Soup I’ll never pho get

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Located downtown Wheaton on Main Street, Luong Loi Restaurant looks like a dingey hole-in-the-wall type of  place with its white blinds and plain decor. 

This weekend, I walked in and an old Vietnamese grandpa was sitting on a crooked chair, his head bent down towards his chest, snoring. There was maybe one other table seated. Outside it was sunny. Inside I’m not even sure if the lights were turned on. Just little sun rays seeping through the blinds.

A typical person may have been irritated that there was no hostess to greet us. They may have called that grandpa lazy for sleeping on the job. They may have said that everything looks dirty and the dingy lighting needs to be fix. They may have thought, maybe we should go somewhere where the staff is actually awake.

Not I. 

See, when I saw that sleeping grandpa, I knew it wasn’t laziness. Instead, I saw hard work.

Luong Loi is like the best place to get pho in all of Chicagoland, and making real pho is no easy task. It takes several days to make the broth from scratch, waiting for all the marrow to seep out of beef bones, gradually adding the right amount of spices (Saigon cinnamon and star anise anyone?!), and stirring that shit up real good. 

You need good arm muscles to continuously stir real pho beef broth. That grandpa was probably so worn out from making so much pho that he couldn’t help doozing off a few minutes. I’d rather go somewhere where the staff is tired and the broth is real than somewhere where the staff is perky and the broth comes from bouillon cubes. (The thought of someone using bouillon cubes to make pho makes me seriously sad.)

Order the number 18, the Pho Dac Biet. It comes with the special traditional broth that that grandpa slaved over, rice noodles, cilantro, sliced cooked beef brisket, and think sliced broiled beef. On the side you’ll get a plate of fresh bean sprouts, limes, sliced spicy peppers, and Thai basil leaves. 

I like to rip up the basil with my hands before throwing into my pho. It seems so fresh and appetizing that way. I squeeze the lime, throw in the peppers, add some siracha and hoisin sauce, and I’m good to go.

Luong Loi is the standard of which all other pho places in the U.S. should try to measure itself up to. Like, one time I went to this pho place in Seattle and they gave me NO LIME. As if I’d ever pho get that!

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Japanese Style Pork Ribs

I’ve finally determined that my favorite dish at Iza is the Japanese Style Pork Ribs. If you’re a meat lover I would highly recommend this dish!

The description on the menu:

Slow cooked pork ribs dipped in sweet tonkatsu sauce and coated in panko. Served with rice and fresh cabbage.

This is my favorite dish because:

  1. It costs $12 which is less expensive than some of the other dinner plates.
  2. There was enough for leftovers.
  3. It has a sweet taste if you’re not in the mood for crazy spicy or overwhelming flavors.
  4. The panko coating is TO DIE FOR. Panko is basically just bread crumbs, usually from white bread without the crust. It provides a crisp crunch on the outside, but doesn’t dominate the dish.
  5. I love dishes that are balanced. I felt as the the rice and a bit of cabbage was a nice balance with the ribs.
  6. The chef slow roasts the meat for four hours.
  7. It’s surprisingly not very messy!

STEAK

By July I thought my meat craze would fizzle out, but tonight I realized that I was mistaken.

Last night I was working at Iza when I saw our head chef, Stacy Jo, make two amazing red meat dishes, both off of our menu.

The first dish was the Flank Steak Salad ($12). I was drawn to the delightful pinkish color in the middle and how beautiful it looked sliced on top of a healthy salad. This was ordered by one of the musicians playing in the restaurant tonight.

The second dish definitely topped the first. It’s called the Singapore Ginger Beef ($16). Oh. My. God. I was speechless. I think I had walked in the kitchen looking for my co-worker and just happened to stumble upon dear Stacy Jo slicing up this one onto a plate for a customer. From the pan her ginger sauce pour all over the juicy, tender meat. It’s hard to stay professional and contain excitement when you see such a sight.

In witnessing my jaw dropping enthusiasm, Stacy Jo kindly cut off a sample for me. The description on the menu for this dish reads as so:

Thinly sliced beef wok seared with garlic, ginger, peanuts, scallion, black pepper, hoisin, and lemongrass.

So, so, so delicious. Sometimes it seems like samples always taste better than an entire dish, though. I think it’s because with samples it’s small and you eat slower and are just seeing if you like it, as opposed to a meal, in which most people are just trying to fuel themselves.

