5 favorite Asian restaurants of 2014

I often crave comfort foods I grew up eating. After a string of non-Asian meals, I will find myself gravitating towards something familiar, usually consisting of rice, but also, noodles of some sort swimming in broth. I also love spicy foods, so southeast Asian cuisines are especially popular in my culinary repertoire.

One of my favorite restaurants is Rakiraki Ramen and Tsukemen, located in what may be considered as San Diego’s Chinatown. On every visit — which is practically every time I go to San Diego — I will order the ikagetso (fried squid) as well as chicken karaage (Japanese style fried chicken) and a ramen of some sort depending on my mood. On my last visit, I returned once again to the original, one of the first ramen offerings I fell in love with from the start. You can read my visit from this summer, here.

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Vientiane is a hole-in-the-wall which I frequent at least once a month and now, have gotten some of my friends completely hooked on it as well. The northern Thai and Lao dishes are a huge hit especially the crispy rice, ong choy, Lao sausage, and if you’re into it, mok pa (steamed catfish in banana leaf). The kids who work here know my order and laugh when I veer off the usual because they know at some point during my meal, I will order the dishes I didn’t at the start. Here is my last post from 2013.

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I found Rice Paper Bistro last year and it was one of my top 10 picks of 2013. This little spot sticks out like a sore thumb in the run-down strip mall it is situated in, but has remained a favorite in 2014. Step inside and you will be surprised at its modern feel and creative menu. My favorites are the ong choy salad, fried frogs legs and my latest indulgence, beef with ginger and scallion. The specials board is often dotted with new and innovative dishes you’ll absolutely adore. Here’s my post from 2013.

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On cold days like these, my favorite thing to do is visit Tang 190 for one of its hearty Korean soups. Here, you can indulge in bone soup (sullungtang) which has that milky look from simmering for hours on end. Enjoy a spicy beef soup (yukgejang) or my son’s favorite, bibimbap (beef stone pot rice). The Napa cabbage miso beef bone soup is currently my favorite. Read about Tang 190 here.

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Whenever I’m up in the Silverlake area of Los Angeles, Pine and Crane is a must-stop even if I am actually up there for a meal — I will order take-out to enjoy the next day. This little fast casual spot has been my favorite Chinese eatery this year with its tasty ma po tofu, 3-cups chicken, beef roll, dumplings and more. What I love most about the restaurant is its ability to create these traditional Chinese dishes but without the greasiness. We need Pine and Crane in OC! Read about them here.

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Stay tuned next week for more “best of” lists of 2014!

 

 

mouth-tingling dishes at Spicy City

I’d have to say, in the 10 years I’ve been Yelp Elite, I have not been to many elite events at all. In fact, these days, I average about one a year, and that is only because it is a special event, or an outing to a restaurant I have not been to and am interested in trying. Therefore, when the invitation came through to check out Spicy City in Anaheim Hills, I RSVPed and joined other Yelp Elites for lunch on a scorching hot day.

My first impressions of the restaurant is that the decor is very modern and pleasant. It definitely has the universal appeal of attracting customers from all ethnicities. I find that usually, Chinese restaurants do not put the effort into making the surroundings a priority, and it is refreshing to see that it is not the case here.

I have to admit, I’ve been to the Spicy City in Irvine — once. I wasn’t impressed and never returned. I was hoping this location would redeem itself and in turn, I would be able to give the Irvine location another try.

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I’m going to put it out there, I am not a fan of Chinese American cuisine. It is not reflective of what true Chinese food is, and especially, not the food I grew up eating. However, I am aware that it is difficult for a restaurant in the US to offer a completely regional menu because it will not appeal to a lot of customers who are not accustomed to the hardcore traditional foods I grew up eating. Therefore, I wasn’t surprised when we were informed that our meal would include both traditional and American style Chinese dishes.

