I’m not too big on boba or frequenting tea houses like Ten Ren or Saint Alps. But I do have a weakness for condensed milk doused over thick slices of toast, which accounts for my midnight visit to Saint Alps in the East Village with some friends.

To start, a cup (jumbo sized, nonetheless) of black sesame milk tea and another of ruby grapefruit green tea. I must say, they were actually very good! I think it’s the boba part of the types of drinks that I dislike. I’m fine with chewing things while drinking (like lychee and various jellies) but massive tapioca balls are such a hassle and leave my jaw exhausted :) The black sesame was on the thick milkshakey side and grainy with bits of ground up sesame. It was like a cold version of the traditional Chinese black sesame dessert, only sweeter and not as intense. I just had a sip of the ruby grapefruit, very light and fragrant with tiny pink segments of fruit.

The “Taiwanese Hors d’oevures Sampler” came with a duo of deep fried fish balls, two barbeque chicken wings and shoyu boiled egg cuts into threes. Nothing exceptional nor particularly bad about the sampler, save for the fried fish balls cause deep fried savory food just tastes a million times better in the middle of the night. Blistering hot with a crunch and then a juicy “gush” with the initial bite, I think I would have been happy replacing the egg and chicken with some more fish balls.

A plate of fried octopus was wonderful when they first brought it to the table. Hot, crispy, crunchy and chewing at the same time, I ate one piece, then another and a few more. 5 minutes passed before I helped myself another serving. But seriously, what a difference 5 minutes makes. Settling in a room temp, the octopus became just hard. Like hard as in, can’t bite it into small enough pieces to swallow. So I just sucked on it for a bit and them spit it out. Sad.

Not bad for an Asian take on samosas! Very straightfoward: soft curried potatoes enclosed in sheets of phyllo and like all like night snacks, fried in hot vat of oil. Nothing you couldn’t make at home, but then again, you don’t come to a tea house expecting any sort of fine gourmet indulgence…unless it’s…

CONDENSED MILK TOAST!!! Ok, so it’s not really a gourmet indulgence by any standard, but god, this is so stupidly simple yet befuddlingly addictive. It’s in the bread. This breakfast/snack/dessert wouldn’t work on any fine rustic European bread or Wonderbread. It’s gotta be that Chinese kine bread. Where the crusts are never crispy and the innards are of sweet and dense. It doesn’t make good sandwiches, but cut a thick 1-2 inch slice, toast, and liberally pour on condensed milk straight from a can, and who the hell needs sandwiches? The hot bread soaks in the milk and there you have it: a innately satisfying sweet, yeasty way to call it an evening.

PS. I had the Green Tea Toast where a thick matcha cream was used in place of the milk. Er, not something you’d want to try. The cream was more like the texture of melted gummy bears and left an unpleasantly bitter aftertaste.

PPS. Eating so much food less than 30 minutes before sleep is a bad bad idea!

Saint Alps
39 3rd Avenue
New York NY 10003

Let’s flip back the pages of the calendar and pretend I’m still in nyc for spring break. What does an after an afternoon snack but before a dinner appetizer call for? Hehehe. An Elvis from Peanut Butter & Co.. On Sullivan St., right near NYU’s Kimmel Center is a dear little, highly overpriced shop that sells a dozen or so variations on the classic peanut butter sandwich. They have everything from a fluffernutter to sandwich with cinnamon raisin peanut butter, cream cheese and apple slices. Running $7-8 a piece, you know you’re getting ripped off, but geez, a store just for peanut butter sandwiches? Even a cheapie like me takes the occasion pleasure of unjustified splurging.

It’s the Elvis for me. I get it on half white, half wheat, grilled with thick gobs of extra chunky peanut butter, sweet banana slices, a luscious drizzle (or pour) of honey, and if that wasn’t heart attack inducing enough, slices of crispy bacon tucked in. Apparently this was Elvis’ favorite late night treat. It’s now one of mine. There’s every flavor and texture in here – the soft mellow bananas, crisp warm bacon melting into savory peanut butter mixed with chunks of nuts and gooey honey binding everything together between hot toasty bread. What a way to go.

(I’m such a loser. I bought their cookbook just for the sake of the pretty pictures even though none of the recipes in there are actual recipes but more along the lines of, “how to assemble a variety of pb&j’s”)

240 Sullivan Street
Greenwich Village
New York, NY 10012
(212) 677-3995

This wins for favorite restaurant visit of the week. Nem Nuong in Rosemead is known for excelling in the preparation of one particular meat, called…well you guessed it, Nem Nuong, a traditional Vietnamese barbeque food. It’s an itty bitty unassuming restaurant hidden behind a consistently busy In-N-Out drive thru.

