Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Mi Piace - Pasadena (Old Town)

Should I zoom in straight to the food? Or zoom out and give you a story? How many of you just look at my pictures, and how many of you actually read what I write? :P Should I start the story back when lil' sis was actually little and all about Disney, and one of my friends gave her an Aladdin tape? Or when she got hooked on my parents' Paris by Night videos and developed a crush on Don Ho, so my college roommate sent her a postcard with his picture? (No, not the Hawaiian Don Ho, but the Vietnamese American Don Ho.) Or when she was in elementary school and studying whales, so one of my college friends, who was volunteering at a wildlife conservancy that summer, sent her pictures of a whale tail and spout he saw off the coast of Brazil? Needless to say, I find it very touching when my friends are not only good to me, but to lil' sis as well. So I thought it was a very nice gesture when Henry Chan's Food Videos invited lil' sis out to dinner with us at his favorite restaurant, Mi Piace in Old Town Pasadena. I should zoom out just a little bit for this story as well. A few months back, lil' sis came home from the gym and said she thought she saw my friend Henry but wasn't sure so she didn't say hi. He said, "A wave would work wonders." And sure enough, the next time they ran into each other, he waved madly. She, however, was slightly embarrassed since she said she didn't know him. Actually, she said she doesn't consider it "knowing" someone until she's eaten with them. Well, saying that to a food blogger is sure to get you a dinner invite. Which is exactly what happened. On that night, lil' sis and I had barely woken up from our naps 15 minutes before we were due to meet Henry for dinner. Luckily, he was running late because: Groggy + hungry = a very, very grumpy lil' sis. She perked up when the free focaccia bread came out. By the time Henry showed up, the two of us had polished off the whole bowl. We were slightly chagrined. He just laughed. We also told him we picked two pasta dishes and he needed to pick a meat, and might we suggest the grilled half chicken? Oh yeah, we're shameless. But after asking if he could look at the menu first, Henry gamely went along with our choice. Good move. Here's the free focaccia bread. Was this the first, or the second bowl? Henry ordered an Arnold Palmer, half lemonade, half iced tea. Only one refill with this drink. I never knew Henry Weinhard made root beer! And I call myself an Oregonian? Gourmet soda. Draught style head. Can you feel my anticipation as lil' sis poured it into a frosty glass? Now that's stylin'! It was yummy! The ingredients listed vanilla extract and honey essence. A little less vanilla and a little more sassafras and it would have been perfect. The menu description said thin cut fries with cayenne pepper, garlic, oregano, and rosemary with spicy ketchup and honey Dijon mustard for $6.50. Sounded good. But really, except for seeing some red pepper dust, I couldn't taste any of those flavors. And the ketchup was not spicy. They were good as far as fries go, but if I had known they were going to be so ordinary, we would have chosen a different appetizer. The side-view lets you see how high the mound of fries truly was. Remember what I said about zooming in and out? Mi Piace is the type of restaurant that serves their food on gigantic plates. I ordered the ravioli al burro e salvia, otherwise known as ricotta and pumpkin ravioli in brown butter with sage and parmigiano for $11.95. Here's the close-up. Mmm. I love pumpkin ravioli and have never encountered a bad batch. The sage leaves were fried and crispy. The pumpkin was slightly spiced (as in pumpkin pie spiced and not chili pepper spiced) and still sweet. Lil' sis didn't much care for the sweetness, so Henry and I ate the remaining two. Lil' sis chose the gnocchi di spinaci e ricotta salata, housemade potato, spinach and goat cheese gnocchi with shaved roasted ricotta in a tomato, spinach, roasted garlic and basil sauce for $12.25. See what I mean about big plates? The gnocchi were light and fluffy, just perfect. Was it me or was it lil' sis who recounted the story of my one and only attempt at making spinach gnocchi? I boiled the spinach and potatoes and there was so much liquid I had to keep adding more and more flour and ended up with a very rubbery mess. No one could eat it, except my cousin's wife, who loved it so much she attempted to make her own. Lil' sis also peppered Henry with stories about how I "abandoned" her when she was only 5 years old, ie. I left for college. Meanwhile, Henry asked her what I call his Biggest Menu questions. The conversation went a little like this: Henry: How do you get cravings? Lil' sis: I dunno. Henry: How do you decide what you're going to eat? Lil' sis: I dunno. I look at Biggest Menu. Henry: Really? How often do you go onto the site? Lil' sis: Haha. I don't. Henry: How do you figure out where you're going to eat? Lil' sis: I call my cousins or friends and ask where we're going and tell them to call me back once they decide. Henry: What would make you take pictures of and upload pictures of food? Lil' sis: I don't. (This said with a facial expression that indicated the two of us were losers for doing so. Hehe.) The nice part about eating with familiar dining companions is that we've got our sharing routine down pat. So when my, er, Henry's grilled chicken came out, he promptly carved it up for sharing. This is the polla al prezzemolo, grilled half chicken stuffed with fresh herbs and garlic, served with sliced caramelized garlic and lemon sauce and parmesan mashed potatoes $15.50. The chicken was wonderful, crispy skin, juicy, lightly lemony and herby. The veggies were still crisp. I hate mushy veggies. The other side shows the creamy mashed potatoes. I had forgotten how much I like Italian food. Since it's so easy to make, I rarely go out for it anymore. And really, I don't know why people would opt to wait 90 minutes+ for a table at Cheesecake Factory, when they could just cross the street for a very nice meal here. We were stuffed to the gills and though we glanced at the dessert menu, lil' sis had her eye on something else that we noticed had just opened in Old Town. Before we left, we had to ask our super nice and very attentive waiter, Michael, what Mi Piace meant. He said it was shortened from the Italian word for "passion" and slang for "I like it." Or something like that anyway. Other posts about Old Town Pasadena: Gordon Biersch Brewery Restaurant - Pasadena (Old Town) Gyu-Kaku Japanese BBQ Dining - Pasadena (Old Town) Old Pasadena Film Festival - Pasadena (Old Town) Pinkberry - Pasadena (Old Town) Mi Piace 25 E. Colorado Blvd. Pasadena, CA 91105 626-795-3131

