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Independence Tavern opened in early February in the location that used to house Buddha’s Belly.  Named after the steam-powered railroad line that once ran from Santa Monica to San Pedro, it is now a New American style restaurant with an impressive menu and cocktail pedigree.  Tom Block, a friend who used to work at Beelman’s Pub, became the executive chef at Independence Tavern invited me for a hosted dinner to sample their offerings.

The Independence Tavern

The cocktail menu at Independence Tavern is overseen by Vincenzo Marianella of Copa d’Oro, which is conveniently located just a few doors down.  Rumor has it that he has a trap door that allows him to move between bars without having to step outside.  I started off with The Longshore, a bourbon-based cocktail that’s a little like an Old Fashioned and a little like a flip.  It is has an astringent flavor profile, which suited me fine.

The Independence Tavern

First came a wooden plank of oysters on a half shell.  The oysters were accompanied by smoked salmon roe and a delicate cube of apple. The sweet crunchiness of the apple was a pleasant contrast to the briny oysters and roe.

The Independence Tavern

Next came a shrimp and crab ceviche served with a flatbread more like a papadum than a tortilla.  The crisp flatbread worked well as a tool to deliver bites of tender shrimp and crab.

The Independence Tavern

Around the same time we were all digging into ceviche, another bowl of raw fish arrived. This time it was a red snapper crudo with candy striped beets, tangerines, serrano pepper, lime, and puffed rice.  I loved the variety in texture and the heat of the slices of spicy pepper, but the bites that I had were a little too sweet.

The Independence Tavern

Then came a beautifully plated slice of toast slathered with a smoked whitefish mixture that included shallot, apple, fried capers, radish, and garnished with cilantro blossoms. This was a unanimous crowd favorite. The toast was already cut into four pieces, which I was grateful for. There’s nothing harder than trying to divy up a piece of toast in a neat manner.

The Independence Tavern

To refresh our palates from all the fish, a rainbow-hued bowl of chopped salad came out.  Curled leaves of purple kale, an egg, roasted carrots, green beans, smoked white beans, feta, and candied walnuts was delicately dressed with a lemon mustard vinaigrette.  This crunchy bowl of vegetables was both healthy and appetizing, which I know can be hard to accomplish.

The Independence Tavern

Vegetarians will be pleased to know that the roasted mushrooms with the 62 degree egg and yuzu kosho hollandaise was egg-cellent. Yes, I went there. The meatiness of the mushrooms and the rich egg yolk make you forget that there’s no meat in this dish. The sharp fragrance of the yuzu helps keep the mushrooms’ earthiness in check.

The Independence Tavern

Next came one of my favorite dishes of the night, which was the grilled octopus.  The octopus arm was served whole — great presentation which made me think of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Not only did this dish look good, but it tasted fantastic.  The octopus was unbelievably tender while still retaining its core texture.  The beans, grapes, celery, and pickled chili sounded like a strange conversation, but each element worked well together to form a cohesive dish.

The Independence Tavern

After that, we were served a tortellini duo: some stuffed with herbed goat cheese and others with spaghetti squash with brown butter, roasted apple, and parmesan.  I did not win the tortellini lotto and only managed to pick out the spaghetti squash-filled ones, but that was fine.

The Independence Tavern

Following that pasta dish was another pasta dish with venison ragu.  The house made pappardelle was good, but I found the ragu a bit salty.

The Independence Tavern

Then came a roast chicken with beluga lentils, leg confit, guanciale, and broccoli di ciccio.  I really liked the sweet, snappy broccoli with its spritz of lemon. I had mistaken a cube of guanciale for a cubed potato in the dim lightning, but it was a great surprise for my mouth.

The Independence Tavern

The dark horse of the night was the spicy cauliflower with preserved lemon and Thai chili.  The colorful cauliflower and Romanesco broccoli was crisp, but not hard, and the preserved lemon dressing was perfect.  If this were served on top of some puffed rice, I could see it becoming a popular vegetarian or even vegan entree.

The Independence Tavern

A dish I’d like to refer to as The Flavorbomb came out to top off the meal. The rack of lamb with Thai red curry rub, smoked eggplant puree, coconut, and bok choy was a memorable way to end the night.  The lamb was cooked perfectly, but what really got everyone talking was the eggplant puree.  Its dramatic black color and intense smokiness really outshone everything else on the plate for the other diners.  Personally, I really liked the combination of the Thai red curry and the bok choy.

The Independence Tavern

Toward the later half of the meal, I ordered a second cocktail: The Smoke of Scotland.  With its cask strength Laphroig scotch, it really packs a punch. The peaty flavor of the cocktail makes it a great sipper, but not something I would recommend to eat before or with a meal.  I was concerned that the elderflower liquor would be too cloying, but I actually didn’t detect any hint of it in the cocktail. Lesson learned: trust Vincenzo.

I may be biased because the chef is a friend, but the menu at Independence Tavern is great, especially the “Sea” section.  The dishes on it manage to be exciting and different while still being accessible to most palates.  What’s even better is that the kitchen is willing to accommodate most vegetarian and vegan diets. I hear with enough advance notice, they can even put together a vegan tasting menu. For those who only  want to stick with what they know, there is also a pretty tame sandwich and burgers section.

