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.

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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.

Back to Life

Image

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

Booze or Lose: Where to Drink in Bloomington

So the cat’s out of the bag: most of you know that I’ve spent the last eleven months or so in Bloomington, Indiana, home of Indiana University and a relatively high sleeve-to-man ratio compared to the rest of the Hoosier state. We were here so that B could get his ducks in a row, and while I rather dreaded the move from Paris to cornfields, the year been much better than I imagined it could be. Evidence, in fact, for my feel-good theory that I can be happy just about anywhere if some nice folks, yummy food, and a decent library surround me.  Serious cinemas also help, as do convivial bars. While I abandoned our Booze or Lose feature relatively quickly in my Paris coverage—frankly, I ran out of different pithy ways to say “There’s wine! And beer!”—I thought I’d resuscitate Clarence’s alcoholic alter ego and tell you where you should be drinking in Bloomington should you find yourself here.

If you’re like me, or at least enough like me to want to read this here blargh, you probably want to skip the bars that have a decidedly rapey-frat boy vibe. This unfortunately includes most of the beloved IU watering holes, including Kilroy’s (or as I call it, “Kill Me Now”) and Nick’s. Hoosiers will probably argue with me on the latter count, and I’ll admit that I’ve spent some enjoyable evenings at Nick’s in good company. But let’s get real: tradition aside, the place smells weirdly like antiseptic and old chewing gum, and the draft beer selection isn’t the best. B, the old man on the mountain here in B-Town, councils that while the upstairs can get kind of rough on the weekends, the downstairs area is always a great place for a drink if you want to have a real cream and crimson kind of experience. If it was good enough for Dylan Thomas, it’s good enough for him. B also advises that Hoosier-history lovers should make a stop at The Bluebird, where local legend John Cougar Mellencamp got his start.

If you like a bit better craft beer selection and a hipster grad student crowd (it is a university town, after all, and in Bloomington the Wayfarer-wearer is king), there are effectively five bars remaining in town.  I’ll rank them in order from hate to love.

The bar I inexplicably-go-to-sometimes-but-nevertheless-hate-the-most in Bloomington is The Rail, a relative newcomer to the scene. No standing, leather couches, Edison bulbs, small plates of ‘heirloom’ and ‘artisan’ things, and tiny, too-sweet, ten dollar cocktails. You know the drill, dear reader, because places like this have cropped up in every city across the county. Regular readers know how much I generally hate cocktails and cocktail bars. I have a pretty unabashed “learn to drink, loser” attitude towards people who spend their time watering down excellent booze with elderflower soda and key lime foam. The Rail is the kind of place that gets my bile up for precisely that reason: it’s fussy, it’s expensive, and yet it’s lousy. You can’t get out of alive for less than fifty bucks, and yet your wine is the wrong temperature, your cocktail is syrupy, and you’re still hungry after eating six different things. The Rail’s specialty cocktails all involve things like crème de lavande or Saint Germain, as nouveau-cocktail bars often specialize in liqueurs that sound Gallic but that no self-respecting French person would ever be caught drinking. Moreover, for a place that sells itself as a place for seated conversation (they are real sticklers about the no standing at the bar rule), it has quite possibly the worst acoustics in the world. You can barely hear the person sitting next to you, much less have some kind of conversation. All you can do is shout and throw pained glances at your companions when the bill arrives by a waiter in a too-tight leather vest who looked at you blankly when you pointed out that the wine he served was two years younger than advertised. I’d skip the whole affair, if I were you.

The second bar you’ll-hear-about-but-that-I-suggest-you-skip is The Root Cellar in the basement of the overplayed, underwhelming restaurant Farm.  Come to think of it, the name might be F.A.R.M., as these type of places are often clever, undisclosed acronyms. The Root Cellar looks like some place where you may have hung out in the mid-90s, a dingy basement with ratty couches and wobbly benches that will snag whatever you happen to be wearing. The booze is fine enough, I guess, but weirdly overpriced for the vibe of the place. Not to again sound like an old lady here with a hearing problem, but the acoustics are as terrible as the ones at The Rail. Don’t expect to hear anything at The Root Cellar besides somebody else’s sorta-boyfriend’s experimental noise trio. If that’s your bag, I wish you well, but I’m a social drinker myself. I either want to chat or dance, and you can’t seem to do much of either in The Root Cellar.

When B moved to Paris, the only game in town for his ilk was The Vid, a giant bar that manages to attract a wide variety of people on any given night. It’s a pretty good bar if you want to hang out with a big group of people and not spend too much money on pitchers of craft beer. You can also play pool and darts, which I particularly enjoy in a kind of talentless way. The Vid is best on weekday nights, when you can colonize a giant table and wile the evening away. On Fridays and Saturdays it’s louder, but still a generally friendly and unpretentious place to hang out. The bartenders are really nice and there’s usually a great local beer from Upland at a special pitcher price. One caveat: don’t sit next to the punching bag game, otherwise you’ll have to listen to the banging of testosterone-bulging boys all night long.

