Friday, September 18, 2015

Apothik Food Truck Part III

The other day, WCG just happened to be parking across the street from the food truck and took a look at their menu. They have cut their menu way, way down from the one they had when they first started out. In fact, for lunch at least that day, they only had about 3 or 4 items.

It seems like they have adopted the strategy of offering gourmet or slightly exotic twists on what seems familiar to people in small-town La Crosse. Most people know ramen, from the instant stuff, for example, so they offer a higher end version that seems to be the only constant on their lunch/dinner menu. Never mind the fact that at $10 it is over twice the price of a good bowl of ramen anywhere in Japan....

In any case, WCG took a look at their menu that day out of curiosity, and one of those twist on the familiar items looked good - "grilled cheese," with blue cheese, prosciutto, and pear.
It was pretty damned good. The combination of savory cheese and Italian ham on the one hand and what was a sort of cooked pear or pear preserve on the other was delicious. At $7.50 it was not very overpriced either. Funny thing is, this good sandwich is not even listed on their most recent online menu, which reads as follows:


Thursday, August 27, 2015

Hmong's Golden Eggroll Version 3.0

On May 16, 2015, Hmong's Golden Egg Roll on 901 State St, La Crosse had a grand re-opening. WCG knows the date because of this mostly in Hmong video:  When WCG first moved from the badlands of Southern California to La Crosse around 8 years ago, Hmong's was in the strip mall near the Kwik Trip on La Crosse Avenue, where there's now a military recruiting place. Then it moved to what was for a short time in WCG's experience a branch of Marine Credit Union. In 2014, construction began on The Hive, a sort of privately constructed college student dorm at the 901 State location.

As part of this construction, they demolished the former credit union building (the empty spot on the lower right of the photo) where Hmong's had been. There were indications that Hmong's was going to occupy the first floor with other commercial properties, including what became and what is still a gym.

It took a long time, but eventually, a new and revitalized Hmong's with an expanded space, new aesthetics, uniforms for servers, etc., opened.

Their food seems better than what it used to be. Their specialty remains pho, which WCG has not had, but which looks quite good. Another specialty, of course, is their egg rolls, which are indeed delicious (they are far superior to those of any Chinese restaurant in the region, with a lighter wrapping closer to what one would actually get in East or Southeast Asia). They still have red curry chicken and shrimp, but they added green curry, which is sweeter and WCG likes it better. There are also a few other new dishes, and they have both Thai and Lao papaya salad (both are quite good). 

Much of the Asian food in La Crosse is frankly not exactly authentic. Case in point: the sushi at Festival is not bad, but it is produced by a company that trains non-Japanese sushi chefs to prepare their nationally pervaded food products as "Japanese" sushi; there is in all this something of the mass-produced, as well as–frankly–the for profit cynical duplicity of non-Japanese passing what they do off as "real" Japanese to a public which is none the wiser. The Burmese guy who works for them making sushi at Festival told WCG as much. 

Restaurants Sushi Pirate and Bamboo House are similar, with Chinese staff and cooks providing inferior versions of  "Japanese" or other forms of "Asian" food to midwestern consumers who don't know any better (by the way Bamboo House's horrible "Thai" dishes, in particular are extremely distant from actual Thai food, oh and they are also horrible). WCG has also been no fan of recent stabs at Indian and Thai restaurants in La Crosse, which seem to have been much the same story, with substandard food that wouldn't make the grade in an urban area with competition in the same "ethnic" markets. 

But Hmong's is different. Hmong's smacks of authenticity. Many of the dishes they sell are not traditionally Hmong from time immemorial perhaps, but a product of their real history, stretching from Laos (and perhaps elsewhere even before Laos) to Thailand, and eventually the US, from the 1960s and 1970s to the present. It is, good honest food, authentic culture; it is real. It is also very, very delicious.

