kirk's bowl but either cases not uncommon for this genre of extra hearty ramen, sometimes further including speckles of seabura back fat. Can safely be categorized as Kotteri without a doubt while not quite Cho-kotteri / Cho-noukou - the status reserved for even yet muddier doro-doro viscous and fat laden creations. This second visit the temperature was much better (hotter) than the first but I still felt they can crank up the Fahrenheit considerably. If you happen to wear glasses, at least real ones with lenses in them, the steam should easily cloud your vision after the first sip while you then blow air to the chopsticked noodles for dear mercy moments before slurping.

These noodles are a thicker side medium, wavy chijire style. They were also executed better this time which the first seemed like the noodles may have been dunked in water that hadn't quite reached a rolling boil. Rather limp and starchy, but the noodles in my second bowl today was near al dente proper. Otherwise fairly standard as for flavor goes if not still on the starchy side and lacking true resiliency (in Japan helped with the use of kansui).

To go with the very hip open and airy design of the restaurant the selection of toppings at UB should also be considered out of the box. As curious as I am I may have to pass on the Grilled Unagi but Braised Oxtail and Bacon Wrapped Mushroom does sound interesting. In the "UnderBelly Ramen" shown, along with melty Char-Siu and soft boiled egg, ten-bucks also gets you a few thick slices of Applewood Smoked Bacon and a Berkshire pork sausage link. While the juicy link admittedly puts things in porky land overdrive, it personally made me reminisce the many quick sustenance type bowls I created during college years and I probably would prefer them more as a side (which are available the way with mustard dip and kimchi). The egg if marinated was very light in flavor. Of these soft boiled I personally prefer ones where the yolks are set a little firmer (not runny) but they were a welcome as they always are, especially near the end as the soup edged toward salty with the steeping bacon and sausage. The grated ginger also helped cut some of the rich monotony as I finished supported along with blanched crunchy bean sprouts and Wakame seaweed.

My first bowl was the $12 "Belly of the Beast" that came with Oxtail Dumplings, Hoisin glazed Short Rib and Smoked Brisket. While the starchy noodles and soup temperature wasn't helping out then I have to say I enjoyed more the less expensive house bowl had today. The topping flavors didn't seem to clash as much as to my expectations of ramen complements (in tonkotsu) and while I know this is Asian-Fusion, the gummy skinned Shrimp Gyozas weren't as good eats as they should've been despite their beautiful magazine page worthy presentation.

Even without the few glitches I personally felt the two bowls were a bit heavy handed for my taste and something difficult to see myself having repeats of. Still I'm pretty sure I will be back to try their Vegetable Ramen (with white asparagus and truffle oil) and also the Charred Kimchi Ramen (mmm). That, Santouka doesn't have and relates to why UnderBelly gets huge kudos for trying something new in downtown. With a few tweaks I feel they have the underpinnings of becoming something much greater. Again, with that much involvement of delicious pork how can it not be? And maybe one day they'll even offer you a spoon.

UnderBelly, 750 W. Fir St, San Diego, CA 92101

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Let's Get Fat Together: A Few Thankful Com Tam Dishes

The Thankful Bounty Rice Plate with Cornucopia of Protein Toppings that is the Vietnamese Com Tam. Happy day before Thanksgiving. I'd be out tomorrow so wanted to have something up before. Be lying if I said I had planned for this post to be for today but if you can temporarily replace the belt buckle pilgrim hat with instead maybe a conical Asian farming one just for a short time...

Com Tam meaning broken rice, the story I'm familiar with went something along how the brittle longer grains often broke during transporting and were sold cheaper, thus more accessible to the poorer class. Eventually the unique texture would become popular in its own right. The dish today safe to say hearty, but garnished generously with veggies (some fresh, some pickled) and usually also with a complementary bowl of soup broth, as a meal relatively balanced.

A few vocabulary words pertaining to common toppings for my own sake...

Shrimp paste wrapped in bean curd: Tau Hu Ky
My favorite, and look forward to ones fried light and crispy. Comically I can never seem to remember the word when actually at a restaurant.

Vietnamese steamed/baked egg loaf:
Cha Trung
From experience, depending on the ratio of ground pork to eggs the texture varies from meatloaf-esque to dense omelet-esque. Love them all.

Shredded pork and pork skin with toasted rice powder: Bi
Not something I crave per se but personally a great palate cleanser to the party on a plate.

Grilled Marinated Pork: Thit Nuong
Oh nelly, a lightly sweet, fish sauce marinated grilled pork goodness. A few styles.