Immediately after work I stopped by the grocery store and bought two giants steaks. I went home and marinated them with everything I thought would taste good: garlic, soy sauce, a little barbeque sauce, ginger, lime, lemon, salt, pepper, balsamic vinegar,  rosemary and basil. It sounded like too much, but I am a strong believer in taking risks when cooking. Failing is a step to success.

One great thing about marinating meat is the next day, when you pull it out of the fridge it it smells good and it’s been soaking in all the good flavors for so long and it’s ready for you, baby. Oh yeah.

I grilled in my backyard and had some friends over to help eat it. The complete meal ended up being:

Ginger Garlic Steak

So tender and juicy.

Lime Cilantro Rice

A simple side dish that complimented the meat pretty well. Jasmine rice buttered with lime squeezed all over plus chopped cilantro mixed in.

Sauteed onions

No explanation needed for this one.

Grilled pineapple

Pineapple provides a sweetness that contrasts well with the savory steak.

Cucumber salad

It’s always good to have a cold, refreshing side dish when serving a hot meal.

Yam Cutlets

Yams diced, salted, and baked in olive oil.

Thai food Mother’s day feast + recipe

Instead of spending mother’s day with my own (Thai) mother, who resides in suburban Chicago, I decided to spend it with the Angel family at their home in the upper Rattlesnake neighborhood in Missoula.

The Angel family consists of Ray the father, Amy the mother, Kelsey the 21 year old daughter known for her candor, Sam the high school senior son (who recently broke the world record for the longest tennis match), and Kengo, their eccentric high school Japanese exchange student of the past school year.

Kelsey, to whom I am very close with, had the idea of making me her mother’s mother’s day present. I was quite flattered. Me? A present? I know I’m fun and all but I didn’t think I could be someone’s present! Like most compliments I took it to heart and let it get to my head.

Which I shouldn’t have, because it wasn’t as though the present was for me to sit by her mother and be cute. No. It was for my cooking! I always find it weird when people thinking cooking is a skill because for me it is just an essential part of living. Like showering. Anyway, Kelsey wanted me to surprise her mother with a home cooked Thai meal. Restaurants were very busy on mother’s day and a more intimate meal at home sounded ideal. She said her father could purchase all of the ingredients if I could do all the cooking.

I adore this family. They all love each other very much and from an outsider’s point of view they seem very close knit. I didn’t have anything else to do on mother’s day so I thought sure, why not. Plus, I love cooking!

Our Sunday began with Ray and Kelsey picking me up from my house and the three of us went grocery shopping at 2 in the afternoon. First we went to the Good Food Store. We picked up two pounds of chicken and a bunch of vegetables and pad thai sauce from their Asian aisle. They were out of limes so we went to the Orange Street Food Farm for limes and I came across frozen Pollock fish fillets, which looked good.

After shopping, we went to the Angel house and no one was home except Sam. Kengo had gone shopping with Amy to distract her so she wouldn’t come home while dinner was being prepared.

Ray asked what I would be making and I had a sketched idea in my head. His request was big portions and enough for leftovers so his wife could take some for lunch this week. I came up with this list:

  • Fried pollack fish fillets with lime, cilantro, garlic.
  • Vegetable fried rice
  • Pad thai with diced baked tofu from the Good Food Store
  • Fried tofu
  • Peanut sauce to dip the tofu in
  • Panang curry with chicken and broccoli
  • Tom yum soup
  • Plain, white, jasmine rice

Somehow I managed to cook this all in two hours, aiming to be done by 5:30 that evening. Looking back, I realize I was so concentrated and in the work zone, barking orders at Kelsey to chop things and such, that I didn’t even stop to pee.

Amy and Kengo came home from shopping in the midst of Kelsey and I cooking. Amy wasn’t too surprised. Apparently, no one had been surrepititious enough about getting her out of the house. “Wanna go for a walk at two?” “Wanna play tennis at two?” Wanna go shopping at two?” I think the person that broke it for her unintentional was Kengo. Apparently while they were shopping, Amy offered to pick up food for him for dinner, but he insisted that she didn’t. Kengo never turns down food.

Finally, I finished. Kengo hates cilantro. He cried out in pain the Japanese word for cilantro every time I threw it in a dish. Somehow he reminded me of the Dragonball Z dude. Maybe it’s his haircut. Maybe it’s just because he’s Japanese and funny.

