So last Friday, I’m on my regular morning jog route which goes by my old high school. I’ve got my KPCC going, Morning Edition, and Renée Montagne is putting Ted Cruz on blast or some shit. Then I pass a parked van and a parked truck and there are these two kids standing there. And they are just standing there. But let me give you the details of this freeze frame.
So the girl is high school age; I assume this because her lush mane is groomed with the kind of precision that only girls with no responsibilities can muster the energy for. Her hair falls down to her waist in fat, hot roller curls that lay on her back like big logs of bologna. Her hair is that special shade of rusty schoolbus yellow that the children of immigrants get when they try to bleach their dark brown hair blond before they know better. (No hate — you will see below that I speak from experience. This photo was taken probs the year 2000. Look at the size of the cell phone pocket on my velcro one-shoulder messenger bag. Ha!)
Why am I so focused on her hair? Because I can’t see her face. You see, she’s resting her cheek against the hood of the van she is leaning against. Like she was so tired that she needed to take a nap for a second and the nearest place to rest her head was on the hood of this car.
Meanwhile, her companion also seems to be from the high school. He’s wearing some sort of athletic top, I think, and baggy pants. Completing the athletic theme is a baseball cap, which he has turned backwards. He is facing, and perhaps contemplating, his companion’s bologna curls.
And they are standing perfectly still.
Here’s a visual aide.
Now, what do you think they are doing? I can’t tell. The fact that they are standing totally still and not making eye contact with each other or with me makes me think nothing is going on at all.
But seriously, WERE THEY DOING IT? Or were they just making out? Am I a perv for thinking they might be doing it? Isn’t this a terrible place for a romantic tryst, chaste or not? Is she happy to be here? Is she really into this guy or is she demeaning herself in public because she has low self esteem? Did she do her hair perfectly for him? Was he able to appreciate her perfect coif? These thoughts kind of bloom in my mind like algae on the surface of a murky lake.
And so with all of these questions, I come home, bursting at the seams to tell this story. But who am I going to tell, my parents? I do not acknowledge the existence of sex when I talk to them. Also, my mom would make me change my jogging route, and because I am a dutiful Asian daughter, I would probably comply; better not to tell them anything at all.
The next day, I go to a party where I only know the hosts. It’s at a big park in town, and we are all kind of sitting in clumps on the grass. I’ve really been very good about saying yes to every social opportunity that comes up here, despite my general fear of introducing myself to strangers. I find that I am unable to tell people I live in the San Gabriel Valley and just leave it at that — I also have to divulge that I’m living with my parents. No matter how justified the move was by love and duty, it still makes me feel like a capital L Loser.
So this woman is telling a story about how she works at a hospital and recently watched two patients beat the shit out of each other. When I think she is done, I tell these strangers my story about the two teenagers. And the woman is like, “Were they beating each other up?” And I am like, no. And she is like, “What does that have to do with what I was saying?” Because, as it turns out, I’ve interjected in the middle of her story with what must seem like a non sequitur. You know that moment where you just know you’ve lost your audience? Riiiiiiight…there!
I realize that I am telling a totally inappropriate story, poorly, to a bunch of people who do not know me well enough to forgive my social awkwardness. And that while this event was the most interesting thing to happen to me all week, it did not actually deserve to be told as a story, but I don’t know any better because my life is so boring now. And I realize that perhaps the stagnation that comes with living with your parents like you are 14 years old again is not as benign as it seems.
I have been on a quest for the perfect boba recipe for years. YEARS. And I have finally found it. After hours of research and six packages of tapioca pearls, I can tell you the secret:
It’s less about how you cook and more about what kind of boba you’re buying.
I’m writing this post as a PSA for all likeminded non-Chinese-reading or -speaking bobaheads who have found the search for the perfect recipe as frustrating and inconclusive as I have. Little Bean in Rowland Heights makes my ideal bubbles — they’re soft but chewy, and springy between the teeth, so the first bite never tears all the way through.
(My friends Sarah and Claire remind me that “boba” is slang for big breasts in Taiwan. Draw whatever conclusions you want to about how that translates in terms of texture. According to the participants on Urban Dictionary, tapioca is referred to as “zen zu,” or pearls, in Taiwan.)
As much as I tried, I was never able to recreate it at home, and I was too sheepish to ask the lady at Little Bean how they made theirs. Some recipes call for soaking the beads. Some call for a long cook followed by a shorter steep. Some call for a rolling boil, while some call for a simmer. Some call for a 12-minute boil, others call for a whopping 35 minutes. Some insist that the rice cooker or slow cooker makes the difference.
I saved every recipe I could find. It’s amazing how many variations exist, and how incomplete they tend to be. Should I use lots of water, like pasta, or just enough water to soak up, like risotto? Should I add sugar during the cooking process or soak after? Should I rinse the beads or not?
I tried everything, but none of the methods were able to yield the texture that makes me crave boba. Sometimes the pellets would fall apart, leaving me with a beige sludge at the bottom of the bowl. Sometimes half the beads would cook through while the other half remained opaque and uncooked in the center.
It took some time before I realized that I was just buying the wrong brand. The problem was that I didn’t know what to look for.