One of the most ubiquitous Chinese American offerings is Walnut Shrimp (核桃蝦 $15.99) often known as honey walnut shrimp. I’m not sure how this became a staple of Chinese cuisine, but all I know is, mayonnaise is not a Chinese condiment. To be fair, I must preface this by saying I detest this dish regardless, so it really doesn’t matter what I think because a lot of people love it. The shrimp in this dish has a nice snap and is not overly battered, while the walnuts are very crunchy. There was just too much mayo smothering the shrimp and walnuts, making it difficult to enjoy the natural flavors of the main ingredients. Less is definitely more in this case.

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Kung Pao Chicken (宮保雞 $10.99) is often the “go-to” dish for people not well-versed in Chinese cuisine, but quite frankly, I love kung pao. I love spicy foods so the dried chile morsels really appeal to me. There are peanuts in this dish so if you have a nut allergy, stay away. This version is respectable and flavorful — I enjoyed it very much.

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The next dish is another favorite of mine, but I’m not sure how it differs to kung pao chicken except the chicken is first deep fried before it is stir fried and there are no peanuts. Deep Fried Chicken Cubes w/ Red Dry Chili (辣子雞 $10.99) is dotted with dried chile bits similar to kung pao, but this dish is served without a sauce. Just choose one or the other — ordering both is a bit redundant.

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Shredded Pork with Peking Sauce & Lotus Buns (京醬牛肉絲荷葉餅 $12.99) is presented with baos for you to sandwich the meat in. This was delicious, but a tad too saucy which made them very messy to eat.

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For me, the traditional dishes are always most reflective of a restaurant’s quality and Spicy City did not disappoint.

Hot Sauce Beef (水煮牛 $12.99) is something I always order when I visit a Sichuan restaurant. It is spicy but extremely piquant and savory. The Napa cabbage is infused with all the great flavors, but I found the sauce a little too “corn-starchy”. We had the beef, but you can also opt for fish instead.

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A perfectly executed Fried Rice Yangzhou Style (揚州炒飯 $9.99) arrives and I am impressed. The rice is a perfect consistency with the right amount of “wok hei” (鑊氣) — the heat needed to char and season the ingredients — to give it that taste I want with fried rice.

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But there is one more dish, my favorite item of the entire meal. Steamed Fish Fillet with Hot Pepper (剁椒蒸魚片 $18.99) was enjoyed by all because of its complexity overall balance of flavor profiles. I especially loved the fried shiso leaves which added a burst of freshness to the palate. I highly suggest this when you dine at Spicy City.

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I will always recommend traditional over American style dishes when eating Chinese. After all, Spicy City specializes in a regional cuisine not often prepared well here in the US. If you’re going to eat American style Chinese, then why bother going to Spicy City? There are a ton of others which will equally provide you with what you’re looking for.

Spicy City
5555 E Santa Ana Canyon
Anaheim, CA 92807
Tel: 714-974-8889

Spicy City on Urbanspoon

Tavern on 2 tantalizes my tastebuds

If the name Frank De Loach has never crossed your ears before, you’re definitely missing out. This is an unconventional chef who thinks outside of the box, one who is not afraid to play with flavors and bring together ingredients some may not be familiar with. In short, not everyone get his food.  But for those who do, the experience is a sensational one. Chef Frank’s flavor profiles are pretty much on par with mine about 99% of the time. I know he will use enough salt and acid for my palate and that is always something to be happy about.

When you meet Chef Frank, you won’t be surprised that his gastropub-style cuisine is deliciously comforting, however, it is his Asian-inspired dishes that blows my mind. My first experience with Chef Frank’s Asian-style food creations was at Early Bird in Fullerton. His love for Asian flavors, plus the myriad of tastes he picked up during his travels to southeast Asia invigorated him to design — and they are often works of art — incredible pairings of flavors he was moved by.

