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Blossoming Lotus offers a lot of flavor without meat or dairy

Ivy Dai                                                                                              Staff Writer 

Los Angeles Daily News

October 1, 2006

KAPA'A, Hawaii -- If you stay in Kauai long enough, you'll hear locals talk about the power of Hawaii's oldest island. There's a sense of wisdom and spirituality in the soil, and it makes its way into the lush, abundant produce grown here.

The best place to experience the bounty of Kauai's harvests this fall is the Blossoming Lotus. The vegan and raw food restaurant is a mainstay in Kapaa, a coastal town on the east side of the island. It offers gourmet world-fusion cuisine made without meat, eggs or dairy products. In the restaurant's raw or ``live food'' dishes, nothing is heated above 116 degrees, which preserves key enzymes.

The Blossoming Lotus is the first green-certified restaurant in all of Hawaii. There are no Styrofoam products, and the proprietors use nontoxic cleansers and recyclable goods. At one point, they had biodegradable cutlery made from corn and wheat.

Its recipes have won awards from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, Gourmand Magazine and VegNews, and its vegan chefs are considered among the best in the world.

High society and Birkenstock-wearing folk alike flock here for the food.

``It's not one of those dirty hippie places,'' said Lanaly Cabalo, food writer for Kauai's hometown paper, the Garden Island.

In fact, it's a favorite celebrity hangout. Pierce Brosnan, Leonardo di Caprio, Mike D. from the Beastie Boys and members of the Red Hot Chili Peppers have trekked down from the exclusive Princeville resort in the north to feast on healthy food you can sink your teeth into.

Daring dishes
Head chef Mark Reinfeld grew up eating beef and poultry and has reinvented comfort foods like enchilada casserole that appeal to a heavier palate. He uses familiar textures and flavors like barbecue and peanut sauce to win customers over.

One of Reinfeld's favorite dishes is spanakopita. The savory Greek pie is made with marinated tofu and organic island greens layered between flaky phyllo and drizzled with a sun- dried tomato and sage sauce.

"Foodies can appreciate it just as cuisine,'' Reinfeld said. "And the act that it's food for your soul and you feel great afterward is just an added bonus.''

Other ingenious creations include an all-vegetable lasagna and pad Thai noodles made with julienned young coconut flesh.

For lunch, nothing beats the tempeh Reuben and meatless BLT sandwich. The hearty, thick-sliced bread is made with spelt flour, a wheat-free alternative, and dotted with fresh rosemary and parsley. The Russian dressing is cloying, yet doesn't weigh you down and has a full, fresh flavor. Plus it's dairy-free, so lactose-intolerant customers can enjoy the rich, creamy sauce without suffering indigestion.

Another must-try is the dense, nutty cornbread. It's spiked with cilantro and chili, and served with homemade apple butter.

``It's foreign to some people until they actually taste the food,'' Reinfeld said. ``I think we demystify the whole idea of what can be done with vegan and vegetarian food.''

The restaurant incorporates a lot of local produce into its cuisine. Kauai is home to the wettest place on Earth -- about 486 inches of rain fall each year on Mount Waialeale. Mountains and fields dotted with green pastures stretch for miles, and native farmers deliver the best of their crops to the Lotus each morning.

"People say our food has a lot of mana, or energy from the land,'' Reinfeld said. "It's very rejuvenating, and revitalizing.''

The restaurant is experimenting with autumn vegetables this month, so expect to find a variety of tender squashes and sweet potatoes on the menu.

There's something for every palate here, from soups and salads to curry and tacos. It's a great gourmet alternative to the traditional Hawaiian fare of fried chicken cutlets, white rice and macaroni salad.

For an extra-healthy pick-me-up, try the 31-herb Lotus Roots Tonic, with dandelion root, ginseng, cinnamon and ginger. Another refreshing option is the passion fruit lemonade or Tahitian limeade.

If you're in a lazy mood on Sunday morning, visit the Lotus for brunch -- and such treats as almond orange spice french toast made with spelt cinnamon raisin bread, crepes, pecan sticky buns and scalloped sweet potatoes.

