The Astronomer and I drove down to San Diego this weekend to celebrate Tết with my family. In Vietnam, the entire country shuts down for over a week in order for families to gather and celebrate. It was beyond grand last year taking off several weeks of work to eat, drink and be merry, but it looks like this Tết I’m going to have to settle for a measly weekend. Oh, cultural norms…
We woke up early this morning to go to the temple. Instead of having a traditional Buddhist ceremony, the temple organized a festive raffle. I won a book about Africa, while Cousin Jimmy won a jade dragon wall hanging. My grandparents didn’t win a prize, but I awarded them Best Dressed honors.
After the Tết raffle, firecrackers were lit!
Before heading to the San Diego Tết Festival, we ate com chay (vegetarian lunch) at the temple. Many Buddhists refrain from eating meat during the first month of the New Year.
As we entered the Tết Festival at Balboa Park, we were greeted by a bunch of veteran carnies. We thought we had made a wrong turn until we ran into Cho Ben Thanh. Whew!
The number of Vietnamese food vendors present at the festival was pretty limited considering how many Vietnamese restaurants there are in the city. Regardless, the smell of grilled pork permeated the festival air.
Cousin Jimmy was in the mood for a banh mi and procured one soon after we arrived. Even though the sandwich was pre-made and the bread was soft rather than crisp, Cousin Jimmy still thought that it was good eats. The Astronomer went for a tall cup of nuoc mia (sugar cane juice) to start. The nuoc mia was refreshing, but too sweet because the vendor failed to squeeze in a bit of citrus like they do in Vietnam.
To accompany his nuoc mia, The Astronomer purchased some banh khot, which were served with greens, herbs and nuoc cham on the side. The banh khot were soggy in the center and tasted like banh xeo. Texturally, banh khot should be crisper and more wafer-like.
While we ate, a faux wedding procession came through. The costumes made me feel like I was at the Citadel in Hue.
A wedding isn’t a wedding without a roasted piglet.
The highlight of our afternoon at the festival was the lion dance. The footwork was cool, but the rhythm of the drums is the coolest.
One of the things I missed most about America while I was away in Asia was attending rock shows. Sure, I saw some homegrown Saigon death metal and even My Chemical Romance, but none of my favorites ever came to rock the Mekong. This certainly is not the case in Los Angeles. In fact, so many sweet acts come to town that we have to pick and choose which ones to see based on monetary and scheduling constraints.
Ben Folds is The Astronomer’s all-time favorite musician—the Billy Joel of our generation, if you will. When we found out that he was coming to town and playing a show at the Wiltern Theatre, we knew we had to be there. Granted, we’ve already seen him twice, but Ben in concert is a magical experience that’s not to be missed.
I work a stone’s throw away from the Wiltern, so we stayed in Koreatown for dinner. Tofu Village is conveniently located across the street from the venue.
Tofu Village is known for their generous banchan. On this evening, we were served eleven different ones! My favorites of the bunch were the purple potato salad, jap chae, salty fish with chili sauce, and fried tofu with eggs. I especially loved the chewy little silverfish and ate them straight-up. Banchan are my favorite aspect of Korean meals because they bring about a feeling of adorable abundance.
Tofu Village specializes in soft tofu stew or soondubu jjigae. We ordered a seafood medley filled with clams, shrimp and lots of silken tofu. The stew arrived bubbling like mad in a clay pot, and our waiter cracked a raw quail egg into it upon arrival. Purple rice was served on the side. Since this was our first time venturing into soondubu jigae territory, we received a bit of instruction from our waiter—take a heap of rice, dip it into the stew, put it in your mouth, then repeat.
After the stew cooled down, we could actually taste the broth, which was flavorful, but not the least bit spicy. The waiter probably sensed we were newbies and prepared the stew mild even though we requested medium heat. Next time we’ll ask for a bolder rendition.
For our second dish, we tried the galbi jjim, which was translated as a “beef rib stew” on the menu. This dish was served with sticky rice and fish sauce on the side. The soup contained generous and tender hunks of beef ribs, glass noodles, scallions and dried plums. We incorporated the rice into the soup per our waiter’s instructions, which reminded me of the Vietnamese canh dishes I grew up with. Prior to exploring Koreatown, I associated Korean cuisine with brash, in-your-face spiciness. The galbi jjim highlights a more subtle side of Korean food.
