Search This Blog

Saturday, January 30, 2010

The Truth About Boba

I've been drinking boba tea for more than a decade. I don't remember when it first arrived in Southern California, but I was on it pretty much right away. An early adopter, if you will.

My first experience with it was at Ten Ren in Rowland Heights. My wife's aunt took us out to lunch and then told us to stop by this tea place. Now that I think about it, I think it was 14 years ago. Don't know why that number popped in my head, but it did.

Anyway, she ordered us Boba Milk Tea. We were hooked instantly.

Since that day, I've had boba more and more frequently. At present, I have tea at least once a day. For boba specifically, maybe once a week or every two weeks. Now, I say that I have boba every single day, but when I say that, I mean I have tea from my favorite boba place, Ten Ren, daily. It may or may not include boba.

But let's return to history.

When I first had boba, it was interesting, new, and had no comparable context. I guess you could say I adopted it as a fad. That was before it actually turned into a fad in the US 8 or 9 years after its arrival. But, for me, the fad was that I couldn't really see having this drink be a normal part of my daily sustenance for the next 14 years. Instead, I latched on just like most people did when Krispy Kreme first arrived in the neighborhood. Now, 5 or 8 years after Krispy Kreme arrived in Orange County and everyone was talking about it, no one talks about it. It's like they were a carnival and just came and left.

And that's what's happened with boba in this country, to some extent.

Maybe around 2001 or so, boba places were popping up everywhere. But they were still pretty Chinese-authenticity heavy. By maybe 2005, you had regular coffee places adding boba to the menu, and people outside of the Chinese community jumping on the boba bananza. In fact, over the past five years, I've seen boba places owned by white, Latino, Middle Eastern and other people. Boba rose to the level of opportunity - gold mine! You had people lining up outside boba places. It was a crazy time for us boba aficienados.

But the last few years has seen a decline in boba places. The general population never really latched on. Sure, there were pockets of excitement that sprang up around the country, and over the course of years, it seemed like the boba craze was going for years. In reality, though, the craze itself hasn't lasted more than 2 years in any place where it wasn't meant to last in the first place.

And so the loser boba places - those people only interested in seizing an opportunity - shut down. But others remained, and remain, in business, some doing quite well. Why?

Because they were in it for other reasons, not pure "boba craze" opportunity.

I think it's relevant to point out some of the groups of reasoning some boba places stayed in business, and even flourished, while others closed shop for good.

Group A: They took advantage of a broader opportunity to reach out to people craving an alternative to coffee shops and bars. Not everyone drinks alcohol or is old enough to do so. And, not everyone likes Starbucks or Peets. More importantly, many people treat hanging out at places like Starbucks like a visit to the library - no loud music, no shouting and laughing, no fun. Just study time, newspapers, moms getting a break from the kids, etc. The boba places I see as successful that fall into this category have created a 'hangout' environment with music, life and a variety of drinks (and usually good snacks as well). With that, you can hit most age groups, and the late hours make it a perfect alternative to the bar and coffee standards.

Group B: They took advantage of a broader opportunity to reach Asians and those interested in the Asian community and/or Asian taste. Everyone wants to feel like they're part of a community. No one feels that Starbucks was made for them - it was supposed to be made for everyone. But, certain coffee shops have a regular crowd. Well, there are communities of Asians all over this country, and they - like anyone else - may not like to hang out at a coffee shop. Group B owners saw a niche market and went after it. Sure, they hope to get all ages and all races, but they start with an Asian theme - boba. They build around it with Asian snacks.

Group C: They took advantage of the fad when it was a fad, but kept pace to add variety to the menu and now boba is just an item on the menu. These are people that saw the well drying up and didn't go gangbusters until it was parched. They kept ahead of the decline by moving onto new fads; smart business move nonetheless.