Finishing touch
And make sure you end any meal with something sweet. Even if you're not a fan of sweets, the Lotus' desserts will knock you out.

Try the vegan cheesecake, live fudge or live fruit pie. Lotus chefs make "fudge'' by blending raw cacao bean with coconut oil and agave nectar. Served with a swirl of raspberry sauce, the opulent, silky-smooth concoction melts in your mouth as an explosion of cocoa and natural sugar rushes to your head.

In the fruit pie, a moist, chewy crust of nuts and grains is filled with a lush puree of euphoric blueberry and papaya. And for chocolate freaks, the Lotus' dense German chocolate cake really hits the spot.

"I challenge people to tell the difference,'' Reinfeld said. "People really bliss out on that cake. It's so rich and delicious, you would never know it's healthy until afterward, when it doesn't weigh you down the same way.''

BLOSSOMING LOTUS RESTAURANT: 4504 Kukui St., Kapaa. Open for lunch from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., dinner from 5:30 to 9:30 p.m., Sunday brunch from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. www.blossominglotus.com; (808) 822-7678. ``Vegan World Fusion Cuisine'' (Thousand Petals Publishing; $24.95) is the award-winning cookbook by Blossoming Lotus chef Mark Reinfeld. Information: www.veganfusion.com.
LOTUS ROOT JUICE BAR: 4-1384 Kuhio Highway, Kapaa. Open daily from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. (808) 823-6658.

Copyright (c) 2006 Daily News of Los Angeles



By Ivy Dai
Staff Writer

Pasadena Star-News, San Gabriel Valley Tribune, Whittier Daily News August 15, 2006