Monday, July 30, 2007

Pizza with Squash Blossoms and Prosciutto

Had enough of squash blossoms yet? :) This recipe isn't from that same colander chock full of squash blossoms that my uncle gave me, but I thought I'd post it before they're completely gone from the garden or farmers' markets. I actually didn't make this pizza dough. I have a recipe but it takes several hours for the dough to rise so I cheated a bit. I bought a 1-lb lump of fresh pizza dough from Claro's Italian Market in San Gabriel. It cost me about $1. And I splurged and bought 4 very thin slivers of the fancy prosciutto. $2.75 for those 4 little slices! Ouch! Squash Blossom and Prosciutto Pizza You'll need: About 1-lb of fresh pizza dough However much prosciutto you can afford Half a dozen squash blossoms or so A few drizzles of olive oil 1 8-oz can of tomato sauce A few dabs of ricotta cheese or cottage cheese Stretch out your pizza dough and brush some olive oil on top. Really? Do you need directions? OK, add tomato sauce and spread evenly. Layer some prosciutto slices. Add a few dabs of ricotta or cottage cheese. Artfully arrange squash blossoms on top like so. Bake in oven at 350 degrees for 15-20 minutes or until crust is golden. And you'll get this. Surprisingly enough, even though they look dry, the squash blossoms were still nicely tender. Enjoy! My squash blossoms recipes: Bong Bi Nhoi Tom Chien (Vietnamese Shrimp-Stuffed Deep-fried Squash Blossoms) Crostinis with Arugula Pesto, Bruschetta al Pomodoro, and Squash Blossom Ricotta Deep-fried Squash Blossoms Deep-fried Squash Blossoms Stuffed with Basil and Cottage Cheese Ravioli with Basil, Squash Blossoms, and Ricotta Sauteed Squash Blossoms Squash Blossom Omelet Squash Blossom and Prosciutto Pizza Squash Blossom Quesadilla

Sunday, July 29, 2007

One Last Glimpse

The desert rose I brought back from Vietnam two summers ago is blooming again. I'm actually really surprised it's doing so well since I only had a stem cutting from my cousin's plant. No roots. No leaves. That's the only way customs would allow it into the country.