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Chef Frank is now at Tavern on 2 in Long Beach, where most of the customers order the burgers. We had one as well — Tavern Burger ($14). The pattie is a perfect medium rare. Each bite provided me with a hint of sweetness from the caramelized onions, richness from the St Andre brie and freshness from the arugula. The savory ketchup did a great job by adding some salty tart finish. The burger is good. Damn good. It is not surprising that about 70% of the restaurant had one on the table — there are four beef burgers, one ahi and one veggie on the menu.

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Another favorite is Chef Frank’s version of Short Rib Poutine ($14). Yes, there are those who are sticklers for authentic poutine, and then, there are those who haven’t a clue what real poutine is. I kind of fall in between. I’ll love it if it tastes good. The version here has braised short rib which would probably amass a complete furor from some. Ask for it with only gravy and Wisconsin cheese curds if you feel your purist side emerging — I eat it without much short rib and prefer only gravy and curds with my fries. It is definitely very tasty.

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Don’t grimace at this next dish, Sticky Pigtails ($9), if you like ribs, you’ll most probably like this. The minute I bite into it, a wave of nostalgia comes over me. The sauce tastes exactly like my mother’s sweet and sour ribs except she uses Chinese dark vinegar. Here, it is a blend of hoisin and oyster sauces with lime and a few other things thrown in. Sticky they definitely are, and mouthpuckering as well, but it’s all good.

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However, what I am here for are for the dishes the rest of the clientele may not be ordering at a “tavern”. The blackboard features seasonal dishes such as Summer Peaches ($11), where lusciously sweet peaches are tossed with cubes of smoked mozzarella, radicchio, baby kale, Thai basil, white balsamic, and sprinkled with cocoa crumbs. At first, I’m like “what the hell is this….” but once you eat it with each of the ingredients on the plate — I highly suggest dipping your mozzarella into it — you will get a burst of the cocoa on your palate and go “oh! wow!”

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Hamachi Crudo ($12) is another blackboard special and is so simple and refreshing. Interspersed between slices of strawberries, jicama sticks, cilantro and shards of lime zest, the fish possesses hints of the jalapeno vin it is marinated in. Subtle and not overpowering, the hamachi is left to shine. Naturally, I wanted just a little more citrus, but that’s just me.

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If I am dining alone, the Seared Ahi Tuna ($16) salad would make for a perfect dish for one. If you’re there with others, you can share it — unless you’re with me, then I would hog the entire bowl. Chunks of seared ahi tuna is tossed in a Vietnamese dressing along with soba noodles, Thai basil, cilantro, radish, cucumber, red onions, cabbage and scallions. This is one of those items I am not able to stop eating. The perfect pairings of salty and tart is simply outstanding.

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I suggest you eat this meal from light to heavy, although, the salads and fish dishes make for the perfect palate cleanser in between the heavier options. I just prefer to not cloud my mouth with the richer foods before I eat salad and fish. I hope you will visit Tavern on 2 and check out what Chef Frank is doing. I always know I’m going to be highly satisfied whenever I leave a meal that he has prepared.

Tavern on 2
5110 E 2nd Street
Long Beach, CA 90803
Tel: 562-856-4000

Tavern On 2 on Urbanspoon

OB Noodle House San Diego

I’ve been wanting those chicken wings after watching an episode of Diners, Drive-ins and Dives (Triple D), where Guy Fieri visits OB Noodle House in Ocean Beach, a seaside neighborhood of San Diego! On a recent visit, we make it a point to stop by the original location off Cable Street for lunch (there is a second location off Niagara on the cusp of Ocean Beach and Point Loma). As we drive past it, our hearts sink when we see the hordes of people outside.

Circling around the neighborhood several times, we find a spot less than a block away and check in with the hostess who informs us of the 20 minute wait, but lucky for us, it only turns out to be 10.

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There is inside and sidewalk seating — we are led to what I would call the best seat in the house, a corner table affording us a view of the entire restaurant. It is busy, very loud with music blaring, the upbeat vibe reminds me of eateries I’ve come across many times while living in Hawaii.

