Sapp Coffee House

When I was still living in the Midwest, I asked my friend M if there was anything he missed about living in Los Angeles. He suddenly got a far-away look in his eyes and quietly murmured, “The boat noodles at Sapp Coffee House. Oh god, those noodles.” I’d never made it to Sapp during my previous time in California, and I more or less forgot about M’s haunted reference until I happened to be looking for a place to eat in Thai Town around Christmastime. We decided to give it a shot and were pleased to find Sapp to be a bright, friendly spot with some of the tastiest Thai coffee around (it is a coffee shop, after all).  B and I decided to share some boat noodles with beef and the also much-hyped jade noodles. The boat noodles were as amazing as M had promised: slightly chewy and swimming in a dark, silky broth. Yeah, I know, boat noodle broth is made from blood, but you probably know by now that blood doesn’t bother me in the least. This is the kind of thing you want to eat on a cold rainy day.

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But for me it was the jade noodles that were a total revelation. Roasted duck slices and barbecue pork chunks, a downy pile of crabmeat, scallions, cilantro, peanuts, chiles, and sugar top a mound of green noodles. Talk about trayf! There is something about the sparkly sweetness against the subtle heat against the herbaceous noodles that just really kicked it into gear for me. I could eat those noodles every damn day. And at about six bucks a bowl with some of the sweetest employees around, that doesn’t seem like such a bad idea.

Santa Monica Seafood

isn't it romantic?

On the first episode of the last season of the Real Housewives of Orange County (yes, I watch it, shut up), one of the ladies threw a New England-style clambake to get all the women together to start fighting. The hostess—a pinched-looking creature who is married to a successful Orange County plastic surgeon—called the event a clambake, but it was really a lobster boil.  I was under the impression that a clambake involved digging a hole, burying some clams with hot coals, and then unearthing the whole thing later on.  The centerpiece of this Newport Beach party was instead an awe-inducing spread of beautiful, enormous lobsters. Clambake? I think, “Eh, will I get sand in my teeth?” Lobsterbake? I’m in every time. Even if it means chowing down amidst shrieking harpies with immobile faces.

I was quite amused, then, to see that the housewife procured her lobsters and clams from none other than Santa Monica Seafood, a fish market located in Costa Mesa that I also happen frequent for my own piscivore yearnings. Santa Monica Seafood was one of the first places I found in Orange County that truly blew me away – coming from a landlocked state, this kind of fresh fish market is just mind-boggling. It’s pricey, of course, but everything they sell is positively gorgeous. Moreover, Santa Monica Seafood supplies all of the high-end surf and turf restaurants in Newport Beach, so I like to rationalize that while it may be spendy, I’m getting the same damn salmon as the Housewives and their “entrepreneur” husbands get at Mastro’s. And mine is always perfectly cooked.

Seriously, though, Santa Monica Seafood is particularly great if you are looking for locally-caught, responsibly-sourced fish in Southern California. I particularly like picking up California halibut or Carlsbad mussels for easy, economical fish dinners. If we’re feeling a little more decadent, I’ll get a dozen oysters for a weekend lunch – Santa Monica usually has a great selection of Fanny Bay, Malpeque, Kumamoto, and Coromandel oysters on hand at about a buck fifty a pop (sometimes less). As you know, B is our resident shucker and an excellent one at that, but the fishmongers at Santa Monica will do your shucking for you if you are weak-willed. And none of this business of bringing home a bag of shellfish only to discover that half of them perished before you even leave the store. These fishmongers are pros, tapping each and every shell to make sure your entire purchase is alive when it comes to dinnertime. I literally once watched one guy methodically tap through nearly five pounds of mussels I bought for a party. At only five bucks a pound, it wasn’t a particularly big purchase, especially not in an area where Real Housewives have Tuesday night lobster bakes. But Santa Monica Seafood has wonderful customer service for even the unnipped, untucked population, and it’s a pleasure to shop there.