I stuck it in a pot and here it blooms.

One last glimpse of my former garden. :(

The orange crocosmia started as a few bulbs I uprooted from my mom's garden in Oregon. She got hers from the Oregon coast. My absolute favorite crocosmia photo though is this one from last summer.

On the far side are my ba noi (paternal grandmother)'s cannas and bac ha (taro stem).

I'm still getting small crops of strawberries. It pays to buy everbearing varieties! What started as three small plants has grown to more than a dozen.

This handful was sweet and warmed by the sun.

I don't eat much sorrel but it flourishes so easily.

My hollyhocks have grown to about 10 feet and started tilting over.

And the bougainvillea made a fabulous comeback from January's cold frost. I didn't do a thing, it revived on its own.

When I planted the lemongrass, it was in an isolated corner. Now the ice plants have taken over. They're like weeds!

Even though this tree is only about three feet tall, can you guess what fruit is growing?
They're longans! Oh man! I wish I was around to pick longans straight from the tree!

Bye-bye my little garden. That was two years of a lot of work. But I'll miss walking along your paths each day to see what flowers or herbs or veggies or fruit are growing.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Bong Bi Xao (Vietnamese Sauteed Squash Blossoms)

So very many squash blossoms. I've made deep-fried squash blossoms stuffed with minced shrimp. I then made deep-fried squash blossoms. Should I take my youngest uncle's suggestion and blanch them? I decided to do a quick saute instead.
Bong Bi Xao (Vietnamese Sauteed Squash Blossoms)
Bong Bi Xao (Vietnamese Sauteed Squash Blossoms) You'll need: However many squash blossoms you wish to eat A couple cloves of minced garlic In a wok or saute pan, add a few drizzles of olive oil and add in the minced garlic. Stir until slightly softened and fragrant. Toss in the squash blossoms and saute until just wilted. Serve with rice and Nuoc Mam Cham (Vietnamese Fish Dipping Sauce) for dipping. Enjoy! My squash blossoms recipes: Bong Bi Nhoi Tom Chien (Vietnamese Shrimp-Stuffed Deep-fried Squash Blossoms) Crostinis with Arugula Pesto, Bruschetta al Pomodoro, and Squash Blossom Ricotta Deep-fried Squash Blossoms Deep-fried Squash Blossoms Stuffed with Basil and Cottage Cheese Ravioli with Basil, Squash Blossoms, and Ricotta Squash Blossom Omelet Squash Blossom and Prosciutto Pizza Squash Blossom Quesadilla

Friday, July 27, 2007

Deep-fried Squash Blossoms

After managing to stuff only 7 squash blossoms with minced shrimp, I still had a whole colander left. What to do? Since I liked how the light coating of flour made the petals so crispy, I decided to fry up a batch. Deep-fried Squash Blossoms Very simply, place some flowery squash blossoms into a colander, sprinkle a light dusting of flour all over, and shake the colander so the flour is evenly distributed and excess flour falls out. Gently fry in medium heat. The petals will be very crispy, while the green ends stay moist. I snacked on the whole plate. Enjoy! But I wasn't done because I still had half a colander of squash blossoms left and didn't want to prepare them all fried. My squash blossoms recipes: Bong Bi Nhoi Tom Chien (Vietnamese Shrimp-Stuffed Deep-fried Squash Blossoms) Crostinis with Arugula Pesto, Bruschetta al Pomodoro, and Squash Blossom Ricotta Deep-fried Squash Blossoms Stuffed with Basil and Cottage Cheese Ravioli with Basil, Squash Blossoms, and Ricotta Sauteed Squash Blossoms Squash Blossom Omelet Squash Blossom and Prosciutto Pizza Squash Blossom Quesadilla

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Bong Bi Nhoi Tom Chien (Vietnamese Shrimp-Stuffed Deep-fried Squash Blossoms)

Bong Bi Nhoi Tom Chien (Vietnamese Shrimp-Stuffed Deep-fried Squash Blossoms) 1

I was hanging out at my youngest uncle's house while he was puttering around in his garden. Lucky me because he was picking squash blossoms and decided to give me the whole batch. As you can see, it filled my large colander. I had so many blossoms I ended up preparing them in three ways.