What not to buy
The quality of product, and the properties for cooking, are wildly inconsistent with boba, more so than any other ingredient I can think of. For this most recent round of testing, I purchased boba from my local 99 Ranch, which you’d think would have the best possible selection of raw ingredients. Their dried foods aisle offered four options, of which I tried three:
WuFuYuan 5-minute tapioca pearls come in a 250g package for about $2.60 each. They’re nubbly and dark and look a little bit like The Thing (or, more specifically, Tobias Fünke’s Thing costume). They’re very light; if you drop one on the table, it bounces. They’re pretty good in a pinch, as they take about 12 minutes (to cook to my taste – 7 minutes rolling boil, 5 minute steep) instead of 60. But they have a tendency to get a little too chewy and dense once they hit cold liquid or ice. These are made in China.
The Kimbo brand “Starch balls” are about $1.30 for 200g. They’re made in Taiwan. After a long boil, half of the balls were raw and starchy in the center while the other half were slimy.
But I found that the worst were the Chang Chi tapioca balls, which are about $1.60 for 300g. These are made in Taiwan. I made the mistake of trying to soak 100g of these in a bowl of cold water. It took about 10 seconds for them to just burst open and disintegrate. It was like dropping a saltine into a bowl of chicken soup. For the second attempt, I got the water to a rolling boil before dropping the tapioca in. Many of the beads still fell apart and became mush with a soaked, spongy texture like tres leches cake. It was gross.
(The fourth brand looks pretty much like the Chang Chi and Kimbo, and was the cheapest, so I never tried it.)
One odd health note I learned about in the window of a nearby Taiwanese restaurant — on June 6, 2013, certain boba brands from Taiwan were recalled for having maleic acid in them, an additive that is not approved for food and could harm the kidneys. Here’s the FDA advisory.
The Aha! moment
Three packages later, I was back to square one. Then, after watching this YouTube video and following the link to Boba Store, I had a revelation — why didn’t my raw tapioca pearls look like those raw tapioca pearls?
The two brands of slow cook boba pearls I bought look like toasted fregola. They are dense and powdery spheres, often with one suntanned side and one light side (pictured left in the photo above). The ones in that video and site, as well as Nuts.com’s site, are sold in vacuum-packed packages. The big beads are evenly mocha brown throughout, with more dents and dimples in the shape, indicating a different texture and density (pictured right in the photo above). Why didn’t 99 Ranch have those for sale? Were they only available wholesale or could I find a package at a different Asian market in the area?
I went hunting, and at T S Emporium in Rowland Heights, I found what I needed.
This 1kg package of Bolle tapioca pearls was only $2.60. They had that even brown color I was looking for. And here’s the thing — the only starch listed in the ingredients is tapioca starch.
Compare that to the Chang Chi, which lists tapioca and sweet potato starch:
The Kimbo lists only potato starch:
That fourth, untested brand I saw at 99 Ranch mysteriously listed only “starch” as the ingredient.
Meanwhile, the WuFuYuan quick-cook tapioca is full of chemfood ingredients like methylcellulose, guar gum, sodium hydrogen diacetate, and agar powder. (Maybe that’s why they are so weirdly bouncy.) The 5-minute boba became a lot less appealing once I learned that they’re a chemistry concoction and not just parboiled, as I had assumed at first.
I knew I was on the right track with the product. Now I had to figure out the right cooking method.
Why you shouldn’t presoak
Here’s what happens when you presoak. The three fragments on the right are a single Chang Chi pearl that exploded upon contact with the water. The pearl on the left is a Bolle tapioca pearl which isn’t breaking up, but it is dissolving in the water. I poked it with my finger and it just kind of melted on contact. These tapioca pearls are not like the kind you buy for pudding. They’re very soluble, and if you touch them when wet, they have a tendency to just disintegrate.
Why I don’t rinse after cooking
I don’t see the point in the after-cooking rinse. It gets the pearls cool, and that’s not what I want. One of the things I’ve learned from years of patronizing Little Bean is that the tapioca pearls lose their magical chewy tenderness when they get cold. However, bubble tea is always served cold (at least on the west coast). It’s a conundrum! Perfection can only be achieved when the warm pearls stay on the bottom of the cup, the cold liquid only joining the tapioca en route to your mouth in the fat straw highway. Keeping them segregated as much as you can preserves the texture for longer. I think that’s why you see so many boba tea joints serving their boba in rice cookers on keep warm or crockpots.
Anyhow, no rinse.
Why I don’t keep the pearls in their cooking liquid
I thought this was a good idea at first, but, like pasta water, the cooking liquid gets quite murky and unappealing. Better to drain that stuff off and store them in the syrup (which adds flavor, anyway).
Why the long cook
The Kitchn recipe recommended 12-15 minute boil + 12-15 minute steep. This is not enough for me — the results are far too chewy, especially after a few hours. I tried the 20 minute boil + 25 minute steep as written on the package and these were still too chewy in the middle.
But I came back to the Boba Guys recipe, which finally worked as it should work once I had the right product. I made some adjustments to suit my taste, so I’m writing them up below. I’m very, very, very satisfied with the results. I get the chew I want without sacrificing the silky springiness, and the pearls don’t seize up once they’re in an iced drink.