Each morning, Leonidas Bulgarini and Elizabeth Foldi buy fresh fruit at the produce markets in downtown Los Angeles. They bring back the cases of blueberries, cantaloupe and white peaches to their gelato shop in Pasadena.
On a recent weekday, Leo decides to make blueberry sorbetto (mirtillo). He washes the fruit, inspects each berry by hand, and pulls off the tiny stems and throws the rotten ones out. He blends the berries, then adds the puree to a sugarwater solution and freezes the mixture in the gelato machine for about 20 minutes. In the last few moments he adds a splash of moscato d'asti, an Italian dessert wine, to add dimension to the flavor.
I scoop up the fat-free delight with a little shovel, and the bright, creamy flavor of blueberries bursts in my mouth. The cantaloupe is even more amazing - the sticky sweet taste of melon juice running down your chin is infused into the icy wonder.
Sorbetto and gelato are made much the same way as American ice cream, except gelato has 6 to 9 percent fat, compared to 24 percent in a cup of Haagen Daaz. Sorbettos are fat-free. There's less air in gelato, which makes for a denser and creamier product.
"Plus, the flavors are more intense - there isn't that layer of fat to block the taste from your tongue," Elizabeth Foldi said.
From the market to my mouth, the fruit in my sorbetto was only four hours old. Handmade Italian ice cream is a rare treat, and Bulgarini is one of the last gelaterias making it this way.
Before the couple opened their shop, Leo was a manager and sommelier at Trattoria Tre Venezie, an upscale Italian restaurant in Pasadena. The Italian native grew up in Rome, and wears his hair in a long ponytail. He met Elizabeth when she walked in for dinner one night. His wife-to-be had worked as lawyer for several years, but was looking toward food as a new career.
Even though Elizabeth is Chinese and Hungarian, she is also fluent in Italian.
"I was pumping him for information about Rome, because I wanted to move there," Elizabeth said. "He said, next time I'll let you know. And I thought, 'What next time, you cheeky bastard!'"
Leo eventually won her over, and the pair traveled to his hometown together for a year. They wanted to learn how to make authentic gelato, but couldn't find anyone in the city who knew how.
They finally found an octogenarian named Luca Caviezel in Sicily. Caviezel wrote the book, "Scienza e Tecnologia del Gelato Artigianale" (The Science and Technology of Artisanal Gelato Making). They traveled to meet the gelato master, who passed down the tradition to Leo and Elizabeth.
When they came back home, the couple opened a gelateria inside the Pacific Asia Museum in Old Town Pasadena in April. The pair makes traditional Italian favorites, as well as zen-inspired flavors like chocolate ginger, mandarin orange and lychee strawberry. Well actually, most of the time, Leo does the hard work, while Elizabeth is the taste tester. But Leo says he doesn't mind getting his hands dirty.
"I love doing it," Leo said. "The one thing about gelato is, when people eat it, it's ice cream, and people are happy."
The basic method of making gelato is to combine the base ingredients - milk, sugar, nonfat milk powder, and vanilla beans. After heating the mixture through, you add chocolate, espresso, fruit or nut paste. A popular flavor in Italy is zabaglione, which is flavored with marsala wine, and has egg yolk in it.
The couple has their own little secrets to making phenomenal Italian ice cream - like letting the product mature a little longer in the freezer, and using all natural ingredients.
All their sorbettos are made with fresh seasonal produce. Fruit is usually only in season from June to October, and sometimes Leo travels to San Luis Obispo on California's central coast to find quality produce.
They only use organic milk in their gelatos, as well as real Madagascar vanilla beans, and imported Sicilian pistachios from the volcanic region of Bronte, and hazelnuts from Piemont.
Making ice cream from scratch is time-consuming, expensive, and takes a certain amount of skill. The fruits, proteins and sugars need to be balanced, Leo said. A lot of things can go wrong - the finished product can develop ice crystals, the flavor is too rich or not sweet enough.
Most gelato shops in the United States and throughout Italy have switched to pre-made bases and artificial flavors.
People have forgotten traditional methods as they turn to packaged products, and the art of gelato making is dying, Leo said.
"Gelato is not like reinventing the wheel. It's making it from scratch and the artisanal quality of gelato that's being lost," he said. "In mass-produced lemon sorbet, the lemon is so tangy, you feel something artificial. When you taste acid, it's a preservative they put in so it lasts longer. When I'm making gelato, I make it so it doesn't last more than a few days."
Leo is also a sculptor and a welder, and he likes to create beautiful things from raw material. He has the same sentiments about gelato - making it by hand is more difficult, but it's all worth it, he says.
"Young people these days are working in banks, with air conditioning and on their cell phones," Leo said. "They don't know about hard work. And you see these old gelato masters in Italy riding around on their bikes, but they make the most unbelievable gelato you've ever eaten."
In the future, Leo and Elizabeth want to make chocolate-dipped gelato, as well as sugar-free and lactose-free versions.
"I want to make things other people don't make," Leo said. "I want to do what the old artisanal masters used to do 40 to 50 years ago. Through making gelato, I'm just trying to preserve a little of my heritage."

Bulgarini Gelato
46 N. Los Robles Ave., Pasadena (inside the Pacific Asia Museum)
Noon to 5 p.m., Friday-Sunday
(626) 441-2319


Peach Sorbetto
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup spring water
1 pound ripe peaches, peeled, pitted and chopped

In a saucepan, stir together the water and sugar. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat; cook, stirring until sugar is dissolved. Remove from heat.
Blend peaches in a blender or food processor. Then add the sugar syrup and process into a fine puree. Cover and refrigerate for a minimum of two hours until chilled.
Transfer the puree to an ice cream maker and freeze according to the manufacturer's instructions. You can also experiment with different fruits using this recipe.

Hazelnut Gelato
2 cups whole milk
1/2 cup sugar
1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise
1 cup hazelnuts

In a saucepan, combine the milk and sugar. Cook over medium heat, stirring until the sugar is dissolved. Scrape the seeds of the vanilla bean into the milk and bring to a boil. Remove from heat. Stir. Cover and refrigerate at least two hours until chilled.
Toast the hazelnuts on a baking sheet in a preheated 325 -degree oven for 10 minutes. While still warm, rub them in a terrycloth towel to remove skins. Put hazelnuts in a food processor until they are the consistency of natural peanut butter - about 5 minutes. You want to end up with 3/4 cup hazelnut butter.
Blend the hazelnut paste with the cold milk mixture.
Transfer the mixture to an ice cream maker and freeze according to the manufacturer's instructions. You can substitute other nuts like pistachio for a change, or add other flavors like chocolate or espresso. 


