Monday, January 26, 2009

Bulgogi Glee

The wife and I went on a triple date with some good friends. As always, we met over some delicious food, this time at the Korean restaurant, Arirang. We were all in for a special treat in that one of the diners is Korean and did most of the ordering for us.

Arirang specializes in grilled meats, which was obvious as soon as I set foot into the building. As I passed through the front door, the tantalizing smell of seasoned meats grilled over seasoned cast iron hit me like a punch to the nose in that I was momentarily stunned, pausing to enjoy the now. Once inside, my eyes darted around uncontrollably between parties grilling meats on the table burners and servers exiting the kitchen while balancing heaps of meat smoking on top of searing-hot iron platters. Muffled conversations fought to overcome the gradually fading hiss of sizzling meat.

For appetizers, we had a "shrimp and onion pancake." As you can see, it was just like it sounds. The batter, more like a crepe than a pancake, was marbled with pieces of cooked white and green onions as well as little shrimp. Each person got his/her own piece, which was reminiscent of a pizza slice. The pancake came with a "special sauce" that was probably soy sauce laced with fresh chili peppers, sugar, and sesame oil. Though I wanted to order another pancake, I was promised that the following dishes would be just as good or better. So I did what anyone would in that situation, I pouted as fiercely as I could.

The next dish dish was beef bulgogi. Though the Wiki link tells you what it is, it doesn't tell you that eating bulgogi is similar to using crack cocaine..without the addiction and eventual family dysfunction, of course. Every subsequent bite was me chasing that first high in that I continually ate an unhealthy amount of the salty sweet substance sizzling over the iron plate.

This was the pork bulgogi, which is just as delicious as the beef but healthier since it's white meat...somehow, I'm sure it's healthier...oh well, I wasn't counting any calories at this meal.

Like most Korean restaurants, dinner was accompanied by a large assorment of small side dishes. These were some of the sides that accompanied the meal. Though I've had these several times before, I still have no clue exactly what they are. Eating at Arirang is like eating a home-cooked meal prepared by your friend's mom, you ask for seconds, not questions. Growing up with this mindset has conditioned my stomach and palate to stare down challenges like a marine in combat. All the sides were some sort of pickled vegetable with spices and all did a great job of preventing me from realizing how much oily meat I was actually eating.

This is my wife's favorite, a kind of tofu soup with seafood. The salty broth was infused with onions and spicy peppers, hence the orangey-red color. Beneath its surface was a piping hot mix of soft tofu, shrimp, mussels, scallops and squid. Though it's intended to be eaten alone, like a soup, my wife prefers it over white rice. Her preference worked out beautifully since she filled up quickly with the additional rice leaving more for me to enjoy.

This grilled mackerel was phenomenal. No analogies here, just phenomenal. I admit I'm usually a sucker for whole fish but this was on another level. The mackerel was cleaned, butterflied, sprinkled with salt, and broiled. That was it. And yet, this simplicity that adds to the phenomenon. Mackerel is a bony, oily fish with a stronger flavor than other fish, which makes it my preferred fish. This preparation intensified those qualities that I love. The broiling seemed to essentially sear the fish, locking in all that moist, oily goodness and rendered all the exposed fins and bones as brittle as potato chips (and yes, I ate all the fin chips I could). The dusting of salt complimented its intense flavor making it a perfect for warm fluffy white rice. And the regular process of using my teeth to extract bones was entertaining to everyone in the party, making this mackerel the life of the party.

Much thanks to Trista and Marcos for ordering new and exciting dishes I wouldn't have known about otherwise and thanks to Dante and Jodi for their adventurous spirit in trying these dishes for the first time like my wife and me. Through good food and great friends, I do believe I was closer to enlightenment while eating this meal.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Food at the Rich Port

The wife and I spent our Christmas holiday in sunny Puerto Rico with the family. In addition to lounging on sandy beaches and getting sunburnt, I got to sample some Puerto Rican food, or as the locals call it, comida.

We had one of our meals in Old San Juan at La Mallorquina, which specializes in traditional Puerto Rican fare.

I ordered the chuleta de cerda ala parilla (grilled pork chop with grilled seasonal vegetables and yellow rice). Though a little dry, the pork was seasoned well. Salt and pepper dominated the flavor with faint hints of other spices, including garlic and chili powder. The accompanying peppers and peas seemed to have been blanched and then tossed in a vinegar-based sauce, adding a lightly sour contrast to the rich, meaty pork. The yellow rice was fluffy and aromatic from the chicken broth used in cooking it. It was a satisfying dish, but not spectacular.

My wife ordered the asopao de mariscos, a type of seafood stew. This dish is the eatery's claim to fame and it was evident. The bowl was full of shrimp, scallops, squid and mussels. The seafood was very fresh and perfectly cooked. The nearly soupy rice was deliciously seasoned to compliment the fresh shellfish. When combined with the bland fried plantain pieces tucked in on the sides of the bowl, it was like a symphony of sabor in my mouth. The only disappointment was my wife eating much more of her dish than she normally would.

Awesome Mojito
I washed down all the deliciousness with this awesome mojito, easily the best one I've ever had.

Palm & Pirates
After a long hard day in the sun and sand, we stopped into a beach-side hole-in-the-wall establishment called Costa Mia to silence our disgruntled stomachs.

Fried Goodness
For starters, we ordered some empanadillas de amarones y cebollas (little empanadas with shrimp and onions). The fresh shrimp, peppers and onions were marinated with a light vinegar mixture and stuffed in crispy fried pockets of yummy. Oh Mylanta, these circular sandwiches were amazing! The vinegar helped cut through the oily dough, allowing my taste buds to hone in on the interplay of fresh shrimp, spicy onions and sweet peppers. I was tempted to gorge myself on more but after so many years of focused eating, I was disciplined enough to wait for the main course.

For my entree, I ordered mofongo con carne frita. Mofongo is a dish said to originate in Puerto Rico. It consists of mashed green plantains that are shaped and baked. Though I don't know if all mofongo is shaped like this one, mine functioned like an upside-down cup where the hollow interior was stuffed with pieces of fried pork simply seasoned with salt and pepper. The mofongo was similar to slightly undercooked potatoes; it was bland, firm and slightly chewy. I didn't care for it much by itself, but with the salty, fatty pieces of pork, the combination was like algebra, looks weird at first, but after you've had it, it just makes sense.

As I mentioned earlier, we were traveling with the family, so most of the remaining meals consisted of attempts at recreating traditional Vietnamese dishes with local ingredients. It wouldn't be a family vacation otherwise! For example:

Beef Feast
My in-laws made these succulent beef dishes with the freshest ingredients they could find that day. Though at first I was frustrated because each meal at the rental house meant one less meal with the locals, my frustration was soon ameliorated by the smells permeating the rooms. My only quibble about the food was that, though the store had many other exotic produce, my in-laws stuck with what they knew how to cook rather than experimenting with new ingredients. This was understandable because they didn't want to risk ruining a meal due to unfamiliarity with a foreign food item. But I for one would have loved the culinary adventure. And you may ask, "why didn't you cook up something?" That's because I know better than to get in the way of 6 Vietnamese women cooking in one kitchen. Forget Survivor, there should be a reality show where a group of mothers are forced to cook a meal in one kitchen at the same time. Only then will the world see real drama.