And look, as I’m sure my regular readers may remember, we are also occasionally of the homarine persuasion. As has become our tradition, B makes a show of his love for me each Valentine’s Day by brutally murdering a lobster (sometimes two). In recent years, we’ve discovered that I am a far more coldblooded executioner of crustaceans than my kind-hearted husband, so now I’m usually in charge of the grisly part. The last two Februaries we have gone to Santa Monica Seafood mid-afternoon to pick out two big fellas (I like to choose the meanest-looking ones). With our new friends clanging around in a cooler, we stop at Hi-Times to pick up a nice bottle of Sancerre. Then we head home, boil up a big pot of onions and fennel, and send those lobsters to the great hereafter. After the most decadent of meals (two lobsters, drawn butter, and a smidge of Old Bay), we get to work frying up the shells along with shallots, carrots, celery, peppercorns, and bay leaves to make an enormous pot of lobster stock. We freeze most of it for bouillabaisse and cioppino, but I always do end up getting my bisque fix a few days after Valentine’s. If you’re interested, let me know and I’ll post B’s recipe. It’s so tasty that it would make even a Housewife jealous.

Sqirl

Los Angeles lifestyle blogs – and you can bet your ass I read all of them – present a positively warped vision of consumer life in this second-largest American city. If the Instagrammed object worlds of the Angelino taste-making elite are to be believed, life in these fair hills is entirely composed sun-drenched patios decked out in Heath pottery, succulents, and macramé wall hangings. Daily hikes in Runyon Canyon are de rigueur, as are evenings at the Hollywood Bowl. Everybody always seems to be slurping up a pizza at Mozza, a butterscotch budino at Gjelina, or a round of oysters at Hungry Cat. Or maybe they are snapping a quick shot of the tsukemen ramen at that place that everybody can’t stop talking about. There is a veritable catalogue of Angelino lifestyle blog clichés, and I can’t seem to get enough of them. One that has reached near-icon status is this guy:

sqirl rice bowl

Ah, Sqirl’s Kokuho rose brown rice bowl. Mysteriously tender brown rice doused in sorrel pesto and punctuated with preserved Meyer lemons, “lacto fermented” hot sauce, watermelon radishes, feta cheese, and a poached egg. With the addition of a house sausage patty, natch. I’ve seen so many photos of this bad boy that it’s positively egregious to add my own shot to the archive. And a filtered shot from my own Instagram, no less? The shame. The Nouveau parti anticapitaliste will never have me back.

But is it tasty? Yes, totally. My girl K, who is definitely in the know about all the best things in the city, took me to Sqirl when I requested a lady brunch at a place that would make my husband squirm. And oh man, would he have squirmed. A throng of calculatedly casual Angelinos in Priuses and handmade shoes? Check. Quince and rosemary jam? Check. Burnt toast for seven bucks? Check. I joke about the last one – the “burnt brioche toast” is quite deliberate and really delicious, smeared with fresh ricotta and apple butter. The whole place is a scene, but a good one, and that rice bowl is really worth a fuss. It’s such an unexpected breakfast combination, one that probably could be replicated to some degree in your own home. As B would grumble, come springtime sorrel grows in ditches all over the Midwest. Better snatch it up before the in-crowd catches wind.

The Rider’s Club

San Clemente has always held a special role in my imagination as something like the last beach community untainted by the various blights of the Orange County coastline (grotesque plastic surgery, obscenely decadent consumption, racist Minutemen, heteronormative gender policing that would do the 1950s proud, etc.). This assumption may not even be remotely true, and I’m well aware of the military base and enormous mammary of a nuclear power plant that might contradict this fantasy. Nevertheless, San Clemente is – in my mind – a sleepy town of surfers unencumbered by the venial sins of the rest of the county. Heck, Ruby’s hasn’t even co-opted their pier yet!

