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Insights, tips, and restaurant reports from CHOW editors and Chowhound.

Straight Outta Auntie Em’s

What was once LA Bread has been taken over by new management and turned into the Village Bakery & Cafe. The fresh incarnation is much better than the old one, says scurvy. The secret is Barbara Monderine, the new owner. Barbara was one of the two founders of Auntie Em’s, which has long been one of the great purveyors of homey baked treats around town.

“The baked treats at Village are a wee bit more refined than what Barbara did at Auntie Em’s,” explains scurvy. There’s lemon and olive oil cake with almonds and rosemary, as well as possibly the best baguette in LA, says scurvy: “Crunchy and chewy and soft in all the right places.”

Some egg dishes come with a stunning cheesy leek and potato cake. “[It] is something you will think about later. You will wonder how long you have to wait until you can have more leek potato coke,” says scurvy.

There are excellent huge, fluffy, berry-filled pancakes, and great coffee, too.

Village Bakery & Cafe [Atwater Village]
3119 Los Feliz Boulevard, Los Angeles

Auntie Em’s Kitchen [Eagle Rock]
4616 Eagle Rock Boulevard, Los Angeles

Board Link: Village Bakery & Cafe - forget your LA Bread sadness and get over there for some real baking!

Westside Chinese Two-Fer!

Some recent discoveries to file under that rarest of the rare category: good Chinese west of the San Gabriel Valley.

Find #1: xiao long bao (juicy, soup-filled dumplings) and cats’ ears noodles in the Valley. The place goes under multiple names: some call it Tampa Garden, the exterior signage says Chinese Delight, the menus says Tampa Garden Chinese Delight, and the Chinese-language business card carries the parenthetical name Happy Dumpling.

The place may look like a fast food Chinese place, says jotfoodie, but it’s not. It’s a sit-down restaurant, with rough, homemade dumplings and noodles. The folks there are genuinely nice. The cats’ ears noodles are a little thicker and chewier than is optimal, think a few hounds, but really: homemade dumplings and noodles in the Valley. That’s seven kinds of awesome all in itself.

Find #2: Mandarin Kitchen, a semi-authentic Chinese restaurant in Westwood. It’s owned by the folks who used to run Hop Woo. This place is mostly Hong Kong style, and it’s decently good, says Chandvakl. One strong point: fish maw, an internal fish organ, is a serious rarity on the Westside.

Tampa Garden [San Fernando Valley–West]
8241 Tampa Avenue, Los Angeles

Mandarin Kitchen [Westside–Inland]
1822 Westwood Boulevard, Los Angeles

Board Links: Xiao Long Bao and Cats’ Ears Noodles In Reseda
Westsiders Rejoice! Fish Maw on Westwood Boulevard

New Finds: Wisconsin Cheese Guide

Yes, cheese from Wisconsin really is that good. So I was excited to read the new book The Master Cheesemakers of Wisconsin by’s own Supertaster columnist, Jim Norton, and his wife, photographer Becca Dilley.

The layout is really fun if you have an interest in the personalities behind the products: Each gorgeous picture of a particular cheese, like, say, the Cinnamon-rubbed butter jack from Bass Lake Cheese Factor, is paired with a mini-profile of the cheesemaker. In the case of the butter Jack, for instance, we learn that Bass Lake’s Scott Erickson looks really artsy, and once made gelatinous lutefisk (a Norwegian holiday dish of lye-cured codfish) for a living. It’s interesting to know just who goes into the old-fashioned business of making small-batch cheeses and how each cheesemaker got there, because who hasn’t fantasized about joining them?

New Finds: Pomegranate Tootsie Pops

The ultimate sign that pomegranate has reached critical mass: There is now a pomegranate Tootsie Pop. Introduced in 2008, pomegranate is one of a bunch of new flavors launched in recent years: watermelon, blue raspberry (yuck), and banana (double yuck). But the pomegranate flavor is wonderful, reminiscent of classic cherry but more fruity and puckery. It actually tastes like pomegranate, which is more than I can say for the center, which tastes less like chocolate than choco-scented crayon.

