So a kid from the East Coast megalopolis moves out to California after college, and shortly thereafter, he learns that Asian cuisine is considerably different from the gooey, over-salted, over-sweetened slop he ate at Chinese-American restaurants in the suburban malls of his youth.
First, it was the spicy shock of Szechuan food in San Francisco’s Chinatown and then the diverse flavors of dishes embraced by the nomadic Hakka people (courtesy of the now-defunct Ton Kiang on Broadway). When he took the plunge one night at the Japan Center and tried pieces of raw fish trundling past him in little boats on a moat around an exotic thing known as a sushi bar, he moved further toward a kind of gustatory enlightenment.
By the time he was ensconced as a staffer on the local daily, he was joining his colleagues for lunch at the Vietnamese restaurant around the corner on Sixth Street between Mission and Market Streets — a greasy spoon-ish dive that had received a metaphorical seal of excellence with praise on the journalistic record from none other than America’s favorite gourmet chef, Julia Child. All it took was some imperial rolls and a bowl of Tu Lan’s noodle soup. In short order, he had gone from novice to friend of pho.
On a trip to Los Angeles, he went further afield with his initial taste of Thai. At a small restaurant in Hollywood a few blocks from the Capitol Records tower, he tried chicken and spinach in peanut sauce and shrimp and green beans in red curry paste for the first time. It was savory. It was tongue burning. It was revelatory.
OK. The kid was me. He still is. And in the decades I’ve lived on the West Coast, my concept of comfort food has definitely taken a Pan-Pacific turn. Whether I’m in the Mission and willing to line up for a precious seat at the jammed counter of Yamo for some Burmese delights (especially the tea leaf salad followed by an incendiary cold noodle bowl) or seeking out one of Korean chef-mogul Roy Choi’s fleet of Kogi BBQ food trucks in the Los Angeles area to procure his idiosyncratic fusion burrito with chicken, rice, scrambled eggs, marinated veggies, and proprietary spices in a flour tortilla, I crave the Asian flavor.
Sometimes, I think we take our position on the Pacific Rim for granted, especially when it comes to the mad variety and proliferation of ethnic cooking. Sure, we’ve had at least one troubling geo-environmental issue to navigate. A nuclear disaster will definitely give one pause, and that little Fukushima problem makes me more than reluctant to eat seafood from the ocean next door. With the sea currents in mind, I usually confirm that it’s Alaskan salmon or comparable Atlantic fare before I bite.
King Neptune’s sometimes-tainted bounty aside, I keep discovering new and scrumptious examples of Asian cuisine in San Francisco and Los Angeles, even if the establishments have been around for more than just a few months. Of course, if you’ve never been somewhere before, it’s new to you — and, if you’re lucky, it could very well provide a multitude of scrumptiousness.
On the Bay Area front, a friend and colleague introduced me to the aforementioned Yamo last year. It’s been a prime destination for me since. But my ever-growing familiarity with Los Angeles and the increase in my time there has resulted in my initiation into even more fresh and fantastic dining spots. If you’re willing to eat red meat (and with all due respect to my vegan friends, I am not a veggie-Nazi about beef and pork), there’s a proliferation of Korean barbecue restaurants in Los Angeles’s Koreatown that specialize in family-style self-preparation at each table. That was fine until I learned of a place nearby that totally overwhelmed my taste buds in the best possible way: KyoChon, an eat-in and takeaway Korean joint that specializes in chicken wings and drumsticks — especially the garlic and the hot and sweet versions. (The latter wings burn so good that they would probably be illegal in some states.)
When it comes to Thai, I go for Jitlada on Sunset, a place with a menu that’s like an encyclopedia of northern and southern Thai food, and dishes so peppery that a grown man will weep with delight (and a little pain). For Vietnamese, I hit It’s Pho on Cahuenga in Hollywood (open late and catering to a seemingly endless stream of attractive young actors, actresses, and writers), or a no-sign-in-sight diner in a strip mall on Sunset in Silverlake (and I’d tell you its name if it had one). Finally, if I really want another of Roy Choi’s freaky-awesome fusion dishes, don’t want to stand next to a truck and gobble it up with all the mess that entails, and would love a nice cold craft beer to wash it down, I’ve lately come to rely on the Alibi Room on the West side. A bar serves Choi’s food-truck fare indoors. What a concept!
There you have it. I moved West and, in the process, I let my palate expand its scope to the East. To be fair, I still don’t get boba milk tea. I don’t want to slurp up and then choke on one of those tasteless tapioca balls. Death by kimchi would be far more preferable.