2012: The Year of the Ban

On July 1, 2012, California banned foi gras. Beginning January 1, 2013, shark fin will be illegal in the State. The practice of shark finning, cutting off a shark’s fin at sea and then tossing it back into the water to bleed to death, has been illegal in the US but the import has not.

Shark fin is a delicacy in Chinese cuisine and I have eaten it all through my life. Shark fin soup is common on banquet menus for weddings and birthdays. It symbolizes wealth and is a sign of appreciation to guests.

Earlier this month, I attended a 90th birthday celebration. Dinner was held at Mayflower Seafood Restaurant in Milpitas and included shark fin soup. Unlike other times where a large tureen of shark fin soup would be brought out for the table, we were served individual shark fin soup in a cooked papaya.

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The soup was piping hot. You could eat the generous amount of shark fin, drink the broth, and eat the papaya. The papaya made the broth quite sweet which was different. I felt a bit guilty about the shark, but I also knew it would be the last time I would be consuming shark fin. I had my last taste of shark fin soup and it was pretty special.

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Sushi in San Diego

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I was in San Diego last week and realized that it has been twenty years since I moved down there for graduate school. How time flies and how things have changed. Twenty years ago I didn’t eat sushi. Back then, I even had a part-time job as a waitress at a restaurant called Sushi-Ya. As an employee, I had the benefit of half-off, but used it for teriyaki, not sushi. I wish I could use that benefit today, because I eat a lot of sushi now.

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My friend recommended Sushi Ota, so I made reservations for two at the sushi bar. With good sushi places, my friend and I have been experiencing omakase meals. We were a little disappointed in the omakase, but we were served some amazing sushi worth talking about.

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We had a global trio of sashimi. The uni is local from San Diego, the amberjack came from Japan, and the toro came from Spain. The uni was so sweet and fresh and beautifully set on a half shell. I have never seen such oily looking toro which put a smile on my face. The generous portion was mouth watering.

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We were served quite a few nigiri. I can’t ever recall having salmon belly nigiri, definitely not one that looked long and skinny like this. I had higher expectations for this interesting looking nigiri.

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The golden eye snapper nigiri was lightly seared with sea salt and citrus. I enjoyed this one a lot.

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My friend thought it was awkward that we were given toro and uni nigiri when we had it as sashimi in the beginning. I didn’t mind at all because they ended up being my favorites of the evening and I believe they are the most expensive.

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Another beautiful nigiri was the tuna. I’m not normally a fan of red tuna, but this one had been marinated in soy and served with a Japanese pepper.

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The omakase included a lot more than I am showing above, but I don’t recommend going to Sushi Ota for the omakase. I would order a la carte in the future.

I had seen some unagi being served so decided to order an additional unagi hand roll. Everything about the hand roll was perfectly delicious including the freshly roasted seaweed. This is one of the best I have had.

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For those who live or frequent San Diego and enjoy Sushi, add Sushi Ota to your repertoire. You will get high quality fresh fish. And ask for Kaz as in Be”cause”. He was a friendly guy and a great sushi chef.

Din Tai Fung: An International Phenomenon

I am currently on vacation in Southern California and on an eating frenzy. Having lived in Southern California for eight years, I am returning to many places that I miss, but also having some new dining experiences.

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Din Tai Fung is an international phenomenon specializing in xiao lung bao. They have restaurants all over the world including Canada, Australia, China, Japan, Malaysia, and Thailand. I didn’t know of their existence when I lived in Los Angeles. I recently heard about Din Tai Fung in Seattle, but didn’t have a chance to eat there while visiting. There are two locations around the corner from each other in Arcadia so my friend and I made plans to go there.

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I don’t typically talk about customer service, but I am making a point to talk about it here. Everyone that works at Din Tai Fung is extremely friendly, especially the waiters, unthinkable at a Chinese restaurant. Our waitress Claire took our order, came by to check on us frequently, wiped the table down before dessert, and brought us new plates and chopsticks.

My friend and I added an order of hot and sour soup after seeing it come out to our neighbors. It was quite good; it had plenty of black pepper.

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Of course we had to have the xiao lung bao (they call it juicy pork dumpling). I can’t say these were the best I have had, but they are the most consistent. Most of the time you get a few dry dumplings or they break on you while you pick them up. Every dumpling had soup to squirt out.

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We ordered shrimp and pork wontons with spicy sauce. The spicy sauce on these were the highlight.

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Stir fried Shanghai rice cake with pork is one of my favorite dishes. Rice cakes are made from glutinous rice flour and when cooked are chewy. Din Tai Fung did a good job with them.

