Monday, December 01, 2008

Special Foodventure #89: Jungle Food Marathon (LA&OC)

The foodventure this past Saturday was truly a food adventure, with eight food lovers and me trekking over thirty miles to dine on "exotic jungle cuisine" throughout the day. Since there were six other foodbloggers taking meticulous notes, providing insightful commentary and snapping vivid shots (what I call a 'photo gangbang', with multiple cameras aiming at the same dish simultaneously), I will avoid my usual blow-by-blow coverage only gloss over our five-stop jungle journey.

Nkechi African Cafe exterior
Our original first stop for Nigerian/West African cuisine was Saaris, which Man Bites World checked out for his Nigerian Day. Unfortunately, we discovered that place closed so we detoured to nearby Nkechi African Café, which offered similar foods. The restaurant was totally empty and relaxed looking, and frankly I think we scared the sole front-of-house staffer there when nine of us (none of us African-American) bursted into this otherwise empty restaurant. Nonetheless he was friendly and accommodating despite the fact that we're sharing only one beverage and three dishes: first came the fermented palm juice/wine emu, with a slightly offputting smell (a hybrid of freshly-mowed-lawn and milk-just-turned-sour) but tasted considerably more pleasant: a little green, somewhat yogurty. Then came jollof rice with "mixed meats" that was the most palatable and familiar of all our orders, with the chicken-y meat (clichéd, I know) on top of a bed of tomato fried rice and a side of fried plantains.
Goat egusi soup with fufu

Then we also had the egusi soup with goat meat (pictured above) and ogbono soup with fish (below), both accompanied by large balls of starch -- a cassava-derived fu fu for one and a made-from-yam eba. Both stews were frankly hard to pin down in terms of words, particularly the ogbono, which tasted like "a rubber ball" and had the slithery viscosity "of a loogey" while the "mealy" egusi had "blue cheesey notes" and depending on your take, looks either like a tikka masala curry or vomit. Food Marathon and Teenage Glutster, ever the culturally sensitive epicurean diplomats, just noted that we had tried some very "distinct" and "intense" dishes that were very "authentic". My car mates definitely can agree to the distinction and intensity while ravenously sucking down the breathmints I brought along (and still commenting their breaths smell like rubber hours later).
Fish ogbono soup with eba
But despite its off-putting flavors, it did lead us into some thoughtful discourse about the cultural relativism of food and how it should taste... one of us even pointed an example of a friend who tried to spice up some otherwise super-bland foods in Uganda, only to find that the natives hated the extra flavoring. So it gave me a greater appreciation and open-mindness on trying ethnic cuisines, even if I personally don't care for how they tasted -- and I had multiple servings of egusi and ogbono in me to attest to that.
El Rocoto exterior
Next stop, the more innocuous El Rocoto for less intimidating Peruvian foods, though we were still fairly daring and ordered their more-exotic dishes, a cau cau (beef tripe stew) and a seco de cordero (cilantro-lime lamb stew) combo plate (pictured below) along with saltado de mariscos (assorted seafood sautéed with onions, tomatoes and potatoes over rice), a ceviche mixto and, paying homage to their Peruvian-Chinese portion of the menu, a pollo enrollado (chicken rolled up with pork, shrimp and asparagus served with veggies in a brown sauce). The waitress at first was surprised at how little our group of nine ordered, but I think her eyes even bugged out more when she found out about our four-and-a-half stops food journey.
Combo Platter of Cilantro-Lime Lamb Stew and Beef Tripe Stew
In short, the dishes here are a lot less "distinctive" than Nkechi's, and I think the group had a collective sigh of relief at that. All the flavors and textures we expected from the respective dishes were there, everything was a nice balance of savory, spicy, salty and meaty though I was a bit weirded out by the chicken, whose pounded-and-rolled-up mouthfeel reminded me of surimi. We all also liked the complimentary red and green salsas a lot, which had a contrasting spicy-hot and mellow-cool effect.
Siem Reap exterior
Next came Cambodian, and we drove to Siem Reap Asian Cuisine for that (Asian because it also offers Chinese and Thai Food). Thanks to a easy-to-read picture menu and Teenage Glutster's advice, we were able to order the authentically Cambodian dishes including beef lak lak, fish and baby shrimp hot-n-sour soup, Cambodian pork curry, Cambodian fish paste, beef and anchovy salad (pictured below) and a sadao leaves and fish salad along with tastings of fresh young coconut juice & meat and durian and jackfruit shakes (whose orders got mixed up, resulting some funny moments "that's the mildest durian shake I've ever had, I guess I don't hate it that much anymore!" followed shortly by "wait, this jackfruit shake . . . tasted like sewage!") And for the record, I'm only mildly uncomfortable with durian's smell, enough so that I won't order it for myself, but will taste others' if they do get it.
Beef and Anchovy Salad
The dishes here were mixed in terms of gnarlyness, from the familiar lak lak tasting like sautéed cubed steak and the mellow, comforting fish soup typical of Chinese restaurants to the strange and hard-to-describe fish paste and the very bitter sadao leaves salad, the latter of which led us into a discussion of who's a supertaster. But the wait staff here is very friendly, bordering on pushy . . . I felt bad for Mattatouille who had to decline the waitress' multiple offers of white rice refills (a big no no in food marathons) and at least once with his mouth full. But everyone came out of this stop slightly amused -- the staff at our photo gangbangs, us at the Cambodian Pop karaoke music videos, highlighting the very best of choreography, fashion and hairstyles from the 80s (thanks to Food Destination for finding this).
Quan Hop exterior
Our final full meal stop was at Quan Hop in Westminster, a more upscale, refined Vietnamese where we were assured the portions would be small, even though we abandoned the "% of stomach full" test in favor of the "how many double doubles can you still eat at In 'n Out?" for gauging fullness.
Jackfruit Salad
While they have the ubiquitous pho (made with filet mignon here), the specialty here are their various Hue cuisine dishes, which has an emphasis on delicate-yet-complex flavors and careful presentation. For our last meal, we dined on regular and vegetarian banh beos (small bowls of glutinous rice paste topped with small bits of meats and vegetables) banh hoi thit nuong (lacey flat cakes made from rice noodles served with marinated-grilled pork with assorted fresh vegetables and its own dipping sauce) banh it ram (pictured below) (partially fried glutinous rice flour dumplings stuffed with shrimp, pork and mushrooms) tu tiu hop dai (cooked, dried rice noodles with with aromatic herbs, pork slices and shrimp) and goi cuon nem nuong lu (rice sheet spring rolls with shrimp cakes and assorted veggies and herbs) and jackfruit salad (pictured above), almost all of which came with their own fragrant, refined sauces for dipping/mixing.
Shrimp, Pork, Mushroom Dumplings
In most of these dishes, the pasta acted like the canvas and the sauces were like the base coat for a vibrant painting of all the vivid flavors and textures in the respective courses from the aromas of the herbs to the crunch of the vegetables and the savoriness of the meats against rice flour backdrop and the sauce binding it all together in harmony. Everything definitely tasted as great as it looked, but we couldn't say the same for service. Multiple requests (for utensils, water) got ignored, we had a missing dish and also got a wrong dish, followed by the staff's insistence that we did order it. It was just slightly annoying.
Sugarcane Juice /w Kumquat
Concluding our excursion was a stop at a Vietnamese mini-mart Nuoc Mia Vien Tay, where they serve freshly-squeezed sugar cane juices with kumquats mixed in. Not being a fan of the wheatgrassy taste that plain sugarcane juice tends to have, I was skeptical when ordering but quickly converted with my first sip. The kumquats definitely changed the flavor profile here -- it tasted more like a fresh tangerine smoothie than anything else! An absolutely delightful way to end the day.