 

Independence Tavern
205 Broadway
Santa Monica, CA 90401
310 458-2500

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Kaioo* Ramen opened in the first week of February, replacing an unsuccessful hotpot restaurant.  With the LA ramen revolution in full swing, it’s nice to see some new places to slurp the hot bowls of noodle in the SGV.

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On my first visit, I ordered the eponymous Kai Original Ramen bowl in a combo with gyoza.  The ramen came with slick, chewy yellow noodles in a delicious, rich broth.  Unlike other ramen places, the broth is a chicken broth base. The pork chashu topping came chopped up instead of in slices like the picture, but was still decent.  There was also ground pork sprinkled on top, which was a nice touch. My favorite part was the chili and chives mixture, giving eac spoonful of broth a pungent, spicy, taste.  According to the waitress, their style of ramen is Kobe style.

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The gyoza that accompanied my ramen catered to the Chinese palate, which is understandable since this ramenya is located in a plaza mostly full of Chinese customers.  Instead of a garlicky filling, it had green onion or chives.  The skin was also surprisingly delicate and soft without being mushy.

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After spending a week trying out ramen at other local places, Kaioo Ramen managed managed to perk my interest even then. I’m planning on returning next time for the tsukemen and the spicy chicken ramen.

 

Kaioo Ramen
1261 E. Valley Blvd.
Alhambra, CA 91801
626-940-5541

* There’s some confusion in the name. The menu makes it look like “Kai Ramen” but on Yelp it says Kaioo Ramen. And on the credit card bill, it says Kai Oo Ramen.

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I admit to being surprised about Scott Zwiezen’s newly opened restaurant in Atwater Village. The chef that I associate with Elf Cafe is known to be an advocate of raw, vegan and vegetarian cuisine. His new venture is not in Echo Park, is not completely vegetarian nor raw. Instead, it’s middle eastern food in the form of sandwiches and is a lot more casual.

Dune soft-opened on Sunday, January 18th with the bare minimum: three types of sandwiches, two house-made drinks, and a counter to lean against while you eat your sandwich. Tucked between a dance studio and a juice bar, it offers food that’s as easy on the conscience as it is on the palate.

Zwiezen wanted the food at Dune to speak for itself. Gone is the baggage and stereotype that comes with the labels ‘raw’ and ‘vegetarian’, which can intimidate people from trying a restaurant. With the lamb and soon-to-arrive fish on the menu, Zwiezen hopes to attract people who would otherwise shy away from an all vegetarian menu.

Multiple diners in line were overheard ordering the falafel sandwich, which is no surprise, as it’s one of the best falafel sandwiches I’ve had. The deep fried balls of chopped chickpea are held together without flour, which will please the anti-gluten crowd as long as they order it sans pita. Unfortunately, ordering it without the pita also means you will miss out on the cooked-to-order pita bread that’s made in house.

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While the falafel sandwich is a no-brainer, the delicious beet sandwich was unexpected. What sounds on paper like an average beet salad served between two slices of bread was actually a playful combinations of flavors and textures. The earthiness of the beets was tamed by the briny pickle and onions, and further balanced with the rich yolk of the medium-boiled eggs. The tangy garlic sauce added a nice pungency to each sweet, savory, and tangy bite. I would say that this sandwich is easy to customize as vegan if certain elements were left out, but that would be ruining the combination that makes this a winner.

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To wash down the sandwiches, there’s also house-made root soda, which has dandelion, lapsang souchong, and a few other ingredients. It’s just sweet enough, with a slightly herbal fragrance. Fair warning though, no beverage in the restaurant will help your garlic breath afterward, so bring some breath mints if you care.

To those bookworms: yes the restaurant’s name was inspired by Frank Herbert’s magnum opus.


Dune
3143 Glendale Blvd.
Atwater Village

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The last time I had dined at Liang’s Kitchen in Monterey Park, years ago, it was still full of KMT memorabilia and served Taiwanese comfort food. This recent time I paid it a visit, it was definitely changed. The menu resembles that of Shaanxi Gourmet instead of just another Taiwanese noodle joint.

Mama Liang

I saw there was a poster on the wall advertising some sort of offal on a stick, in a cauldron. Sounded like a safe bet, right? When it came, it was everything that was advertised: soft, chewy offal twisted around a skewer and boiled in a fragrant broth. By itself, it was fairly bland, but dipped in the plate of chili oil that also came, it was fantastic.

Mama Liang

It was a chilly night, so I wanted to warm up with a warm bowl of noodles. I ordered the lamb noodle soup with wide noodles. The soup and chewy noodles hit the spot. I couldn’t resist adding a splash of vinegar to the broth, which elevated it to another level.

Mama Liang

My mother ordered the dry beef tendon noodles, also with wide noodles, and was extremely pleased. The garlicky sauce and beef coated the noodles nicely and the touch of sweetness tied the whole dish together.