After we polished off our two stews and paid our bill, we headed across the street to rock out.
Ben played a two and a half hour set, which pleased us to no end. The first half of the show was dedicated to new material, while the second half was dominated by the songs we knew by heart. For a nerdy man with a strangely elongated torso, Ben Folds rocks the party.
3807 Wilshire Blvd. #120
Los Angeles, CA 90189
La Brea Bakery is an L.A. institution. Back in 1988, founder Nancy Silverton developed her very own starter from scratch using flour, water, and wild yeasts from the skin of organic grapes. Twenty years later, the original starter remains the signature ingredient in every single loaf of La Brea Bakery bread, even the ones sold at Costco. Talk about a legacy!
My mom, The Astronomer and I made a quick stop at La Brea Bakery because we were in the neighborhood visiting the La Brea Tar Pits, another classic L.A. destination. Because the holidays are upon us, there was a kind woman out front offering samples of La Brea’s holiday pies, including a spiced yam and pumpkin puree, an apple crumble, a sour cherry crumble and a toasted pecan and molasses tart. We all agreed that the sour cherry crumble was the best.
La Brea Bakery’s flagship store is tiny and quaint. In addition to breads and pastries, there are also a selection of gourmet jams, granola and honey. The Astronomer wanted to treat me to a jar of honey or jam, but thirty bucks was too much for a graduate school stipend to handle.
My mom bought me a whole grain loaf, which was wrapped up to-go. I happily consumed the hearty loaf the following week for breakfast and as a midday snack. Even though Ms. Silverton devotes the bulk of her culinary attention these days to Pizzeria Mozza and Osteria Mozza (her dining ventures with Mario Batali and Joseph Bastianich), the quality at La Brea Bakery has definitely not slipped.
By the way, La Brea’s whole grain loaf is available for sale at your neighborhood Costco. I’ve tasted the Costco variety and can vouch for its comparable deliciousness.
My mom picked up a few treats for herself as well, including a long and skinny baguette and two coconut macaroons.
The La Brea Tar Pits are a cluster of tar pits located in Hancock Park in the urban heart of Los Angeles. Tar has seeped up from the ground in this area for tens of thousands of years, forming hundreds of sticky pools that trapped animals who unknowingly entered. Over time, the asphalt fossilized the remains. The result is an incredibly rich collection of fossils dating from the last Ice Age.
The collection of skeletons, which includes saber tooth tigers, mastodons, dire wolves and wool mammoths, are located inside the Page Museum.
The pools of black tar surrounding the museum are glossy and smell like fresh pavement. A few of the pits are active excavation sites, including one that is open to the public. Unfortunately, we visited on a weekend so no one was hard at work in the dark matter. Here’s a picture of my mom and I in front of the main tar pit, and a photo of The Astronomer hugging a life-size model of an Ice Age sloth. It was his favorite.
This twenty second clip entitled “La Brea Tar Pits: It’s Alive” captures the awesomeness of tar bubbles and features narration from my mother. What a treat!
La Brea Bakery
624 S. La Brea Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90036
Our final day in Kunming started off with a cab ride a little past noon. It’s funny how local cabbies have the option of locking themselves up in a cage for protection. Whereas Vietnam has quite a few illegitimate cab companies that overcharge, The Astronomer and I were pleased to find that there’s no funny business (aside from the cages) going on in Kunming.
Here’s one of the many public big screens set-up around town for residents to watch the Games (while shopping for bling).
Our breakfast/lunch destination was the White Pagoda Dai Restaurant (127 Shangyi Jie, E of Kūnmíng. Phone: tel: (0871) 317 2932). The specialties here are the foods of the Dai people—a Chinese ethnic minority of Yunnan Province.
The Dai peoples of China (Tai Lü: tai51 lɯ11 Chinese: 傣族; pinyin: Dǎizú) is the officially recognized name of several ethnic groups living in the Sipsongpanna Tai Autonomous Prefecture and the Taihong Tai and Jingpo Autonomous Prefecture (both in southern Yunnan, China), but by extension can apply to groups in Laos, Vietnam, Thailand, and Burma when Dai is used to mean specifically Tai Lue, Chinese Shan or even Tai in general.
