Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Bamboo House

(608) 781-6996
9374 State Road 16
Onalaska, WI 54650


Why is it that every restaurant in the La Crosse area that serves Japanese food is run by Chinese people?  This is the case with Bamboo House, as it is with downtown La Crosse's Yoko's Place.  But in any case and in West Coast Guy's (WCG) opinion, there is no reason why Chinese people cannot make good Japanese food, or Italian food, or whatever.  Same with White people and everybody else.  Culture (including cuisine) is not in the blood or genes or whatever you want to call it.

But in the actual case of Bamboo House there are some shortcomings that WCG has encountered that may have something to do with Chinese people running a restaurant that purports to serve Japanese, Thai, AND Chinese food.

(true) Yakitori with green onions / ネギマ焼き鳥
One thing - for example - is pretty funny.  The menu lists "yakitori beef" as an entree.  "Yakitori" is Japanese for "bird cooking," which generally refers to some form of chicken grilled on a stick (WCG's favorite is tsukune, or grilled chicken meatballs or sausage on a stick).  Again, funny, but an indication that these people do not really know things Japanese.  

A more serious error arises when one orders "tempura" at Bamboo House.  Tempura is deep fried food, usually including shrimp and various vegetables.  (However, WCG's Nisei mom used to make tempura with bits of leftover beef and potatoes, and sometimes in Japan they make it with scallops, fish, squid, etc.).  The word "tempura" is written in Japanese with a Chinese character (kanji) that means heaven, i.e., nothing to do with shrimp, and the word/dish has its origins with Portuguese visitors to medieval Japan who would temporarily (get it?) abstain from eating beef, pork, or chicken during Lent.

Actual tempura / 天ぷら
What really defines tempura - in any case - is the batter.   It is a light batter that includes cold water, flour, and eggs.  The batter is only loosely mixed just before use, giving tempura its distinctive qualities.  Tempura is NOT breaded.  But the good people at Bamboo House either don't know this or don't care.  They seem to be banking on the fact that La Crosse people are not sophisticated enough to know the difference.  (By the way, at Yoko's Place, they serve up the same kind of "tempura.")  Breaded and deep fried food in Japan/Japanese is called "furai" (Japanese pronunciation of "fry," so for example fried shrimp would be ebi - Japanese for shrimp - furai).  ebi furai and other kinds of food in Japanese cuisine that is breaded can be very good (an example would be tonkatusu), but it is not

Ebi furai (fry) / 海老フライ

I miss real tempura, don't like to deep fry at home, and would have to drive to Madison or the cities - probably - to get it.

To be fair, Bamboo House's sushi is pretty good.  Perhaps the sushi guys are Japanese?  In any case, they seem pretty well trained.  And Bamboo House has all the standard kinds of sushi.  They also include sabazushi, which is a nigirizushi (the kind with a square piece of rice and something on top, not a roll) topped with cured mackerel.  WCG is very, very happy that they have this.  The way they do it is actually specific to western Japan (not Tokyo) and it is more or less like WCG's aunties back home make it.  

But there is a problem here too.  on several occasions, WCG has ordered sabazushi for takeout - often being careful to say it in Japanese and English and specify the number Bamboo House's menu gives it - and yet instead Bamboo House's manager (owner) has handed him a paper bag that includes sake (salmon) topped nigirizushi instead.  Sake (and yes it is written the same as the stuff you drink) is fine, but it is NOT Saba.
Sabazushi / さばずし
WCG has surmised that these people do not really understand what is on their menu.  Which is too bad because some of their food is pretty good.

In addition to the above, WCG has sampled Bamboo House's teriyaki (chicken and beef), orange chicken, Thai and Vietnamese egg rolls/spring rolls, gyoza (which they misspell in their own menu as "goyza") - something non-Jewish people eat?), sunomono (a kind of salad with a Japanese vinegarette), and "honey walnuts shrimp."

All of this was passable or good (unless one has a problem with the heavy and thick breading on the orange chicken), with the exception of "honey walnuts shrimp."  Back where WCG used to live, a Chinese restaurant made an identically named dish, and it was pretty good.  Bamboo House's version is disgusting.  The shrimp was heavily breaded, which comes with the territory; the problem was the sauce, which reminds one of vanilla pudding.  One day last winter, WCG ordered this for takeout.  WCG loves shrimp, and the dish is not cheap.  But it was simply inedible.  It went to waste.