Storing your dry boba
I’m also finding that, once opened, the previously vacuum-packed pearls tend to evaporate moisture which condenses inside the bag and looks like it might court spoilage. You’re probably better off cooking and serving a big batch rather than trying to make a single package last all year. (I’ve read that you can freeze them, but I haven’t tried that yet.) (UPDATE: Yes! Once you’ve opened the package, freeze them. They cook up perfectly after being frozen, exact same method applies.)
So remember — look for pearls that use all tapioca starch, no substitutes. That’s it! They won’t necessarily be the most expensive brand; you have to read the ingredients list. I wasn’t able to find a supplier on Amazon that looked trustworthy. These pearls from Nuts.com get good reviews and look right, but the shipping will kill you. If you’ve got an Asian market in town, check there first.
The Perfect Boba Recipe
This recipe is adaptable for whatever amount you want to make, whether it’s just a few servings or enough to feed a crowd. It’s about 25 grams* of dry pearls per small serving (think small cup of boba tea).
Make a simple syrup by heating 1 part brown sugar, 1 part white sugar, and 2 parts water until dissolved. Set aside. Leftovers can be refrigerated.
Boil water like you would for pasta — lots of it (at least 10x the amount of water, so if you’re doing 100g, do 1000mL water). Once you’re at a rolling boil, weigh out your tapioca pearls (I cook in increments of 100g) and add the tapioca pearls to the water all at once. Stir. Let the water come up to a boil again; the pearls will float to the top. Once the water is boiling again, lower the heat to medium. Set a lid slightly ajar on top and cook for 35 minutes. Stir every five minutes. Turn the heat off. Cover completely and let the pearls steep for 25 minutes.
Drain the pearls. Do not rinse. For every 100 grams of dry pearls, add 50mL of the simple syrup. Let steep for at least 15 minutes. Serve right away or within a few hours. If you have leftovers, you can refrigerate them for a day, but you must microwave them for about 30 seconds before serving. (Alternatively, keep them warm in a rice cooker on the “Keep Warm” setting or a crockpot on the lowest setting, but don’t let them overcook. I haven’t tried rewarming on the stovetop, not sure if this would work.)
To serve: Place a few heaping tablespoons of warm tapioca pearls at the bottom of the cup. Add your beverage. Add your ice last. DO NOT SHAKE AROUND — boba texture suffers in the cold. Serve with a fat straw. Preen triumphantly.
Note: these are very, very soft when hot and fresh; they firm up after soaking in the syrup and once your cold drink has been added. If you want to serve these with a hot drink, I’d probably cut the cooking time back down to 25 minutes.
*Yeah, that’s right, I said grams. Use your scale. I am all about g and mL now. Here’s why.
I made the Colin Nederkoorn Standesk 2200! If a home improvement dummy like me can do it, so can you. I made a few minor changes:
I’m 5′ 4½” with short arms. My existing desk is 31″ tall. This meant that the height of the recommended bracket was too high for my keyboard height. Instead, I chose the Ekby Valter birch 7 ⅛” bracket (2 brackets, $3 each), which is 3 ¼” shorter than the 11″ brackets in the original. I attached them to the very bottom of a white Lack side table ($8) — the white is ⅜” smaller than the black version used in the original Standesk, but it doesn’t make a difference. Because I used the smaller brackets, I also went for a smaller shelf, the natural wood Ekby Tryggve shelf* ($4), which is the perfect size for my wireless keyboard.
Assembly required a flat screwdriver and a couple of 1-¼” wood screws from the garage.
I was worried the Lack would be just a touch too high, but my laptop screen is at the perfect level, and I find I’m just adjusting my focal point on the monitor a bit lower than usual, which is not bad at all.
I’m also using a couple of gel mats that my dad happened to have in the garage because he’s my dad.
So far, I like! I had a desk with buttons that could raise it to standing level when I was working in Sweden, but I almost never raised it. (If only I had known what a luxury it was!) I also had made a makeshift standing desk in an old TV cabinet that was in my room when I first moved back here, but the lack of ventilation in the cabinet was an issue. But at least I knew I’d like standing. And it forces me to take breaks, which I need.
I think this is an awesome set up for someone who just wants to try the standing thing out — after all, the whole thing cost only $18 before taxes. Maybe I’ll be able to afford this $1600 model someday. I’m sure it’s a dream. Until then, I’m happy to have gotten rid of the leaning office roller chair I had been insulting my hip with.
* Tryggve happens to be the name of the hot Swedish exchange student and swimmer who somehow wound up in La Puente for a year and whom I interviewed for the school newspaper. He told everyone to call him “T” since nobody knew how to pronounce his real name. I had never met anyone so blond in my life. I always thought he was so unfortunate to have wound up at my high school, but I suppose those kids who wind up in tiny towns in the middle of nowhere only to endure a Sweden-like winter would say otherwise.
