Burger-O-Rama Part III: That's a tall bun you got there, missy. (Pub Burgers)

When the next assignment for burgers came up for the crew to devour them in a pub setting, I ran through the list of pubs in my head that I might be curious to test. Although the usual restaurants zipped by with typical clarity, such as Great Lost Bear, Nosh, the Old Port trifecta of Gritty's, RiRa's, and Brian Boru's, I felt strongly that East Ender would be a great place to try. A newish restaurant claiming the old location of Norm's East End Grill (which I sadly didn't get a chance to visit before it closed), I figured that trying out EE with an American staple would be a good way to gauge the kitchen's talent.

Arriving at the beginning of opening hours on a Friday, I met up with a friend and we were helpfully directed to the second floor dining room. If you haven't seen the dining room before, the design patterns are a doozy. I was actually quite intrigued by the work that went into the renovations of the restaurant and I'm usually pretty easygoing about decor and seating arrangements, but when we were seated at the black and white booths, I found the situation to be entirely too cramped and difficult to get into. This is a major problem. Why? Because I'm a tiny, Asian girl who usually has no issues with equally tiny spaces. But with only two feet of clearance between the edges of each booth seat, I was cautious not to kick my companion's shins every time I felt the need to shift my weight. Not good, folks.

In any case, our orders arrived fairly quickly and I was pleasantly surprised by the aesthetics of the Eastburger, described as a beef cheek burger with cheddar, bacon, leaf lettuce, mayo, and mustard with fries.

Now if you're wondering about the proportions of the burger pictured above, you and I are thinking the EXACT SAME THING. The mile-high (okay, it was only two inches tall) top bun was a little distracting. The glaze was absolutely gorgeous and I actually enjoyed the caraway seeds on the glazed brioche bun, but even when it was gripped in my hands and devoured, the top when deflated still created some carb-heavy distractions to the situation.

Ordered medium-rare, the house made beef cheek patty arrived fully brown in the middle, but still nicely juicy for a medium, medium-well burger. A fluffy leaf of green leaf lettuce sat in between a light spread of mayo, house cured maple bacon, shredded white cheddar, and a generous dollop of whole grain dijon mustard. As I bit into the burger, I was happy to feel the meat juices drizzle down my hand, mixed in with the wonderful bite of the mustard. The sweetness of the bacon was surprising, but not entirely detracting from the burger overall. Though it wasn't crispy, the bacon that day wasn't overly saturated and soggy with the maple syrup. So I didn't have a tug of war with my incisors and the piggy strip as another colleague of mine did. The cheddar was so mild and few that I essentially forgot its existence in the compilation of ingredients. The burger was luscious enough that it required none of the ketchup provided on the side. I was surprisingly okay with the lack of a freshly sliced tomato, but as I continued through the burger with each bite, it became clear that the warmth of the burger had turned the lettuce leaf into a limp, oily vessel of wilted sogginess. Blech.

The fries were a pleasant change from the last batch of Sysco fries from Becky's Diner that I suffered through. Shoestring style with nice flecks of sea salt, it reminded me of what many fans do when they order fries at an In 'n Out establishment. Typically soggy and disappointing (albeit freshly cut daily!), one will note that many folks order their Double Double with their fries cooked "light well" or "well done" to get more of a crisp without frying the entire starchy stick into oblivion. These fries reminded me of exactly that. A good browned crisp on the outside, cooked through, but not over-fried. Most of the fries were devoured sans additional condiments (poor lil' ketchup, neglected for most of the meal!), but the most exciting ones were the few strands that had been sitting in the bright magenta, sweet beet pickle juice of the pickle that came with the Eastburger. A bit on the soggier side, the pickle was incredibly tangy and sweet. Not something I could consume with wild abandon, but certainly a surprise bonus from the standard dill pickle.

Looking back now, I was satisfied at the time with the burger's cooking temperature although still perplexed about what it takes to cook a burger medium-rare. But now with the phenomenal experience I had at Back Bay Grill etched into memory, I'm mildly disappointed by the Eastburger. Although satisfying overall with the house-ground beef cheek patty, the abundance of the whole grain mustard, and the somewhat amusing interjection of caraway with every other bite, the Eastburger is almost easily forgettable in the long run. My strongest memories of the Eastburger are the limp lettuce and the overtly ecstatic bun top and that really shouldn't be the case. Maybe another day when spring is in full swing and burger fever is in top gear, I'll drop in again and see how the Eastburger fares this time around. And I would love to drop by the restaurant again to try some of the other enticing dishes on its menu. But for the time being, I think back to that 5-inch high burger and think, "That was nice. What's next?"