Note: WCG loves Thai food, so he was - as one might expect - thrilled to hear that Bamboo House's menu includes Thai dishes.  Unfortunately, these are not really Thai at all.  They are vague (at best) approximations of Thai food made by - apparently - Chinese chefs who do not bother to find out how Thai food is in actuality made.  For example, in their various "Thai" curries, they use corn starch to thicken the sauce, which is a very common "trick" with Chinese cuisine (at least in North America).  This is in my experience never done with actual Thai curries, which tend to be not thick at all, but almost soup-like in consistency (but not flavor).  The stuff at Bamboo House is not horrible, but it is not great, and it is certainly not Thai.

WCG has not tried what Bamboo House and Yoko's call "hibachi."  On the coasts and in Japan this style of cooking is called teppanyaki, which means cooking on a flat griddle, which is what it is (sometimes, Wikipedia deserves some credit, as here, where the article points out some confusion).  This is not a very traditional - or popular - style of cooking/kind of food in Japan.  It was invented to more or less serve occupying Americans in the wake of Japan's defeat in 1945.  In the 1960s a Japanese expatriate living in New York named Rocky Aoki introduced the US proper to teppanyaki with his Benihana's of Tokyo restaurant, which is now fully an American company run by Americans, that has franchises across the planet (nearly everywhere except Tokyo or Japan in general).

Teppanyaki (AKA "hibachi") cooking is not about the food.  One is paying for the show, which means the tricks the chefs do as they cook your beef, shrimp, chicken, and vegetables at your table.  WCG's parents would take him to the Benihana's back home when he was a kid, on special occasions, and it was fun, but as an adult, WCG is not much interested in such things.

Teppanyaki, the Benihana's experience

All in all, Bamboo House has some positive qualities.  The sushi is good, and so are the appetizers and some of the entrees.  But beware of "honey walnuts shrimp" and whatever other unpleasant surprises are on the menu.

PS: one more peeve: Bamboo House has chicken satay on their menu.  This is a Southeast Asian chicken on a skewer dish that is often featured as a starter at Thai restaurants.  In Thai restaurants it is served with two condiments: a peanut sauce made with coconut milk, and a sweet and spicy vinegar with cucumbers and maybe red onions in it.  Bamboo House's menu says that it comes with the peanut sauce (and not the other thing, fine....).  Grilled chicken with peanut sauce is delicious.  So what if it is not satay in the Thai sense (where the chicken meat is marinated in coconut milk).  But, the people at Bamboo House don't seem to ever read their own menu because WCG didn't get his peanut sauce with takeout once.  The next time he ordered satay, he tried to make sure that the peanut sauce was included, and the owner/manager wasn't even aware that peanut sauce comes with satay - in general, and according to his own menu....

Chicken Satay With Condiments
PPS: WCG went to Bamboo House on a special day for him and got a lot of sushi.  The rice was not seasoned enough.  To all who purportedly prepare sushi: sushi rice is NOT a kind of rice.  It is just plain old Japanese short grain, somewhat sticky, somewhat unhealthy, white rice.  (At La Crosse's misnamed People's Food Co-op - should be "rich people's food co-op" - the Japanese rice sold in bulk is labled "sushi rice," when it is just plain Japanese white rice.)

What makes it sushi rice is that it is seasoned with a vinegar that is flavored with some salt and sugar.  A typical mistake of Chinese restaurants that claim to serve "sushi" is that they don't understand this.  Maybe it was just a bad day for Bamboo House, but it is unsettling that Asian restaurants in places like La Crosse seem to be run by people who think that they can do whatever they want and call it whatever they want because they can count on the ignorance of local people.

Local people, on they other hand, sometimes think they are eating some kind of Asian food, which they may like or dislike, when in fact they are being sold something else entirely.  It is a shame.  (On the other hand, shame on them for often not knowing or caring about the significant differences between - for example - things Japanese and things Chinese, etc.)

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Burrito House

(608) 782-1622
1205 La Crosse St.
La Crosse, WI 54601

For La Crosse, this is an excellent and authentic taco shop.

But it is not exactly what you would readily find in Mexico or even in the US's southwest.  

The good: 

Burrito house has burritos (of course), tacos, tortas and quesedillas.  The main difference between burritos and tacos is that burritos come wrapped up in a big flour tortilla and tacos come sort of half wrapped in two corn tortillas.  Tortillas are (in Mexico) unleavened flatbread.  Tortas are Mexican sandwiches on "normal" bread, and quesadillas are two flour tortillas filled with cheese (at Burrito house at least; at home I use one folded tortilla) and other things, that are grilled or griddled until the tortillas are browned and the cheese is melty.  