They’ve got a super crunchy, smooth, brittle shell, and the peanuts themselves are very fresh. I prefer the coffee flavor — the coating departs just the right aromatic edge to the peanuts so they ride the edge between sweet and savory without veering into salt. Best of all, they’re dry, so they don’t leave grains of seasoning or oil all over your fingers (which, in turn, keeps your steering wheel free from grease smears as you drive — delicious and practical). I ate half a package the other night while binge-watching the first season of Borgen, another obsession.
I bought a canister of Koh Kae during the same outing to the Thai market and I can tell you with certainty that Khao Shong are 100x better. The Koh Kae are crumbly, feeble disappointments by comparison. Here in L.A., you can get them for $2.70/bag at Thong Lo next to Lax-C, the huge Thai restaurant supply warehouse near Chinatown, or for $3 at Silom market in Thai Town.
It’s a sign of how much this neighborhood has changed that of the 10 or so options at my local movie theater, there’s always one Chinese-language release. Given that the other films are generally cartoons or action movie sequels (Red 2? I never even heard of Red 1), I always check to see what Chinese flick is playing.
So when I saw that Wong Kar Wai’s The Grandmaster was here for the weekend, I immediately bought a ticket. This is the closest my local theater has ever come to showing an arthouse movie. Ziyi Zhang and Tony Leung are such a pleasure to ogle. As with other Wong Kar Wai films, the costumes are their own characters, and much attention is paid to everyone’s shoes. One martial arts specialist wears embroidered, bound foot platform shoes which she does improbable roundhouse kicks in. Everyone slides around in cloth shoes and white socks, kicking up snow and rain.
When you think of Chungking Express, you think of Brigitte Lin in the trench coat, blond wig, and sunglasses.
In the Mood for Love is all about Maggie Cheung’s lithe body in a bodycon cheongsam.
[SPOILER: Full scene below. Don't click if you don't want to see it.]
In The Grandmaster, it’s Ziyi Zhang in a winter maxi coat with a plush, jet black, mink collar and cuffs that breathe of their own accord; a single snowflake ornament is nestled in the smooth lacquer of her hair, echoing the paleness of her face against all that rustling black.
My favorite quote (paraphrasing from memory here): “Life would be boring without regrets.”
I enjoyed the movie; sure, the story was choppy and a little toothless, but it’s full of gorgeous people and fight scenes and scenery that stick with me. It’s worth it just for the scenes of the women at the brothel with pencil-thin eyebrows, rosy cheeks, and pin curls, looking like those vintage Chinese ads come to life.
My fellow Puente Hills Mall patrons, however, were NOT into it. I think they were expecting something more Jet Li. A bunch of people even walked out. Which makes me feel like, ugh, this is why I can’t live in the burbs.
For some, the calling reveals itself early and forcefully. What if the conditions are perfect, the waters are still, I am listening with closed eyes and held breath, but no song comes?
My mom thinks I have too much choice. She grew up in a poor village in the poorest region of a poor country. When she was my age, she was raising two children in a house she had bought while sending money to Thailand to put her four younger siblings through school. She had no choice but to work. She has lived a life overflowing with George Saunders’s kindness. I ask her if she had any dreams. She dismisses the question.
I knew a man who had chosen to follow the muse that called when he was five years old. He pursued his work as an oil drill to an ocean floor. His life has Bill Watterson’s meaning and purpose, and he will leave behind an artistic legacy anyone would be proud of. He loves what he does. But he is not a happy person.
My instinct tells me to sit tight, that the path will reveal itself, and that I can find happiness at any time, even in this moment of frustration.
My fear says that at my age, there is no path and less serendipity; I must forge my own way.
My eyes want someone to turn the headlights on already.
I’ve been writing for a site called The Sweethome. It’s all about good stuff you should get for the home. I was one of the writers hired for launch, and I’m really proud of the work I’ve got up there. I’ve completed two guides so far: The Best Salt for the Home Kitchen and The Best Toaster Oven. They’re both super long reads with details about the research and testing process.
I really love the editorial process. The editor-in-chief is Brian Lam; he used to run Gizmodo. He also helms a gadget site, The Wirecutter, which is now the first (and sometimes only) place I look when I need to buy electronics.
As a writer, I really value the editorial process. It takes time for us to come to a conclusion, with rigorous back and forth with the editors. Because I know what the other writers have to go through in order to pick a winner, I know I can trust their picks. I also learn so much in the process of researching and calling experts. It’s fun to dive deep.
I’m working on a few more doozies that should be coming out soon. The next one has been in the works for several months. Stay tuned!
Some of my friends are worried I am going to live with my parents for too long. They should be worried — it’s kind of awesome here. I can do laundry for free anytime, there’s always food in the fridge and rice in the cooker, and the trains behind the house run far less frequently than they did, loudly, when I was a kid.*
And then there’s the food — sometime in the last 15 years, our neighborhood has become a really exciting place to eat. Yes, the western San Gabriel Valley is great for Chinese food; last week I went to Sea Harbour for dim sum and Din Tai Fung for some badass, gorgeous soup dumplings.
But I’m talking about myhood, in the east San Gabriel Valley, like within a 5 mile radius from my house. In the battle between Rowland Heights and West SGV, I don’t yet have enough knowledge to form an opinion. I’m just thrilled that there are so many options. I’m also still thinking in terms of New York prices, so every place here seems mind-bogglingly cheap. My favorite thing about Yelp reviews of restaurants in the area is how many of them start with, “This place is surprisingly clean.”