Our family met with a few relatives here for a Sunday lunch. There’s usually quite a wait, but one of my uncles was nice enough to come early and hold down our table for nine. I saw many people having the Bun Bo Hue, a beef noodle soup with beef shank, pig’s feet and blood. We didn’t try it this time, as we ordered family style, but I’m noting down for my next visit.

To start, we had about a bagajillion orders of Dac Biet Banh Beo Chen. Simple rice cakes steamed in individual shallow dishes. They were topped with a sprinkle of ground salted dried shrimp, a buttery crouton dot and green onions. Cute, aren’t they? They two larger bowls in the middle are nuoc num – a plain and a spicy version. To eat, spoon the nuoc nam over the Banh Beo and dig away. It’s usually finished in 2-3 bites. The rice cake itself is a very simple steamed dough, almost neutral in flavor but with a addictive consistency similar to a cross between fun and soft sponge. The ground shrimp – shrimp dust! gives it a salty edge that clings on your tongue for a minute before melting away. An unexpected bite of the crouton rounded out with green onions and this massive dish you see here was finished by just two people in minutes!

For the “main” eating part we ordered the house special, Nem Nuong Hinh Hoa. This “construct your own” entree is accompanied by many sides (which we did not know they charge (a lot) extra for and ended with a nasty surprise on our bill!) The first side that came with a mixture of various herbs and vegetables, called Rau Song. The same things you get with Pho only with the addition of lettuce and, hidden on the bottom, thinly sliced carrots and cucumber. Every was sooo green and tasted incredibly fresh. Ah, the virtues of fresh produce. Maybe this justifies the extra charges?

This is the dipping sauce for the rolls we were to make using the Nem Nuong. This is the only restaurant I’ve been to that offers this sauce. The rolls are typically dipped in the same nuoc num that was used for the Banh Beo, a very liquidy, thin, with a tangy, sweet/sour flavor. The sauce here, on the other hand was served steaming hot in a large bowl. I thought it was soup at first! It’s very thick, with a gloppy consistency and more sugary sweet than I would prefer. Other than just hot plain sweet, I could not make out other flavors… I like nuoc nam better but it’s definitely very usual and glad I had the opportunity to try it.

The waitress also brought out plates of Dia Bun. This is vermicelli tightly layered together in a pan and then steamed. Cut neatly into single serving squares and topped with the same things as the Banh Beo, minus the croutons, this was the “starch” component of the dish. Still warm, I marveled over how they managed to get the vermicelli so tightly packs yet keep each layer see-thru thin.

And here is comes, our plate of Nem Nuong and Family! On either ends are two sticks of Nem Nuong. The menu describes it as charbroiled pork meatballs on skewers, but it’s so much more than that! The meatballs are slightly sweet with a salty/sour vinegar edge to them. They have just the right bounce and chew with juice seriously squirting out with every bite and the outside is beautifully charred crisp. The long sticks in the middle (Cha Ram Tom) are like spring rolls, only five times thinner and enclose nothing but seasoned chopped up shrimp. These would make killer snacks at a pupu party! The two rectangles below the Cha Ram Tom is called Nem Chua Nuong, also charbroiled, they look like mini Nem Nuong, but the flavors are on complete opposites ends of the spectrum. These sour pork patties are usually eaten cold with a big piece of raw garlic and pepper on a baguette. The pork is “cooked” through a extensive salt and souring process. The end result is meat that still looks raw but is sour tangy and very “porky.” Here they actually cook the meat over the grill till it’s hot. I’m not sure how I feel towards hot and crunchy Nem Chua, but like the sauce, was happy to try something new. If you look hard enough, at the top of the plate you can see a green leaf sticking out. This Nem Cap is the Nem Chua wrapped in a banana leaf before grilling. I enjoyed this one a lot as it keep the Nem Chua juicier as opposed to directly grilling and absorbed some of the mellow, homey banana leaf flavors.

Now that everything is present, you must be wondering how the heck we combine it all. First take a disc of dried rice paper (Banh Trang) and soak it briefly in a shallow plate of warm water. Lay the Banh Trang on your plate and use it as a based for the layering in the vegetables, herbs, a square of Dia Bun, the “meat” of your choice (I elected for a cut of the Nem Nuong). When finished constructing, fold in the sides and roll up tightly. Then dip in the massive bowl of thick steaming sauce and viola! Vietnamese food rocks my world. The variations on this one dish alone are endless, you can first dip the vermicelli in the sauce or put the sauce in before rolling up, throw in all or none of the meats… And this whole meal, everything we had tasted of the words “clean, fresh and simple”. Yet to even think of personally making the dishes, especially the Nem Chua and Nem Nuong is waay out of my field (at least for now).