Grilled Marinated Pork Chops: Suon Nuong
Oh nelly, a bone-in cut of marinated pork otherwise similar in flavor to the Thit Nuong but with serrated knife status. Usually no thicker than 3/8". Wide range of varying quality.

A Fried Egg: Trung Chien
Often a wok fried sunny side up with crispy edges. Why not?

There are many more (various seafood, chicken, etc.) but these the few I often see and end up with. Against my documentative habits I pared down a lot of photos since many started to feel a bit redundant. But anyhow first up is Pho Van off El Cajon Blvd. I used to visit more often for Pho but after a couple incidents with chewy beef toppings they've become more a place for rice dishes for me. The No. 100 would be their full featured Com Tam offering.

Last July when this photo was taken a bummer that the price finally had reached past the seven-dollar bracket at $8.15. I had experienced more generous plating from them as well...

Despite, the egg loaf is thick and dense packed with shredded wood ear fungus and has been one of the highlights for me. Bean curd skin with shrimp paste is crisp and fried light with almost a dipped-in-egg-white outer lightness, though usually conservative on the shrimp paste filling itself. The pork chops I always enjoyed the not too sweet flavor. Were never the most tender but the plate overall pretty above average in quantity and quality. Cost performance wise can say I have had better but definitely far from the rear of the pack.

Pho Van, 4233 El Cajon Blvd, San Diego, CA 92105

Next is from Pho Convoy. As with Pho Van I haven't had Pho here in a while. Other people seem to have better luck than I but it only takes one watered down experience for me to make it difficult to try to order it again. But I was back for a Com Tam plate as I remembered them looking great.

Here at Pho Convoy, you can get a seven course Com Tam for $10.25 and even an all Seafood five course that include grilled shrimp and mussels for $13.15. If I remember right I got the No. 32 with grilled pork and bean curd shrimp paste (from hereon referred to as BCSP) with additional request for the baked egg ($6.95 + 1.45).

The egg loaf was a bit dry around the edges but itself not bad. BCSP also fair. The grilled marinated pork here is served the lasagna-esque style I sometimes see, thin cuts packed and formed in a rectangular pan. Overall enjoyed my meal here and wouldn't mind visiting again though the prices are also on the high side especially if you happen to want to indulge in more than two toppings.

Pho Convoy, 4647 Convoy St # 101B San Diego, CA 92111

Was a while since I've been to Pho Hiep Grill (Linda Vista). The Com Tam plates here also always seemed very popular so gave them a try one weekend lunch. No. 37 - Shredded pork, egg loaf and grilled marinated pork chop ($6.95).

I have to say this was one of the more colorful and photogenically plated (although I find all attractive in one way or another). The larger pork chop was grilled and marinated well. If you never had Suon Nuong, it's usually a much thinner cut than the Western pork chop some may imagine ranging from as thin as 1/4" up to 3/8". May run into a few that are not the most tender you've had but I like how the thinner cut allows for the marinade to be permeated all the way through the meat and I imagine an additional benefit for faster grilling time - a pro for the hungry impatient.

The Cha Trung was the prettiest I've seen while the Bi was quite Ok as well. Soon enough the nuoc mam would cover the entire plate into a fish sauce induced feeding frenzy. Yum.

Pho Hiep Grill, 6947 Linda Vista Rd, San Diego, CA 92111

Further down my corridor to Vietnamese eats El Cajon Blvd, is Com Tam Thuan Kieu. This place used to be Nhu Y Restaurant which I've visited a few times before the new ownership. You can read about Kirk of mmm-yoso's visits to Thuan Kieu here.

The name sake house special here is the No. 1 (or No. 18, depending on what page you are on the menu) Com Tam (Dac Biet) Thuan Kieu. There is a beautiful pork chop hiding under that fried egg and all this can be yours for Seven-bucks even.

The runny yolk fried egg with crispy edges brought a big smile to my face but the larger BCSP with generous shrimp paste filling was probably what made me the happiest.

The shredded pork skin had the most roasted rice powder that I had experienced, if otherwise not a whole lot of flavor but I usually enjoy Bi as a palate cleanser between other bites. Sorry had to include another shot of the fried egg...

The egg loaf on the other hand was a smaller wedge and just OK, textured more toward omelet than meatloaf. I haven't talked about the complementary soup broth till this point but the version here I didn't enjoy as much. Usually I find the pork based broth spiced and flavored very similar to what you find in your bowl of Pho but this tasted more from one of their other soup noodles dishes. Still all that for the price is hard to beat. I'm liking Thuan Kieu, thank you...