Group D: This group is my favorite - the boba purists. To them, making boba or any other tea drink is an art. It must be made to perfection. It must taste right. It must please the customer. And so, Ten Ren rules the pack, in my opinion. This group didn't view boba as a passing fad or opportunity, they saw it as an investment in a long-term business.

Now across the groups, each has something to offer. Not that I frequent places from all groups, but I do visit each from time to time. Here are the ones I dig, and why-

1. Ten Ren: It rules. The best tea, the best preparation, clean, quick, great staff...all around best of the best. (Note: They need some work on the website. Everyone else has a great website, but for such a great tea place, their website sucks.) Anyway, know this, I don't mean all Ten Ren locations. I've had some Ten Ren boba that's absolutely disgusting. Like the one that use to be on Euclid in Anaheim by the 99 Ranch Market. Or, the one in Chinatown in Los Angeles - disgusting as well. The best? Ten Ren on Colima near Fullerton Road. Second best? Off Fullerton Road immediately off the 60 freeway in Rowland Heights. With the Colima location, you get the best drinks, but only small snacks and not a lot of space for hanging out. The staff is great though. The Fullerton Road location has plenty of space, lots of food choices - most of which are great - but the drinks are a little sweet. Check em both out. Boba itself - perfectly cooked, flavored and perfect proportions in the drinks.

2. Cha For Tea: This place is in Irvine and a part of the UC Irvine campus community. Always popping, plenty of food choices. Tea is a little on the sweeter side, but all around decent drinks. Boba - cooked and flavored great, but sometime a little firm. If you're there on Saturday mornings, you have the Farmer's Market nearby, which is awesome. Check it out.

3. Boba Loca: When I say #3, I mean like I left #2 in California and went driving to #3 in's a long road. It's not that great, the tea is too sweet - more on the juice side than the tea side. Boba is usually undercooked and underflavored, but other than that, it's great for a nearby quick fix.

4. Guppy House: Truthfully, I think Guppy House is better than Boba Loca, but my wife prefers boba loca, so I end up going there more often (between the two - she's with me on #1 and #2). Anyway, Guppy House is that club vibe with banging music, lots of kids, plenty of food choices (you must try the spicy rice cake and kimchi stew). The location - Anaheim Hills at Imperial Highway and La Palma.

5. Lollicup or Tapioca Express: These brands are fairly consistent across locations. Sweet drinks. So-so boba. But they both have egg pudding you can add to your milk tea and it's awesome. There's also this coconut flavor in the milk tea and it's a nice surprise. If I do visit one, it's the one in the Hong Kong Supermarket area on Colima near Fullerton Road in Rowland Heights.

Wow, this was a long post. Watching Whip It while I'm writing must watch that movie, pretty good.

Enjoy your boba!

~ Brock

Ajisen Ramen (Rowland Heights)

So this is my fourth or fifth time to this ramen joint, Ajisen Ramen. By chance, it turns out they're celebrating the 40th Anniversary of the original restaurant in Japan.

They had the "Ajisen Ramen" on special for $4.95, so I tried it. Sliced pork, thin ramen noodles, white soup base, some cabbage and half a marinated egg. It was plenty for a meal. I've tried many different ramen places, and I'd say the soup base here is one of the better ones. The rest of if was so-so. But, when it comes to Ramen, so much of the priority is in the soup, it's hard to pass this place up.

The noodles are interesting because they're softer than typical ramen noodles (at least from what I've had), and white (as opposed to the usual yellow-tinged ones you see everywhere else). They're cooked perfectly, though, and handle the flavored soup well.

The chopped cabbage and small amount of seaweed is not that welcome of an addition. I think they have too much cabbage, or the pieces are too large. I don't really think it needs it, or if it does, it should be sliced even thinner - toothpick size.

The marinated egg is good. It's a nice mocha latte color, which suggests it either hasn't been stewed very long, it was stewed in the shell, or it was stewed in a watered-down base. Either way, it's nice, but not overwhelming. Personally, I like a strongly-marinated egg in a rich, dark soy color.

