Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Dan Sung Sa

Enthused by the smoky brilliance of Soot Bull Jeep, Mo and I sought additional adventure in nearby Koreatown. The nocturnal bustle of Eighth Street seems a world away from the quiet suburban conflict of the Miracle Mile North HPOZ. Prodded by the description of the otherwise discredited Jon Gold, we went to Dan Sung Sa, a bar whose windowless façade’s kitschy frontispiece promised an element of mystery. (Gold, an increasingly dubious critic yet one with a weekly column, proves Jerry Zucker’s aphorism that “never assume that just because it's someone's job, they know how to do it." [sic])

Dan Sung Sa’s interior strikes immediately. It is a set of three concentric, half-rectangles in the middle of which is a smoky grill manned by two almost elderly women. A long counter with thick brown benches is set up in front of the grill, which is where we sat. At Dan Sung Sa’s perimeter are sets of tables, all carefully spaced and separated with wood retro-looking panels that ensure privacy. The décor has images of what I understand are Korean entertainers, vintage American license plates affixed practically anywhere, and lots of Korean graffiti. The music is bubble gum Korean pop and, while not something I would ever buy, was enjoyable nonetheless.

Our 20-something hipster-server arrived with a long menu entirely in Korean, and he offered to translate. Upon my mangled pronunciation of the Korean Hite beer (it’s not he-tay), the server coolly corrected – “Height.” A spicy cabbage soup that somehow avoided any gustatory resemblance to dishwater accompanied the beer. We next had a tasty skewer of grilled unpeeled shrimp and a beef skewer that only proved that the process of vulcanization should not be used in cooking no matter what Wylie Dufresne and Grant Achatz say.

Next, to my surprise, was perhaps the only kimchi I’ve ever liked, probably because of its nice texture and maybe because it was swimming in a delicious version of the spicy-sweet sauce that seems to be the basis of a good chunk of the Korean kitchen. Dan Sung Sa also served a sushi roll with kimchi in the middle that Marisa liked.

Taking a break, we surveyed the very busy bar and noticed that we were the only ones not smoking and not smoking Reds. Dan Sung Sa could have the finest ventilation system in existence: it rendered the smoke unnoticeable and undermined every anti-smoking ordinance on the books.

We then tried an interesting take on grilled spare ribs, which were served as small pieces, spicy and mainly without bones over which Marisa went crazy. We concluded with my favorite two items of the night: a sprawling seafood pancake with generous amounts of crab and zucchini among other vegetables and rings of sautéed spicy squid. The thicker rings were chewy, though the thinner ones worked perfectly with the Hite, which is Miller Lite's obverse.

We returned a few weeks later with Turtle and Tony and really got in the spirit of things. We took a table, consumed several bottles of Hite and soju, and just kept ordering the $5.00 small plates. I’ve never eaten so much kimchi and with the long non-English menu, I really just hoped that I didn’t eat any smuggled rescues from Bichons and Buddies.

Dan Sung Sa
3317 West 6th Street
(213) 487-9100

Saturday, March 10, 2007

El Gallo Giro: El Corazón de la Cocina Mexicana

When it’s 10 am on a Wednesday and you have just experienced the misfortune of visiting a heavily fortified San Bernardino County parking lot for “recreational” vehicles, you can redeem your trip with a visit to the Fontana outpost of El Gallo Giro. El Gallo Giro, even in mid-morning on a weekday, is a lively and kaleidoscopic Mexican eatery with delicious tacos de carnitas, made all the more mesmerizing by its colorful stations for tamales, tortas, tacos, and aguas frescas.

El Gallo Giro’s carnitas are cooked slowly in a cazo, or large kettle, with orange juice (and zest) and garlic. In a nod to the traditional Michoacán style, El Gallo Giro inserts mesquite chips between the cazo and the fire, which they allege allows mesquite flavor to slowly suffuse the pork. (This particular contributor to Infinite Fress will not observe the quaint proscription against split infinitives in “standard” English grammar.) El Gallo Giro makes its tortillas with nixtamal, dried maize treated with lime and partially cooked. It fries them on a rotating device, essentially a crepe making machine, which sits next to the taco counter. One fault is that Gallo Giro offers tacos al pastor not cooked by means of a spit. (Perforce the pastor must be a perfunctory item and not worth trying.)