                                                                                                CUBAN PERFECTION                                                                                

By Ivy Dai                                                                                    Staff Writer

Pasadena Star News, San Gabriel Valley Tribune, Whittier Daily News

February 14, 2006

It's hard to forget the wondrous combination of lemony garlic pork, toothsome rice and sweet fried plantains that are at the core of Cuban cuisine.

Traditional Cuban fare is one of the best comfort foods, and an exciting gateway into a vibrant and colorful heritage.

Though most people know how to make other ethnic foods like tacos and fried rice, few have the faintest idea on how to achieve that sultry, puckering taste of Cuban roast pork at home. Cubans learn the recipe by watching their mothers and their grandmothers, and no one writes anything down.

The Acosta family of La Habra Heights opened their kitchen to me to share the tradition of how to prepare an authentic Cuban meal. On the menu was Cuban-style roast pork, black beans, fried plantains, Cuban rice and guava paste with cheese for dessert.

Adrian Acosta, 43, was born in Pico Rivera after his parents emigrated from Cuba. He married E'lise, his high school sweetheart, and they have three daughters: E'lise, 19, Alexis, 17, and Adrina, 10.

The whole family helps make dinner, but Adrian Acosta holds the key to the centerpiece of the meal: the pork. Drenched in lemon and garlic, the sumptuous meat falls apart in your mouth after 7 hours of roasting.

The night before dinner, Acosta began the preparations for his marinade. In the kitchen, garlic, a bag of lemons and a big knife lay on the counter.

'I'm going to tell you the secret,' he said. 'Then I'm going to have to kill you.'

Acosta said this was the first time he was revealing his famous recipe to anyone. Luckily, the big knife on the counter was not for me it was Acosta's special tool to help along his secret marinade.

Acosta's marinade consists of five simple ingredients: garlic, lemon juice, the juice of one orange, salt and oregano. It's a recipe that was passed down to Acosta from his dad.

The knife helps him cut apart the meat so he can drive the marinade deep into the roast. In the past, Acosta crushed the garlic cloves into a paste with a mortar and pestle. The faint smell of garlic in the wood brings him back to his childhood, he said.

However, throwing the garlic in the blender is now much easier. He added lemon juice, an orange for sweetness, salt and oregano. For someone who's never tasted the marinade, the intense combination of sour, salt and pungent garlic can make your head hurt.

Seventeen-year-old daughter Alexis ran into the kitchen and dipped her finger into the marinade. 'Ooh I love it. It gets you right here,' she said, as she touched behind her earlobes. 'I'm waiting for leftovers so I can make Cuban sandwiches.' With the marinade complete, Acosta placed the pork shoulder skin side down in a roasting pan. The skin holds in the juices as it marinates, he said. Acosta seems like a rough guy on the outside, with his handlebar moustache and penchant for motorcycles.

To those who know him though, he is generous, funny and loving. He sometimes trains unruly horses, and owns a horse, a goat and four Chihuahuas. During the day, he works as a dentist.

With knife in hand, Acosta stabbed at the meat, twisting the blade to form an opening in which marinade would be poured in.

It's a vicious method, but syringes and other techniques haven't worked as well as the knife, Acosta said.

The meal is so time intensive that the Acostas usually only prepare it for Christmas dinner (Noches Buena) and special occasions like weddings and graduations.

'It's a tradition in my family,' Acosta said. 'Every Christmas we would do it with an entire pig. We would cook it out in the backyard. We get an 80-pound pig, which is a lot of food.'

Acosta's wife E'lise, 41, is Puerto Rican. She had never seen a roast pig until she went to Adrian's house for Christmas.

'I was horrified,' she said. 'All these kids fight over the pig's tail and put it in their mouths.'