Service is not great. You might wait a while to have your order taken, and an unreasonably longer time to get your food. The staff isn't attentive, and they don't come back often. Most of them end up talking over on the side, or smoking out front. It's acceptable in the community there, I guess, so you just have to deal with it.

But, the prices are decent, the place is semi-clean (that is, considering many other great tasting restaurants in the nearby area).

Try the Ajisen Ramen and also the BBQ Pork Ramen. For snacks, try the Ajisen Dynamite, the Fried Tofu, the Crunch Roll and the Eel Hand Roll. All good choices.


~ Brock

Friday, January 29, 2010

Fried California Roll

I'm thinking this isn't what you'd find at a place that fries California roll. I'm thinking they deep fry it, and I'm thinking they put it in a tempura batter or some other kind of batter first. But this is my house, so this is how I do it.

I like a basic roll, but I always have this problem - too much rice and not enough crab. I think I've eaten at those all-you-can-eat places too much where everything is covered in rice to look larger. Check on the image and you'll see it's the truth. No matter, I had one piece and enjoyed it.

Fried California Roll:

Sushi Rice (cooked rice, with some sugar and rice vinegar to taste)
Sushi seaweed (you can buy this at most markets)
cucumber, skinned and sliced thinly
avocado, sliced
imitation crab and some miracle whip, mix together

I found some nice shots of someone rolling sushi. You need a mat for this.

Heat 1/2" oil in a small pan to medium-high. Place your whole roll and fry, rolling every minute or so, until a nice browned crust appears to be forming. Remove and drain on a paper towel, then cut into slices and top with Sriracha.

You'll notice the drops of sauce on my serving plate - that's a bit of Oyster sauce with sugar and rice vinegar. Impromptu for the shot - it's a strong flavor, but goes well with it.


~ Brock

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Chilean Sea Bass baked in Miso Sauce with Japanese-Style Sweet Potato-Crab Salad

It was a picture in a newspaper clipping on the wall in a Japanese restaurant. I was sold.

It's been a while since I've had Chilean Seabass...probably because it's not sustainable, is often caught illegally, and has high Mercury levels. But, it's good. What can I say - you have only so long on this planet.

Anyway, I went to Wholesome Choice (which could explain why they carry the fish and places like Stater Bros and Ralph's don't), looking for a buttery white fish and there it was. At $18.99 a pound, I expected it should be good.

Miso Sauce:

1/2 cup Miso paste
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 sake
2 Tbsp rice vinegar
2 Tbsp rice wine
1 tsp dark soy sauce

Mix the sauce well, and marinate the fish in it for at least 1 hour. You can actually do this marinade all day and it will be even better, but do what you can with the time you have.

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees. Pour your marinade into a small, low-lipped baking dish (I used a glass pie dish), and add your fish. Depending on the thickness, you'll cook it anywhere from 10 - 20 minutes. It looks nice with a little touch of browning, so if you get it close to done, you can fire up the broiler and get a singe on it for about 30 seconds. You probably want to flip the fish midway through cooking it, but it's not essential.

Remove to a plate and pour some of the sauce (not the burned part) over the top of your fish. I served this with Japanese-style sweet potato-crab salad.

Japanese-Style Sweet Potato-Crab Salad:

2-4 sweet potatoes, peeled and cubed
1 russet potato, peeled and cubed
2 Tbsp Miracle Whip
1 Tbsp honey
1 tsp Sriracha
1 cup real or imitation crab, chopped into chunks

Steam sweet potatoes and potato for about 15 minutes. Remove and drain, place in a large bowl. Lightly mash, leaving chunks. Add honey, Miracle Whip, and Sriracha, and mix well. Place in refrigerator to cool and blend flavors. When it's cool, add the crab and mix.

Why use Miracle Whip instead of regular mayo? It's your call - I'm sure either would work.



Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Moroccan Tagine of Chicken and Apricots

My brother-in-law hooked me up with a true Tagine for Christmas! He knows I'm a big fan of Moroccan cuisine, and he also knows I usually make my tagine in a dutch oven. I've wanted an original tagine for a long time, but never got around to the buy.

You see that places like Sur La Table and others offer celebrity chef tagines for over $200, but I think that's just a plain waste. In fact, I recognize that many people opt for higher end, expensive tools and implements in their kitchen. Granted, I don't really like it when my cheap spatula melts when I leave it sitting on the rim of a pan for 10 seconds. On the other hand, I guarantee you that my $15 8" frying pan will perform just as well as any $100 pan for the same purpose. Use your brain. Some things you need to spend the extra dough and get a good one (like my knives, vegetable peeler, etc.). But, when my $25 Lodge iron skillet does as good a job as $150 one, I'm not going to waste money.

Now that I've digressed, I'll move on...So since I've posted other recipes for this dish, I'll focus on some choices I made this time around.

First, I tried using chicken thighs instead of breasts (which I usually use). I've never been a fan of dark meat, but after exploring chicken thighs in my holiday meal, I found them potentially suitable for this dish. Henry's Market has a nice organic offering and I scored 4 large thighs (about 1.5 pounds total).

The end result was perfect in juiciness, but I felt that the "dark" attributes took over from what a breast would normally soak up. In other words, the breast soaks and returns the flavor to you. The dark meat softens and has hints of the tagine spices, but the meaty flavors are overwhelming and you lose part of the experience. On top of that - and this was partly my fault - the fat and stringy parts of the thighs made it a less enjoyable taste. I should have trimmed the thighs first of any fat and sinew, but didn't.

Next, I usually like to do about 1.5 hours for my tagine. I think you're fine if you shoot for the hour mark, but I honestly prefer the flavor meld of a slightly longer simmer. This time I was strapped for time, so I served after only 40 minutes of cooking time. With dark meat, you'll need to ensure it's cooked thoroughly. Since I used fresh chopped tomatoes, they were not softened as much as I'd like. I'd say 1 hours is the minimum on a tagine like this.

Finally, I usually cube meat for my tagines. In this instance, I left the thighs whole as purchased. On the one hand, I felt the presentation was more visually appealing than cubes of chicken - it was like a natural appearance. But, part of the tagine experience is in treating it like a stew, and you don't usually need a knife to address stew.

Couscous are a staple for this dish, so make sure you get that. Also, I didn't add garbanzo beans, which I always do. It was a nice change not to have them included, even though I really love them.

Give it a shot and let me know.


Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Vera Cruz Mahi Mahi with California golden raisins

Sometimes images can speak to your stomach. I once saw a picture of Vera Cruz Red Snapper and I was instantly taken. The olives, chunks of tomato, white fish...ah, yes.

So it's been months that I've wanted to make this, and after one too many excuses, I finally did. (Note: I really wanted to make it for our friends, Ray and Griselda, so if you're reading this, I've perfected it and will make it for you right!)

I'm a big fish lover, so let's start there. I'm on a kick of Mahi Mahi right now. It's firm, but doesn't gum up if you cook it right. It holds a nice crust on a pan fry. It handles so many recipes and seasonings, and it's fairly mild (in my opinion). Versatility is its strong suit, and it's a bit forgiving if you overcook, undercook or whatever. Anyway, I often buy it in a 2 pound bag frozen, so it's sort of a staple in my house. Now if you're one of those people that says, "I only buy fresh from my fishmonger," then read someone else's blog. Sure, I'd love to have a fishmonger and sure, I prefer fresh fish, but I'm also practical. I enjoy a good meal every single day primarily because I'm not anal about things like fishmongers. If you're still with me, read on.