Com Tam Thuan Kieu, 4712 El Cajon Blvd # A, San Diego, CA 92115

One weekend thought I'd give Saigon Restaurant a try. I've had their Pho in the past and while not bad the most memorable part of the meal was maybe its generous portion. I never really had a chance to return to sample other things off their crazy long menu and was glad I did because their Com Tam caught me by total surprise.

If I remember right this was their No. 44 which is the most expensive Com Tam listing at a whopping $7.50. The plated uniquely bulging upward resembled a rugby ball in shape and size. Really not much to complain about except for the minor detail of the flavor of the soup again as with Thuan Kieu.

The BCSP was smaller but with also a good amount of shrimp paste filling. The egg loaf was a nice size while the deep marinated grilled pork chop was the highlight with an additional turmeric/curry seasoning and also pretty tender to boot.

Saigon Restaurant, 4455 El Cajon Blvd, San Diego, CA 92115

Hope you all enjoyed these while wearing loose elastic waistband attire. To offset, before the end of the year I'm planning on another seven day celebration of great Salads to be had here in SD. It'll be another great Salabration! :)

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Sunday Negitoro-Don And Retort Curry OTW

A weekend morning that had started with gusto. Negitoro-natto-don topped with an egg yolk as true champions do. For people squeamish of slimy foods this wouldn't be the meal for them.

The actual negitoro (fatty tuna belly with chopped green onions that is mostly hidden beneath the natto) I picked up at Nijiya yesterday but had kicked it up several notches with additional finely minced Shiso and Myoga, sesame oil, spicy tobanjan (doubanjiang), and even some Korean gochujang, the doings somewhat inspired by the teishoku awe of Takeya Shokudo - the Negitoro Bancho. (Bancho = Leader of juvenile delinquents...)
Was pretty tasty only wishing I hadn't skimped on the $1.99 per single bulb Myoga. Was still pretty bomb though with Shichimi sprinkled on top and a kick of wasabi to taste.

Retort pouch Japanese curry of the week is Ginza Roku-san Tei - Rokusaburo No Makanai Curry. The title is a mouthful but the product suggests a re-creation of a simple curry possibly served behind the scenes to the workers at Iron Chef Michiba's restaurant as a "Makanai" (staff meal). This was packaged in the newer microwaveable pouch that I mentioned on my Bon Curry Gold 21 post.

The natural fukushinzuke without red food coloring got kinda lost visually (still a plating newb). Had a lot of nice vegetables but flavor wise was surprisingly a bit underwhelming it seasoned rather conservatively. Being a Michiba inspired creation probably was made with some Wa-fu dashi stock in addition, but in the end was a bit too subtle for me to appreciate.

It's been a while since I've had a hot drink in the morning. I usually have Iced Coffee or sometimes Iced Tea no matter what the weather. A latte from my neighborhood Twiggs on Park Blvd.

A croissant in the bag for later. I love a lot the pastries here, especially the croissants which are made at their bakery up the street. They have a nice color on them with some crusty charred edges. Makes the pale colored ones sold elsewhere seem almost lifeless. I'll remember to take a photo next time.

Twiggs Coffeehouse, 4590 Park Blvd, San Diego, CA 92116

Saturday, November 19, 2011

I ♥ Nashville - A Pulled Turkey Sandwich @ Hog Heaven BBQ

I probably first heard of Hog Heaven when doing an early quick "BBQ in Nashville" google query, but have to admit what did me in for actual plans to visit was an article about the Pulled Turkey with White BBQ Sauce on a "Best Thing I Ever Ate" episode. I guess I still find myself easily influenced by famous television personalities no matter how jaded I get of the Food Network, haha. But anyway due to the place's hours it wouldn't be until the final evening before heading back to the airport that I would make it.

I've only seen older photos of the order window style brick shack which I personally found very charming but they've since have hired a professional graphic designer to slick things up. Can't say is a bad thing, the place located by Centennial Park and the demographics seemingly younger here, college and early career types. Maybe the original hand drawn piggy is still on the wall around the corner but I forgot to look.

I didn't know what to expect of "White Barbecue Sauce." By then I knew it was an Alabama thing, something mayo based instead of tomato.

I'm glad I came without much presumptions because there was nothing really too complicated about it to me, just good eats. The looser tangy white sauce probably complements poultry the best, similar to how wings are often dipped in Ranch or Blue Cheese Dressing. I got the sandwich with slaw again and I think it's a must now how both the sweetness and crunch goes especially well with pulled meats.