Squash blossoms should be picked in the morning, or else they'll wilt on the vine by afternoon. You might be able to find some at your local farmers' market. Store them in the fridge if you're not going to cook them immediately. They should be cooked within a few days since the blossoms are delicate and don't store well.

Remove the green stamens from the center. Then gently rinse the inside to remove any bugs, and soak in a bowl of water. Gently shake dry but leave the blossoms a bit wet. Some of the recipes I've seen have them stuffed with cheese. I'm not much of a cheese eater and I'd rather give these delicate blooms a Vietnamese twist so here's my version.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Biggest Menu Or How I Find A Lot Of Places To Eat

*Looking furtively around.*

*Whispering.*

Dear readers, I have a little confession to make.

*Gulp.*

*Swallow.*

*Tinier whisper.*

You aren't the only ones to see my food pictures.

*Gasp.*

I know, I know. I didn't mean to do it, I swear. It didn't mean anything.

At first.

But now, aside from checking to see if you've commented, of course, I also check and see if anyone's commented on my food pictures on Biggest Menu.

I might have mentioned Biggest Menu here and there. And linked to some pictures and videos on a few posts. Did you notice? Did you see how gradually it became a part of my food life? And now, I'm not sure if I'm ready for my food blogging life to merge with my Biggest Menu life. But I guess I couldn't hide it forever.

In my defense, dear readers, you actually benefit from my other food habit. But I'll get to that in a bit.

I guess a little background info is in order. Biggest Menu is the brainchild of Henry Chan of Henry Chan's Food Videos and his cousin Pong, and Pong's friend, BuddyDVD. Henry started it about a year ago because he was always going to the same places to eat and he really needed to find some new restaurants. Scanning various food blogs, Chowhound, and Yelp can only yield so much. Afterall, they're mainly word-based, and well, when it comes to food, we really just want to see what it looks like, don't we? Isn't that why you like my blog? All the pictures? That's what you tell me anyway. And when it involves a new cuisine or restaurant, don't picture menus come in the most handy? Instead of waiting for a food blogger to get around to posting about a restaurant, don't you just want a quick reply to whether something was good or not?

So that's where Biggest Menu comes in.

At first glance, it just looks like a bunch of small food pictures. But if you take the time to explore the site, you'll see lots of info. Think of it as a juxtaposition between the social networking of MySpace and food blogging. Instead of sending comments about where the latest party is, we post food pictures of the latest restaurant opening (ie. The Boiling Crab now open in Alhambra). Or we compare Red Mango, the original Korean fro-yo, against Pinkberry, against PinGo Yogurt or other copycats. We have endless debates about where the best Hainanese chicken rice is in town (Me: always homemade. Biggest Menu folks: Savoy Kitchen.) or the best xiao long bao (Shanghai soup dumplings) (Me: Mei Long Village. Biggest Menu folks: J &J.) or a comparison of which fast food restaurant has the best 2 tacos for $1 (Carl's Jr. Didn't know they even had tacos did you?) or $1 chicken sandwiches deals (Carl's Jr. again.). Or the gender differences when it comes to food (Men: Convenience trumps taste. Women: Willing to drive farther to get exactly what we're craving.)

And if you're as food obsessed as me, you even cook based on those silly but good-natured debates. BuddyDVD is a notoriously picky eater. So after a discussion about his ideal fried rice, with corn on the side, I set out to make a batch.

Of course, after taking the photo, I then scrambled it, added Chinese sausage, and more veggies to make my ideal fried rice.

And the whole discussion and subsequent corn on the side photo is only amusing because there's this food community that simply enjoys talking about food. I get a little thrill when someone visits a place because of my recommendation and they end up loving it. I also get a little sad when someone doesn't like my recommendation either. But it's all good as long as people are out there trying new foods, exploring new cuisines, and hopefully expanding their knowledge of other cultures.