While I was formulating the menu for this particular meal, I had to decide whether I was going to pan fry and top with the Vera Cruz sauce, or if I was going to bake the fish in the sauce. To be honest, I was a little hesitant to bake it in the sauce because I was craving a little of the buttery crust I add on the pan fry, but my timing made it necessary to make the sauce and then release the fish to the oven for 20 minutes to make other things. Tactical decision made by necessity, but oh well. And, our guests have kids (and with my son in the mix), I didn't want to be dealing with two pans of splashing, popping hot oil (I was also frying wonton wrappers for mini-tostadas). Oven it was.

So I set aside three Mahi Mahi steaks with salt and pepper, while I made the sauce.

Vera Cruz sauce:

1- 28 oz can diced tomatoes, drained - liquid reserved in a bowl.
1 Jalapeno, finely chopped
1 white onion, finely chopped
5 gloves garlic, finely minced (or 1-2 heaping tablespoons minced garlic from a jar)
Dried Oregano
Dried parsley
1/2 Cup raisins
1/4 Cup capers, drained
Olive oil

First, pour a solid amount of olive oil into a pan and bring to medium-high heat. The amount of oil you use is dependent on your tastes, but for this I'd go with a thin layer across the bottom of a mid-sized pan. Add onion and fry up 3-5 minutes...turns pale with some browning. Add garlic and jalapeno, and fry for another 30 seconds. Add tomatoes and stir well. Add 1/4 - 1/2 of the tomato liquid (or the whole of it, if you're stressed), and stir well. Sprinkle dried oregano over the top to form a thin sheen (maybe 2 Tbsp) and add about the same amount of dried parsley. Add raisins and capers. Now I used California golden raisins as a shout out to my home state. But, I've never seen it done like that and all recipes that have raisins call for just raisin. Live a little. You'll also see some recipes tell you to rinse your capers - why? That's a rhetorical question - don't be scared. Stir well, and reduce heat to simmer. Stir often and simmer this sauce about 10-20 minutes. Lower the heat if it pops too much or if it gets dried out.

Get a baking dish ready. My wife got me this awesome baking dish from Sur La Table for Christmas and it was perfect for this dish (here's a rectangle model with handles, but mine is a circle kind of like a paella pan). As the sauce neared its ready mark, I spooned out a bit to cover the bottom of the dish. Then lay the fish on top in a single layer. Then pour your sauce over the fish to cover. Bake for 15-20 minutes on 350.

To serve, it's nice to garnish with some fresh parsley, minced and strewn about.


~ Brock

Monday, January 25, 2010

Mini Tostadas - Appetizer

For me, having an appetizer is a necessity if you have guests. You want something to much on, and everyone loves to eat. If dinner is taking too long, or if people are coming in at different times, an appetizer just makes it an easier transition piece. Plus, if you hit a home run with the appetizer, it can spill over onto the dinner plate if dinner turns out like crap!

Because I was planning a Latin-inspired meal, I wanted an easy starter that would be hearty, easy, and bursting with flavors. I knew we were having Vera Cruz fish for the main course, so I wanted to start with something crunchy. I also wanted it to double as part of the meal for the kids in case they weren't into the fish.

Starting with the base, you have a few immediate choices - corn or flour tortillas. Honestly, I just didn't feel like either of those would come off with the flaky, crunchy texture I was going for. So, I opted for wonton wrappers. They fry up quickly, they have the perfect texture to oppose fish, and they hold just about any flavor combination. Viola!

I knew I was topping this with ground beef, so it was just a matter of coming up with the right combination of ingredients to make that pop. I was also craving Salsa Verde, as well as Pico De Gallo, and some Queso Fresco

I thought things were headed in the right direction.

Ground beef topping:

1 white onion, chopped
6 cloves garlic, minced
1 pound ground beef
1 tomato, diced
dried oregano
Chili power
ground cumin
olive oil

Pour a couple glugs of olive oil in a pan and bring to medium-high heat. Add onion and fry up until browning (3-4 mintues). Add garlic and fry 30 seconds. Add tomato, and stir 30 seconds, then add beef and break up, and mix well. Season with oregano, chili powder, paprika, cumin, salt and pepper. Be generous! Fry up and then lower heat to keep warm for serving.