You can definitely taste the smoke in the pulled turkey but nothing overbearingly so. The onion bun did a great job of holding everything nicely and gave the sandwich some additional flavor of sweetness. As with Mary's, you have an option of having with corncakes here too which I probably should try some day. The sauces Hog Heaven uses by Big Bob Gibson can be purchased there but trying to stay with only carry on my flight back I had to resist the temptation. Won't be making the same mistake as I did once with a cheap airline that charges for checking in luggage. Forgetting I couldn't bring on board in any liquids, that was one expensive bottle of BBQ Sauce! :P

Hog Heaven BBQ, 15 27th Ave North, Nashville, TN 37203

Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Early Bird: Rancheros Eggs With Lamb Barbacoa @ El Borrego

Time was ~9:30AM but for a Sunday anything before ten is early for me. My breakfast a Huevos Rancheros topped with some lamb barbacoa, the brilliancy courtesy of yours truly.

The ranchero sauce was extremely fresh tasting with spritely flavors of tomatoes giving only a light tartness. I'd love to take a pint of it home (also along with their awesomely fresh green and red salsas in those squeeze bottles). The lamb here has always been mild in that distinct gaminess for whatever reason. While I'd personally prefer some that are a little more pungent it's definitely perfect for people who tends to find it a challenge.

Since it was the weekend I didn't want to miss the opportunity to have some Pancita tacos which are only available then. Always comforting to hear the patting sound of handmade tortillas.

The finely minced sheep stomach has some nice spice kick and a natural tenderness that can only come from a long attended slow stew. I might just get these by weight next time and bring them over to friends for dinner along with a bottle of good wine.

Weird, I didn't remember posting an update on El Borrego this year but I had one paired with Tacos El Poblano in Chula Vista back in March. My Part One post of El Borrego here and Part Two here. Menu here (prices subjected to change).

El Borrego Restaurant, 4280 El Cajon Blvd, San Diego, CA 92115

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Home Chashu-Don And Menchi Katsu Curry. Then Desserts With Fellow Bloggers And Friends

Sharing two episodes of pseudo cooking in the past weeks, plus one bonus SD Food Blogger meetup!

A De-luXXXe Chashu-don made with Ramen Nakamuraya's Chashu and Ajitama pilfered from the last day of Fall Umaimono Fair at Mitsuwa Torrance. Score.

[Bow Chicka Wow Wow...]

A foundation of Koshihikari rice fresh from my fuzzy logic cooker, I carefully saved all the sauce drippings from pork and marinated eggs to later drizzle. I only then had to slice some green onions to sprinkle on top. The hearty meal had lasted me well into the evening and I remember skipping dinner altogether.

The next day I used the Menchi Katsu also purchased along with the previous donburi toppings to purdy up my final Coco Ichi retort pouch curry (Pork flavor).

I felt I revived the menchi pretty well in my convection toaster oven. Outer panko crust saku-saku crispy, inner still juicy moist. With a subtle nice nutmeg spice note, the ground meat I'm guessing was an aibiki team play blend of pork and beef. Their complementing umami then fortified with a good amount of finely minced sauteed onions. Pretty good.

Tonkatsu (pork cutlet) still has that magical soulmate relationship with Japanese Curry but Menchi Katsu is a great standby, if not actually a bit guiltier in end product. Any case, bye bye Coco Ichi retort pouches... I have no planned source for immediate replenishment but I'm sure I'll still be using the plate and spoon on worthy occasions. ;)

Kirbie had already posted on the desserts we had at San Diego Desserts. Canine Cologne as well with also even our lunch get together at Que Huong prior to. I'm still compiling the Que Huong portion (my first visit post there here) but here's what we all had at SD Desserts.(!) Kibie's fiance and CC's friend also joined us the day.

My Cheesecake was the least sweetest of the bunch. A lighter spongy, almost leavened texture and only lightly sweet. I really enjoyed this version from SD Desserts, especially the looks, haha. The unadorned perfect cylinder was so aesthetically to my taste! So much so I actually had a hard time putting the fork in it.

But I eventually did and it was delicious. I do admit not having a true sweet tooth but what I've discovered about myself recently is that while I may not have that initial craving for sweets, once I do get into any I'm pretty much all go for the rest of the meal.