Nevertheless, with the complement of a moderately spicy salsa verde and a fresh tamarindo, Gallo Giro’s taco de carnitas debunks the myth that the Inland Empire is as painful as David Lynch’s eponymous movie. The carnitas are rich and, with their smoky nuance, live up to their billing as “nuestra especialidad.” The carnitas also avoid the vacuity of excessive spiciness and unlike El Taurino’s cheap thrills, Gallo Giro’s have substantial ramifications. Their quality compels re-examination several days later and some longing, too.

El Gallo Giro
10161 Sierra Avenue
(909) 355-0273

Saturday, March 3, 2007

Fat Head's South Side Saloon, Pittsburgh

After a grueling day of work-related travel and niceties, my associates and I rolled into Fat Head’s South Side Saloon on Pittsburgh’s Carson Avenue, a half dozen blocks south of the Monongahela River. Carson Avenue is a charming, dense, and long row of Victorian buildings, now in the midst of Sisyphean gentrification efforts, as represented by today’s subject, FHSSS. (Pittsburgh and Cleveland give challenge to Christopher Hitchens’ proclamation that Britain leads the world in decline.)

As much as I love exploring L.A.’s endless ethnic warrens, not one of these is the original warren I grew up exploring in my native Cleveland, namely Rust Belt Eastern European. Los Angeles has no West Side Market and no Balaton--with its winter-soothing huge plates of crispy wiener schnitzel, thick artery-damming spätzle (and not that hyper-refined version one gets at Wallsé while someone else orders hamachi), and viscous, literally claret red Hungarian wine.

So after two days in Las Vegas, a red eye to National, five stops in route to Baltimore, then stops in Frederick, Md., York and Lancaster, Pa. culminating in a late madcap dash to a frigid Pittsburgh, it was a great relief, if not to be home in Cleveland, then in the next best thing: Cleveland’s ancient fraternal rival.

At 11pm, FHSSS possessed the infinite wisdom to serve a grilled kielbasa sandwich topped with grilled salami, sauerkraut, and dark brown mustard along with freshly made potato chips with their endless variations of crispiness and softness, all welcomed and appreciated. For a beer drinker, FHSSS is Edenic, not least for being the only bar I’ve visited outside of Cleveland that sells the noble Edmund Fitzgerald Porter. With a 4 am wakeup call looming, FHSSS’s sustenance could not have been more timely.

Fat Head's South Side Saloon
1805 East Carson Street
(412) 431-7433

Thursday, March 1, 2007

Oh, Hungry Cat, Why Do You Torment Me?

I want to like the Hungry Cat, I really do. The location is perfect post-Arclight, and a seafood spot that's open late-night is an undeniably great concept. Add the fact that you can pretty much eat outside year-round at the ol' kitty and you've got a place that should make the husband and me all a-twitter. Especially since Steve loves to get his oysters and chablis on. But although the Hungry Cat's oysters are terrific, little else manages to hit the spot.

A fan of Pearl Oyster Bar's sublime lobster roll, I was thrilled when the Hungry Cat opened in 2005 so that we Angelenos could have a lobster roll to call our very own -- and one that was Suzanne Goin-approved, at that. Turns out, the lobster itself is quite good but the portion is disappointingly puny for the bloated price ($23). Meanwhile, the golden little brioche in which the lobster comes perched is too buttery. With the VERY salty accompaniment of the fries, there's no way to order that dish and leave feeling human. It's at once underwhelming and overwhelming, if that makes any sense.

The Hungry Cat is also known for its signature "Pug Burger." The burger's flavors are tasty (mainly by virtue of overkill; I mean, for crying out loud, bacon, blue cheese, avocado, mayo, and onion -- are you kidding me?) but, as you can infer from my parenthetical aside, it's just a big ol' sloppy mess and the proportions are way off. The burger is one of those thick numbers, like Eddie Murphy's mother used to make on white bread while all the other kids got McDonald's.

A few months ago, I decided that I would not leave another meal at the Hungry Cat feeling violated by my dinner, so I ordered the relatively virtuous peel and eat shrimp. Sadly, they were beyond repulsive -- overseasoned to the point of being inedible. And I LOVE salt; in fact, that's my picture up at the top of this post. Anyway, the first time I ordered the shrimp, I had to send them back (which I never do). I gave those shrimpers a second chance on a different occasion, but that only served to prove the "fool me once, fool me twice..." adage. And there was shame.

But the worst part? We keep going back because, sometimes, it's still the best possible choice.

The Hungry Cat

1535 North Vine Street

Hollywood, CA 90028

(323) 462-2155