To cut to some chasing, above is a plate of takeout, with their absolutely fabulous papaya salad (can't remember if this was Thai or Lao, but both are good, with young papaya, tomatoes, peanuts, cucumber, and a spicy-sweet dressing that can have as many peppers as one wants–WCG gets 3 or 4, which is pretty damned spicy), some Hmong sausage (very good), and a pork egg roll. By the way, the sausage and papaya salad go very well together, with the salad acting as a kind of relish, and both go well with the relative flavor neutrality of rice. The pictured rice is Japanese brown from home, but Hmong's white rice, either regular flaky SE Asian or sticky is just fine. The dipping sauce on the right is a combination of Filipino flavored vinegar, Suka Pinakurat, and sweet soy-based Indonesian Kecap Manis (not from Hmong's but delicious with their egg rolls).

Note that WCG should provide Hmongs' menu, but it is not online. Next time WCG will get their takeout menu and take pics.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

World's Best Sandwich?

In the previous post, I mentioned banh mi a couple times, and I have mentioned it before.

In this article,, the BBC asks, is the banh mi the world's best sandwich? I think the answer is yes....

What you are missing, La Crosse:

Monday, August 3, 2015

New Food Truck Updated

UPDATE: well WCG tried Apothik last night, and I think I got my expectations up tooooo high. First of all, they did not have the banh mi. Well, okay, I understood that their menu is a changing thing and that can be good. Talked to the owner for a while and she recommended the pork tacos. She said the sea food boil was out of supplies, but they used the left over shrimp for gazpacho (Spanish cold tomato soup).

So, eager to try various things, and not having had lunch, WCG ordered both the tacos and the gazpacho. Neither was bad, but neither was exceptional either. Nothing "popped." The tacos were with pulled pork, some kind of aioli (something like a garlic mayo), avocado slices, and flour tortillas, not corn tortillas, as is traditional (Apothik's tortillas were cold and right out of the supermarket package--any taco shop in Southern California does better).  These "tacos" especially could have been seasoned much more aggressively (meaning they could have been more flavorful). Not having food very strongly flavored is just a La Crosse thing, and so far in WCG's experience, Apothic is not an exception. For my money, I would prefer to spend it at Hmong's Golden Egg Roll (subject of an earlier but also future post), where the food is always very tasty.

Apothik is not exactly easy on the wallet (for the amount of food one gets) either, something also typical of La Crosse (don't let anybody ever tell you that things are necessarily less expensive in smaller towns because they are not).  For example, when they have banh mi it is supposed to be $9.50. WCG has been to places (downtown San Francisco, ethnically Vietnamese neighborhoods of San Diego or Seattle) where absolutely delicious versions of the sandwich are half or nearly half the price.
A Chau, on El Cajon  Boulevard, San Diego, where WCG had his first banh mi
As for Mexican food, WCG knows that all across the US' southwest, taco shops (selling much more than tacos) are far less expensive for frankly what is better food.

Lolita's, Telegraph Canyon Road, Chula Vista

Ah, there're a few taco shops in particular in the San Diego area (one in Chula Vista, one in North Park, and one east of La Jolla, yes, La Jolla) where considerably less than the $10.50 Apothik charges for their "tacos" can get one really, really good shrimp burritos, or in the case of North Park, a fish torta (Mexican sandwich). 

(Generally, by the way, I am torn between a love for fusion food that breaks all the rules, and contexts in which a banh mi or tacos or burritos are both somehow authentic and nothing special, which often means lower prices. One is not paying for exoticism.)

The problem with La Crosse seems to be lack of competition. I find this true in for example restaurants (and the lack of competition has a quality-reducing effect, as well as a price-raising one) and the apartment rental market.

I have not given up on Apothik yet, and look forward to trying their banh mi (whatever the price), whenever it is available again.

I just heard about the Apothik Food Truck in La Crosse. Here's some photos from their FB page:

Here's an article about them, and here's their webpage.

I am very excited about this. This kind of food has been something missing in La Crosse for the whole time I have lived here.