We settle on some sour beers (on the day of our visit beers were half off — score!) which is absolutely refreshing on a warm day and perfect with the appetizers we select.

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Grilled Lemongrass Chicken Satay ($6.95) is surprisingly tasty. I am not sure when it arrives as the reddish hue is “radioactive”-like reminiscent of Chinese cha siu. The chicken is bursting with lemongrass aromas and well-seasoned. A ramekin of hoisin sauce accompanies but I enjoyed them without it.

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But what I am here for are the Spicy Garlic Wings ($11.95) and they do not disappoint. Ironically, the twelve succulent wings (and these are the real wings, not drummettes) are also strangely red in color, but crispy on the outside and oh so moist on the inside. Be careful when you eat them because they are scorching hot on the inside — retaining its heat even to the last wing. I can probably devour the entire plate but it is rude not to share.

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Sizzling Fish ($11.95) is tasty and comes with a bowl of steamed white rice. The basa fillet is topped with caramelized ginger and garlic, with chopped fresh cilantro and green onions. I often cook basa at home but have never thought to use caramelized ginger before! I will be doing that from now on. The crispy bits of garlic and ginger definitely elevates the flavor to another level.

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We see a guy eating a plate of House Special Fried Rice ($12.95) at the next table which entices us to order it. It is a hefty portion,with a generous amount of gai lan (Chinese broccoli), shrimp, beef, eggs, Chinese sausage and sate sauce, but I can’t figure out why the fried rice is so sweet. The Chinese sausage usually possesses some sweetness, but I can’t imagine sate sauce to be. I bring it home and doctor it up with other ingredients and condiments — much better!

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Unfortunately, Stir Fried Crispy Egg Noodles With Chicken Assorted Vegetables ($8.95) is highly disappointing. The crispy noodles remind me of the bits of crispy noodles you get in the Midwest when you order chow mein, except these are long and resemble regular noodles. They taste a little stale and the overall dish is bland and flavorless. I pick out the cabbage and broccoli and we leave the rest.

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My final conclusion? There is definitely some hype surrounding this place, not all of it warranted. I see a lot of people eating pho, but I’m not sure this is what I want when lil Saigon is so close by. The chicken wings are definitely worth returning for — if there is no wait for a table — but then again, if I am craving them, I can just order to go and pick them up, right?

OB Noodle House
2218 Cable Street
San Diego, CA 92107
Tel: 619-450-6868

OB Noodle House on Urbanspoon

OC Restaurant Week: a worthy $15 lunch menu

If you’re looking for a worthy lunch from the OC Restaurant Week‘s lunch menus, look no further than Starfish in Laguna Beach. I have been to Starfish several times in the past but it’s been at least a year since I was last there. The first thing which struck me was that it wasn’t as dark inside as it used to be. I like it! I am able to see inside the restaurant and most important, read my menu!

There were four in our party and we were able to try a lot of things from the $15 lunch menu which offers up a 3-course meal. For starters, there were 8 items to choose from and then, an impressive 11 selections from the large plates along with three desserts choices.

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Pork Dumplings, filled with ground pork and Napa cabbage, you can have the option of steamed or pan seared. My friend chose steamed. They were decent and the skin to filling ratio was acceptable. I could taste that they were not previously frozen (it says handmade daily) and the wrappers were of a reasonable thickness. The accompanying scallion soy sauce is a good accompaniment. As for chili sauce if you like a kick with your food!

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Crab Wontons are not my thing because I just can’t wrap my head around cream cheese in Asian food. However, none of my friends seemed to mind as they gleefully chomped on the crispy wontons and proclaimed them delicious. The wontons are filled with a blend of stone crab, cream cheese, red and green bell pepper, green onion, then fried and served with a sweet chili plum sauce.

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I loved the Chilled Cambodian Cucumbers and couldn’t stop eating them. Sliced Persian cucumber rounds are tossed in a refreshingly light chili lime vinaigrette along with baby heirloom tomatoes, mint and Thai basil. My friend who ate my portion of the wontons said “you can have my cucumbers” — and I certainly did!