Burger-O-Rama Part II: Wiggle me fancy, there's Stilton! (Fine Dining)

Fine dining burgers. It just sounds like an oxymoron, but I suppose this is a realm where world class chefs can take the quintessential food icon of Americana and turn it on a dime into something spectacular and fantastic. There is, of course, a fine line between elevating the symbolic dish and lambasting it with ten too many expensive ingredients. When this assignment came rolling around, I wasn't really entirely sure where to park my caboose. Honestly, when was the last time I actually decided to go for a burger at a high end establishment? A long time. So, when I saw Back Bay Grill offering its rarely seen, legendary burger for one week only in February, I jumped at the opportunity. Back Bay Grill falls under the category of restaurants that I have frequented more than once, documented essentially every meal, and yet returned to my humble abode daunted by the task of doing proper justice in regaling all (who care to read) about my incredible experience. 555 is the only restaurant that I've ever talked about and that was when I first moved to Portland in April 2008. So naïve and excited, was I. So, suffice it to say, as much as I have loved every dinner I've had at Back Bay Grill, this review will be my first about the place, albeit a burger review. Ah well, let's get right to it!

The night before a business trip at the end of the week, I decided to drop in on Adrian Stratton, general manager of BBG, and his crew Wednesday night for a bite. One of the greatest reasons to sit at the bar is for the full view of the kitchen with Executive Chef Larry Matthews and his staff. With my order ticket safely tucked in, I found that I not only received the same amuse bouche as the rest of the dining guests, but also enjoyed a special treat choice of truffled popcorn or curry popcorn as a bar guest. If you had to use truffle oil for something, using it to pop some corn kernels is an incredibly aromatic way to do it! The amuse bouche, a little square of house made ricotta with a frisee leaf and aged balsamic vinegar, opened up my palate and made me even more anxious for my burger to arrive. I watched as Larry tossed the burger patty onto the grill, while the bun was placed on a cast iron skillet. Soon, the plate was presented – a grilled burger on a brioche bun with shredded romaine in a Stilton blue cheese and creamy garlic dressing and a generous cone of potato chips.

In our last round of burger reviews, we note that many of us on the O-Rama team ordered a medium rare burger, only to find a patty pink or even worse, bordering on brown/gray in the center. So, as I split the burger in half, I was surprised to find the patty with a nice exterior crunch from the grill while maintaining a properly warm red center. Why this should be surprising to us these days seems silly, but it was obvious that Larry was checking the temperature before he pulled the burger off the grill. It's a welcome shock nonetheless. The house made patty was a semi-coarse grind, just slightly crumbly as I bit in. The patty was seasoned simply, but nicely, and the most enjoyable part about the patty was the subtle sweetness of the beef that can really only be tasted if correctly cooked. The brioche bun was a wonderful, evenly proportioned pairing – the bread was deliciously buttery and crisp from the cast iron skillet. The shredded romaine offered a tangy crunch with every bite. The potato chips were a welcome change from the disappointing accompaniment at Becky's. These chips were well done – crisp throughout without absorbing too much oil, lightly salted to avoid overpowering the burger. With every bite, the meat juices mingled with the Stilton dressing, dripping down my hand. And I was eager to catch each drop or dip a chip in the collective juices.

I asked Adrian about the history of BBG's burger and learned that it only shows up from time to time, but it's very happily received when it does come back. At $15, I enjoyed every moment, from the savory burger to the welcoming, relaxing atmosphere. The slight sweetness of the beef was probably the most surprising and rewarding part of the dish, complementing so well with the tanginess of the shredded romaine. I mentioned earlier that the best part about sitting at the bar was watching the kitchen. Sometimes you're not the only one watching though. As I sat in my chair, wiggling with delight (as I normally do with mouthwatering foods), I heard a man ask from behind, “So, how's the burger?” Turning left to the voice and expecting Adrian or another server, I found myself facing Larry himself, grinning from behind the kitchen bar as he caught me, wide-eyed and mid-wiggle with burger in hand. Larry Matthews has definitely managed to take this popular American favorite and create something spectacular with just a few unexpected, but flavorful ingredients and the perfect cooking technique. It certainly doesn't hurt to give Back Bay Grill a ring and check in to see when the burger will be revived again.