We sat around the kitchen table and ate and had a merry time! I felt like I made the Pollack fish a bit too salty and the peanut sauce a bit too spicy, but no one seemed to notice. Or if they did, they were polite about it. Ray claimed it was in his top five favorite meals of all time. Very nice of him.

Okay, so I usually don’t go by recipes and just like to throw things in. This can be disastorous sometimes, but I feel the best way to learn is to be willing to mess up sometimes. I don’t usually like recipes because I hate measuring things and I’d rather just go by what looks right, but this can be particularly frustrating to people that ask me how to make something. “Uhh, just put in some coconut milk, some fish sauce, some curry paste, some vegetables.” But people always wanna know how much? How long? Annoying questions.

This is the best I can come up with for the Pad Thai “recipe” I used when cooking for the Angel family.

Ingredients:

  • One package of wide rice noodles
  • One jar of pad thai sauce, Thai Kitchen brand found in the Asian aisle of the good food store
  • Green onions
  • Yellow or red onions
  • Eggs
  • Chopped peanuts
  • Cilantro
  • Baked tofu from the Good Food Store’s deli department
  • Vegetable or canola or peanut oil
  • Red Bell Pepper
  • Bean sprouts
  • Garlic
  • Fish sauce
  • lime

Instructions:

  1. Boil the rice noodles. Drain (using a colinder) when soft. Then pour cold water over the noodle to cool them and to make sure they don’t all stick together.
  2. While the noodles are boiling, chop all onions, cilantro and bell pepper. Dice the tofu. Crush the peanuts. Mince the garlic. This is all prep work that I made Kelsey do.
  3. Get a good, big, non-stick skillet or wok on the stove. Keep the heat on high. Drizzle oil in the pan.
  4. Throw in garlic, onions, bell pepper, and on a corner of the pan cook an egg or two. Drizzle fish sauce over this.
  5. Once everything looks cooked enough to eat, throw in two handfuls of rice noodles and Pad Thai sauce. Stir. Add bean sprouts. Squeeze limes.
  6. Serve wiith crushed peanuts and mince baked tofu on top. A side wedge of lime and a garnish of cilanto and you’re set

I repeated this process maybe four times to go through all the rice noodles and have a big serving size plate to serve 6 people plus have left overs.

Thai cuisine has a unique flavor because in a typical dish a combination of salty, sweet, spicy, and sour are usually present. Most likely, for saltiness, soy and/or fish sauce, for sweetness (which is not used as much) a little sugar perhaps, for spiciness obviously some sort of hot peppers (crushed red pepper flakes work), and for sourness usually lime is squeeze over. Once you have a base for it, it’s really not as difficult as it looks to cook Thai food. It’s actually pretty fun once you get the hang of it!

Cheap sushi night

If I had to describe my Missoula friends and I in a very general sense, I would say we are monetarily poor and college educated (either graduated or in the process of obtaining a degree, most likely a liberal arts degree). We may come from middle class homes and none of us live with our parents. We also thrift shop, we live in relatively cheap but totally hip housing, we may work jobs that don’t require our education to bide time in our college town before transition into full adulthood (whatever that means), and we enjoy eating delicious food.

Tonight we had a sushi party, our cheap (but still fun) alternative to going out. It’s cheap because everyone contributes an ingredient or two. We all have a bottle of beer or a glass of wine while we sit around the kitchen table chit chatting and cutting ingredients and rolling sushi.

For our cheap sushi night, our ingredients included:

  • cucumbers
  • carrots
  • avocado
  • cream cheese
  • raw rainbow trout that was salmon colored (not sushi grade but still delicious, locally caught and purchased from the Good Food Store)
  • smoked canned oysters
  • a package of seaweed wraps
  • a big pot of sushi rice (which has rice vinegar and a little salt and sugar mixed in)

We also had jarred ginger and soy sauce for dipping. And one of my friends likes to mix mayonnaise and spicy Sriracha sauce together in a little bowl, which is simple and tastes delicious to dip your sushi in. I absolutely love good dipping sauces in any meal.

Our sushi night is not authentically Japanese, but honestly, I don’t care. We turn it into our own thing and it’s fun that way.

A few Susan tips for rolling sushi:

  1. Use a minimal amount of rice.
  2. Use a roller
  3. Pack it tight
  4. Use a little bit of water on your fingers, if needed
  5. Have fun!