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Although we wanted the sweet taro bun for dessert, they ran out. Claire recommended the sweet taro dumplings instead and said we could order half an order of five dumplings. I liked the taro filling a lot, which would have been the same filling as the bun. The outer skin of the dumpling was chewy and gave the dessert a mochi texture.

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Din Tai Fung was definitely worth the visit and I am not the only one that thinks so.
The Los Angeles Times Readers Choice Award for Best Chinese restaurant in the Pasadena/San Gabriel area for 2012 went to Din Tai Fung. Congratulations!

Move over Pho, Make Room for Bun Bo Hue

I was only recently introduced to Bun Bo Hue which is a flavorful spicy Vietnamese noodle soup. It was a cold day and my coworker was craving Bun Bo Hue (at the time I didn’t even know the name of the soup). I was open to trying it so halfway through our walk, we called in our order to Tay Ho in Oakland Chinatown and picked it up to have back at the office. To our dismay, it was not the spicy noodle soup, it was Pho. Although this was one of the best Pho I have ever had (their broth is amazing), I was a bit disappointed that I wasn’t having my first Bun Bo Hue.

I kept thinking about the Bun Bo Hue and decided to pick one up to have for dinner a few days later. My friend already vouched that Tay Ho has the best and I did enjoy the Pho very much so I returned to get the right thing this time around. The broth was in one container, the round rice Vermicelli noodles and meats in another, and a baggie held the fresh vegetables that included, sliced cabbage, lettuce, mint, and lime. I dumped everything in my bowl, had my chopsticks in my right hand and my soup spoon in my left.

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My first slurp of noodles and soup was heavenly. From my understanding, the broth is made from beef and lemongrass. It also has a mild kick to it. The variety of protein included beef stew, beef tendons, and fish cakes. God, this was good!

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Today my friend and I traveled to Little Saigon in San Jose to have Bun Bo Hue. We heard that this place by the name Bun Bo Hue An Nam is excellent. Although we arrived after 2pm, it still required a fifteen minute wait. In this version, the noodles were slightly thicker, the meats were chunkier, but it tasted fairly similar. I did remove the congealed pig blood. This is a normal item in Bun Bo Hue, but lucky for me, Tay Ho left it out the first time I had it. Next time I have to remember to tell them to omit it.

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I like Bun Bo Hue much better than Pho mostly because the flavor of the broth is more unique and I like the slippery round noodles. For me, Bun Bo Hue is making Winter a lot more bearable. Bun Bo Hue is pure comfort and I am hooked.

East Bay Bagels

It has been difficult to find a good bagel in the Bay Area until recently. In the last few months, two great bagel shops have popped up in Oakland.

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Old Brooklyn Bagels & Deli on College Avenue in Rockridge serves bagels that taste much like a New York bagel. They boil and then bake their bagels which results in a crusty outside and a chewy inside. I have had their bagels with cream cheese and found them to satisfy my urge. This is my new “Go To” place for a bagel.

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I recently heard about Beauty’s Bagel Shop on Telegraph Avenue in North Oakland close to Temescal.

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Beauty’s serve Montreal-style bagels which are boiled in honey water and baked in a wood-fired oven.

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Yelp reviews were reporting that there were thirty minute waits and worth waiting for. Thirty minutes for a bagel? I don’t think so. My friend and I were going to do a drive by earlier today. If there was a line outside, we would detour to Old Brooklyn. I think the earlier downpours discouraged people to go to Beauty’s so we had no wait.

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My friend got the breakfast bagel with egg and cheddar on an onion bagel. As a sandwich this was quite tasty, especially the egg and cheese. I’m not sure I was that impressed with the bagel itself. The consistency was dense throughout.

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Maybe I should have just ordered a bagel with cream cheese in order to test taste the bagel, but I was too intrigued by the After School Special. My everything bagel was filled with chopped liver, swiss cheese, iceberg lettuce & pickled onion. I felt the same way about my sandwich that I did for my friends. It was a very tasty sandwich.

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Beauty’s Bagel Shop is a a hip new place and I will be back to try some other items. One day I will have a plain bagel with cream cheese, but I am also curious about the smoked trout bagel sandwich, fried chicken bagel sandwich, schmaltz (rendered chicken fat) to spread on a bagel, deviled eggs, coffee cake, soups, etc. I see more visits in my future. If there is a wait, I’ll just order to go or make my way back to Old Brooklyn Bagels & Deli.