Burger-O-Rama Part I: Mustard on the side please (Diners and Sandwich Shops)

One of the fascinating things about Portland, ME is the niche community of food bloggers who are actively pursuing their interests in food, whether it be dining out at hole-in-the-walls or upscale establishments, cooking anything delicious or anything locally grown, etc. My interests in blogging, let alone food blogging, have been cyclical and partly driven by my free time (or more appropriately lack thereof) and my motivation to keep up my other passion, photography. So when A invited me to join the group of bloggers who publish their thoughts on one restaurant at a time on a monthly basis "like a boss," I was both daunted and intrigued. So here I am, part of the conglomerate to attack the newest theme of the year. This certainly goes against the sporadic frequency that is my blogging, but I like the challenge.

So, thankfully, I dodged a major bullet since 2010's endeavor was Thai-o-rama - an adventure to attack all 12 (or was it 13? Either way, it was probably 12 too many, in my opinion) Thai restaurants in our little city of Portland. I have had my fair share of pad thai, drunken noodles, and Thai iced tea during my college days and most everyone knows how much I "love" Thai food. But this year's theme seems doable: hamburgers. This, I can do. Or at least I say that now - I should probably reassess in four months' time. Instead of all the bloggers evaluating the same restaurant each month though, this year's theme is meant to explore as many restaurants as possible within the parameter's of the month's sub-theme. You still with me? For January, the burger must come from a diner/sandwich shop joint. And as we chug along, pubs, fancy joints, and alternative burgers will come down the pipeline. Hey, where's the month for fast food chain burgers? Just kidding. Maybe.

Sadly, my attempts to get a burger were thwarted not once, but twice as I set off to find both Hot Suppa! and Marcy's Diner closed on the day that I wanted a burger. Sadly, it wasn't meant to be. Instead, I headed down to Becky's on the waterfront, defeated but still optimistic that a burger was in my near future. I sat down and ordered myself a cheeseburger, fully loaded, but with mustard on the side. Classic yellow was all they had to offer, and I'm a Dijon fan. As I sat in the booth hungrily awaiting my beef patty between two buns, I began to think about how exactly one was supposed to review a burger.

Now, I am by no means a burger connoisseur, and I certainly don't inspect and appraise my burgers as seriously as say, A Hamburger Today does over at Serious Eats. They are serious about their noms after all. Burgers are also one of those foods where some folks will deviate harshly on a number of things - whether a soft bun or a firm, crunchy bun is appropriate, griddled or grilled, all condiments or add-your-own, onions raw or caramelized, diced, sliced, or ringed? Jeebus, what did I get myself into? Thank goodness the burger came in short order and I immediately plunged into the assignment head first.

What appeared before me was a 4-inch behemoth with crispy lettuce, thick tomato slices, super thick bread-and-butter pickle chips, and a slathering of something on the bottom bun. Luckily, I've learned enough through AHT to know the importance of taking a look halfway in or knifing it in half to inspect the cross section properly. For a medium rare order, it was halfway between a medium rare and a medium well. The American cheese wasn't quite melted enough for me to be excited, but I was completely distracted by the slathering during the entire eating experience.

In contrast to the simple butter griddled top bun, the bottom had a thick layer of mayonnaise, ketchup, some relish, and diced onions. I generally love a good saucy condiment to give my traditional burger some tang, even if it is just ketchup and mayo or ketchup and mustard mixed together, but this soft, fluffy bun wasn't having it. Not even halfway through the burger, I was slipping and sliding all over my plate. *plop* An entire tomato slice laying on my fries, spurred by the saucy concoction. *plop* My crunchy lettuce leaf sitting in a mustard bath. By the time I got to the last three bites of my burger, the pressure applied by my hands desperately to keep the burger together had completely divided the beef patty into two. And this made me realize something - a semi-intact burger is important to me. Thinking back to the burger itself, I can say that the veggies were fresh and crisp, the patty juicy and cooked to the desired temperature, and the slathering on the bottom (with the occasional hit of mustard from the side) was damn good. But when a triangle piece of beef patty and tomato was sitting abandoned on my plate while I had a third of the burger still in my hand, I was a bit bemused. Honestly, did I squish it that hard to disintegrate a portion of the patty? The finger-licking and lip-smacking moments were certainly enjoyable (especially since it was already 3:30PM and my body just wanted to inhale the whole thing), but wouldn't the experience have been better if I could one-hand it and eat fries with the other? And even then, that little pleasure was denied because of the crinkle cut fries that were undeniably mass-produced and flash-frozen somewhere in the Midwest, only to be over-cooked and underseasoned on my plate. *sigh*

But even through the seemingly endless rambling about how the soft bun couldn't handle the 3 inches of ingredients in between, I was still happy with this burger. Certainly not wowed by any stretch of the imagination, but it still quite satisfied. A traditional, American-cheesed, 1/3-pounder hamburger with all the fixings you'd see at any barbecue. It'll be interesting to see what I think of it 11 burgers down the line (assuming that I make it that far!). The $6.75 (plus tax and tip) sticker price makes me wince a little bit because it was so much on the traditional side, but by the time I left the diner, I was feeling fat and sassy. That'll do for now...