There are places I’ve known about for years, but there’s also a new crop of restaurants, many of them Taiwanese. I’ve listed the places I want to try (blue marker) and the places I’ve already been to (knife and fork). Click on an icon for more info.
Have you already been to some of these places? Tell me if I shouldn’t waste my time.
Newport Tan Cang Restaurant#- This is in the same shopping center as Little Bean. Yelpers love the Newport Lobster.
The Boiling Crab#- I’ve been to the one in Long Beach with my cousin but I’ve never been to this one. I’m assuming it’s the same business — plastic bags filled with garlicky, Sriracha-slathered crawfish or shrimp by the pound, to be savagely destroyed on a table lined with butcher paper. Shrimp = less work, more meat than crawfish. Get the corn. Bibs and latex gloves optional (not kidding).
Class 302 - From what I’ve read, this was the first place to serve Taiwanese-style shaved snow. The wait can be brutal, but service is efficient. We ordered mango-strawberry over plain milk snow with a lattice of condensed milk and bittersweet green tea snow with mochi and red bean — I preferred the latter, especially the Chinese style rectangular boiled rice dumpling mochi.
i-Sweet – (two pics above) A less popular shaved snow place near the movie theater. Airy but creamy, snow is much more filling and substantial than shaved ice, so be prepared for that. It’s kind of like taking Italian cream ice, aerating it, freezing it solid, and Paco-jetting it into soft ribbons of creamy fluff. I feel like it is the kind of thing where the first time you eat it, you’re like, what’s the BFD? But the more you eat it, the better it gets. And I prefer i-Sweet’s somewhat sterile but cutesy atmosphere to Class 302′s. My mom and I ordered a large (big mistake — get the small for two, the large for four) taro, a pale lavender pile the size of a bunny slope. It was even better after a night in the freezer. I am looking forward to my next viewing at the Puente Hills AMC so I can eat myself soporific here and then sit in an over-air-conned theater to watch the latest blockbuster sequel or Hong Kong import. (Those are my only two options at my local movie theater. But so what who cares? I’ve got Netflix for a culture fix, but I can’t get shaved snow from the internet.) You can also order those little egg cakes they sell on Grand St. or the Bowery in Manhattan. Can you imagine a better movie snack?
Little Bean - My favorite boba joint, has been for years and years. The proprietress knows our faces. Her boba is chewy and soft, always still warm and slightly sweet. I like that I can order any color tea, with or without sugar, with or without milk. I do worry that one day I will be driving around with a cup of the stuff, sucking down the last boba through a fat straw, and I’ll get the perfect-sized globules jammed in my windpipe. Hasn’t happened yet, though. I also often order their shaved ice with wiggly, white almond pudding, big hunks of purple-flecked taro, boba, and chewy potato rice balls. Tastes a lot better than it sounds. Okay, maybe only if you’re into starchy Asian sweets.
Ruen Pair - This is the second outpost of my favorite Thai restaurant in L.A. What luck that they chose a spot so close to home. It’s not like there are tons of Thai people where I live. I basically order the same thing every time — pork jerky, papaya salad with black crab and no sugar, and sticky rice. The only thing this lacks is a Bhan Kanom Thai across the plaza so I can gettaro coconut patties for dessert.
Meow Meow Cafe# - My cousin tells me I should order the #1, which is some kind of milk slush with pudding and boba, the whole thing drizzled in brown sugar sauce. If you are not an Asian sweets kind of person, this probably sounds horrifying. The Chinese in me drools, the lactose intolerant in me clenches. I’m comforted to know that should I ever lose limbs from diabetes, I’ll still be able to suck down this 1500 calorie dessert through a straw. If this place had been across the street from Nogales High School when I attended, I would have been a blob of pudding.
No. 1 Noodle House# - Dan dan mien is the game here. LA Weekly and Oh Joy blog gave it thumbs up. I’d hit it.
Tofu King# - Stinky tofu. Deep fried stinky tofu. Deep fried stinky tofu you can smell from the street. I mean, let’s live.
FFY Noodle House - (two pics above) This place is crazy packed on the weekends. We’re always eating next door at Ruen Pair instead. I hear the dumplings and the green onion pancakes are the way to go. I’m actually pretty excited to try this place. Looks cheap and interesting. UPDATE: Meh, nothing special. Handmade dough, hand formed buns, but not that interesting. Like a Vanessa’s in New York but with a bigger variety of fillings and actually more expensive than Vanessa’s. However, I do like that they don’t use MSG. I don’t care what you say, Mahoney, my mouth goes dry and I fall asleep when I eat MSG.
New Capital Seafood Restaurant# - Rolling cart dim sum. Some hate it, some love it. I don’t have to get on the freeway to eat there. I am willing to try it for that reason alone.
Boiling Point# - Taiwanese hot pot with lots of international flavors, including curry fish ball. Lest you bring along a boring dining companion, you can always entertain yourself with add ons like pork blood, intestine, and something sexy-sounding called “crown daisy”.
Pho Ha# - Gets good Yelp ratings and looks bustling. Worth a try, eh?