Despite the shock of the pig, E'lise's family agrees her husband's pork is the best. 'My family makes it without the lemon and uses it as a rub,' she said. 'But when my family tasted this, they wanted Adrian to make it.'

The next day, E'lise demonstrated how to make the plantains, rice and beans. Usually the beans take all day to make, but when you have to go pick up the kids, it's not safe to leave the flame on, she said.

So E'lise sometimes uses a shortcut her husband doesn't know about: canned beans. 'Adrian will kill me if he knows I don't do it from scratch,' she said.

As the beans cooked, E'lise started to fry two different types of plantains: the traditional sweet kind and her oldest daughter's favorite tostones crisp rounds with sauteed garlic made with unripened green plantains.

The savory plantains have a tough skin when they are green, so she had her youngest daughter Adrina throw them on the floor to crack the skin.

Alexis sliced some fresh mango to go with the meal, and Acosta came home just in time to check on the roast.

The girls set the table, and Acosta poured red wine for everyone. He spooned pork, rice, beans and plantains on each person's plate as they murmured in delight. Everyone had second helpings around the table, and the meal was finished off with guava paste and white cheese. The mild, crumbly cheese evened out the fruity slices of concentrated guava.

After the kitchen was cleaned and the kids got ready for bed, Acosta and E'lise made smooth, strong, dark Cuban coffee. Acosta added sugar and tried to whip it quickly to make it frothy, but it didn't quite work.

With the kids in bed, the adults sat outside with the Chihuahuas, smoking cigarillos and talking about politics and family.

After several hours of stories and laughs, I was sent home with leftovers and another culinary journey for tomorrow - scrumptious Cuban pork sandwiches.

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When making your traditional Cuban meal, marinate the pork the night before and roast the next day. Prepare the beans, plantains and rice about an hour and a half before dinner. Fresh sliced mango is also a good side dish.


7 1/2 pound pork shoulder with skin

2 heads of garlic

2 cups of freshly-squeezed lemon juice (about 12 lemons)

juice of 1 orange

7 tablespoons whole dried oregano

1/2 cup salt

The night before, make the marinade. Peel garlic cloves and blend with juices, oregano and salt in a blender or food processor.

Transfer mixture to a large bowl and get a spoon. Place the pork shoulder skin side down in a large roasting pan. Put a towel or a rubber mat underneath the pan for stability.

Using a large knife (about 8 inches long), stab the pork about four inches deep and twist.

Using the other hand, spoon the marinade into the hole, making sure to pour the liquid along the knife blade. Repeat about 20 to 30 times all over, making sure not to pierce the skin. Cover and refrigerate. Save the rest of the marinade for basting tomorrow.

The next day, preheat oven to 250 degrees. Remove pork shoulder from fridge and uncover. It will be slightly grey because the lemon in the marinade cures the meat.

Flip the roast skin side up. Cover the meat loosely with foil, and roast for 7 hours.

If roast looks dry, baste with pan juices and reserved marinade. Broil uncovered for about 2 minutes before serving. The meat should be fork-tender.

Tip: Microwaving lemons for 10 seconds before squeezing helps get all the juice out.


Plantains are available at any Latin market or sometimes American supermarkets. Unlike a regular banana, plantains are ripe and sweet when the skin turns black.

2-3 plantains, fully ripened and completely black.

2-2 1/2 cups canola or vegetable oil

Lay the plantain on a cutting board and cut the ends off. Slice the skin open lengthwise with a small, sharp knife. Peel the skin off and slice the fruit on a bias cut to make long, diagonal strips about a half-inch thick.

In a large frying pan, pour canola or vegetable oil about a half-inch high. Heat oil to 325 degrees. After placing plantains in the oil, reduce flame to medium heat.

Fry plantain slices on either side, flipping twice, until soft, fragrant and light golden brown. Remove from oil using a slotted spoon and drain on brown paper bags.


Tostones are made with green unripened plantains.

2-3 unripened green plantains

2-2 1/2 cups canola or vegetable oil

The skin is tough to peel, so throw the plantains on the ground first to split the skin.

The skin will stain clothing, so wear an apron.