Happy Teriyaki makes big changes - Welcome Korea House!

As I had alluded to in my previous musings regarding Happy Teriyaki, the You family has been cooking up some interesting news for this upcoming month. On October 1st, 2010, Happy Teriyaki will no longer be Happy Teriyaki. At 630 Congress Street, Kum and Myung You will open their doors as Korea House, their ultimate transformation to what is possibly Maine’s only full Korean cuisine restaurant. Unlike their various colleagues in Maine from Cho Sun in Bethel to Fuji on Exchange to Nara Sushi in South Portland, Korea House will offer a menu predominantly featuring Korean food. It's a very exciting time for the Yous as they marry the small handful of Korean favorites from their original menu with an abundance of new items that highlight Kum and her extraordinary passion for her heritage.

As I chatted with her about how the menu was put together, she commented how the Korean community helped to choose her best dishes to show to the state of Maine. Kum said, “I couldn't have chosen them without their help.” A few weeks ago, the Yous invited a close group of family and friends to a private dinner showcasing 15 of the new appetizers and entrees from the menu for us to try out. It was incredibly hard to find any constructive criticism for her because the food she prepared was amazing. We can only imagine that this was a particularly liberating night for her, finally having the opportunity to cook some of her favorite dishes that were left off the previous menu.

Photos from the dinner of the 15 dishes are below, but I'll only talk about a handful of the favorites among the dinner guests. The rest is up to your appetite to describe these fantastic dishes...

One of the big differences in the menu is that there are so many Korean entrees now that they are grouped by food group (e.g. meat) or dish type (e.g. stews). What was previously only three lonely seafood dishes has expanded dramatically to at least a dozen different seafood dishes, which makes me absolutely delighted to see. Fish specifically makes a big entrance to the restaurant's transformation. She has two preparations for it, grilled and braised. Below are three of the four grilled fish that are new on the menu. Yellow corvina on the left, mackerel pike on the top right, and mackerel on the bottom right. All of these are lightly seasoned and grilled on an open flame to get a nice, crispy char-grilled skin that you open up into the soft, flaky flesh underneath. My two favorites of the night were corvina and mackerel, but I know I’ll be ordering the belt fish (one of my favorite fish to cook with) once October comes around.

Clockwise from the left: Silvery yellow corvina, mackerel pike, and mackerel

One of my favorite dishes that I had trouble sharing with the other 15 dinner guests was the spicy mussel soup with scallions, or hong hap tang. It's a clear mussel broth filled with plump, meaty mussels, tinted with jalapeno spice and sprinkled with scallions on top. Apologies ahead of time for getting poetic, but the broth was so clean with a rich, seafood taste that it felt like sipping the ocean, but in a good way. Not the “my lungs are filling with water - I'm about to drown” kind of way. I realized almost immediately that I’d be having trouble choosing between the soups and stews that I had already deemed a favorite. What is one to do?

Spicy mussel soup with scallions (Hong Hap Tang)

Another favorite of the night was braised belt fish with Korean radish, or gal chi jo rim. This was actually one of the first dishes to hit plate bottom on the table, and I barely snuck in a small bite of the remaining scraps sitting on the plate. The belt fish absorbs the flavorful, mildly spicy marinade, which results in a wonderfully moist fish accompanied with tender, well-marinated Korean radishes.

Braised belt fish with Korean radish (Gal Chi Jo Rim)

For those of you looking for another avenue of cephalopod consumption other than the spicy squid or octopus stir-fry, Kum has added another dish to satisfy that craving while keeping you warm this upcoming cold season. The spicy squid stew with vegetables (O Jing Au Jjigae) is actually Myung's favorite stew and he raves about the perfectly cooked tenderness of the squid and the zucchini, Korean radish, and other assorted vegetables that make up the stew. But I suppose he may be somewhat biased… And if you ever thought that the familiar Korean red pepper tinge wasn't enough of a kick for your mouth, Kum also adds in a few jalapeno slices to cook as the stew brews along.