These people know their food. Tonkotsu and curry ramen? And banh mi? I especially want to try the banh mi..... I will be there on Wednesday or Thursday. This is their menu:




Monday, July 27, 2015

Potato Batter II, Tilapia II, and the Wirtues of Woodman's

West Coast Guy Made this fish last night. Previously, I tried using a batter of potato starch alone (with swai)--I liked the texture, but it was bland. This time I marinated two small tilapia filets in a marinade of half a Filipino flavored vinegar called Suka Pinakurat and half Indonesian Kecap Manis.

I just discovered this Suka stuff at Woodman's yesterday. It is very strong tasting (ingredients: fermented coco nectar, chiles, garlic, onion, sweet peppers, salt). Kecap manis is sort of like almost too sweet teriyaki sauce, sort of syrupy or even caramel-like. They were a great combo.

After marinating the fish, I then simply coated it in potato starch, and shallow fried it in a non-stick ceramic pan at medium heat. It soaked up a lot of the canola oil, but I suppose that's all good because tilapia is nearly fat-free. You can't tell how good it was from a photo, but it was delicious. I also boiled some of the marinade and then used it as a dipping sauce, but it didn't need the extra flavor really. I was going to have it with a dab of store-bought, mayo based tartar sauce, but I was out.

I could have made a fat-free tartar sauce with Greek yogurt, if I wanted to be extra healthful about it....

(Incidentally, the style of cooking I used was what Japanese do when making karaage, a kind of fried (usually) chicken. It is marinated, coated with some kind of starch, and fried. This will work with tofu too--tried that once.)

Woodman's by the way, is a great place to shop. One can get ingredients and completed products from nearly all Asian cuisines. For finished products, I sometimes get Indian breads (chapati and parathas). One can also get what in Japan is called nikuman, or in Chinese (Cantonese?), siopao or baozi.

The best siopao is pork. It is a guilty pleasure for me because i know it is not all that healthy to eat, but it really tastes good. They have chicken too, but it is nowhere near as good. In the photo on the right, there are plenty of chicken, but no pork, so apparently, I am not the only one who thinks this way--couldn't get any pork yesterday.

Woodman's also has an extensive selection of Mexican food products, and pinatas.

To return to Asian stuff, they are the only store in the region that still stocks soft tofu, and all kinds of tofu and other soy products such as tempeh (which is a bit expensive).

Woodman's has such a variety of Asian stuff that one can get Thai, Vietnamese, or Filipino fish sauce, and hordes of other sauces, canned goods etc. One can, by the way get a brand of fish sauce called shrimp, OR one called squid (and neither has any shrimp or squid!):

Recently, Woodman's added sushi. A vegetarian friend (!) said to me that it was stupid to buy seafood in the midwest, but because I happen to know that even in Tokyo, Tsukiji Market, a lot of the fish is flown in from very far away, buying tuna or whatever in La Crosse doesn't bother me much (the idea of eating too much mercury does trouble me a bit, though). I have bought sushi from grocery stores in the area before, and it is generally not bad (roughly equal in quality to some of the kaiten/revolving belt sushi I had in Tokyo last year, and better than two of the sushi restaurants in La Crosse, both run by Chinese people). I do find it frustrating that the midwest's idea of (marketable) sushi is overly much some kind of outlandish roll that has little to do with Japanese food.

 You can get nigiri sushi (the kind with the fish or whatever on top of a rectangle of rice, but usually in these packages, it also comes with one of those sliced up rolls.

All in all, in any case, I am very grateful that Woodman's is around. That it is employee owned is a plus too. West Coast Guy worries that his '96 Toyota might break down and though he can walk or bike to work or shopping, Woodman's would be too far away to get to easily, unless he goes into debt and gets another car.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Rudy's Drive In

West Coast Guy (WCG) just went to Rudy's Drive In in La Crosse. It's one of those apparently La Crosse (and Sparta, WI, where apparently, there's another one) only kinds of things, like the Rivoli theater, where one can watch newly released films while eating pizza and having the beverage of one's choice (looks like they have pretty much a full bar). WCG likes the root beer and the Thai shrimp pizza best.