While B was away in Europe, however, the hipster hoards migrated down the street to Atlas (209 South College, Bloomington, Indiana, 47404), a newish place that is just starting to have that lived-in vibe. If you’re in your late twenties or early thirties, read some Foucault and have a masters degree or two, wear horn-rimmed glasses and an inordinate amount of American Apparel, name-drop obscure bourbons, and get excited when New Order comes on the jukebox, Atlas is the place to be. It’s loud, which I obviously don’t like, but it’s a pretty fun place to spend an evening. There’s good DJs on the weekends, and I sloppily danced my birthday away there last winter. The free agents I know report that it is the best place in town to mix and mingle with other single folk. One of the doormen is the crush-object of practically every lady I know. Some of Atlas’ conceits are silly – the oft-broken down photo booth and chalkboard list of songs banned from jukebox come to mind. But it’s a bar that has hit its stride, and I’ve had many good times there.

My favorite part (and this is Clarence talking now) is the fact that The Happy Pig food cart parks outside on the weekends, offering their succulent Notorious P.I.G.G. sandwich:  toast, crispy-gooey Gunthorp pig belly, Indiana maple syrup, and a perfectly fried egg.  Now that’s an undisclosed acronym I can get behind, as the P.I.G.G. is the ultimate in drunk food, and the best game in town at 2 a.m. on a Friday night.

For those of you that are still awake, with four down, we have finally arrived at the best bar in Bloomington. And the winner is…

The Bishop (123 South Walnut Street, Bloomington, Indiana, 47401). Hands-down. The bar, which is always without a cover charge, has an amazing rotating selection of regional craft beers on tap for totally reasonable prices. Recently, with the acquisition of a liquor license, the bar added a serious selection of the hard stuff, including one of the most varied and interesting bourbon lists I’ve ever seen. Moreover, the bartenders know their stuff, and given some information can clue you in to things you’ll really like. The crowd is a little older, with a mix of university folk and townies. The Bishop also houses a great small music venue, and all the best bands seem to make The Bishop their one stop in Southern Indiana. I caught Nat Baldwin there, along with an excellent Pogues cover band called the Fauxgues. Local favorites The Vallures made my New Years Eve one of my best ones yet, as I danced to their sweet Motown covers until the early hours of the morning. Finally—and here’s the cranky old lady motif again—while the room with the stage is loud, the bar itself is pretty quiet, making the booths a great place to chat with friends (or, in our case, play over-zealous games of Euchre). I’ll miss The Bishop, and hope you make a stop there should you find yourself in Bloomington.

Sing us out, Tom.

Let’s Give Monsieur Bigoudis Some Love, Plus Wim Wenders and Wax Food Replicas!

Are you guys still following Monsieur Bigoudis’ photos on flickr? Just because I fancy myself a decent photographer nowadays (snort) doesn’t mean that you still shouldn’t be looking at the real deal on a regular basis. In particular, I’m loving her work from a trip to Japan this past spring:

Sigh. I have such a totally rose-colored romance about Japan, likely the result of watching Sans Soleil a few too many times. It’s totally at the top of my travel wish list, no thanks to M’s gorgeous images of her trip.

My girl also recently clued me in to a little YouTube gem: Wim Wenders’ documentary about the people who make the wax food replicas that decorate many of the entrances of restaurants around Japan (and Japanese restaurants the world over). Too too cool.

Hope you are having a great weekend, sweet reader. Let’s hook up for ramen later, yes?

Object Relations No. 5: Giardiniera

MC, a good friend from my time California, has relocated to Chicago for the past two years. Despite my best intentions, I hadn’t managed to spend any time with him despite our relative geographic proximity this year. This was remedied when he drove out to the lake during our stay, both to escape the city heat and for a long awaited catch-up. B had never met MC before, so I prefaced the visit with the two most important things I know about my friend: (1) He likes Steely Dan better than anybody has liked Steely Dan, like, ever, and (2) He judges the quality of SoCal Mexican places by the quality and quantity of the escabeche on their salsa bar. Jalapeño to carrot ratio, spiciness level, container quality — the guy can tell you everything you want to know about every taco bar in the greater LA area.

It’s a great thing when you can fall back into step with a friend after not having seen them for years. One of the things that bums me out the most about the current state of my life is the feeling that all the people I like best seem to be scattered to the four winds. MC and B got along famously, supporting yet another iteration of my fantasy where all of my friends move to the same city and we live a blissed-out life together. I’ve always been a “family that you choose” kind of gal, and wish that all the folks that my good fortune has brought into my life could all be together somehow. But until we all meet again in Valhalla, visits like last weekend will have to suffice.

A decidedly well-mannered houseguest, MC arrived bearing the perfect gifts for Clarence.  A pack of Daisy Cutter Pale Ale from the Half Acre Beer Company in Chicago was a delightful surprise, as was the paper-wrapped submarine sandwich smuggled across state lines from Bari Italian Subs. But far and away, the best gift he brought (and a strong contender for the Best Hostess Gift Ever Award) was this:

Do you guys know about giardiniera? I sure didn’t until this year. It’s no surprise that my escabeche-loving friend is also an appreciator of this amazing stuff. The consummate condiment of the Italian population of the greater Chicago area (and everybody else with a brain), this combination of pickled hot peppers, olives, bell peppers, carrots, celery, cauliflower, garlic, and the occasional mushroom is the ultimate addition to virtually any sandwich. As MC so rightly put it, something totally alchemical happens when giardiniera meets mayonnaise.

