One of the beautiful things about life in Los Angeles is the access to good ethnic markets. My favorites are the Armenian strip mall marts that pepper the San Fernando Valley, the Greek boutique spots in Santa Monica, the Italian delis that sprawl the East and West sides and the Asian clusters in Little Osaka, Gardena and Little Tokyo. With a spoiled palate, I tend to shop for my most basic needs at the local VONS while preferring trips to these multicultural treasure chests for everything else. Because of this, if you took one look in our kitchen cupboard you would think that I was an old macrobiotic Chinese man and that the Cute Gardener was really a portly Italian chef de cuisine.
When we visit these markets, we also like to plan other activities in the area that revolve around food into our jaunt. Recently, we took an early morning field trip to Little Tokyo on the hunt for some groceries and found so much more. We started out in downtown L.A. in the flower district looking for a sewing needle at an industrial art supply store. I never knew the neighborhood existed and it was a thrill to watch the bustle of event planners, dinner party throwers, and pushy men and women cramming into warehouses and roll up garage door spaces for fresh orchids and potted plants galore in the stark beaming sunshine. Rolling into Little Tokyo, we stopped at Frances Bakery. Their most famous item is their signature donut, which is really what L.A. is currently raving about being the ultra-trendy cronut. Although most of their items were gone by the time we walked in (bare cases must portend that we need to go back and try their pastries), I fell head over heels with their macarons, of which I sumptuously enjoyed a green tea and coconut variety. We then went to the new Marugame Monzo for udon and were delighted by the housemade noodles and the wickedly, textural tempuras. With bellies full, we ventured into the cause of our field trip – Woori Market.
My mission was simple: a tub of miso for soups and sauces, anything I could find made out of matcha green tea chocolate (yes, I plunked down way too much money for matcha Kit Kats), rice wine vinegar for dressings, toasted rice tea, salted umeboshi plums to drink in soda water as an aid to digestion, and sheets of dried nori to add to rice dishes and stir fries. While I was shopping, the CG was on a hunt of his own, one in which I benefited from lavishly later that night at home.
The CG has a knack of taking simple ingredients and creating a world-class meal out of them. Typically, this is done Italian style with simple, fresh things plucked from his garden and mixed with pasta. But this meal was straight out of one of our favorite Japanese restaurants only for about one fourth of the price. Green beans, a Japanese cucumber and Crenshaw melon were plucked right from the backyard while everything else came straight from that day’s shopping trip and included: tofu, yellowtail (cut into sashimi), eel, king trumpet mushrooms (pan sautéed to buttery perfection), uni, rice and seaweed to roll various bites of it all up in. A nice bottle of sake helped us wash it all down.
As much as we eat out to try new things, I am convinced that my favorite foodie moments are when we decide to step out of our box, hunt for meals inspired by our most memorable trips to restaurants, and then try to recreate the experiences for ourselves at home.