After peeling the skin, cut the fruit into one-inch rounds. In a large frying pain, pour canola or vegetable oil about a half-inch high. Heat oil to 325 degrees.

Carefully place the plantain slices into the oil and fry for 1 minute. Flip the slices and fry on the other side for another minute. Fry again on both sides, and remove plantains from the oil with a slotted spoon.

Smash the slices with a can covered in plastic wrap, and fry on both sides again until crispy and medium brown. Remove from oil and drain on brown paper bags. Top with a simple spread of salted, mashed garlic sauteed in olive oil.



1 onion, peeled

1 medium green bell pepper, seeded

3 sweet chili peppers, seeded

1 tablespoon fresh cilantro

4 cloves garlic

1/2 teaspoon dried oregano

2 tablespoons olive oil

5 cloves of garlic, finely minced

2 16-ounce cans of black beans

2 teaspoons cumin

Salt to taste

For the sofrito, whirl all ingredients for the sofrito in a blender until chopped. Store in the refrigerator in a tight-lidded container.

In a large saucepan, saute garlic in olive oil over low heat until fragrant. Add two heaping teaspoons of sofrito. Pour in beans. Add cumin and salt. Simmer over medium-low heat for 30 minutes. Remove from stove.


3 cups white rice

4 cups water

1/2 cup olive oil

1 teaspoon salt

Combine all ingredients in a medium saucepan. If cooking rice in a saucepan, bring the mixture to boiling, then cover and reduce heat.

Cook for about 20 minutes or until the water is absorbed. Let sit for about 5 minutes before serving.


Ancelbrand guava paste, Goat cheese or any mild white cheese

Slice guava paste and cheese into bite-size squares. Top guava with cheese and serve.


Turn leftovers into Cuban sandwiches by toasting French bread and spreading with mustard and mayo. Fill with warmed pork and cheese and serve.


Chef who catered for Clinton takes French pastry to new heights

By Ivy Dai                                                                                    Staff Writer

Pasadena Star-News, San Gabriel Valley Tribune, Whittier Daily News

November 22, 2005 

Pastry chef RJ Guo slipped a morsel of Japanese cheesecake into his mouth, searching for imperfections in the dessert while sitting in his patisserie on a recent weekday afternoon.

"It has the taste I gave it," he concluded. "It doesn't have any problems." The cheesecake that made him famous was airy, creamy and cake-like — a little drier on top, with a moist, rich bottom.

However, not all of his creations pass the test. The new Belgian white chocolate mousse of the month, White Lover, is too sweet, he said.

However, extra sugar maintains the chocolate flavor, so he makes a compromise.

Despite his rigid standards of perfection, it seems his critical palate was the key to success.

After moving to Los Angeles six years ago, the classically trained French pastry chef opened patisseries in Arcadia, Hacienda Heights and Costa Mesa.

Customers who visit Guo's immaculate shop say his desserts are too beautiful to eat. Dozens of people stream in until late at night, tickled by the gorgeous displays and names like Sweet Lover and Figure Skating.

The delicate pastries are rich, yet light and mild at the same time.

"This is by far the best cake in the San Gabriel Valley," patron Scott Knopf said. "This is a great place, I come every couple of weeks. The tiramisu is the best."

The 38-year-old Rowland Heights resident has catered for former President Bill Clinton and has been featured in Orange Coast Magazine and Chinese Daily News.

Equally impressive as his pastry creations is Guo's amazing story of a farmer turned renowned pastry master.

Growing up in the Taiwanese countryside, Guo did anything he could to avoid a poor farmer's life.

After a short stint in professional golfing, the young Guo stumbled upon his first food job.

"I carried sugar, and I would pour it in the flour," Guo said. "I was yelled at, fired, then re-hired doing something else. In eight months I had eight different jobs."

He wasn't passionate about cooking professionally in the beginning of his career, but making cakes has allowed him to run a business he enjoys.

"It was just a job, I needed to do it to make a living," Guo said. "I liked it at first, then I didn't like it, then I liked it again. I don't like the cakes as much as I like the business. I would like having patisseries everywhere — Taiwan, China and America."

