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KotW: Wow for wowshi. March 23, 2009

Posted by panterazero in Kip of the Week, restaurants, reviews.
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West Los Angeles, less imposing than downtown to the East and less posh and pricey than Santa Monica to the west, is a Shangri-La for cheap eats. Today, let’s talk about wowshi.

Wowshi, if you’ve never met them (I never had), are a Middle Eastern take on calzone — a spicy meat filling wrapped in pita dough, then baked to a delectable brown. Contrasted to the Italian contender, there’s no messy red sauce, the fillings are more varied, and the bread jacket is far more tender and flavorful. This is a big win.

Last night I had my first wowshi at Bella Pita on Westwood Boulevard. This is a little vest pocket of a place that seats about 10, cozily, and does a robust trade over its counter. The menu is not only wowshi, but more formal sandwiches on the same delectable home-baked pita, as well as falafel, and side dishes like french fries, fried cauliflower, black beans, and Kalamata olives. Naturally, I didn’t and couldn’t sample everything in a single visit, I only wanted to. And, of interest in these trying times, there’s not a thing on the menu over seven dollars — which is why this place does a roaring lunch business with rave reviews.

If you happen to be in West LA, you’ll find a ton of really good ethnic fast food, most of it cheap. Give serious thought to Bella Pita, which is a place I’d go back to any time — and we know I’m picky.

Bella Pita
1945 1/2 Westwood Blvd.
West Los Angeles
Monday-Saturday 11 a.m. — 9 p.m.

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Peppers (yes!) sausage (yes!) January 24, 2009

Posted by panterazero in exotic!, herbs & spices, pig pig pig, restaurants, reviews, Uncategorized.
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Sometimes I chase after peppers, and sometimes I stumble over them.  Last week in Southern California, I had a surprise roughly comparable to the existence of Saeng’s Orient — the discovery of a fine Hungarian restaurant and deli in a tiny town in the high desert.

Hungarian cuisine is legendary for its promotion and extensive use of paprika peppers, whether in the dry ground form also called paprika, the lip-stinging and lipstick-red preserve called lecsó, or simply as a vegetable to be sliced and cooked in soup or stew.  Of course, various types of fresh hot peppers can be found — and are inventively used — all over central and southern Europe, but many Hungarians are convinced that the best European hot peppers with a pointed shape grow only in Hungary.  (Sounds like New Mexico.)

Cut to the barely known community of Littlerock, California, which is about half the size of NetHeadChef’s “P’ville,” with one post office instead of two, and without the university.  It’s a pleasant place, and various farm stores advertise specialties like jerky, fresh fruit, homemade candy, etc.  So far it’s not too different from some other towns in the California high desert.

But in the 8800 block of Pearblossom Highway, Valley Hungarian Sausage & Meat Company offers 36 kinds of homemade sausage — most European, some not — together with sliced cold cuts, Hungarian plate lunches, pierogies, an amazing range of Hungarian specialties in jars, cans, and bags (even Hungarian pasta!), and, naturally, homemade dill pickles.  Their fresh Hungarian sweet sausage is exceptional, and I say that without fear of contradiction.

Littlerock is about 40 miles east of Santa Clarita, or about 70 miles northeast of downtown LA.  It’s worth the drive, but I would call or e-mail first to confirm hours:

Valley Hungarian Sausage & Meat Company
8809 Pearblossom Highway
Littlerock, CA 93543
Ph: (661) 944-3351
vhsm@sbcglobal.net

Saeng’s Orient Review. June 29, 2008

Posted by schizodigestive in New Mexico, restaurants, reviews, Thai.
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Kip and I have an announcement to make: There is water in the desert. And by “water,” we mean “good Thai food.” It’s hard to find decent Asian food of any variety ’round these parts (these parts being the Land of Enchantment, er, Enchiladas) — Adri had been telling me about Saeng’s Orient  for three years, but I never got around to going. This weekend being what it was — Adri, Kip, and I sitting around thinking of things to eat — the topic of Saeng’s came up again. The difference was, this time we actually went.