Happy Family Vegetarian Restaurant – I ate here only once, maybe 20 years ago, but I remember some extraordinary, MSG-laden crispy fried mushrooms that blew my mind and made me very thirsty.
Half & Half Tea Express# - My mom says their tea is too rich, but the kids seem to love it. While I’m loyal to Little Bean, I’ve heard good things about this place. I think they were the progenitors of the milk slush in the area. Why aren’t the Asian teenagers who frequent these places morbidly obese?
Ding’s Garden# - This place serves xiao long bao (soup dumplings) and some noodle dish with the delightful double name of jiao huo jiao huo, for which you get to choose your toppings. What? I’ll take it!
* Okay, so there are some major drawbacks. I wanted to see Blue Jasmine this week, and the nearest theater playing it was a 25 minute drive away in a nightmarish strip mall offering Chico’s clothing, waffle sandwiches, “Berkeley” rattlesnake hot dogs, and a four-story parking garage that put the fear of God in me. (I parked at the top, as far away from the clustered vehicles as I could.)
# Haven’t tried these places yet. I need to drum up some high school era friends who are still in the area. Wait, do I want to do that? And do they want to see me? Hm, I must give this some thought.
I’ve been going to the L.A. Central Library to do research. Interiors-wise, it’s no NYPL Main Library, but there are books and stacks galore. I’d be perfectly happy to plant myself in the cookbooks section, sit on the floor, and just pull books off the shelf one by one. Yesterday I was rushing out to try and catch the train home when I spotted this spine on a shelf.
How could I resist a cover like this?
I took it down just to flip through, but I fell a little bit in love.
When we think of the ’50s, we often think about tuna casseroles, overcooked vegetables, and pupu platters. Food Timeline’s list of 1950s foods is filled with bland convenience foods, some of which I would totally go for (hello, Baked Alaska) and some, not so much (what do you think a Maraschino cherry pudding tasted like?).
Brown shows us a 1950s cuisine free of gloppy canned soup recipes and Jell-O novelties. Her book details a coastline that brims with oysters, abalone, and geoduck; at desert feasts, vaqueros roast sides of beef in fire pits to be eaten with hand-patted masa tortillas and spicy red beans; at Chinese banquet halls, armies of chefs with miles of mise man woks with spider-web skimmers. In Brown’s California, a hunter could shoot his own wild duck and bring it into Paul’s Duck Press in Los Angeles to be roasted and squeezed by the namesake contraption. On her west coast, a Chinatown, and therefore a steady supply of fresh “wun tun paste”, is never very far.
The intro wouldn’t be out of place as a foreword to any Sonoma County or Portland or Puget Sound farm-to-table cookbook printed this year:
This is a book of West Coast cuisine — if anything as simple as our cookery can be called a cuisine. It is an informal book about the foods we eat and the foods we cook; we love to do both, and we think we do them rather well…Probably nowhere else in the world is there a region so calculated to delight the cook. Thousands of miles of coastline with its piscine population; tens of thousands of acres lush with fruits, nuts, vegetables, grain; mountains still teeming with game; valleys given over to cattle and poultry. Avocados, artichokes, salmon, wine grapes, oranges, nuts, olives, turkeys, oysters, figs, and dozens of other choice foods are ours. As Henry Fink, an Oregonian and a gourmet, said: “In Oregon, as in Washington and California, the epicure fares particularly well because the luxuries of life are as cheap as the staples, and quite as abundant.
Despite its publication during the era of McCarthy xenophobia, the culinary traditions of immigrants exist harmoniously with one another. The chapter on eggs includes recipes for Chinese egg rolls, Italian frittata, and huevos rancheros, as though it should be perfectly natural for a 1950s cook to want to eat any one of those things. She compares the assembly of Russian Sebastopol piroshkis to those of empanaditas. Seven years after the closing of the Manzanar internment camp, Brown extolls the virtues of Japanese cooking practices and provides readers with the appropriate pronunciation of sukiyaki (“The chief one, perhaps, is sukiyaki, which, if you care, is pronounced ‘skiyaki’.”) And it’s fun to see that nearly all of the Chinese recipes included call for M.S.G.
Brown has an easy, conversational style of prose buttered with historical references without seeming pedantic. The ingredients are only listed after you have read her instructions on cooking them. (This order really appeals to me — whereas ingredient lists in modern recipes often act as sentinels, guarding the rigidity of the instructions from the conversational, and often contextual, headnotes, Brown lists the ingredients below the light-toned instructions, almost as an afterthought.)
Here’s her recipe for Hangtown Fry:
This, most famous of our own oyster dishes, dates back to the days of the Argonauts. That we know, but we don’t know just exactly how it got its name — it’s too good a one not to have started many yarns a-spinning. A sure guess is that it had something to do with the town of that name (Hangtown was later renamed Placerville to appease some of its more fastidious citizens). One story is that a man about to be hanged asked that his last meal be “fried oysters with scrambled eggs on top and bacon on the side.” A story that seems more likely is that the dish was named after Nick “Hangtown,” whose nickname was acquired when he cooked for Mr. Studebaker, the wheelbarrow king, in Hangtown. (Mr. Studebaker was quite busy laying the foundation of his family’s fortune.) Later Nick went to Collins & Wheeland, in San Francisco, where he became the cook, and introduced the famous oyster dish.