Tootsie would love for consumers to weigh in on the new flavors and suggest others. Peppermint, maybe? Oh, and by the way, according to the Tootsie Roll FAQ, the company has received tens of thousands of letters from children claiming to know how many licks it takes to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop. Estimates generally run in the 600–800 licks range, but your own personal best “depends on a variety of factors such as the size of your mouth, the amount of saliva, etc.”

Walmart Presents: Feasting on the Cheap

Sharp news commentary blog the Awl breaks down Walmart’s $20 Thanksgiving feast, which actually includes a disturbingly long list of edible features for a disturbingly low price. Prices vary a bit from state to state, but in general your Jackson gets you:

• One 12-pound Grade A turkey
• Three 11- to 15.5-ounce cans Green Giant vegetables
• Two 14-ounce cans Ocean Spray cranberry sauce
• Three 6-ounce boxes of Stove Top stuffing
• One 5-pound bag of red potatoes
• One 12-count package of Sara Lee dinner rolls
• One 22-ounce pumpkin roll cake

This is both inspiring and terrifying.

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Overheard on the New York Boards

“Chicken scarpariello should be made with the bone but 90% of restaurants use pieces of boneless chicken breast because it’s easier and cheaper. Roberto’s gives you the real deal.”

“I remember my father decrying the falling standards in about 1967 or so when the last restaurant in Manhattan stopped serving skate … there were still some clubs doing it, but he saw it as the collapse of His Manhattan.”

“I think Carnegie is worth going to just to see the look on people’s faces when they see how big the sandwich is.”

Italian Surf-Turf Bliss at Marea

Sea urchin comes in a unique and irresistible guise at Marea. It’s laid over toast, draped with a translucent layer of lardo and sprinkled with sea salt. “The fatty pork aftertaste melds perfectly with the oceanic breeze of the urchin,” sighs uni connoisseur guttergourmet.

Talk about a killer dish—this one has guttergourmet pondering the hereafter: “In lieu of a casket, I want to be buried on a six-foot-long piece of toast with a mattress of uni tucked snugly under a salted see-through comforter of lardo.”

Adding turf to surf also pays off in richly flavorful fusilli with wine-braised octopus beefed up by bone marrow, tastyeating says. Other pastas worth trying include garganelli with sausage ragu, veal ravioli with sweetbreads and funghi, and rigatoni with cuttlefish, shrimp, and chickpeas.

For dessert, consider the affogato, a floatlike concoction of zabaglione gelato with espresso and the Italian liqueur amaro that’s “insane,” raves guttergourmet.

Marea [Midtown West]
240 Central Park South (near Broadway), Manhattan

Board Links: Unique Uni Experience at Marea
What to eat at Marea?

Return of the Killer Baked Figs

Royal Crown Bakery hadn’t made any baked figs for a couple of years, but the much-loved fruits are back for 2009. jen kalb says they’re “stellar,” stuffed with walnut, flavored with orange and a bit of spice, and lightly glazed.

It’s also getting to be the time of year when Royal Crown, a hardy survivor in Italian Bensonhurst, rolls out its terrific chestnut cake. “Can hardly wait,” says Jen.

Royal Crown Bakery [Bensonhurst]
6512 14th Avenue (near 66th Street), Brooklyn

Board Link: Baked Figs - Chestnut Bread

Em Thai Gets Real

Em Thai is going to a place where few of Smith Street’s unremarkable Thai restaurants go: Thailand. A newly added section of the menu promises authentically seasoned food and warns away anyone who might not be ready for it.

This is for real, says a somewhat surprised Elaine Snutteplutten, who’s been working her way through the new dishes. Seafood Phuket, steamed fish with spicy lime, and Bangkok minced pork topped with fried egg were all “pleasingly spicy and lacked the insipid sweetness that characterizes too much NY Thai food … definitely a cut above anything I’ve had from neighborhood Thai to date.”

Em Thai [Carroll Gardens]
278 Smith Street (between Degraw and Sackett streets), Brooklyn

Board Link: New spicy section on ‘Em’s menu?