Saeng’s Orient is the kind of restaurant that doesn’t exist on the plains. It’s a bright blue, hand-painted metal structure that may have originally been a trailer. It’s on a classic two-lane blacktop road, halfway between civilization and an Air Force base. You would have to see the “neon” “sign” to believe it; the thing is nothing more than several strings of Christmas lights tortured and twisted into letters that spell out “Saeng’s Orient” in four different, jarring colors.

The dining room is more reassuring — but not by much — than the exterior, with sturdy wooden tables that seat four, nondescript carpeting, and bright calendars and posters of Thailand. We were encouraged to choose our own table, and it’s a good thing we liked it, because we ordered and then waited a while. (A good while, as it turned out — as the waitress told us after twenty minutes, “Saeng likes to make this stuff fresh, you know.” To which we said, “Okay.” Who’s gonna argue with totally fresh Thai?)

The menu, with about twenty-five Thai dishes and fifteen Chinese dishes, also does some tongue-in-cheek borrowing from Japan (chuka soba) and the Philippines (pansit), and includes several dishes that might baffle even an aficionado of big-city Asian cuisine. Any dish can be ordered at one of six (!) levels of spiciness, ranging from “no hot,” which actually isn’t, to “X-hot,” which is recommended only for those with seriously armored mouths. (Or for those upon whom you wish unending suffering, according to Adri.) “Medium” is a good compromise, which allows for all the flavor but won’t leave you with nagging blisters.

We started with fried gilozi and pork satay with peanut sauce. You might think that gilozi are like Japanese gyoza, but they’re not — the skins are thicker, the ends are tucked, and the filling is more finely ground. (Sara called them “a demon cross between an egg roll and a wonton” at the time, and she’s not wrong.) The crimson, translucent Thai sweet & sour sauce served with them involves pineapple juice, coconut milk, tamarind juice, red curry paste, and several other ingredients — this is not shopping-mall sweet & sour sauce. The satay, meanwhile, were adorned with grill stripes, gloriously chewy, and thickly coated with homemade peanut sauce comprising impossible amounts of garlic. (Sara interjects here to say NOM NOM NOM.)

The first entrée, Michael’s basil-and-beef stir-fry in brown sauce, proves that “no hot” emphatically doesn’t mean “not spicy.” The flavorful deep-brown sauce contained galanga, turmeric, and other ingredients that complemented the basil perfectly — but, unusually for a Thai dish, no chili pepper, which made the interplay of flavors very gentle. Although the dish was definitively “no hot,” the most amusing moment of the dinner came when Michael was about twelve bites in: we all looked over to see him, bright red and terribly sweaty, with his eyes bulging from his head and a terribly distraught look on his face. “It’s good,” he said, “but it TASTES like something.” The “something” was, in fact, nothing more sinister than basil.

Kip had the pad prik khing, rich with chunks of marinated pork and fresh green beans, but prepared “medium,” meaning with enough chili pepper to cause total surrender of his sinuses. The same chili was the armature of Adri’s delightful red chicken curry, the light coconut-based sauce of which was speckled with scarlet grains that really packed a wallop. Unusually, the only vegetable included was bamboo shoots, but the straightforward quality of the ingredients gave the sauce the priority it deserved. Sara’s pad thai was absolutely fantastic, and absolutely huge. The testament to its greatness came when writing this entry: there was plenty of the basil and beef left over for reference purposes, but absolutely none of the pad thai. Served mild, it was absolutely perfect — the curry had a nice sharp bite, but didn’t overpower the onion, peanut, and yellow sauce. The noodles, too often a sticky afterthought in this dish, were firm, translucent, and obviously delicious on their own. (NOM.)

We would write about dessert, but we left right after the meal, stuffed to capacity and dizzy with food shock. We’ll take it on faith that Saeng’s Orient offers some of the finest Asian food in New Mexico.