In parts of America where there are actually discernible seasons like winter and spring, The Old Farmer’s Almanac aphorism, “March comes in like a lion, and leaves like a lamb,” actually has meaning.
Here in Southern California, where there’s little difference between winter and spring, I prefer to think of March in terms of the culinary days. Which would mean that March comes in like Peanut Butter Lover’s Day (March 1) and Oreo Cookie Day (March 6), melts into National Artichoke Hearts Day (March 16) and National Poultry Day (March 19), eventually resolving into National Melba Toast Day (March 23) and National Nougat Day (March 26), before concluding with my favorite of the days of March: Something on a Stick Day (March 28).
I love things served on sticks, for reasons that do not even begin to approach rational.
There’s actually a scientific reason that food tastes better on a stick — and believe me, it does. It’s called “retronasal olfaction,” and it refers to the fact that our perceived sense of taste isn’t really about taste at all — it’s about smell. If your nose is stuffed, there’s a good chance you won’t have a clue as to what you’re actually eating. And the closer the food gets to your nose, the better it tastes. A chunk of chicken on a skewer is so much better than the same chicken eaten with a fork and knife.
The other reason we love things on a stick so much, aside from the lack of cleanup required and the portability, is the simple fun factor.
Every year, there are new foods on a stick introduced at county and state fairs across America which don’t just approach zany, they break through every imaginable barrier. That list is insanely long: At the Ohio State Fair, you’ll find giant cherry gummy bears on a stick. The Oklahoma State Fair has bacon-wrapped caramel apples on a stick. At the Arizona State Fair, you’ll find mealworm-covered caramel apples on a stick. The Illinois State Fair brings us fried Oreos on a stick.
And then, there are skewered foods that have spread from coast to coast: fried alligator on a stick, deep-fried butter on a stick (seriously!), spaghetti & meatballs on a stick, chocolate covered bacon on a stick and, for those need of a bit of healthy dining, the Iowa State Fair has salad on a stick — served surrounded by more pork-on-a-stick creations than you can, well, shake a stick at.
We’re about half a year away from the Los Angeles County Fair in Pomona. But in the meantime, we’ve got no lack of skewered tasties served at an abundance of local restaurants. You probably won’t be eating them strolling around; in this case, the stuff on a stick is eaten sitting down, often with a utensil. But…it’s still on a stick. And it tastes good…because it smells good.
As ever, do remember that those sticks can be sharp. I can’t find any cases of people puncturing themselves during the course of a meal. But it could happen. And I’d hate to have to explain to the EMT folks that you were done in by some really tasty chicken chunks. Though, I’m sure, they’d appreciate the laugh.
3401 Cherry Ave., Long Beach; 562-424-0446, www.toasttab.com/pitapitaki/v3
Let us begin with the skewers — chicken, pork, shrimp or veggies — plates of potatoes, rice or fries; with Greek salad and pita, and lamb chops, gyro (lamb, chicken or pork), half a chicken, salmon and rib eye steak.
Then, let us move on to a pair of wonderfully rich and warming soups, a pair of Greek classics — the much loved egg and lemon soup in chicken broth called avgolemono, and an exceedingly rich lentil soup with the name “fakes” (which is probably not pronounced the way it looks). They come with homemade bread. Honestly, for $5 for a cup, and $7 for a bowl, they’re a good light meal.
And then, it’s on to the stuffed phyllo dish called pitakia — a sort of Greek empanada, one filled with feta and herbs, the other with feta, spinach and leeks — and you definitely have a first-rate light meal, beginning to lean toward a proper feed.
And there are many, many more appetizers — mezze — to add to the mix, making for more of a feast than a snack. This is a well-defined grazing cuisine. Many little dishes make for a very happy meal.
Of course there are stuffed grape leaves — dolmades. There always are. And they’re just perfect — happy little flavor grenades. The falafel and hummus are required as well for a well-balanced feed, as is the tabouli.
And, yes, there’s a Greek salad, because there has to be. But there’s also a village salad, and a remarkable salad called roka, made with dried figs, walnuts and a cheese called graviera, which is closer to gruyere than to feta. In fact, if you didn’t know it was Greek…you probably wouldn’t know it was Greek.
Boubouffe Mediterranean Grill
5313 E. 2nd St., Long Beach; 562-433-7000, www.facebook.com/boubouffegrill
You can have a lamb burger for breakfast at Boubouffe Mediterranean Grill. Now, I know that sounds like a funny thing to say. But on a menu of waffles and pancakes and omelettes, well, a lamb burger is the odd dish out.