To finish, a cup of Che Sam Bo Luong (“mixed dried fruit in light syrup”) to go. The syrup is of drinkable consistently, just a tad sweet with a bit of herb-y and ginger flavors. In the drink/dessert are red Chinese dates, seeded logans, various nuts and what I considered to be sweetened seaweed. I’m sure there are proper names for these ingredients… But order it anyways – it’s refreshing, slightly healthy and a perfectly sweet way to complement a lunch that was all at once complex from an outsider’s view yet made from the very basic of Vietnamese staples.

Nem Nuong
9016 Mission Dr.
Rosemead, CA 91770
(626) 286-3370

Of all the noodle shops in the area, Mien Nigha is the one I frequent the most. Why? Because their noodles drive me insane in the most wonderful way.

In Alhambra, you get good fresh noodles, really good noodles and Mien Nigha noodles. I’m sure they don’t make it in house, but I’ve love to get the name of their supplier! Dad had the good old standby – chicken and fish, but with a twist. He requested half fun and half mein. See, that’s how good their noodles are, we can’t even pick between the two! Dad says the mein is always pulled from the pot at the perfect time, when it’s at the peak “crispness” so that every bite is a harmonious blend between chew and crisp. That’s his word, but it’s the noodles for me, man.

Mom ordered the same dish, only with soup on the side. She claimed it was for variation. I suppose, no matter how great a dish is and even if we are able to eat it for breakfast everyday without getting tired of it, variation is also nice. A staple at all noodle shops, Mien Nigha’s fish, tender and supple in all it’s glory pairs well with sweet shreds of chicken.

Soup here is also a winner. The broth tastes “heartier” than other shops and is always consistent. There’s just the right balance between sweet and savory flavors derived from the chicken bones and whatever great things go into their stock. You think chicken noodle soup heals all? – have this :)

My wonton’s were just humdum. It was my first time having wonton here, and I was letdown by the skimpy tasteless filling. I ate it all anyways, as is my nature, but let’s focus on the fun. They seriously taste like silk in your mouth. A beautiful shade of pure cloud white, warm, the perfect thickness and cut and SO SO GOOD. Every bite easily slides down, they’re so slippery smooth that should you fail to bite quickly enough, it may in fact go down before you’ve had a chance to chew! And what do they just like? Just happy, simple starch with that distinctive “fun” bit, you know what I mean. If it was an endless bowl of noodle soup, I’d still be there eating.

And of course, “noodle soup meals” are not complete without an order of you tiao. Like the ones from Noodle Cafe, they were unremarkable at the best. Most likely leftovers from the early morning (this particular visit was a late afternoon noodle attack). Most items on their vast menu are above average, but whatever you get, make sure it comes with the noodles. I think you are best off with the chicken and fish combo or even just fun and soup alone. But the fuuun. Ohhh!

Mien Nghia
406 W Valley Blvd
San Gabriel, CA 91776
(626) 570-1668

Back in the early 1980s Kim Fung used to be the place to go for noodle soups in Monterey Park. It was the first Teo-Chew style restaurant in the area and with the gradually increasing numbers of Two Chew immigrants from various parts of China and Vietnam, many people found comfort in a familiar style of cooking. Since then, numerous Teo Chew restaurants have sprung up and the years of wear and tear are starting to show on Kim Fung. But we consistently come back because it’s the “original” and dad has fond memories of past visits decades ago when he first helped his sister settle in the area.

There’s only one dish you really need here and that’s the Hu Tieu Do Bien, a seafood rice noodle soup. What sets this dish apart and makes it distinctively “Teo Chew” is the broth. It has the classic chicken stock base only magical things are added to it! Like a good amount of vinegar and lime to give the soup a decidedly tangy bizzaz. It’s also a little spicy in a sweet and sour way. Hmmm. Now I don’t know if I’m making it sound appealing (which was the goal) or just kind of strange. Either way, it’s worth your $4.50. Heck, you see that deep fried shrimp cake floating on top? – that alone is worth your money! The savory cracker comes sizzling hot, very crispy, encasing a single shrimp it all its glory. Shell and all. Eat it before you touch anything else in the bowl and you’re off to a great start. Pork, shrimp and thin strands of finely cooked noodles…why can’t we just all eat forever :)

Kim Fung
128 N. Garfield Avenue
Montery Park, CA 91754
(626) 280-8276