I was introduced to the stuff immediately upon my arrival in the Windy City last fall. B talked dirty to me the entire flight back to the states from Paris about our first meal on our native soil: Portillo’s Italian Beef with giardiniera. Like the French dip sandwich of your childhood (but better), Chicago’s famous Italian beef sandwiches get their verve from the crunchy, spicy, tangy, salty taste of giardiniera. The stuff is fantastic on any kind of deli meat sandwich. MC recommended that we try putting it on a pizza with some Italian sausage, which sounds like a really excellent goal for the future.

Mezzetta (you know, ‘Don’t forgetta!) makes a kind of passable version of the stuff that I’ve seen in grocery stores outside of the Midwest. Here in Indiana, our fridge is never without a jar of the Dell’Alpe’s hot giardiniera relish, which I slather on grilled cheese sandwiches and mix with the yolks of my devilled eggs. You can also get a pretty fantastic giardiniera on your sandwich at the Potbelly chain, which sells a delicious, if overpriced, version in jars at some of their locations. But MC knows his stuff, and Bari’s giard’ is the best one around. He advises to give it a rough chop if you are putting it in a sandwich, and to go whole hog should you want to sprinkle it on a pizza. This jar is coming with us to California next week when we move as a memento of our year of giardiniera eating.

Get some if you can, dear reader. And whether your summer includes this Midwestern heat or not, hope you are staying cool. Sing us out, Steely:

Hayseed Enough for Small Town Living: Clarence Loves Michiana

Confronted with the possibility of another sweltering week without air conditioning in Bloomington, we gleefully packed up and headed north for a week to that hazy zone on the Indiana/Michigan border where B’s parents’ live. Ostensibly we were cat-sitting while they were out of town, but mainly we were taking advantage of their lovely lakeshore digs. There’s something about being alone in your parents’ house (or in this case, my boyfriend’s parents’ house) that always feels like playing grown-up. This was an especially pronounced feeling last week, as we channeled middle-aged retirees, cruising around the lake on the family pontoon boat with beer cozies in hand. We wore shorts and tucked our shirts in. We waved at the neighbors and gossiped under our breath. We crashed local potlucks bearing makeshift fruit salads. We yelled at tourists that rode their jetskis too close to shore, and muttered obscenities if other boats broke the ‘no-wake’ rules after dark. In short, we gave one possible version of our future selves a serious test drive, and I’ll admit it was pretty awesome.

The Michiana area is made up mostly of farms, so we took advantage of the bounty of local produce and stuffed ourselves stupid with sweet corn, Michigan blueberries, and some of the sweetest heirloom tomatoes I’ve eaten in years. The best local farm stand is Diamond Acres Farm (located on Kamp Kosy, south of Cassopolis, Michigan off the M-62 just past the high school, open 10-6 everyday) and we found ourselves there almost every day. The sweet corn is in full force already, and we happily grilled a few ears every night alongside venison steaks we lifted from B’s dad’s personal hunting cache. The peaches from Diamond Acres weren’t ready just yet, but I brought them home with me, hoping that they will soften up in a paper bag so that I can satisfy my seasonal jones for peach-cobbler.

On days when we didn’t want to fire up the grill, we ate enormous, delicious breakfasts at the local Amish-run bakery, Farm House Bakery and Restaurant (59573 White Temple Road, Vandalia, Michigan, 49095, 269.476.9668).  Farm House Bakery makes of one of the fluffiest, yummiest cinnamon rolls I’ve had in a long time, and you can opt for one instead of toast with most of their breakfasts at no extra charge, making a believer out of even the most skeptical patron of this religiously-inflected restaurant.

We also frequented our beloved Vlasicak’s Meat Market & Smokehouse (63490 M 62 South,
Cassopolis, Michigan 49031,
269.445.8763), home of the world’s best beef jerky.  Seriously, dear reader, this is literally the most amazing beef jerky I’ve ever eaten, and this is coming from someone who probably knew the word pemmican before I knew the words Mama or Dada.  We smuggled Vlasicak’s jerky to France, give it without a trace of irony as gifts, and keep an inordinately large hoard in our refrigerator at all times. Needless to say, jerky and Michigan IPA’s make for an excellent pontoon-boat cruising combination.

On our final day at the lake, a neighbor came over to deliver a bowl of chicken salad, “Just in case you kids were getting hungry.” Later that day as we drove by some family friends, they invited us to a hog roast at the local camp. Our friend M was visiting from Chicago, and he was incredibly charmed by all the rural hospitality. The three of us went to the roast, ate our fill and then some, and listened to oldies covers played by a local band, the adorable Misspent Youth of South Bend, Indiana.  While I had hoped for a spit-shot, by the time we arrived everything had already been expertly butchered. You’ll just have to trust me that it was a pretty swell way to spend an evening.