Spicy squid stew (O Jing Au Jjigae)

This was probably the surprise hit of the night for everyone at dinner. Describing this dish, dduk bokki, doesn’t really do it justice because you’re essentially stuck with “Chewy rice cakes mixed with fish cake in a bright, spicy sauce.” “Chewy, you say?” one says skeptically. But everyone took their obligatory taste bite, and then all of a sudden, people started asking for more. I would know because I sat in front of the platter and had to serve a heaping spoonful of it every couple of minutes! I think the Yous’ 11-year-old son explained it the best though – “It tastes good and it’s fun to eat.”

Rice cake cooked in traditional spicy sauce (Dduk Bokki)

This last dish that I’ll comment extensively on was a wonderful dish that felt familiar, but with a new kick. So many Asian restaurants have their own version of fried rice. Even Korea House is keeping fried rice variations that are suspiciously Asian-generic, but Kum’s kimchi fried rice really changed the fried rice frontier for a number of us at dinner. She mixes in her family’s secret spicy sauce and some of the customary pickled napa cabbage kimchi to make this great dish. It was so delicious (and as a bonus, easy on the wallet) that a few of us who returned to the restaurant quietly begged to have her make the dish even though it wasn’t on the menu yet. I suspect that this dish will become a quick favorite for those folks who are interested in the cuisine but need a way to develop the palate for that notorious Korean spicy kick.

Kimchi fried rice

The next couple of dishes made all of us equally content as the ones above, but I’ll keep the descriptions brief. Though they’ve conceded to keep some of the common items on the menu such as teriyaki, Mongolian beef/chicken/shrimp, and soba, the Yous firmly believe that you won’t be disappointed with any of the dishes you see on the menu. I even tried their Mongolian shrimp once just to see how the less exciting menu items fared, and I must admit that I was surprised by how appetizing the dish was with its generous portions of shrimp and huge variety of vegetables. Overall it’s become quite clear that the two years plus that they’ve owned the restaurant since taking it off the original owner’s hands (pre-June 2008) has allowed the You family to find their stride and take the next steps to molding the restaurant into their own. We’re all quite eager to see how Korea House – or Happy Teriyaki version 3.0 – will do, but it’s apparent that their fan base is here to support them all the way. I hope that you visit Korea House in October (and of course, keep coming back) to try the new stuff – I’ll certainly be there!


We saw this dish earlier in the summer, bibim nengmyun, when she prepared these cold buckwheat noodles in a spicy sauce with a veritable assortment of goodies on top. It cools you down and heats you up simultaneously that the only solution is to eat more cold noodles. It’s the best vicious cycle you could ever find yourself in.

Cold buckwheat noodles with vegetables, beef, and traditional spicy sauce (Bibim Nengmyun)

The cousin of bibim nengmyun, it takes away the super spicy sauce and dunks the noodles in a cold beef broth. The broth is kept cold with ice chips and delivers a savory, mustardy flavor with its accompanying ingredients. It’s a huge favorite among Koreans in the summertime.

Cold buckwheat noodles in a refreshing, cold broth (Mul Nengmyun)

I mentioned galbi in my last post and ironically, it has always been on the menu, tucked under the “Teriyaki” section. This just goes to show how much I’m looking forward to a new menu that puts this traditional with its Korean brethren. These 2-inch long beef short ribs and marinated in a sweet-savory sauce and grilled to a wonderful tenderness that’s not tough or chewy.

Charbroiled marinated beef short ribs (L.A. Galbi)

Introduction of new appetizers that are light and crispy:

Pan fried beef

Vegetable and beef skewers

Pan fried cod

cooking adventure: greek-style pasta with shrimp and feta

The amount of chicken I consumed the week before due to the insanely delicious turmeric chicken curry made me feel like switching up the protein a bit. I don't really prepare that much red meat at home anymore, so seafood seemed like the appropriate alternative. This recipe is thanks to a fantastic recipe out of my Bon Appetit cookbook that I've sadly only used a few times since getting it for Christmas last year. It definitely needs to be used more often since every recipe I've pulled from it thus far has been a wild success, including this one. Aaron and I are definitely very much into Greek flavors and this one hit the spot. Unfortunately, Aaron isn't a fan of artichoke hearts (but loves artichokes - weird, isn't it?), so I'll have to modify this recipe when he's around. The garlic, the lemon juice, and the oregano really give the dish a nice, sharp flavor and the feta along with the juicy artichoke hearts create a creamy, zesty sauce. This is definitely a "make again" recipe!