The shucked oysters are dried, dusted with flour, dipped in beaten egg which has been seasoned with salt and pepper, then rolled in cracker crumbs and browned on both sides in butter, not more than a minute on each side. Beaten seasoned eggs are poured over the oysters and allowed to set, then turned, oysters and all, and browned on the other side. (About 4 medium oysters and 2 eggs to each serving.) This is served with bacon, and often fried onions and/or fried green peppers are an extra embellishment. An even simpler way to make this famous dish is to mix scrambled eggs with fried oysters and serve!
4 medium oysters
Salt and pepper
The book is steeped in west coast history, both native and settler. Her fruit chapter pays tribute to the San Gabriel Mission (which I really want to visit now), and paints Father Junipero Serra as a sort of Noah of California fruit. We also learn of the date palms of the Coachella Valley, the wild cranberries of Oregon and Washington, and even exotic, still obscure edibles like the tropical cherimoya or the sapote.
I love the entry on the local freak grunion:
It is not a gag, this business of grunion hunting. The tiny fish, a kind of silversides, do actually come right up on the beaches to spawn. They perform a fantastic sort of dance, digging holes in the sand with their tails, and in them depositing their eggs. Their run is so regular that their time of arrival can be charted fairly definitely, so people by the hundreds gather and catch them bare-handed. It’s a fun game, enjoyed by everyone, including California’s Governor Warren and his family. Grunions are cleaned, and cooked in deep fat like smelts. They should be very crisp, these slender little fish, so dipping them first in egg or milk, and then in corn meal is in order. They are highly prized for food as well as fun.
(Governor Warren must be Earl Warren, as in Chief Justice Warren who presided over Brown vs. Board of Education and many other landmark cases you actually know.)
This is the west coast that gave birth to Julia Child (Pasadena, CA) and James Beard (Portland, OR). It’s the west coast that M.F.K. Fisher grew up in (Whittier, CA).
One day in 1952 the phone rang in the leaf-canopied homes of Philip and Helen Evans Brown in the Pasadena hills, and the voice was that of James Beard, who had just read Helen’s West Coast Cook Book. “He wanted Helen to know he thought it was the best new work he’d seen,” Philip Brown remembered. “He wanted to know if he might stop in to see us. He came out to the house immediately and we began to talk as if it were an unfinished conversation. We were so into it, he stayed all night.”
Jones says that Helen Evans Brown was a regular contributor to Sunset magazine, and was already a respected, published cookbook author. There’s also a book of letters Beard wrote to her, Love and Kisses and a Halo of Truffles, which I’ll have to check out next. According to Janet Jarvits’ website, Beard and Jane Nickerson felt Brown should have succeeded Nickerson as food editor of the New York Times instead of Craig Claiborne.
Helen Evans Brown was also apparently an avid charitable cookbook collector. Her collection of 5,000 titles of food history and cookbooks is now being sold by Janet Jarvits of Pasadena’s famed Cook Books (this is another place I should clearly go visit). So I wonder why we don’t know much about Brown, given that she was such a respected contemporary and collaborator of Beard’s. The West Coast Cook Book seems to be out of print, but if you like food and regional stories, I strongly recommend seeing if they’ve got a copy at your library. It’s a lovely book to spend time with. I’m especially intrigued by a recipe for a dessert called Fried Cream, which was apparently popular in San Francisco at the time.
Scald a pint of heavy cream and add to it 2 teaspoons of Jamaica rum, 1/8 teaspoon of salt, 1/4 cup of sugar, a 1/2-inch stick of cinnamon, and 5 tablespoons of cornstarch moistened in 3 tablespoons of milk. Cook long enough to remove the starch taste, then beat in 3 egg yolks and cook over hot water, whisking continuously, until thick. Remove cinnamon and pour mixture, about 3/4 of an inch deep, into a flat dish (an oblong Pyrex dish is perfect) to become cold. Turn out on a board, cut into squares or oblongs, and roll in very finely grated almonds. Now dip in beaten egg, and then in finely crushed salted crackers. Chill again, then fry in deep fat at 390 degrees just long enough to brown the nuts. Pour on heated rum, set afire, and serve flaming. THIS RECIPE SERVES 8.
1 pint heavy cream
2 teaspoons Jamaica rum
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup sugar
1/2-inch stick of cinnamon
5 tablespoons cornstarch
3 tablespoons milk
3 egg yolks
I was coming home from a lovely dim sum lunch with Adam Roberts and Zach Brooks at Sea Harbour in Rosemead. Knowing my own parking disability, I got to the restaurant early and chose a nice spot in a far corner of the lot. (I am amazed at SoCal people’s insistence on parking next to the entrance. The furthest spot in the biggest parking lot is still a fraction of the distance I walked from my apartment to the subway several times a day.) Maybe it was those MSG-spiked, fried chicken knees, or maybe it was the last round of delicately sugared milk custard buns that lulled me into complacency, but I decided to brave the 99 Ranch parking lot and pick up some apples for my mom.