Despite his relative success in the American business world, Guo still does not speak a word of English. His employees also say he's a tough boss to work for. Some of them roll their eyes at his request to drop everything and help him.

"He's really strict," said 19-year-old Lisa Hirano. "He wants everything to be perfect."

Guo stands at about 5'11" and has a dark tan borne from many hours of golfing. He traveled to Shanghai recently to scope out a location for his next shop.

Other bakers can't duplicate his cakes because they won't pay extra for imported ingredients and the freshest produce, he said.

"They're not willing to spend extra money — their spirit is different," he said. "You have to put your passion into making good cakes. The decorations on the cakes gives it life, and the names come from the feeling you get when you look at it or eat it."

As he talked about his desserts, Guo served a cup of smooth, strong Italian espresso, and unveiled his two new cakes for the month: White Lover and a Hazelnut Chocolate cake.

After every crumb was scooped up by tiny forks, a customer approached Guo. He beamed as the customer thanked Guo profusely.

"Ce sont les meilleurs gateaux de Los Angeles," he said. Translation: These are the best cakes in Los Angeles.


Ivy Dai                                                          Staff Writer

Pasadena Star-News, San Gabriel Valley Tribune, Whittier Daily News

May 22, 2006

Most of us turn to American favorites like mashed potatoes and mac 'n' cheese to warm our stomachs, but sometimes the best comfort foods are a bowl of steaming pho, bite-sized dumplings or curry spaghetti.

Asian cuisine isn't just about sushi and kung pao chicken ó most dishes are the kind of food you eat at home.

Take a break from California rolls and try homestyle Japanese curry, which is served over a chicken cutlet, sticky white rice or spaghetti noodles, and a side salad at the Curry House in Rowland Heights. There is also curry with beef, chicken, shrimp or vegetables.

Japanese curry is a mild, sweet stew, with onions, carrots, potatoes and meat. The sauce is thickened so it sits atop the hot, steamed rice at the bottom of the plate rather than running into it. You can order the sauce hotter if you like.

It's a no-fuss dish that pleases even the pickiest diners. Make sure to order their famous corn potage soup as well. The restaurant has seven other locations throughout L.A. If you can't make it to Rowland Heights, try another curry chain ó Hurry Curry in Old Pasadena.

For another comforting culinary adventure, try a traditional Chinese breakfast with hot soy milk and long-fried crullers at Yung Ho Tou Chiang Restaurant in San Gabriel. It's the Chinese version of doughnuts and porridge. The crisp, fragrant yo tiao is dipped into the hot soy milk, which can be ordered sweet or salty. These long 'doughnuts' are airier than their American counterparts and slightly greasy on the outside (hence the name yo means oily in Mandarin).

White, flaky buns (loa-boa-sih-bing) with sauteed turnip and ground pork are also a breakfast staple. Finish off with a rice roll with sugar or seasoned pork inside (fan-twan), and you're set for the day. This is a cheap meal too - you can be full for about $5.

For a little more money, experience the ultimate feel-good food - soup-filled steamed dumplings at the famed Din Tai Fung restaurant in Arcadia. These little Taiwanese delicacies are hand-made to order by a line of workers inside the Baldwin Avenue shopping plaza. It's easy to eat a dozen of the juicy pork and crab dumplings, which feature a rich broth and pork and crab filling encased in paper-thin skins. Other dishes to try are the Shanghai rice cake, fried rice and sauteed spinach. Din Tai Fung turns fried rice ó the most mundane of Chinese dishes ó into a wonderful combination of slightly chewy grains, finely diced scallions and a few tender butterflied shrimp on top, molded in a perfect sphere.

Spinach becomes anything but boring as cloves and cloves of garlic are finely minced, sauteed and liberally swirled through the greens, coating and infusing each leaf. On your second time there, have a cup of chicken soup. The restaurant brings this comfort staple to a whole new level with an euphoric combination of saltiness in a richly flavored yet light broth.