I didn't realize how much Biggest Menu was a part of my food life until one of the servers blew out and a month's worth of photos were lost. For me that means about 300 photos were lost and needs to be re-uploaded. I know! I'm insane. That's because in late July I went about uploading all the photos I had in my queue but had been too busy because I was entertaining Norwegian cousin. Sigh. But also, because for a week, I wasn't able to see what other people had been eating either. Biggest Menu isn't just about finding places to eat, for me it's the simple social aspect of seeing what other people are eating. I'm finding people who have similar tastebuds so we're trading restaurant recommendations. Or I just enjoy gawking at crazy foods like camel hump. Unfortunately, that photo is lost because of the blackout. :(

But in turn, Biggest Menu also helps me blog better. I've got about 75 sets of photos in my queue, some dating back to February. So I've gotten into the habit of uploading my photos there first, recording prices, and initial impressions. That in turn, makes it more useful for you when you're trying to decide how much to spend on a meal. I use Biggest Menu to find new places to eat, whether its a new cuisine or a place I have on my "restaurants to try" list but don't know what's on the menu. I also use it to inform others of new restaurant openings that I haven't gotten around to posting on my blog yet because of the backlog.

So if you're interested in interacting with a community of food lovers as well, you should definitely check them out. It's mainly SoCal people for now, but there are members from other cities around the world as well. Lots of people have sort of wandered in, uploaded a few photos, made a few comments, and then wandered out again. But those of us that stayed, have discovered a lovely little online community of people who just like talking about food.

Biggest Menu is still in beta. Henry, Pong, and BuddyDVD are tweaking and trying to make it more user-friendly. That week that the servers were down? They were up until 3 a.m. every night trying to fix it. They don't make any money. They have no advertisers. It's something they do on top of their day jobs purely for love of food and trying to make it more accessible for people.

After hearing me tell him time and again how wonderful my readers are, Henry thinks many of you would be the type of member who would stay awhile. So there you go, hop on over and check out Biggest Menu. Tell Henry I sent ya. :)

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

A Taiwanese Shaved Ice (Almost) Big Enough to Hide Behind

When I first moved to SoCal nearly a decade ago, the 87s and 88s were in elementary school. My first birthday here, they even drew pictures for me. Awww. I'd take them to the bookstore or the county fair. When I took them out to eat, it was usually something along the lines of Chuck E. Cheese's. Then they hit their teens and all they wanted was for me to take them to the mall. And now they're all in college and way too cool to hang out with their old fogey cousin.

But not too cool to eat with me in the hopes of getting mentioned on the blog! Man! Do I have the heart to tell them the blog's not that famous?

After our dessert first at Vanille de Patisserie in San Marino, I decided to take them to lunch at Pa Pa Walk in San Gabriel. I wanted them to see the coffin bread and the foot-high Taiwanese shaved ice. And if they didn't like that, I knew they'd be happy with popcorn chicken and potstickers.

The coffin bread, listed as fried toast with cream soup on the menu. I think the prices for some menu items went up 50 cents.



Monday, July 23, 2007

Vanille de Patisserie - San Marino

After our dinner at The Boiling Crab in Alhambra, and because I'm a bad sister and didn't get my brother a birthday cake (But hey, he didn't get me one either on my last birthday!), I said I'd buy him dessert too. So after tossing back and forth a few ideas, I suggested Vanille de Patisserie in San Marino. He's been to the one in Rowland Heights and liked it, and I had driven by this location many times and wanted to try it myself.

Vanille de Patisserie - San Marino 1

This was around 9 p.m. I'm sure if it was located on Valley Boulevard, and closer to other Chinese businesses, it would have been hopping, but as it was in the more upscale and sleepy suburb of San Marino, there was only one other table of people.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

The Boiling Crab - Alhambra (Valley Blvd.)