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cooking adventure: chicken curry with turmeric

Considering the amount of Chinese/Japanese/Indian curry I consume in a year, I'm somewhat concerned that I've added another curry dish to my repertoire. Okay, only mildly concerned. Actually I don't care at all. I've been wanting to peck away at the lovely bottle of nuclear-grade uranium (read: turmeric) that my friend Josh gave me a few months ago, and this African-based curry recipe from Serious Eats I found seemed like a pretty decent solution.

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Bubble Maineia Dessert and Noodle Bar: Authenticity without breaking the bank

Bubble Maineia is a drink and snack shop on Commercial St. run by a Taiwanese family. The offerings are predominantly Taiwanese/Chinese in origin ranging from the bubble tea (the East Coast translation of boba tea from the West Coast) to snack foods like steamed buns and dumplings. So when it was announced that the family was opening up a second location as a noodle/dessert bar on Temple Street, I was intrigued. Besides, how can you say no to the vividly blue octopus offering you noodles in one tentacle, boba tea in another, and the Maneki neko (fortune cat) in yet another?

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Happy Teriyaki - Family's love for food outshines unfortunate name

I've deliberated for quite a while on how best to write this piece. Part of me wants to make sure that I write this review in a way that is unbiased and fair, but I've become such a regular visitor of Happy Teriyaki that I have slowly found myself becoming a part of this wonderful Korean family.

Happy Teriyaki. What an odd misnomer for such an incredible restaurant. The restaurant’s last vestige of its former owner. For those folks not acquainted with the restaurant, they would immediately peg this Congress St. establishment as a Japanese fast food eatery, as many did when it first opened under the previous owner. And yes, they do offer Japanese food selections such as chicken teriyaki and udon noodles that are par for the course, but those among the initiated and adventurous know that the passion and heart at this restaurant is in the Korean food.

Kum and Myung You, an incredible wife-and-husband duo, moved their family from the West Coast to be closer to relatives. Myung will dutifully man the grill and deftly sear and cook his way through several of the Japanese dishes, but the soul of the restaurant lies in Kum and her Korean menu. Some reviewers in the past have mistakenly pegged these intimately crafted dishes as Korean-American food, "ready for the college crowd." I must emphasize, the Korean food here is nothing but Korean cuisine at its purest. Her family's recipes are what arrive at the table in the form of each of the banchan - obligatory Korean side dishes - and every entree in the Korean menu. Not even Myung knows the deepest secrets of her family's mastery of homemade Korean cooking.

It certainly doesn't help that I live right around the corner from Happy Teriyaki. Their street sign blazing with their hapless establishment's name can be seen from my bedroom window as if to remind me that several days have lapsed since I last ate there. And it's at this home away from home that I've found the smells and flavors that I miss tremendously.

Here at Happy Teriyaki, I've sat down to a variety of banchan, the 3-5 Korean side dishes that are complimentary with every meal, regardless of what you order. Kum's dedication to detail and flavor is evident here with each bite. Napa cabbage kimchi, a daily side dish, has the right amount of crisp in the cabbage and the perfect spice from the Korean red pepper paste. This is her homemade kimchi that you're tasting here.

And the mung bean jelly side dish, or cheongpomuk, is one of my personal favorites. Made with mung bean starch, this dish is flavored with a soy, garlic, and scallion sauce that I just can't get enough of.

Other classic side dishes can be seen from time to time such as cold seaweed in a sweet pepper sauce, cold sauteed eggplant, daikon kimchi, marinated tofu, deep-fried sweet potato, sweetly seasoned dried anchovies, breaded cod filets, and more. Every day is a slightly different assortment of banchan, depending on her whim and passion. And with all of these side dishes, you are more than welcome to ask for seconds of your favorite banchan. Typically, Kum's homemade napa kimchi is the first to disappear, although I am very guilty of bogarting the entire mung bean jelly dish to myself at times.

The banchan really gives you the opportunity to exercise your mouth with flavors ranging from sweet to salty to spicy to crunchy to tender, and just in time to enjoy the entrees.

Of the twenty or so times that I have visited Happy Teriyaki in the last few months, I have sampled almost every Korean food item offered on the menu. Here, I will highlight three of the entrees.