One can have each of the above with beef (carne), pork (al pastor), chicken (pollo), vegetarian filling, or cabeza (which means "head," usually part of a cow's head, but they call it "mixed" in English).  So far West Coast Guy (WCG) has had tacos, tortas, and quesadillas filled with chicken, pork and beef.  It is all pretty good.  The meat is obviously not the choicest of cuts, but the way it is prepared, in actually Mexican style, makes it all worth it.  WCG's favorites are the chicken or pork tacos and chicken or pork tortas.  

The tacos come with cilantro and onions.  Strangely enough, the guys making your food at Burrito House will always ask if one wants cilantro and onions on their tacos, which seems very strange to WCG because a taco without cilantro and onions seems like a pizza without cheese and tomato sauce.

The tortas come with lettuce, cheese, avacodo, and mayo.  It is a delicious combination.  (For those of you that think Mexicans only eat tortillas, not leavened bread, not only does Mexican cuisine include such bread, it also includes delicious sandwiches.)  Each order comes with optional hot sauce (WCG recommends the red, hot one, or both the red hot one and the green one - which is probably green because of tomatillos).  Each plate is also adorned with a lime wedge and a radish.  Squeezing lime on one's Mexican food is a good thing, and the crunchy radish is nice to eat along with your sandwich, taco, etc.

The not so good:

WCG really loves two things: seafood and Mexican food.  He really, really loves them together.  In fact, in WCG's home town, there is a street where there are about 20 Mexican seafood restaurants.  (Disclaimer: WCG is NOT referring to Rubio's, no, very far from it - give WCG a little credit, please.)  This is about a 5 minute drive from the border, and sometimes, in some of these restaurants, the wait staff actually speaks no English.  WCG thinks that Mexican people actually cross the border from Mexico to come and eat in these restaurants.  They are that good.

Besides that, in WCG's home town and nearby areas, there are 24 hour taco shops everywhere, usually with a name that is some variation of the Mexican Spanish version of "Robert's," although between the Chinese restaurant and the 7-11 down the street from where WCG used to live there was a place called Lolita's that was quite good (and though tempted I will resist trying to make a Nabakov joke).

Anyway, all of these inexpensive taco shops in the region - including all the Roberto's, etc., and Lolita's - have a variation on a shrimp burrito that is usually quite good, surprisingly good.  One neighborhood taco shop near where WCG lived for a while also had a delicious fish torta.

So, Burrito House is great - for La Crosse (and WCG, fearing that La Crosse people will in general prefer the crime against culinary nature called Taco Bell, prays to his pagan gods that they stay in business) - but it sure would be nice if they had a menu that was a bit fuller, a bit more like what one can find in the southwest.

Back when WCG was a kid fresh out of high school, attending community college in the southwestern corner of the country, he and all his friends would go to Tijuana a lot.  The scene was fun, with masses of college kids from just north of the border coming down to take advantage of the fact that the drinking age in Mexico was 18 instead of 21 and there were many discos and bars to cater to them.  We used to go to a place called Mike's Bar a lot.  It was downstairs in a basement, dark, loud, and smokey.  So when we got tired of the dark and the music and so on, and a little hungry, we went upstairs and around the corner to a taco shop called Chuey's (the standard nickname in Mexican Spanish for a guy named Jesus).

Chuey's had Coronas for 75 cents and delicious tacos.  Before Chuey's and a few other places in Tijuana, WCG didn't even like Mexican food.  Chuey's had real tacos al pastor.  Al pastor doesn't mean "pork."  It means shepherd style.  It is a reference to a style of cooking brought to Mexico by Lebanese immigrants.  It involves meat (in the Mexican case, pork, but obviously for Muslims, something else, usually goat or lamb) that is cooked on a vertical spit that revolves.  In other words, al pastor refers to Mexican pork gyros (Greek cuisine is part of a larger, especially eastern, Mediterranean food continuum that includes the cuisines of Turkey and Lebanon).  

Burrito house cooks all their meat on one large griddle.  (In all fairness, I highly doubt the gyros at the Greek restaurant Gracie's on the other side of UW-L are cooked as gyros should be cooked either.)  According to the La Crosse Tribune's Steve Cahalan, Burrito House is owned by Jose Maceda, a guy who has served Mexican food from a truck for years in Sparta and at Fort McCoy.  This makes sense because essentially, Burrito House is food truck food served in a restaurant, which doesn't mean it is not good.