I guess it’s kind of breakfast, since it comes topped with a fried egg. And a fried egg does say breakfast in a loud voice. But next to the several omelettes made with spinach, mushrooms, tomatoes and feta cheese, a lamb burger is a bit different. And for those who want something other than the same old same old, well, it’s a pleasant diversion. And so is Boubouffe Mediterranean Grill.
It’s an open-air restaurant on the eastern edge of Belmont Shore where in my experience, you can land a table even on a Saturday night. It’s spacious enough to accommodate a crowd, but also far enough away from the center of 2nd Street to allow for casual drop-byes. Which for those of us foolish enough to try to get into a high profile, high volume joint like Simmzy’s, is a pleasure. It’s a restaurant for the rest of us.
If you need more reasons to go here, there’s a selection of kabobs, which not only taste good in the restaurant, they also travel very well. (If you can have a lamb burger for breakfast, you can have a a chicken kofta kabob too.)
Once again, there’s a combination available, which makes choosing so much easier — skewers of chicken, lamb and beef are just right. But the dish that really appealed was the chicken shawarma, which is essentially chicken gyros, well spiced, grilled on a spit, and sliced thin. It was crispy and fun to eat — like kid food served to grownups.
Though breakfast is largely American in its tone, lunch and dinner head for the Med, with a good selection of small mezze, larger salads, and even larger kabobs. First and foremost, it’s the mezze I love, for like many of us here in SoCal, I gladly opt for many small tastes, rather than one big taste. (It has something to do with our short attention spans, which in turn have something to do with the hours we spend stuck on the freeways. I think.)
Pretty much everything they serve at Boubouffe comes with a basket of steaming hot pita bread, which is so much more soothing than an ordinary basket of generic air bread. This is bread with substance. And that substance is amplified with warmth. It starts the meal off very well.
And so do the several hummus variations — all of which are served together on the Hummus Combo plate. There’s our old friend baba ghanoush as well — a dip of grilled eggplant. By dips alone can you live well at Boubouffe.
Uncle Fung Borneo Eatery
5716 E. 7th St., Long Beach; 562-494-3888, orderunclefungborneoeatery.com
Peter Then — aka Uncle Fung — has done more to bring the flavors of Borneo, Malaysia, Indonesia and the South Pacific to Southern California than just about anyone else, for which he certainly deserves our thanks, and probably a Beard Award, and, frankly, if it existed, a Nobel Prize for Global Cuisine.
This is a world of tastes so amazingly intense, so mouth-pleasing, so tummy-happy-making, that it’s a surprise there aren’t restaurants offering the chow of the region in every spare mini-mall space. There are colors to this cooking; it fairly well glows on the plate.
And here we are, considering the many merits of gado gado, which is often described as a salad, though it stretches the meaning of the word as we know and revere it here in SoCal. I suppose it’s a “salad” more because it’s made of vegetables, than because of its greens, which seem on the plate as a bit of an afterthought — though lettuce, cabbage, cucumber and bean sprouts all appear.
There’s chicken satay too — spelled “sate ayam” in Malay — which is a reassuring dish to find, for it comes with more of that good peanut sauce and some sliced cucumber, coated with fried garlic chips. It’s easy to say that chicken satay is chicken satay, and what’s the big deal? But, with its seasoned, skewered and grilled marinated chicken, this is satay on steroids and stilts. It’s a head above the usual.
For the true Borneo experience, these are dishes that must be had. Along, of course, with the fried roti prata flour pancake, which feels like a dish mamas made around the world for their sprouts. It’s a pancake with levels of flavor, a depth of taste. And it doesn’t hurt that the curry sauce that comes with it is a curry sauce to dream about.
Much of the rest of the brief, but well-focused menu is given over to noodles and rice; this is not a low-carb cuisine, not even close. Order too much, because this is chow that tastes great when reheated later that day, or the next, or even the next.
I could easily eat the Borneo hokkian mee for breakfast — and in fact did. It’s a wonderful toss of egg noodles, barbecue pork, chicken, mushrooms, scallions, fried shallots and sundry other veggies. It’s also a lot of food, especially when you consider it comes with a bowl of the hot, curative house broth with the noodles.
Also on the menu, there’s a trio of Singapore-style noodle curry soups, which seem to be more noodle and curry than soup. And to wash it all down, there’s tropical fruit tea, chrysanthemum tea, Borneo-style milk tea with grass jelly, Borneo-style chocolate drink, honey green tea, iced milk, and Borneo-style coffee — which like Thai and Vietnamese coffee, makes our American joe taste like a very weak sister.
Toko Rame Indonesian
17155 Bellflower Blvd., Bellflower; 562-920-8002, www.tokorame-restaurant.com
An essential place to begin is with the satay (here spelled “sate”) section of the menu, for the satays at Toko Rame are pretty wonderful — chicken, lamb and beef, served individually or in a combination, which is the way to go, for the chunks of meat are smallish, served on a stick, and disappear quickly.