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Chicken Lettuce Wraps were my favorite comprising diced chicken, shiitake mushrooms, caramelized onions, bell peppers and cashews in a savory sauce with a hint of sweetness. I usually dislike iceberg lettuce but they were perfect as cups for the chicken mixture. I could have eaten a few more of these.

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We were all very impressed by the portion size of each item. There was definitely no skimping going on here. When the entrees arrived, we were all pleased with the dishes we selected.

Shiro Miso Salmon Salad was a lot more generous than we had imagined with a nice sized piece of broiled miso marinated Atlantic salmon on top of organic baby greens tossed in a sesame miso dressing. The salmon was seasoned well and prepared to perfection.

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One of my friends is a very picky eater and generally stays away from anything “different”. She picked Mongolian Beef and was so pleased with it I could see she was tickled by her selection. The tender pieces of beef are wok fried in a soy glaze along with snow peas, carrot, scallion and ginger. Because she was so happy, I nudged her to try some other things on the table as well.

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Sichuan Japanese Eggplant was my selection. I am an eggplant fiend and I can eat it any way it is prepared. I can even eat it steamed with no seasonings — which makes my mother cringe for some reason. I’ve had this dish here before and I love it. Sauteed in a house made sambal sauce, Sichuan peppercorn, bell peppers and onions, I’m happy I wasn’t the only one who enjoyed it.

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Another really tasty dish was Bangkok Spicy Udon Noodles. It is so unusual for restaurants to be so generous on the ingredients paired with a noodle dish and I commend Starfish here for this. Prawns, grilled chicken, green and red bell peppers, rainbow carrot, red and yellow onions plus Thai basil make up this incredible dish. I almost want to say there was a tad too much of the ingredients and not enough noodles.

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There wasn’t much room left for desserts, but we managed to polish off every little bit on the plate anyway. Chocolate Chip Bread Pudding was absolutely delightful. It was perfectly textured, not too eggy and caramelized bananas and house made cinnamon ice cream alongside.

The Chocolate Flourless Cake was another winner with Tahitian vanilla ice cream and raspberry sauce. The menu states Thai tea caramel sauce as well but I didn’t detect that at all.

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However, everyone agreed, Mango Pudding was the best of the lot. Silky mango pudding with vanilla bean coconut tapioca and diced fresh mango was just a perfect finish to the absolutely enjoyable meal shared with friends.

Starfish Laguna
30832 S Pacific Coast Hwy
Laguna Beach, CA 92651
Tel: 949-715-9200
Starfish on Urbanspoon

Lukshon & Godiva join forces for the year of the horse

Last week, I was invited to a dinner at Lukshon in Culver City in collaboration with Godiva who created special chocolates in celebration of Lunar New Year, which happens on January 31st this year — the year of the horse! People born in this year are known for being independent, free-spirited and feisty and the menu this evening featured the Szechuan peppercorn in many of the dishes known for its spicy numbing qualities. Chef Sang Yoon of Lukshon also infused many of the savory dishes with Godiva chocolates, making some unique and delicious pairings I’d never tasted before.

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We were really here to be introduced to the commemorative Lunar New Year chocolates which comes in several variations all enveloped in a stunning red box (the color of prosperity in Chinese culture).

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The dinner was served family style and you’ll be happy to know that most of the savory dishes are available on Lukshon’s regular menu. I was tickled to be in the company of Karin E Baker, deputy editor of Flavorpill LA, Tommy Lei, known fashion blogger of My Belonging and Jocelyn Wang, the person behind V3Con Digital Media Conference and currently, President of the Asian American Journalists Association LA Chapter.