This dish is probably the most impressive in three ways – presentation, flavor, and quantity. Bi bim bop is a traditional steamed rice dish that is highly known for the bounty of carefully prepared ingredients placed on top. The bi bim bop is covered with julienned carrots, spinach, burdock roots, shiitake mushrooms, soybean sprouts, bellflower roots, and beef. Each of the ingredients are individually and lightly pan-fried before they are set aside into the bowl. And to add even more excess to the bounty, she fries an egg and gently places it in the center. This, my friends, is just the beginning of your bi bim bop adventure. A little bowl of sweet and spicy soybean sauce called gochuchang (not to be mistaken for hoisin sauce) is ready to go on the side. Depending on your penchant for spice, eaters will spoon a dollop of the gochuchang onto the dish and then vigorously mix the bowl’s contents together until it becomes a brownish red mash-up of tasty goodness. I add all of it, and then some.

Dol Sot Bi Bim Bop

This is heaven in a spoonful. Kum offers bi bim bop two ways – regular bi bim bop (shown below) and dol sot bi bim bop. “Dol sot” refers to the large stone bowl that keeps the dish piping hot throughout the bi bim bop gorge-fest (that’s assuming you finish the whole thing in one sitting) and crisps the rice at the bottom into a crunchy treat. Growing up in California, I always passed up on bi bim bop and went for the kalbi (Korean BBQ beef ribs) or the soon doobu (tofu stew). But I truly believe that it’s Kum’s attention to each of the ingredients that makes me order this again and again. The regular bi bim bop comes in a standard ceramic bowl, which doesn’t give you the crispy rice at the bottom, but it’s still just as incredible. As my friend woefully admits, “It’s a good alternative for slow eaters like me to avoid getting your rice over-crisped.” Not only are the bowls different, but even her eggs are prepared differently. The egg is over easy for dol sot, while the egg is sunny-side up for the regular bi bim bop. Bi bim bop can be ordered vegetarian style (shown below), where she uses fresh cucumbers instead of the pan-fried beef.

Veggie bibimbap in ceramic bowl (Bi Bim Bop)

One of my all-time Korean food favorites is soon doobu, or tofu stew. It’s a dish served in many varieties that comes in a stone pot bubbling and brimming with a spicy (of varying degree) broth filled with silky chunks of tofu and various ingredients. It can be prepared with beef, pork, seafood, miso, or kimchi, but Kum offers it two ways – seafood or kimchi.

Seafood-Soft Tofu Stew

This photo doesn’t do it justice due to my poor camera quality and delayed response to take a photo several bites in (okay I lied, many bites in), although I suppose my lack of restraint is probably some indication of how well Kum prepares it here. As a seafood tofu stew, it is strewn with pieces of whole clams, oysters, shrimp, and, when it’s in good season, nice pieces of good ole’ Maine lobster. The lobster is definitely a touch of Maine, not Korea, but it just makes the stew so much better. This particular broth of “medium” spice shown above is brought on by the familiar kimchi base and is topped off with a freshly cracked raw egg, to be mixed in at table’s arrival as much as you prefer. Now you *definitely* know that the photo above is post-nibbles with egg fully immersed.

This last dish that I order time and again is Dwe Ji Go Gi Boc Um, or spicy pork with assorted vegetables. I never had this in my previous life’s Koreatown surroundings – I was essentially wired to get kalbi, Korean short ribs, every time. Good, thick pieces of juicy, tender beef still on the 1.5-inch bone, tenderized from sitting in a delicious marinade of soy sauce, garlic, green onions, Asian pear, etc. How could I dare stray away from kalbi? But my favorite major protein dish on Kum’s Korean menu is the dwe ji. Similar to kalbi or bulgogi, this meat dish comes out in a sizzling hot pan. The pan fried pork is reddish brown from the spicy red pepper sauce marinade and sits on a bed of caramelized onions. It is accompanied by a stack of romaine lettuce leaves and a little dish of gojuchang. Depending on your fancy, a concoction of a small bite of rice, a slather of gojuchang, and a few pieces of the spicy pork and caramelized onions rolled up into a lettuce leaf creates the perfect mouthful. Simple yes, but it packs a lot of flavor. The fresh crispness of the lettuce, the sweetness of the onions and the gojuchang, and then the 2-second delay of the scorch from the pork and the gochuchang. I certainly enjoy her bulgogi, which comes with the same setup. But as a person of major inclination for spice, I tend to favor the spicy pork over the subtly sweet beef bulgogi. I might come back to it when I accidentally burn off all my taste buds (which probably isn’t too far off in the future).

Spicy pork with assorted vegetables (Dwe Ji Go Gi Boc Um)

Although these are certainly my three go-to items on the menu, every item on the (Korean) menu has great merit. And if you are a smidge shy of the concept of Korean cuisine, ordering the Korean scallion pancake called pajun (Kum offers both regular veggie and spicy seafood versions), is certainly a first step to understanding how delicious it can be.

