in which I go on at length about faraway food

I spent the last week and a half traveling, so I missed the first week of the CSA. Sorry, folks. We split our share with another couple, so they took care of the CSA last week. I forgot to ask them to take a picture. From what I hear, though, the pickup involved mostly root vegetables and a metric ton of lettuce greens. When we got back, they were able to give us some potatoes, radishes, beets, and chard — I’m thinking of roasting the potatoes, pickling the radishes and beets, and trying Farmgirl Susan’s recipe for Tuna Salad with Swiss Chard. I’ll let you guys know how it goes.

But let me tell you about the food I encountered on my travels, because some things are just too good not to share. This is a week and a half of pent-up food blogging, so brace yourselves; this is going to get long…

In Chicago, the first place we ate was Shiso Sushi. We had some people with us who were averse to raw fish, so we stayed away from the sashimi (otherwise I would have been all over a sashimi boat). However, I am happy to report that the rolls were fantastic. I particularly loved the Tokyo Tower roll, which was bursting with flavor from soft shell crab, spicy shrimp, and a generous mound of salmon roe.

Still in Chicago: Devon Seafood Grill, which boasts simply prepared seafood. I had one of the day’s fresh fish (rainbow trout), grilled with butter, with the lemon-asparagus risotto and the garlic broccolini on the side. It was simple, wonderful, and very filling. Another person at our table got the gumbo, which was superb. Great service, too.

Last stop in Chicago: Chicago q, a Southern-style barbecue joint in the heart of the city. The ribs were divine and the sides were spectacular (I still daydream about those bacon-cheddar hushpuppies), but I was actually most in love with the freebies that were brought to the table even before we ordered: house-made barbecue potato chips, and house-made bread and butter pickles. The flavors were amazing.

Yes, we had some relatively high-class food in Chicago. This was all part of a weekend-long bachelorette party (congratulations, Karen!), so the eating was pretty fine. Things changed when K and I headed west, though.

Los Angeles puzzles some visitors because it’s kind of a weird city: there’s not much to the downtown area, and most of it is big sprawling suburbs. I like to describe it as a giant, sprawling strip mall featuring sublime international dining. LA has a large immigrant population, and that means a lot of wonderful multicultural food.

When we’re in Los Angeles, L&L Hawaiian Barbecue is one of the places we try to hit every time we visit. I fell in love with Spam musubi while we were in Hawaii and needed to get my fix. I also got a nice helping of loco moco. (When left to my own devices, I tend to eat lowbrow.)

Speaking of lowbrow, we also stopped by In-N-Out Burger for an “animal style” burger and their crisp, skinny fries. I love In-N-Out and their policy of using fresh, never-frozen meats. They seem to be pretty content to hang around the western part of the States, though. (In contrast, I see that Five Guys has already expanded all the way to California…)

An abrupt switch to highbrow: I had a wonderful experience at The Bruery Provisions, a specialty goods store that sold wine, cheese, specialty meats, and other things to accompany beer from The Bruery. The Bruery is one of the best little microbreweries out on the West Coast; we’ve seen some of their beer available locally at The Perfect Pour, but to really get a feel for their skill and variety you have to taste the full range of their line. Their seasonals are particularly fantastic, rich with flavor and wonderfully complex. At the Provisions, you can order a flight of beers (mainly Bruery brews, but they also had beers from Stone and other local breweries) and a plate of cheese, sausage, or dried fruit to go with it.

beer and cheese at The Bruery Provisions

Here K is sampling a flight of Bruery seasonals while I nosh on the cheese plate, which featured blue cheese, local gruyere, a sharp cheddar, and almonds. We then stayed for another flight of beers and some dried fruit and olives. I felt utterly pampered.

I’d love to tell you where we ate in Little Saigon out in Orange County, but K’s Vietnamese friends were giving us a whirlwind tour, and I was too busy stuffing my face with Vietnamese delicacies I had never before encountered. My favorite appetizer involved little plates of congealed rice with savory flavors on top; one ate it by sprinkling some sauce over it, then spooning it up. I have no idea what it was called. (That’s the problem with getting native speakers to order food: the food is usually wonderful, but then you have no idea how to order any of it again.) We also had the world’s biggest broken rice dish, bedecked with shrimp and other meats; the leftovers fed the two of us for two more meals. The prices are crazy competitive in Little Saigon; in an effort to offer the cheapest bowl of pho, the vendors undercut one another until you’re contemplating whether you should get a $2.50 bowl or splurge for the $3.00 one.

Little Saigon also introduced us to the Lee’s Sandwiches chain. Omigosh, you guys, it costs barely $3 for a ten-foot banh mi (that’s a sandwich consisting of Vietnamese ingredients inside a crusty French baguette). Best deal ever. Also you can get a Vietnamese coffee to go with it. If I were a commuter in LA, this is what I would grab to munch during my commute to work: a fresh banh mi and an espresso over condensed milk. K got their signature coconut waffle, and we shared the BBQ Pork sandwich, which I can’t recommend enough: slices of Chinese-style char siu pork, nestled among lettuce, tomato, pieces of pickled vegetables, sprigs of cilantro, and slices of jalapeno. Amazing. We need one of these stores locally, pronto.

Seriously guys, where do I get some local banh mi?

Speaking of crazy cheap food, the Vietnamese are not alone in their competitive pricing war. The Chinese restaurants, especially around the Monterey Park area, are falling all over one another to provide cheap food. In this restaurant, whose business card I snagged but then lost in my luggage somewhere (I’ll update the post when I find it), we chose our options from categories labeled simply $3.99, $4.99, $5.99, and $6.99. This meal, which fed three of us handily (and created plenty of leftovers), cost us around $22 before tax and tip — not bad for sauteed eggplant, pork belly, an entire steamed fish, and yee mein. Soup and rice were included, too.

a $20 Chinese meal

I have to say, though, that some of the best food we got in LA was the home cooking. We ate a wonderful curry and fish hot pot from our Vietnamese friends, and fantastic noodles and pickled vegetables from the kitchen of my Korean aunt. I love eating out, but let’s be honest: nothing beats good old-fashioned home cooking, made and served with love.

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