Our first course is a platter of Duck Popiah which we all zoomed in to take photos of. Popiah is a Singaporean fresh roll and here, Chef Sang has filled it with duck confit and a wonderful dark chocolate hoisin sauce which was so subtle none of us could detect it. However, we all agreed, it took the edge off the hoisin by giving it a smoother, more balanced flavor than pungent hoisin alone. Pickled stem lettuce added a touch of crunch and acidity to the dish.

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I was so excited when Crispy Whole Fish arrives. An entire fish is presented beautifully, curved and fried to perfection. I was given the task of breaking apart the fish which revealed moist, tender flaky white fish morsels which we drizzled with the accompanying pecel (a spicy, sweet and tart sauce originating from Indonesia). Wok charred cucumbers are heavenly and possessed the intoxicating flavors of Szechuan peppercorns. I couldn’t stop eating it was so addicting!

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Chinese Eggplant was soft with a crispy exterior and tossed in panch puran, an Indian five-spice mixture topped with a dollop of fennel raita and shards of crispy eggplant. The menu also stated cocoa nibs as an ingredient and again, it was so deftly added to the dish without overpowering.

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The bowl of Crab Fried Rice was devoured so quickly we didn’t have much time to think about it. The blue crab infused jasmine rice had bits of pea tendrils, serrano chile and egg combined together and was so decadent it would have made a meal in itself.

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Our next dish was Beef and Broccoli but like no other I’ve ever tasted before. Tender slices of hanger steak prepared in a black bean cocoa butter sauce was so rich and savory we all took more than a piece. Gai lan not only added color, but also, a wonderful vegetable component to the dish. I prefer Chinese broccoli over regular because of its leafiness. Puffed tendon added another textural dimension to this mouth-watering dish.

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The Brussels Sprouts were also highly addicting and we were thrilled they placed two bowls on our table. The chile garlic vinaigrette possessed hints of sesame, coating the slightly charred Brussels sprouts which were eaten with glee.

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And if we thought the crab fried rice was good, the Heirloom Black Rice made us even happier. Savory lap cheong (Chinese sausage), onion, roasted garlic are prepared with the rice and topped with a runny Lily’s farm fried egg which added another dimension of richness to the already perfect rice.

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However, if there was to be a piece de resistence of the meal, I’ll have to say, Spicy Chinese Ramen was it. The broth was absolutely impeccable with so much depth and layers of flavors in every spoonful. Ma la (the flavor given to Szechuan peppercorns) bamboo, pork belly and crispy ear were ideal accompaniments but all I wanted was to slurp up all the broth.

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By now I was really quite full but every one at the table was excited about the desserts about to hit the table. There were four desserts including Godiva White Chocolate Vietnamese Iced Coffee spiked with White Lion arrack. Arrack or arak is a distilled alcoholic drink made from the fermented sap of coconut flowers, fruits or sugarcane, but not the same as the anise alcoholic beverage consumed in eastern Mediterranean countries or north Africa. It was incredibly strong, both the coffee and the spirit and we wanted to take it with us to drink the next day but due to the alcohol content, was unable to take it with us.

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Godiva Milk Chocolate Cherry Shooter also had some sort of alcohol in it. I wasn’t able to “shoot” it, but instead, took a small spoonful to taste from the crushed candied almond-rimmed glass.

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Chocolate and Pear “Donut” had specks of gold all over it which created the most visually stunning edible ever, unfortunately, the photo doesn’t do it justice at all. With chicory, kecap manis caramel, fresno chile and puffed rice.

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The item I was most looking forward to was Macadamia and Black Sesame Dumpling. New years generally includes “tong yuen” which is a mochi based dumpling with a filling of some sort, traditionally, peanut, black sesame or red bean. I wanted only a bite but it was a difficult task so I popped the entire thing in my mouth.

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Even though our meal was part of a celebration that can’t be duplicated, you can visit Lukshon and put together your own lunar new year dinner, or, any time of the year. That ramen is to-die-for and should not be missed.

Lukshon
3239 Helms Avenue
Culver City, CA 90034
Tel: 310-202-6808

Lukshon on Urbanspoon