The Dai people are typically farmers, growing a variety of tropical crops such as pineapples, in addition to the staple crop of rice. We ordered a portion of pineapple sticky rice (10 RMB) because it is a Dai specialty. The black sticky rice had flecks of pineapple and lotus seeds throughout and tasted of pineapple juice—sweet and tart. The best part was eating the baked pineapple flesh at the end.
A minority staple—sticky rice prepared inside a bamboo rod (7 RMB). Vietnam’s ethnic minorities have a similar style of preparation called com lam. The Dai use a thicker type of bamboo that doesn’t peel as easily as com lam does, but the end product tastes the same.
For our main course, we ordered another Dai specialty—whole fish prepared with bamboo shoots (20 RMB). Rumor has it, the Dai eat a lot of bamboo shoots. The fish was white, moist and flaky, while the broth tasted just like Vietnamese sour soup (canh chua—the version with bamboo shoots, of course). Tamarind was most likely the souring agent in this dish.
To add a little spice to the fish, a salsa comprised of chili flakes, cilantro and bamboo was served on the side. The Astronomer poured this atop of the rice and fish for an added kick. We also dipped our bamboo sticky rice in it because it lacked oomph.
Outside of the restaurant, two dudes were selling ROTI! Eeee! We first fell in love with this sweet treat on the streets of Bangkok and were pleased as heck to encounter it again in Kunming. The Astronomer and I were stuffed from downing a whole fish, but there’s always, and I mean always, room for roti.
I ordered a banana roti (6 RMB)—apple and mango varieties were available too. A major difference between the roti made here and the ones in Bangkok is the addition of eggs. In Kunming, the bananas are mushed up with eggs and poured inside the roti to cook, while the filling in Thailand is simply bananas. The extra egg makes the filling a bit more custardy and less sweet. The vendor poured a generous amount of sweetened condensed milk atop the prepared roti to finish if off. It was damn good!
After our rather large lunch, we hopped a bus (and then a taxi) to the Dragon Gate, which is located 15 kilometers west of Kunming. Here’s a view of a bustling city street from a sky bridge.
The cabbie dropped us off near the top of the Western Hills. The road from the drop-off point to the Dragon Gate was lined with vendors selling food, knick knacks and all-natural sunflower seeds! I’m used to seeing sunflower seeds in plastic bags, so this really fascinated me.
The Dragon Gate is situated on the west shore of Dianchi Lake. It consists of the Sanqing Temple Complex and the Dragon Gate Grotto Complex.
God of the North Land—part of the temple complex.
My personal favorite—The Hall of Divine Parents. Asian parents are certainly something!
No striding?! The Astronomer was especially upset by this restriction because he was born to stride!
A view of Kunming from the Western Hills.
The elevation of the Dragon Gate is over 2,300 meters, and it took 72 years to complete the Dragon Gate Grotto Complex (1781-1853). “The scene is well noted for its dangerousness and uniqueness,” touts a Chiense travel website. Good thing danger is my middle name.
The characters “Longmen-Dragon Gate” (the sign of the Dragon Gate) are inscribed in red and gold upon the arch. Lots of local tourists were taking pictures of themselves touching the characters. After reaching the top and enjoying the view, The Astronomer and I hiked down to the drop-off point, caught a mini-bus and jammed back to town. After a run around Green Lake, we paid a visit to our favorite noodle shop.
Here’s a closer look at the art of making fresh noodles. The way the chef works the dough with his hands is just mesmerizing.
To supplement our bowls of freshly made noodles, The Astronomer downed some lamb on a stick, while I had chicken hearts and hen of the woods.
For dessert we paid Jiahua Bakery one last visit. From left to right—cheesecake stick (5 (RMB), blueberry pound cake (3 RMB) and donut twists (6 RMB). The cheesecake stick was amazing!! We’re praying to the gods that Jiahua is a nationwide chain because we’re heading to Xi’an tomorrow.