Rudy's is a drive in like from the 1950s, complete with girls on roller skates taking orders from cars.

Notice the embroidered poodle on her skirt
One weird thing (but not weird in whacky La Crosse) is that the place closes through the winter months, opening only in late spring and closing in early fall.

I have had their fish sandwiches before, as well as their pork chop sandwich. Both were good. WCG's friend Professor π likes their fish sandwich, but not their fish dinner for some reason. A couple weeks ago, WCG had their turkey burger, and it was quite good. WCG was very much looking forward to trying their buffalo burger today, but it was a disappointment. The patty was pretty much tasteless. WCG also had onion rings, and they were "nothing to write home about."

Oh well. Next time, WCG eats out, it will probably be Hmongs, and there will probably be a post about it.
Buffalo Burger

View of Rudy's sign looking west down La Crosse Avenue, towards the muddy Mississippi 

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Potato Batter

Tried an experiment tonight with a swai filet. I cut it into pieces and coated it with a batter of ice cold water, potato starch, and seasonings.

The texture was fascinating, and it looked like a fritter or something. It kind of reminds me of freshly made satsuma age, a kind of fried fish cake from Japan. It was chewy and crispy at the same time.  In the past I have mixed potato starch with some kind of flour, but this pure potato starch batter was good. Next time I will season it more, however.

I think I will also add thinly sliced strips of onions and carrots to the batter next time....

satsuma age

Misoyaki Tilapia Fish

This is one of my favorite things to make/eat. It is misoyaki tilapia. I marinate tilapia filets in a mixture of miso, mirin, fish sauce, and a little agave syrup, with some spices such as chipotle, onion, and galanga powder, and then just cook it in a small amount of oil in a pan.

It is based on what in Hawaii they call misoyaki butterfish.  Butterfish is the mystery meat of the sea, it seems, but it most likely refers to black cod.

Misoyaki Butterfish from Roy's Hawaiian fusion place

At any rate, one cannot get black cod in La Crosse, but tilapia is pretty good this way. That night I had genmai or Japanese brown rice (my usual).  When I was in Japan a year ago, eating out all the time, I missed eating lots of veggies and brown rice. Ironically, I suppose, Japan was where I first learned to like genmai, but that was a long time ago when I lived there, had my own rice cooker, and cooked a lot for myself. With the tilapia above, I also had a little green salad with chopped red bell pepper pieces and cashews dressed with sriracha mayonnaise, which I got from the Indochinese Grocery Store a couple blocks away from my apartment. There's a few Hmong groceries in La Crosse, but they never call themselves Hmong for some reason. I also had some pickled/marinated radishes.

There's the kind of mayo I got on the right. I will do a future post dedicated to the Hmong presence in La Crosse, for which I am exceedingly grateful. I will also "review" Hmong's Golden Egg Roll, which just reopened after about a year's hiatus. A preliminary remark: the place has been constantly packed since it started up again about 3 weeks back. There are Hmong and other Asian patrons of course, but it is always about half white people, which kind of does my heart good to see. It is good to see Wisconsin white people--like the guy in a beard and hunting cap I saw there last week with his little son--trying and liking something like what they serve there.
Before reopening--nice sign

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Super Easy Pickled/Marinated Carrots and Daikon (AKA Vietnamese do chua or Japanese red and white namasu)

Homemade namasu carrots and daikon / do chua on my kitchen counter

Here's a super easy recipe for pickled/marinated carrots and daikon (Japanese white radish).  It is what Japanese call kōhaku ("red and white," with orange categorized as a kind of red) namasu ("raw vinegar," with "raw" referring to the uncooked vegetables and "vinegar" referring to what flavors them and alters their chemistry) 紅白生酢 .  It is also more or less the same thing as Vietnamese do chua, one of the delicious things inserted in French bread (albeit baked with rice flour) to make banh mi sandwiches. in banh mi, West Coast Guy (WCG) likes namasu /do chua with rice, and to eat it with some kind of meat or fish (see tilapia recipe below).  But it is great on toast or crackers with some cheese, for example chèvre (goat cheese).  Whenever I make these veggies (using local small, Hmong farmer versions of daikon so far), and share them with others (non-Japanese, non-Vietnamese), they eat a lot of it....  It is very good.