The old menu at Liang’s was alright, but it wasn’t something that called to us. With the discovery of this new changed menu, I think my family has a new place to add to the list of favorites nearby.

Liang’s Kitchen
788 S Atlantic Blvd
Monterey Park, CA 91754
(626) 282-8238

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#dailycortado @dinosaur_coffee and a new book!
I was sipping a cortado at newly opened Dinosaur Coffee on Sunset a few days ago when I noticed something different in the popular drink served in a gibraltar glass.  It was slightly sweet.  Not as sweet as a drink from Starbucks — it was more like a sweet aftertaste.

At first, I thought they had sweetened the milk because the foam tasted sweet.  When I asked the woman behind the counter what was different, it turned out that the regular cortado at Dinosaur Coffee is more like cortadito.  They add a pinch of turbinado sugar to the ground espresso beans so that when they’re brewed, the coffee that’s extracted also has some of the sugar.

I was not expecting the sweetness, but it was a pleasant surprise. It’s also possible to get just a regular cortado without the sugar, as long as you remember to ask for it.

On the other side of the spectrum, Dinosaur also offers a bitter cortado, doctored up with their house-made coffee bitters.  The only difference from a regular (non-sweetened) cortado I could taste was the more fragrant aroma.

 

Dinosaur Coffee
4334 Sunset Boulevard,
Los Angeles, CA 90029

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Disclaimer: I was invited by a friend to Ramen Champ and did not pay for my meal.

When I first walked into the small ramen restaurant, what caught my eye was the bold black on white drawings on the wall.  If you look carefully, you’ll see a narrative created by noodles.  While plenty of places are nice to look at, I’m glad to say that Ramen Champ has both style and substance. It’s a rare thing to have a place offer vegan ramen. It’s a rarer thing for this place to not only be a normal restaurant offering non-vegan options, but also have one of the best bowls of ramen in LA.

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The tonkotsu ramen here is not for the faint of heart. Literally.  The amount of pork packed into this bowl of ramen should come with a warning label like the ones on roller coasters. The rich soup is less of a broth and more of a porky gravy that coats each strand of chewy noodle to make a perfect mouthful.  The toppings include curling slivers of green onion, crunchy slices of radish, a soft boiled egg, sliced pork belly, and a drizzle of garlic oil.  As much attention should be paid to the flavorful, slightly sweet, soft slices of pork as to the broth.

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Then there’s the soft boiled egg.  Oh, that egg! The soy-seasoned egg easily gives way to a molten yolk that barely manages to stay together.

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On the other end of the spectrum is the vegan ramen*.  I’ve had a lot of vegan ramen in my life and this is the best.  The mushroom broth is seasoned so that the sometimes overwhelming taste of mushroom is brightened and actually tastes like a ramen broth, including that oily mouthfeel.  The toppings — hen of the woods mushroom, seasoned slices of tofu, radish, and green onion, all work to create a cohesive bowl of ramen.  One of the shortcomings I always see in restaurants attempting a vegan ramen is trying to get too creative by throwing kale, broccoli, spinach, or even sesame paste in.  Ramen Champ doesn’t fall into those traps and instead stays focussed on giving vegetarians a taste of what everyone else is eating.

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I would have already been happy if this place offered good ramen, but the non-ramen dishes on the menu were notable as well.  The mushroom tempura has shimeji mushrooms in a delicate and crunchy batter accented with a few shiso leaves.  The vegetable curry (which also happens to be vegan) is made with a fragrant house-made curry powder which is worth trying if you’ve only had the stuff that’s come out of an S&B can.

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Then, if that wasn’t enough, there are also house-made condiments to jazz up the ramen.  For a little heat, try the sriracha infused chili oil, which made my mouth do a double-take.  I heard there will also be a house-made Japanese seven-spice (togarashi) in the future.

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With all these tasty options to order off the menu, and the attention and care put into even minor things like condiments, I won’t be surprised if Ramen Champ ends up having lines like its forerunner, Eggslut.  It does make me sad that this will probably be one of the few times I’ll be able to just stroll in and pull up a stool under the monochromatic mural and slurp a bowl of ramen without having to wait or battle crowds.

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Ramen Champ
727 North Broadway #203
Los Angeles, CA
Ramen Champ

* Normally, this option appears as vegetarian ramen on the menu, but if you’re vegan, make sure to let the server know so that the egg will be left out and the usual noodles will be swapped out for eggless noodles.

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Bread, pastries, and beer next to a creek. What could be better? While I unfortunately only had time and stomach space to eat a pastry from Easy Tiger, I liked what I ate.  So much so that I forgot to take a picture of it before taking a bite out of it.

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It’s called a Tiger Claw and it’s like a bear claw, but better. It’s not as sticky sweet, and it’s filled with a spicy, sweet, and savory mix of crushed pecans and some sort of warming spice. If you’re like me in that you don’t like pastries to be too sweet, it is the perfect thing. And yes, it has a nice kick.

Easy Tiger
709 East 6th St.
Austin, TX 78701

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