For those of you who are not familiar, 99 Ranch is a chain of Chinese supermarkets in strip malls all over California. It is to Asians what Trader Joe’s is to hipster yuppies. Their old slogan, the one they used to print on their plastic bags, was “For 100 We Try Harder,” which is A. The greatest slogan ever and B. Just a beautiful Matryoshka doll of a phrase that keeps giving as you unpack it. The 99 Ranch by my house is one of the originals, and in the 20+ years since it opened, it’s been a busy, busy hub for Asians who like black grapes the size of golf balls, snacky buns made with red bean, and fresh fish killed and fried to order.
Speaking of Trader Joe’s, the 99 Ranch parking lot is also a clusterfuck. I’m pretty sure the spaces they have are the most narrow you can legally make parking spaces before everyone laughs at you for painting zebra stripes on your pavement. And people drive crazy around there. The freeway exit is nearby, and patrons have no problem blocking three lanes of traffic in order to get in line to make that left turn into the shopping center. Right now, there’s a lot of construction going on, and they’ve got Gale Ave. divided with those bright orange plastic poles to keep people in line in two lanes going opposite directions. When you exit the parking lot, there’s a very clear no left turn sign, which about 80% of people blithely ignore while running over and flattening the orange poles. Seriously, half the poles on Gale look like they were mowed down in a monster truck obstacle course.
Anyhoo, I decide I’m going to practice my perpendicular parking in this, the black diamond slope of strip mall parking lots. I find a spot in the back of the lot between two cars. I try going wide and getting in the space. I open my door and look out. Looks okay, but maybe I should back out and try again. I open the door again and look out. Hm, this is not looking good, and I’m a little too close to the black sedan next to me. Back up and try again. Oof, am I getting closer to the car on the left?
In my nervous backing up and inching forward, 12 inches of distance becomes 5, which then becomes 4, and 2, until finally, oh SHIT I am ONE INCH from the car on my left. Literally one inch. You might be able to thread the DMV drivers’ manual through the gap that separates us but not a double-disc set of La Traviata. Follie! Follie delirio vano è questo! I am sweating so hard that the back of my silk shirt is soaked. It’s 90 degrees out. I turn off the goddamn radio and turn on the hazards.
Some people walk by and stare at me, my big silver CR-V rump sticking out of a tiny space. I can see that they’re curious about whether or not I’ve hit the car, but they don’t dare ask or offer help.
I imagine the conversation I’m going to have when the owner of the Acura arrives. I’ll cut him (her?) off before he can panic. I’ll tell him that I haven’t hit his car yet, not to worry, but I can’t back out this way. And would he be so very kind as to move forward just a few inches so I can back out of the space? I would be so grateful, and he has such a luxurious expanse of space in front of his car, and then I’ll be out of his way, and we never have to see each other again.
What do I do if he doesn’t speak English? I’ll gesture as best I can. I haven’t hit you, you see? I will speak in apologetic tones. I will put my hands together in prayer and plead with my eyes for understanding. Hand gesture for forward. Thumb and index together for a little. Prayer hands for thank you very much.
And then I do the only thing I can think to do — I call my parents and ask them to come down to 99. They both answer the phone and tell me they’re on their way.
A man walks slowly towards me as he surveys the scene.
“Is this your car?” I ask.
He shakes his head no and points to the friendly little white car on my other side, the side with an ocean of room.
“Did you hit the car already?” he asks.
“No, I didn’t. But I’m really close.”
He comes closer and enters the pool of shame radiating around me. He looks at that little bit of space, the rigid inch that separates me from a low insurance premium and cardiac arrest.
“You turned too early,” he says, examining. “You just straighten your wheel and then you can move forward.”
“I can’t. I’m too close. I’m just going to wait until the owner of the car comes.”
Suddenly, my dad materializes at the passenger’s side door. The cavalry is here! He tries the door and gestures for me to unlock it. I do. I really have no idea how we are going to get out of this.
“Your daughter?” the guy asks my dad.
“Yes,” my Pau says. “Get out this way,” he says to me.
I ramble an apology, push the driver’s seat as far back as it will go, put my shoes on and climb out the passenger’s side.
My dad gets in. I try to tell him that there’s only one inch of space on my side. The observer stands there and watches with great interest from his prime spot at the front of the space. My mom parks the car they drove over and says not to worry, she’s done it too! It’s no problem, she says in Thai as she pats me on the arm.
And then I watch my dad make a few mental calculations, turn the wheel, and back smoothly out of the space, as if the car were just a little raw chicken slathered in butter. The observer says, “You got it,” which my dad clearly knows he does.
And like that, the car is out. Pau makes me watch as he parks into another space, lecturing about how to make a wide, round right before pulling into the slot. He backs up a few inches to demonstrate how to get a more secure angle. My mom sends him home in my car and we go into the store to buy her fruit.
I moved back here thinking I would be helping my parents, and I think I am, but, man, it is nice to have help from them when I need it.
Lessons I learned today:
1. You’re never too old to be bailed out by your parents.
2. I’m not fucking perpendicular parking unless I’ve got an open space on either side of me. I would rather walk a mile than to have to go through that again.