Spicy squid stir fry with assorted vegetables (O Jing Eu Boc Um)
Korean Seafood Pancake served with shrimp, crabmeat, octopus, and mussels (Seafood pajun)

Korean miso stew served with mushrooms, daikon radish, zucchini, potato, onions, tofu, and jalapeño (Dwen Jang Stew)

Speaking of stews, Kum’s menu does favor quite a number of hot liquid entrees and there’s a fantastic reason why you should try any one of them.

Behind the smaller pots is a 20-quart pot of simmering liquid gold. Gom tang is a rich, hearty beef stock that Kum simmers on the burner for hours and hours to harvest the best flavors and nutrients out of nice, thick bones of the ox tail. This is the base for the Korean miso stew, the tofu stews, and all the other stews that aren’t vegetarian. This is the stuff that heals you, both body and soul.

So, yes, I’ve prattled on and on for four-8.5x11 pages about the passion and love that the dedicated chef creates in each meal day after day. But yes, there are some flaws. The service is slow and it takes every inch of energy for me not to get up and help – the fiery Korean mother scolding certainly is a good disincentive to do so. Bring some patience to lunch with you because it will sometimes only be Kum running the front and back of house. Or if you’re lucky Myung will be around as he sometimes is. But it is well worth the wait because she creates each meal from scratch.

Besides, this is truly a restaurant borne out of family and love. Don’t be shy to strike up conversation with the members of the You family – you might be surprised by what you learn. Like how Myung used to play bass guitar in a popular band in Korea and loves to play music from the 60s to the good ole’ rock of the 90s on the record player sitting by the fish aquarium. Or how Kum’s mother is famous all over Korea for her super rich soy sauce that she ages for years at a time underneath her house. A teaspoon’s worth mixed in with regular soy sauce will enhance the taste to a whole new level.

There is no doubt that they still suffer from the leftover perceptions of “Happy Teriyaki.” The name doesn’t even remotely describe the wealth and depth of flavor that can be found here. At least five times a day, a customer will order Mongolian chicken or teriyaki chicken stir-fry. She’ll dutifully push out those orders, but she shines the most when she cooks her traditional home meals from Korea. But that’s all going to change soon.

A few surprises are coming around the corner - including a new menu to be revealed that is fit for all seasons and the shedding of the last vestigial piece of the previous owner to match the true spirit of the restaurant. A sneak peek of the whole menu will be here in a few weeks, but for now, a glimpse of a new menu item, bibim naengmyeon, or cold noodles in a spicy sauce.

Cold noodles in a spicy sauce with slices of beef, carrot, cucumber, jalapeño, daikon radish, and a hardboiled egg (Bi bim naengmyeon)

Miyake in the fall (2009) - oishii desu!

As part of my birthday present from Aaron, I chose to have my epic birthday dinner at Miyake. We'd only been there once before for a quick dinner before a friend's flight. And as decent as the sushi rolls were that we had there, I was not too amused by the sliced almonds sprinkled over a particular roll. If you know me well, you know that I am not a fan of Asian fusion. Especially when it's not done well. I wouldn't dare say "not done right," since I certainly wouldn't be the high-and-mighty authority on how Asian fusion better damn well be done. *waves her angry little fist* But it does irritate me in a little place in my soul when a creative attempt doesn't magically make sense. In any case, I had heard about Masa-san's magic and how it really comes alive with his omakases, but especially so from Joe Ricchio's blog post ages ago that made me vow to give Miyake another try. Ironically, Joe ended up serving us and making our evening even more fantastic because he's just as hilarious in person as he is on the interweb. You never know these days... Awesomeness on Joe's part? He wrote down what we were eating so I could pair it up with the photos. In hindsight, it is quite helpful due to the six month lag. So only peripheral comments made here and there, but hey, at least I know what we ate. Photos of amazing talent and delicious flavors, commence!

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Reminiscing Meatfest 2009

I suppose one bright side to being distracted these last nine months is that I get to reminisce over some amazing events that have occurred during that time. This includes Meatfest, our annual autumn gathering of the Four Horsemen and our closest friends to celebrate our carnivorous appetites in excess. I typically present the menu in order of presentation, but the size of the gathering grew out of hand and brought 20 dishes in total to the 2009 gathering. Luckily, Aaron and I are always up for a logistical challenge (or 20), but it made it easier for us to present the menu in order of animal type. Thus, I present Meatfest 2009's menu:

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