Nonetheless, WCG would love it if Burrito House would expand their menu.  A few seafood items would give Onalaska's Manny's a run for their money (a colleague of WCG who knows about such things once dismissed Manny's offerings as "resort food").  Side dishes such as rice and beans would be nice too.  (There are vegetarians in these parts of course.)  But actually, in all truthfulness, the one thing WCG really misses from his homeland's taco shops are the spicy pickled carrots and onions (usually referred to as "jalapenos" even though the ratio is usually about 98% carrots and onions to 2% jalapenos in a typical bag) that one can get at just about any taco shop in the southwest.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Hmong's Golden Eggrolls

(608) 782-0096
La Crosse
929 State Street
La Crosse, WI 54601

Hmong's Golden Egg Rolls' Golden Sign
Menu that hasn't been updated in years

Hmong's moved from the strip mall near UW-L with the Quick Trip a couple of years ago.  The new place, which was a branch of Marine Credit Union (and it still has the drive up teller setup), feels comfortable and friendly.  Before moving to La Crosse West Coast Guy (WCG) found Hmong's on the internets.  His first complaint was that they need more menu.  But they in general do what they do well.  This is Hmong food, which involves combined influences of Thai, Lao, and Vietnamese cuisines, which Hmong people encountered over their arduous journeys from China to Laos or elsewhere to - most often - refugee camps in Thailand, and finally (if they were lucky, I suppose) to places like California's Central Valley, Minnesota, and Wisconsin.  (Although I am told that Hmong communities also exist in, for example, Australia and France.  Here, by the way, is a PBS story on a Hmong shaman who came to live in Appleton, Wisconsin.)

Hmong's has the closest thing to the Southeast Asian food that WCG learned to love elsewhere (Japan, Thailand, and the West Coast) in La Crosse (forget about the "Thai" food served at Onalaska's Bamboo House, which has its sauce thickened with corn starch, as with Chinese food, but that's another review).  As one might expect - judging from the restaurant's name - the egg rolls are quite good (but the sauce they serve them with is a little weird, seeming like a combination of a SE Asian sweet and spicy sauce and mayo).  But something good about eating at Hmong's is that there is an array of condiments at every table (most typically poured into bowls of pho noodles as per individual eaters' desire).  These condiments include fish sauce, soy sauce, a sweet soy-based sauce similar to Indonesian Kecap manis, Sriracha sauce, and a few other things.  The egg rolls can be ordered individually, and one can choose from chicken, pork, shrimp, or vegetable.

Hmong's Golden Egg Rolls Condiments (At Every Table)
Indeed, the pho is something like the star of the show at Hmong's and it is good.  The beef salad is nice.  It is tripe, by the way, so stay away if you don't dig organ meats.  The curry (not on their online menu), which is either chicken or shrimp is passable.  The flavor is good, something like Thai style, but unfortunately some of the ingredients are from cans (for example, mushrooms) and not fresh.  They also offer a sausage or stuffed chicken thigh with sticky rice and a dipping sauce, which is a spiced fish sauce with bits of green onions.  These dishes are quite good.

For WCG the best of Hmong's offerings, however, is the papaya salad.  Papaya is a fruit, but don't expect something sweet.  This SE Asian dish uses shredded green papaya to make a very spicy (they will ask you how spicy you want it) and (in the case of Hmong's) delicious salad that features peanuts, as with much Thai cuisine.  This spicy and savory dish tastes very good with the relatively bland and neutralizing side dish of either Hmong's sticky rice or the basic drier rice they also serve.

One should - by the way - order at Hmong's with the knowledge that every thing is more or less a la carte.  A good meal would be the chicken or sausage with sticky rice AND papaya salad (WCG's mom always made sure he had square meals and it is a habit that is hard to break).

Also, where one orders - on the counter - at Hmong's they often have two items that are not on the menu: one is a kind of dumpling (?) made of rice that has been transformed into a solid film (something like Japanese mochi) and rolled up with bits of what seems like seasoned ground pork.  Three of these come with the fish sauce based dipping sauce and they are quite good.  They also often have a kind of confection, which is a sort of doughnut (probably made with rice flour) that is nicely chewy and a bit crispy on the outside if it is fresh.  Inside this doughnut-like thing is a kind of sweet bean paste that is similar to what is often used in Japanese confections.

Lastly, their fried rice is pretty good, and according to Friend of West Coast Guy (FWCG) their fried fish is quite nice.  WCG will probably try that pretty soon.  Oh, and truly lastly, the people that run Hmong's are quite nice and friendly, so when you come in smile at them and they will quite probably smile back.