I asked my brother whether he wanted to try a new cuisine, a new restaurant, or go to a favorite restaurant for his birthday. After perusing my extensive "restaurants to try" list, he decided to check out The Boiling Crab. Must have been because I had mentioned these Vietnamese-owned Cajun crawfish places ever since I read Elmo of Monster Munching's post about The Boiling Crab in Garden Grove. Or maybe it's because I recently tried Rockin' Crawfish in Westminster with his college friends. Luckily for us, The Boiling Crab recently opened in Alhambra so we didn't have to trek all the way down to Orange County. Here's the menu.
Boiling Crab - Alhambra 1
The nautical decor was a bit too kitschy for my taste. Made me feel like I was in a seafood-themed fast food restaurant. I actually preferred the down-home Southern bar-like feel of Rockin' Crawfish for these kind of eats.
Boiling Crab - Alhambra 2
We ordered a plate of raw oysters for $13.99 a dozen. These were really fresh. But they came with Cajun sauce, I would have preferred cocktail sauce like at Rockin' Crawfish. No matter. I added a dab of sauce, a squeeze of lime, and a few dashes of Tobasco and the oysters slid down my throat.
Boiling Crab - Alhambra 3
The $1.99 Cajun fries were a pleasant surprise. A large basket, crispy, lightly dusted with Cajun spices. These were quite a hit.
Boiling Crab - Alhambra 4
They were out of Dungeness crabs that night, so we opted to get extra crawfish. We got one pound of crawfish in mild lemon pepper seasoning.
Boiling Crab - Alhambra 5
And two pounds of the whole sha-bang which includes the lemon pepper, rajun Cajun, and garlic butter.
Boiling Crab - Alhambra 6
If you order a two-pound bag, they'll toss in a few pieces of sausage and corn. Whoa! That's a lot of spices! But actually, the mild wasn't quite as spicy as Rockin' Crawfish, where my brother's friends had sweat running down their faces.
Boiling Crab - Alhambra 7
"Please Wandering Chopsticks, don't eat me," says the poor little crawfish with its claws out in supplication. Oh, why do the poor creatures always do this to me?
Boiling Crab - Alhambra 8
While I was thinking about eating the poor thing... Sister-in-law was trying to feed her crawfish Cajun fries.
Boiling Crab - Alhambra 9
We had to teach her how to rip off their heads, suck the juices, break the tails length-wise, and pull out the meat. The claws are eaten only if they're big enough to have any meat. And for hard to crack claws, an oyster shell makes a handy hammer. Of course, my brother also had to tell the story of how we used to catch crawfish in Oregon rivers and streams when we were little. Yes, we repeat stories all the time when there's a new audience member. Here's the "after" photo.
Boiling Crab - Alhambra 10
Three pounds of crawfish, a basket of Cajun fries, and a dozen oysters for five people. Final verdict? I think I prefer Rockin' Crawfish for the better atmosphere, later hours, calamari, and cocktail sauce for the oysters. Bibs too. They were out of bibs this night, although they did have them later when lil' sis went again. Taste-wise, between the two, there's not that much difference. I mean, what can you really do with boiled crawfish and Cajun spices? It's really the side dishes that make a difference. Although The Boiling Crab does have wings and gumbo. So for those of you who don't want to make the drive down to Orange County, The Boiling Crab is now open in the San Gabriel Valley. A word of warning about wait times. It's so popular that unless you show up before 6:30 p.m. on any night, it can be a 2-hour wait. June 26, 2008 update: Got Dungeness crab and sweet potato fries on a recent visit. The Cajun fries are now $2.99. Sweet potato fries are $3.99 and didn't come with any spices.
Boiling Crab - Alhambra 11
The crab was very lackluster on this night, which was what prompted the seafood fest for lil' sis's 21st birthday bash.
Boiling Crab - Alhambra 12
More photos of other revisits included when lil' sis abandoned me and Boiling Crab Redux, with much tastier-looking photos of the crab. Other Cajun crawfish restaurants: The Boiling Crab - Alhambra (Main St.) Rockin' Crawfish - Westminster (Little Saigon) The Boiling Crab 742 W. Valley Blvd. Alhambra, CA 91803 626-576-9368 Monday to Friday 3 p.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday and Sunday 12 noon to 10 p.m.