My dear friends J and BC lived in San Clemente for several years and did little to dispel any of these conceptions. Sure, they complained sometimes about their neighbor’s politics, but it seemed like they were pretty tan and eating a lot of fresh-caught fish whenever I came to visit. Whenever I get mad at Corona del Mar (which is basically every day), I tell B that we are moving to San Clemente. We probably never will, but I think it’s important to always give yourself a plan of escape, even if it remains only in your head.

carnitas sandwich

One entirely legitimate reason to move to San Clemente tomorrow is so you could eat at The Rider’s Club every single day. It’s nothing much from the street, but J and BC had raved about their carnitas sandwich for several years, so I was pretty darn psyched to finally try it. Dear lord. Shredded pork on a Challah bun, topped with carrot slaw, cilantro, a creamy sauce, and jalapeños. It’s like a perfect taco made out with a bánh mì on Shabbat. Their burgers are really special too; B claims that a cheddar, roasted green chile, bacon, and avocado combo makes for the best burger in SoCal. The draft beer list is off the chain, with Old Rasputin usually on tap along with other great selections from breweries like Alesmith, Green Flash, and Bear Republic. The soundtrack often veers loud with the Pixies or Love and Rockets blasting out onto the patio, though J and BC inform me that they’ll happily put on cartoons for your kid. The Rider’s Club is basically the perfect post-beach joint, and nothing tastes better after a long day in the sun than a cold beer and salty, fatty grub.

PS. If you really want to put that final sparkle on your evening, the little chocolate puddings housed in Dixie cups are basically all the things you ever wanted chocolate pudding to be. Just so you can’t say that nobody ever told you.

Chong Qing Mei Wei

fried tofu cubes with hot pepper

I recently started working with a graduate student from Sichuan province. She’s quite lovely, and we’ve talked a bit about her hometown at the end of her sessions. According to her, there is a serious dearth of English teachers in Sichuan compared to other provinces in China, and native speakers are few and far between. I continually joke that if I get to eat Sichuan food all the time, I’ll move to Chengdu in a hot minute. Last week she showed up with a brochure for a company that would arrange such a thing, and I started to wonder if I shouldn’t take her up on the idea.

Short of the occasional road trip to the San Gabriel Valley, I didn’t eat much Sichuan food when I first was living in California in the mid-aughts. I wouldn’t have been very interested if someone had proposed eating Sichuan in Orange County (and for that matter, nobody did). Fast forward to 2013, when I happened to notice a bumping Chongqing-style spot adjacent to the Ranch 99 where I sometimes shop. Curious, and not willing to drive all the way to the Valley for a fix when gas was over four bucks a gallon, I dragged B back to check it out a few nights later. The obsession was born.

To say that the fried tofu cubes with hot pepper at Chong Qing Mei Wei Szechuan Restaurant in Irvine are the best thing I ate last year would be such an understatement. They may be the best thing I’ve ever eaten? The dish certainly hits all the best notes: spicy, salty, fatty, crispy, and creamy. Cubes of tofu are deep fried with red chili peppers, Sichuan peppercorns, garlic, and ginger. That’s it. Why is it so transcendently perfect? I don’t know. There is something about how the crunchy, spicy exterior sort melts into the silky tofu. All I know is that I literally have a filthy fantasy life entirely centered around this stuff.

They have some great other dishes as well – we always seem to order some variation of dan dan noodles, cumin stir-fried lamb, fish filet with preserved chili, or spicy eggplant. The service is really friendly, and it’s a great place to bring a group of people. They even have lazy susans! But really it’s that tofu. Oh man, that tofu. Make sure you order a #4. I’ll be the junkie in the corner with my own mound.

Honda Ya Box

I’m no yakisoba expert, unless by an expert you mean somebody who has eaten a metric ton of yakisoba in the past decade or so. From what I gather, yakisoba is one of those cultural hodgepodge dishes, equal parts Japanese, Chinese, and kitchen sink. The basic formula is ramen noodles fried in a Worcestershire-heavy sauce along with carrots, cabbage, onions, and some form of pork. Toppings vary, but usually include shredded ginger, powdered seaweed, and undulating katsuobushi. A healthy squirt of Kewpie, a Japanese brand of MSG-laced mayonnaise, never hurt anyone. When it all comes together right, yakisoba is savory alchemy. I can’t go for more than a month without seriously jonesing for a hit.