Here's a way to do make it:

Buy what in English is called "seasoned gourmet rice vinegar," made by Marukan or some other company.  The Japanese says, "sushi su," which means sushi vinegar.  This is because it is rice vinegar to which they have added some salt and sugar.  This is "whole food" stuff (as I recall, having used up my last bottle a couple days ago to prepare the vegetables pictured above): just vinegar, salt, and some sugar.  It is the formula suitable for flavoring rice to be used in making sushi.

The next super simple step: put julie-anned carrots and diakon into some kind of container.  I use freezer, microwave, and dishwasher safe sealable plastic ones.  Then pour the vinegar, covering the veggies.  Next, put it into the fridge, and wait a while.

After a few hours,  the carrots and daikon will very much absorb the flavor from the vinegar, etc.  After a day or two, it will take on a more pickle-like taste and fragrance.

Note: if you don't have, cannot buy, or run out of "seasoned gourmet vinegar" (you can buy it at most grocery stores, even in La Crosse), you can just add some sweetener and some salt to vinegar.  It is that simple.  When I ran out - not having quite enough - recently,I added some agave syrup and salt to some un-seasoned rice vinegar, and it tasted great.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

La Crosse Food Cart Boom?

You know you live in a small town when two of something constitutes a "boom":

Cooking With Tofu I: Don't Fear the Tofu
Tofu is coagulated soy bean milk pressed into blocks; it is sometimes referred to as soy bean curd.  In East and Southeast Asia it is a common food, where although associated with vegetarian Buddhist monks and nuns, the vast majority of omnivorous populations eat it as as a "normal" food.  In fact tofu dishes are often flavored by small amounts of animal products such as bits of pork or fish stock (animal proteins were traditionally a luxury and the modest inhabitants of the non-West are often bemused by Westerners who can afford to eat them but choose not to do so); it is - by the way - difficult to be a strict vegetarian in urban (East and Southeast) Asia, especially if one eats out at all.

Tofu is sometimes called something like meat from the fields because it has long been recognized as a source of high quality protein.  In fact, soy products are some of the very few vegetarian/vegan/vegetable sources of the complete set of essential amino acids that we all need.  Some say it is flavorless and it is indeed not strong in that department, but it does in fact have a subtle flavor.  Nonetheless, it also takes on the flavors one adds to it rather well, absorbing seasonings, sauces, broths, etc., well.  It is very versatile, and thus fun to cook with.  It is almost impossible to overcook, which is conversely very possible with most animal sources of protein.

Of particular note is that tofu comes in a variety of textures, densities, or levels of hardness.  In the US - where one can purchase packaged tofu in most supermarkets - there is generally soft, firm, and extra firm.  For most cooking applications, firm and extra firm are most appropriate.  Soft is good for salads and eating uncooked with some kind of sauce.  People use it blended to make sauces, deserts, etc. 

(Note: Tofu is available in the La Crosse area at Woodman's, the Co-op, Hmong supermarkets, and Festival.  However, the tofu at Festival is inappropriately and oddly EXPENSIVE.  West Coast Guy [WCG] suspects this is because whoever makes such decisions for Festival unwisely categorizes tofu as "health food," and thus associates it with the generally higher income people who have the luxury to buy items categorized in that way.  The long and short of it is that unless one has "money to burn," it is better to buy tofu elsewhere.)