Salsa Verde:

2 pounds tomatillos, peeled and washed
1 jalapeno, diced
1 white onion, chopped
6 cloves garlic
juice of one lime

Place the tomatillos, onion and jalapeno on a baking sheet about 5" from a broiler and broil until charred - 10 minutes or so. You may want to line the sheet with foil, because the liquid from the tomatillos will ooze. Drop it all into a processor (in batches if you need). NOTE: Contents will be hot - you don't want the hot liquid to shoot out. Keep control of your kitchen! Add salt, pepper and lime to taste. Process this and pour off into container. Store in refrigerator for a few hours minimum for flavor meld.

Pico De Gallo:

6 vine-ripe tomatoes, chopped
1/2 red onion, minced
6 cloves garlic, minced
1 jalapeno, minced
lime juice
handful of cilantro, chopped

Chop and mix well. Refrigerate at least 2 hours for flavor melding. Stir often.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Restaurant Review - J J Bakery

I'm a Chinese breakfast sucker. Hot, sweet soy milk. Onion pancake. Fried radish cakes. The list goes on and on, and I can't get enough.

And, I've been to J J Bakery locations before and didn't think too much of it...until they opened a new location in Industry or Rowland Heights (the location isn't listed on their website yet, but it's in a new complex on Gale and Fullerton Road). This is like breakfast heaven.

First on the list, hot, sweet soy milk. It's a staple.

Next, I forget what they call it...something with Dragon's Tail (which is the long Chinese donut)...starts with a sesame pocket surrounding a fried egg omelet and the Dragon Tail. Dip that in some chili sauce and you're good to go.

They also have great steamed, then bottom fried vegetable buns. You should also try their fried radish cakes. In fact, you can try just about anything on the menu and you'll be happy you did.

Check it out and enjoy some bakery items on your way out.



Sunday, January 17, 2010

Sweet Pan Fried Shrimp with Garlic Snap Peas

There's something very, very satisfying about this dish. I think it has something to do with the intense crunch of the snap peas, combined with the juicy texture of the shrimp and intense flavor of garlic. It has so many great levels of experience. And it's fairly easy to make

One thing I realize is that many people overcook shrimp, so let's start there. You take about 10 shrimp. I tend to use frozen shrimp from Costco or Trader Joe's. I've noticed over time that the Costco ones have better texture and stay plump after cooking, but either one would work. If you're a friend of 99 Ranch Market, you can try their Glacier Bay frozen bagged shrimp - a good choice as well.

Anyway, rinse these under cool water until soft and pliable. They can still be cool, but you don't want them to be frozen inside. Dry them well with a paper towel and place in a bowl. Wait 5 minutes and see if any liquid develops. If so, drain, dry and repeat. I believe a key to great pan fried shrimp is it being dry when it hits the high heat.

Once you're ready, season the shrimp with salt, pepper, a dash of sesame oil, a TSP of sugar, a bit of Mirin, and some crushed red peppers. Stir, mix, let stand at least 10 minutes. You will drain this immediately before frying on high heat.

Meanwhile, mince 4-5 garlic cloves. Set aside. Clean the snap peas and take off the ends and long string that links the ends.

Boil some water and blanch the snap peas for 1 minute. Drain and remove.

Heat oil on high. Add garlic and fry for 30 seconds. Add snap peas and salt and pepper generously. Add snap peas and fry up with some nice brown - maybe 2-3 minutes. Remove to bowl.

Keep fire and and add shrimp. Fry up for about 1 minute, then add garlic and snap peas. Fry until shrimp is plump, fried texture, and color is good. Not white. Drizzle some soy sauce over the top, a slight amount, and stir well.

Remove to plate and shizam.


~ Brock