Thanks again for the invite Kirbie and Canine Cologne! This was a fun day, we shall do something similar once again. :)

San Diego Desserts, 5987 El Cajon Blvd San Diego, CA 92115

Saturday, November 12, 2011

I ♥ Nashville - A Cheeseburger @ Brown's Diner

Wow this rain has been total writing previous draft editing weather. Anyway the second day turned out to be a round two of good burgers. Skipping to dinner but the cheeseburger served at Brown's Diner I've read up to be a long disputed city's best and made it an easy must try.

Hole-in-the-wall.., Dive.., A spot off the beaten path... All phrases perfectly apply to Brown's which started out as a trailer perched on an inconspicuous corner parking lot off 21st and Blaire in Vanderbilt. One instance online the place was referred to as a 'Diner Tavern' which I feel is probably most fitting as it may have more a feeling of a neighborhood bar than restaurant.

The few pickles that top the bun to me was visually reminiscent of how barbecue sandwiches are often served in the city. But aside from it, a burger at Brown's is as classic as it gets. Some say the stripped down simplified kind that would be illustrated in a comic, or in my case I imagine the iconic kind that would come up in the dictionary when the word is looked up.

A good heft six ounce beef patty with a beautiful flat char from the griddle is paired with fresh tomato, shredded lettuce and full slice of raw onion that some may ask for grilled but gave the sandwich a nice bite which is the way I prefer. The lightly mayo'd toasted buns are of course those familiar round spongy style that every bite melts like manna, only contributing to the golden ratio of carbs-to-meat and nothing of unnecessary excess. The patty was cooked through to Medium-well as how my burger at Rotier's was. Next time I'd probably be asking for medium but the nice third-pound patty was still fairly juicy throughout.

There was a three piece band playing on the original trailer side of the bar that I forgot to take a photo of. Made me want to pick up drums again. I love how you can find live music almost anywhere in the city. A typical weekend night at Brown's Diner was no exception.

Brown's Diner, 2102 Blair Blvd, Nashville, TN 37212

I ♥ Nashville - Mary's Old Fashioned Bar-B-Que Pit

After my first early burger dinner at Rotier's, it didn't take long for me to feel some hunger pangs again thanks to a little jet lag but mostly the fact that I practically hadn't eaten anything the day spent dealing with the bearing rituals of flight travel.

So by now I've too often have read that Nashville wasn't exactly known for their BBQ. According to 'Cue Experts, nearby Memphis and North Carolina seem to take any of the little halo the Music City may have, but this doesn't mean there isn't a thriving great micro culture of barbecue to be experienced for this food curious San Diego transplant from Japan (I much rather prefer this title than 'foodie').

We have our tacos in Southern California, hot dogs in many Midwestern states, pizza in others. Hot Chicken would actually be truly native to Nashville but there is no shortage of finding barbecue engrained in the city whether it be from a longtime established joint loved by locals or from the many great Meat and Three cafeterias in town as one of their hearty offerings.

Mary's Old Fashioned Bar-B-Que located on Jefferson was a name I remembered during my early researchings and was curious to try (which in this case had particularly fit the bill for the simple fact that they were known to be open late). One of my favorite BBQ Blogs, has a great introduction to a few good barbecue eats on the strip along with some informational history of the heart of Nashville's African American community and once thriving Jazz and R&B center that is Jefferson Street.

I was totally in the mood for a sampling of ribs but at the time was able to only make out the full slab on their menu. I ended up with the Pulled Pork Shoulder Sandwich with Slaw - Hot, and in a few minutes was out wrapped in paper.

As you can see this was one messy meal. The pulled pork was super moist, and the sandwich as a whole bordering on wet with the addition of coleslaw. Nice and porky, only subtly smoky with most flavors seemingly coming from the tangy hot sauce and sweetness of the slaw.

There were the traditional slices of dill pickles which I personally enjoy and the sauce true to its name was indeed quite spicy. Mostly a vinegar tabasco-ey direct heat with some additional tartness of yellow mustard flavor. This isn't the sweet sauced bbq as some may imagine when they think of BBQ in the popular sticky tomato/molasses based Kansas City sense.

Despite the heat, was easily able to finish (with the help of a plastic fork) and definitely interesting to have tried this regional style. Best probably would have been the version sandwiched between corncakes that I would later find out is the most popular way served. Better logistically in holding up the contents if not also some additional welcomed layer of flavor. I'd love to be back another late night for the rib sandwich or chicken.

Mary's Old Fashioned Bar-B-Que Pit, 1106 Jefferson St, Nashville, TN 37208