Hiyakko Tofu
Kimchi Tofu

 There are innumerable ways to cook/prepare tofu, and WCG has tried many of them.  Examples common in Japan that don't require cooking include kimchi tofu, which is Korean style pickled cabbage and other vegetables on top of cold soft tofu, and hiyakko tofu, which is soft tofu usually topped with katsuo (dried bonito fish) shavings, shoyū (soy sauce), and green onions, etc. If one is hungry and wants a simple tasty protein-heavy dish, WCG recommends slicing up some soft tofu and pouring on some sauce: soy, sriracha, tabasco, flavored vinegar, whatever.  (Ponzu sauce works exceptionally well - available at Woodman's in a bottle) One can add green onions, tomatoes, pickles, etc., too.  This tastes good with rice or alone.
Mābō dōfu teishoku (set meal) in Japan
Common cooked tofu dishes in East Asia include Mápó dòufu, a  Sichuan (Szechuan) Chinese dish that is very popular in Japan, where it is called mābō dōfu.  This is a spicy dish that usually includes chiles, garlic, minced pork, and soy bean paste.  Another dish in Japanese is called buta dōfu, which simply means pork tofu.  WCG's mom used to make this as an every day dish.

Buta Dōfu (Somebody else's mom's (or auntie's) recipe)

The most common way WCG cooks tofu is in a pan or skillet.  This generally means a kind of stir fry, cooking the tofu with onions, carrots, garlic, and or other vegetables, along with a mixture of seasonings balancing salty, spicy, sweet, and perhaps sour flavors.

Recently, WCG's culinary experiments have led to the realization that cooking the f&#^ out of tofu leads to good results.  Again, it is almost impossible to overcook the stuff, and when browned to the point of almost blackening, the tofu undergoes caramelization, the maillard reaction, or something like that.  The end result is that it tastes good.  Another method WCG has been experimenting with is marinating the tofu for hours before cooking it.  The marinade can consist of a variety of ingredients, but the WCG goal is to achieve - again - something of a balance of flavors including at least salty and sweet, and often spicy plus sour.

Ikeda Kikunae
Actually, WCG's goal with savory cooking is to achieve or find what in Japanese is called umami, but that is the subject of another post.  Suffice it to say that this culinary certain something (je ne sais quoi) taste comes through "cheating" with MSG or some MSG containing substance such as Japanese Hon Dashi (and MSG was invented by Japanese scientist Ikeda Kikunae in 1908 to essentially bottle umami), or one can get it from substances such as, for example, miso and fish sauce.  WCG has also noticed that umami comes from slow cooking vegetables in a pot until their juices flow.  A little salt and pepper facilitates this, and for some reason this works much better in a high-sided pot than in a pan.  WCG also suspects that something like umami results from the proper balance of flavors such as salty, sweet, spicy, and sour, which is the the essence of, for example, good Thai cuisine.
Hawaiian miso
Pictured below is a tofu dish WCG made a couple months ago.  It features big tofu slabs (the packaged block sliced once down the middle) marinated overnight in a mixture of Hawaiian Miso and Canadian maple syrup.  WCG also threw in some Mexican chipoltle powder and some Vietnamese fish sauce.  WCG fried the slabs in fresh Wisconsin butter from the "Norwegian" town of Westby and then made a sandwich with the pan-fried tofu, fresh baby spinach, tomato, sliced onions, and his homemade Greek yogurt-based sauce as a condiment.

Frying tofu in pan (note extra WI butter on top)

Open faced tofu sandwich (and man, it was good!)

PS: Another great tofu dish is Japanese age dashi dōfu, which is soft tofu coated with corn or potato starch and fried, and then served in a broth of dashi (generally katsuo/bonito fish stock) flavored with a little mirin (sweet cooking wine) and maybe some shoyū.  It is then topped with daikon oroshi, which is daikon grated into a sort of paste, along with green onions, katsuoboshi (shavings of dried bonito fish), and/or grated horseradish.
Agedashi dōfu and daikon oroshi on its own
Daikon is a giant white Japanese radish, which is available in La Crosse supermarkets/grocery stores.  Its name literally means "Big root" 大根. As such, if one buys it it inconveniently takes up much space in the fridge.  However, WCG recently discovered Hmong farmers selling small daikon at local farmers' markets, but being about the size of carrots, they are somewhat of a misnomer (maybe "small root" or shōkon 小根?  I suppose there's words for the small kind in Southeast Asian languages...).  They taste like daikon though.