Din Tai Fung was named one of the top 10 restaurants in the country by The New York Times. The dumpling house has 25 locations worldwide, but only one restaurant in the United States. One drawback ó expect long lines on the weekends and wait times from 20 minutes to an hour.

If you can't wait that long to eat, head over to the Taiwanese deli Sin Ba La in the next plaza over.

This small restaurant lined with Hello Kitty-esque gadgets sells the same snacks as Taiwanese street vendors ó like crunchy, crumbly and slightly sweet fried chunks of chicken ('chicken nuggets'). Sin Ba La specializes in sausage ó sausage with onion, garlic and even chocolate and peanut butter. Wonton soup or steamed, small dumplings are a safe, delicious choice.

If you're a little more brave, spring for the o-a-jen ó a sticky, slightly gooey pancake with oysters, dipped in egg, pan-fried, then covered with a light, sweet red sauce.

This place is also friendly on your wallet ó entrees run from about $4 to $7.

(c) 2006 San Gabriel Valley Tribune. All rights reserved.


                                                                                                SIGNS OF NIGHTLIFE OFF BEATEN PATH                                            

 Ivy Dai                                                                                        Staff Writer 

Pasadena Star-News, San Gabriel Valley Tribune, Whittier Daily News

May 22, 2006

Instead of going to the ol' watering hole this weekend, be dangerous and try some spicier options. Spring for salsa, line dancing, cozy French wine and crepes, or a late midnight movie. Don't be mistaken though ó these nighttime alternatives aren't rundown shacks, but the most happening places in the San Gabriel Valley.

At the Granada in Alhambra, about 100 people crowd into the building for salsa lessons every Friday and Saturday night. At 9 p.m., the place turns into a full-fledged salsa club that is open until 4 a.m. on Sundays. You learn the steps beforehand, and you don't have to feel guilty about downing margaritas ó the fast-paced dancing will burn more than enough calories.

While you're trying something new, boot, scoot and boogie to country line dancing at Montana's Nightclub in San Dimas. Yes, line dancing. You might think it's just for the honky-tonks, but people from all over Los Angeles swarm into this hot spot every week.

'People are standing elbow-to-elbow on Saturday nights,' manager Danny Bartholomew said.

Cover is only $5, there's dancing lessons at 7 p.m., and a live band. If you're lucky, they throw in a freestyle period.

After recovering from a hard night of dancing, head over to the chic Crepe Vine Bistro in Old Pasadena. A place to relax and unwind with good friends, the warm sepia interior and superb wine list will keep you occupied for hours. Try the Ramian Grenache medium-bodied red wine and mascarpone crepe with cinnamon sauce, or for chocolate lovers, Nutella (chocolate hazelnut spread) with strawberries. This bistro is known for its sweet and savory crepes, but also has a full menu of French classics if you're feeling hungry. If you're looking for hard liquor and a chic atmosphere, head to Mi Piace across the street and grab a cocktail (mojitos are good). This Italian restaurant turns into a chill lounge complete with a live DJ spinning music afterhours. A place for great lychee martinis is at Nonyaon Raymond Avenue. The Asian fusion restaurant also offers its own version of a bar when the kitchen closes.

For more macho libations, and some grub, head to the Yard House at the Paseo Colorado for the largest collection of draft beers around. Get a yard of beer, and munch on late-night fare that ranges from cheesy fries to seared ahi and juicy steaks. The Yard House is also surprisingly good for late-night dinners throughout the week, and you can avoid the weekend crowds.

If the thought of all this drinking, dancing and carousing makes you exhausted, it's OK. You don't always have to be a party animal. But it's still nice to get out of the house. Here's a perfect activity ñ watch your old favorite movie, but in a really cool theater, like the 75-year-old Rialto in South Pasadena. They offer Midnight Movies, with favorites like 'Office Space,' 'The Rocky Horror Picture Show,' 'Pretty in Pink' and 'Amelie.' During the week they play independent and foreign language films in a building that's a blend of Spanish Baroque and Egyptian design.

Copyright 2006 San Gabriel Valley Tribune. All rights reserved.