There’s also a satay Padang, which the menu tells us is a West Sumatran preparation flavored with a spicy yellow sauce. The egg rolls (lumpia) and the potato cakes filled with spiced ground beef (kroket) are pretty essential as well. And don’t forget the roti — flatbread with dark reddish beef curry.
Beyond the apps, a meal may seem redundant. And yet, there’s so much more. This is a cuisine built around rice, lots and lots of rice. The fried rice — nasi goreng — makes the stuff served in Chinese restaurants seem pallid and sad. It’s tossed with lamb, tripe, salted fish, shrimp, chicken, tofu, veggies — and Surabaya-style, with fried beef, fried chicken and an omelette.
Rice is the basis of the largest section on the menu — the combination rice plates that include the aforementioned nasi rames — rice with wildly spiced beef rending (in a brownish sauce that you can taste for a long time), fried chicken, a hard-cooked spiced egg, a potato cake, pickles and a vegetable curry that I confused for a soup. Or, maybe it is a soup.
There are eight rice combination plates, and more than enough for a couple of meals in each case. There’s a section on the menu of rice cakes (lontong). And, not surprisingly, most every dish is served with steamed rice; they must go through truckloads of the stuff here. They go through plenty of chili sauce and peanut sauce as well.
There’s no multicourse rijsttafel at Toko Rame, though with nearly 100 dishes on the menu, there’s plenty to choose from. Or at least there is for those of the adventurous persuasion.
This is a tiny restaurant, with just a handful of tables, a counter and a kitchen that can be glimpsed in the back, with a small staff juggling a lot of dishes. The staff can be overwhelmed; during lunch one time, the single server couldn’t get the tables bussed until most diners had left. Between people coming in, people ordering takeout, and the various exotic drinks and desserts she had to assemble, I was surprised she didn’t burst into tears. (She did warn me there were several orders ahead of mine, and I’d have to wait a while.) But she kept it together.
And so did the handful of diners, who were dreaming of lumpia and nasi rames and beef rending and gado gado and any number of dishes that taste even more exotic than they sound. Considering how small the kitchen looks to be — and how small the restaurant definitely is — I don’t know how they do it. But they do. This is a taste of a world far away, in a setting that feels far away. Where you can also get your nails done, some hair extensions, and a suit while you’re at it.
Panvimarn Thai Cuisine
4101 Bellflower Blvd., Long Beach; 562-425-2601, www.panvimarnthaicuisine.com
We’ve got a lot of good Thai restaurants here in Southern California, and it’s gone way beyond the days when Siamese eateries would label themselves “Thai-Chinese” — because no one knew what the heck pad Thai and mee krob might be.
We’ve moved from the days of generic Thai, to regionally specific Thai, where the cooking of the north and the south are recognized as distinctly different, and the influence of neighbors like Laos, Burma and Vietnam are both respected and duly noted.
Panvimarn Thai Cuisine is unique, not just because of the quality of its cooking, but also because the food is served in a room that’s, if not exactly elegant, at least a lot nicer than the norm, with a multitude of wall decorations and hangings, and a sense of being at what might be one of the best places to dine off Sukhumvit Road in Bangkok.
And what does one dine upon in this sedate setting? Well, the menu is both encyclopedic — and a bit goofy, with sections headed “Oodles of Noodles” and “Rice Is Nice.” At the heart of the menu is a section called “Panvimarn 9 Curries,” which ranges from emerald green curry (green coconut sauce), ruby curry (red coconut sauce) and gold curry (yellow coconut sauce), to exotic like roast duck curry, baby pork rib curry and spicy shrimp curry.
Of course there’s beef satay and chicken satay (“sa-te” on the menu), skewered and served with a peanut dipping sauce. “This will tickle your taste buds and make you scream of more!” says the menu. From the North comes house-made pork sausage with ginger and cashews, along with fried Thai beef jerky, a dish that verges on complete and total addiction.
One of the best ways to sample the menu is with the appetizer plate called a Panvimarn Delight — satay, spring rolls, shrimp blankets, chicken-and-shrimp-filled money bags and fried wontons. There’s also a perfectly good appetizer of noodles, green papaya, shrimp and peanuts called Bellflower Boulevard — a name probably unknown on the Chao Phraya River. But what the heck?
The menu goes on and on — many soups, many salads, superb barbecue chicken, and a section of “Meatless Meals.” As with Indian cooking, vegetarians cam be very happy here — the spices are so intense, you won’t notice the absence of meat. In fact, you’ll probably celebrate it.