Despite the ups and downs we had in our various eats, it was definitely a wonderful Saturday spent in the company of open-minded, good-humored food enthusiasts, and by the day's end we are already planning another two food marathons in the coming months. I'm already looking forward to that, though like any good athlete I probably need some recovery time before doing another run.

DigLounge, Food Destination and Food Marathon have already posted on this foodventure, others who partook included Mattatouille, Teenage Glutster and Gourmet Pigs so keep an eye out for their posts too! For more of my photos of this foodventure, check out my flickr set.

Nkechi African Cafe
2912 W Century Blvd
Inglewood, CA 90303
Nkechi African Cafe on Urbanspoon

El Rocoto

1356 W Artesia Blvd
Gardena, CA 90248
El Rocoto on Urbanspoon

Siem Reap Asian Cuisine

1810 E. Anaheim St
Long Beach, CA 90813
Siem Reap on Urbanspoon

Quan Hop

15640 Brookhurst St
Westminster, CA

Quan Hop on Urbanspoon

Nuoc Mia Vien Tay
14370 Brookhurst St
Garden Grove, CA

Nuoc Mia Vien Tay on Urbanspoon


Aaron said...

Man, can't believe you used "gang band" and "blow-by-blow" in the same sentence.

Delightful write-up. I found myself smiling as I was recalling the experiences

kevinEats said...

I thought I was the only one who used the "double-double" guage of fullness!

mattatouille said...

Yeah, I'm just killing my post backlog now...and since my laptop was destroyed recently...I'll have to wait until I get another one until I can post, hopefully it won't be much more than a few days.

mattatouille said...

oh, also, I didn't realize those ladies kept wanting to give me more rice. It was kind of annoying, but oh well. haha, funny that you noticed their pushyness.

Chubbypanda said...

Ahahaha! That's practically my commute home every day. El Segundo to Irvine. Maybe I should try to follow in your footsteps.

Frequent Traveler said...

You're braver than I am, a truly adventurous diner !

H. C. said...

@Aaron, wonderful day spent indeed, can't wait for the next camera pile-up session.

@kevineats, Ha! and my answer will always be "zero, but I can do an Animal Fries" -- just a single patty cheeseburger does the trick for me.

@mattatouille, hope you get a new lappy soon and can't wait to hear your thoughts. And would you like more rice now? ;)

@chubbypanda, you should totally coordinate an OC food marathon!

@annie, thanks -- but I am no Bourdain or Zimmern.

Unknown said...

Hmmm...I kinda could have told you service would suck at a vietnamese place. Glad you like the food though buddy.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this nice info, it's so useful for me


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