yakisobahondaya

Longtime readers know of my devotion to Honda Ya, a Tustin izakaya that has housed many great boozy evenings in my life, including the one after my wedding. It’s a bit of a schlep to Tustin from Corona del Mar, however, and the original restaurant is one of those places that demands a big raucous group of friends to share it with. B and I were thus happy to discover the newest addition to the family of restaurants, Honda Ya Box in Costa Mesa. Geared more towards a lunch crowd, this streamlined little brother has a pared-down menu of classics. It’s virtually empty on weekday evenings when we usually go, though the service and food are unflaggingly great no matter what time we come in. Perhaps the best part is the price – the heap of bacon-studded yakisoba happiness pictured above is only six bucks, with draft beer and sake coming in at a couple more. We’re talking dinner for two, with booze, in Orange County, for under twenty bucks. I’m sure it will be as busy as the original in no time, so get in while the getting is good.

PS. DK’s Doughnuts next door does a killer old-fashioned, if you are in for the bonus round.

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Dearest reader,

I’ve been thinking about you and this space for a long time, probably because writing here represented a very happy time in my life. In contrast, virtually everything about this year just plain took it out of me. I’m trying to finish my degree and get a teaching job, which is a roundly miserable process even when it works (and in my case, it doesn’t appear to be working). If you’ve read anything recently about the academic job market or the state of higher education in general, you know that there are vastly more qualified candidates than tenure-track teaching jobs. Period. This isn’t even about those of us with woefully impractical degrees. Even the scientists and engineers I know (and respect immensely) can’t seem find work – you know, the people that cure and build things and are supposed to be educating the next generation to do so as well. And it’s not just a bunch of overeducated whiners that get the shit end of the stick on this situation, either. The mere idea that people spend the kind of money it costs nowadays to go college only be taught ninety percent of their classes by adjuncts – great teachers, but people often spread so thin that they can barely interact with the hundreds of students they encounter each semester – well, that’s just a travesty. It’s not just public schools! Half the places I’m applying for crappy, contingent labor are private schools that cost sixty grand a year in tuition! There is a lot of writing on this subject all over the internet, and it is much more incisive in both its rage and sober accounting of what a mess higher education is for our whole country, so you should seek it out if you don’t already know what’s what.

And yet.

Even when you understand a problem is systemic, it still sucks when it knocks on your own door. Call it the narcissism of relative catastrophe. I knew things were bad, and that the job market would likely be unkind to me in this first go-around. But I still can’t even express what a total psychic walloping this whole experience has been. Until this point, I’ve been quite lucky. A modicum of effort has always yielded tremendously more than I had any right to expect and certainly more than I deserved. In keeping with that general trend, I believed that if I tried really hard, I’d buck the trend and get everything I had hoped for. Over a few months of rejection letters and deafening silence, I’ve had to psychologically acclimate to my sense of failure and wasted effort. It’s been ugly. It was hard at points to remember what it felt like to write and teach without feeling dejected. Probably because I hadn’t written anything except rejected applications – not my dissertation, not letters to friends, and certainly not musings about what I enjoy shoving in my mouth.

And yet.

Life has a way of creeping back in, despite one’s most resolute intention to be miserable. B was the best partner imaginable through this whole thing. He tirelessly edited every last word I sent out to job and fellowship committees. He would wake up and patiently listen to every nightmare scenario of impending homelessness and perceived mediocrity that I would conjure up breathless at 4 a.m. He even gently informed me that I had gone off the rails at some points, and what is a good husband if not one who tell you that you’ve seriously spun out and need a reality check? And he was ready and willing to provide those reality checks: hikes in the beautiful hills nearby that overlook the ocean, double features at the New Beverly in Los Angeles, and fish tacos at any place claiming to observe the secular Sabbath of Taco Tuesday. On top of all that, my friends and family have been so loving, supportive, and willing to drop everything to hear me kvetch that I actually get choked up just thinking about it. At the end of the day, I couldn’t be luckier, even though I may be a very lucky unemployed person in a few short months.

All this is to say that I’m sorry I haven’t been in touch, dearest reader. It’s been a slog, but I’m coming out of it. If you are still coming here, you’re probably wondered what the hell had happened to me. Or you are a spambot. Either way, I have so much to tell you about living in California. I hope you’ll stay tuned.

Kisses to my readers and spambots alike,

T

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