When I visit friends around the country and the world, I fear I sometimes frighten them with my lists of places to try. Often I’ve scoured the internet (and the brains of fellow foodies) for the so-called ‘hidden gems’. I say so called, because they’re never hidden from the people who love them, those to whom this is the food of their homeland. Partamian’s Armenian Bakery–also, it seems, known as F & J, is just such an example from my recent trip to LA. We hit a number of great holes in the wall, and the first one embodied so much of why I love to eat at these places.
When we entered the bakery at mid-morning, we were the only ones inside, though a few people wandered in and out while we ate, demanding to know what days the ‘lahmahjoun’ would be available in beef in addition to the daily lamb, or wondering if there were more flatbreads in the back. We walked in not knowing what to expect. I had eaten lahmahjoun, a lamb topped Armenian flatbread that is often compared to pizza, in Uruguay, where a friend of mine was living with a family of Armenian heritage. The rich meat and exciting spices had been a savory reprieve from the mundane daily meals of Uruguay (not a contender for world’s best cuisine).
The menu listed a multitude of options, including Armenian versions of foods you’ll see in Turkish restaurants (borek), Greek restaurants (pita) and any number of other places. To me, though, the lahmajoun is the definition of Armenian food. We actually tried to supplement our lahmahjoun with other dishes, but came to learn that everything else was frozen, for take home use, along with the cheeses, oils, breads and olives that littered the shelves of the small store. While we waited for our food, we browsed the shelves, compelled to buy any and all of the Armenian versions of these Mediterranean specialites, if for no other reason, than to learn why these are specifically Armenian. Limited by the TSA and our carry on bags, we contented ourselves with the lahmahjoun.
It was, as I remembered, a superbly spiced mouthful of bread and meat. Yes, it resembles pizza, but perhaps a stripped down version, one which shed the sin-covering sauce and cheese, and pumped up in the bread and meat departments. On our way out, we chatted with the counterman, he asked, spurred by my excitement, if I were Armenian. His face seemed a little sad to learn I wasn’t. If it meant more meals like this though, perhaps I too, am a little sad I’m not Armenian.
Far across town, which, in LA, is pretty darn far, we ventured to Ma’s Islamic, recommended to me by my brilliant chef friend Cameo (if you’re in Seattle, go check out her new restaurant, Little Water Cantina). She didn’t even really recommend it, so much as text me a picture of their table there, with the message ‘you must go here’. Sure enough, a few months later, I had the opportunity. Unfortunately, unlike her, I was not with our Chinese speaking friend, Rocky. So we were sat to the side, in a corner and handed a lunch special menu. Mongolian Beef with a soup, rice and eggroll? Not what we had come for. After asking for full menus and chopsticks, and rejecting the Americanized side dishes (ok, we tasted a bite of the eggroll. It was inedibley bad), we finally got sorted with a delectable assortment. Though I knew to ask for the full menu, this sort of incident always makes me sad–what if I recommend it to someone and they don’t know to do that, and end up confused and dissatisfied. I hate to lead people to bad food and so dearly wish places like this would put their best foot forward. And what a delicious foot Ma’s has to put forward!
The food was reminiscent of one of our favorite Seattle establishment’s, the defunct Jack’s Mainly Chinese Tapas Cafe (real name). We ordered dishes that were similar to the ones we got there, like thick sesame bread, which can be used to scoop up meat dishes like lamb with sour cabbage (though we did have to assure our waiter we wanted it even though it was sour–it is similar to a mild kim chi). The hand shaved noodles were my favorite, but the trio of cold beef (shank, tripe and tendon) was also good. For about $40, we also managed to order enough food to last three of us multiple meals.
I’m not sure I’d drive to Anaheim again for this, but if you’re on that side of LA, I’d certainly recommend going by. And if you aren’t, just keep your fingers crossed that the rumor I heard about them opening a Seattle branch somehow miraculously is true.
Dean Sin World
Unfortunately the day that we chose to explore the San Gabriel Valley, mecca of Chinese cuisine of all stripes in America, B came down with some sort of short lived stomach virus. He managed a few bites throughout the morning, though. So, from those few bites, I kick off my comments on Dean Sin World with his verdict “That was so delicious! Twice!” Sorry for those of you not amused by barf jokes.
Usually when you walk into an acclaimed soup dumpling restaurant it is loud, clattering, filled with people speaking a language you don’t understand. Or at least that I don’t understand. Dean Sin World was not that place. It was quiet. It made me nervous. I ordered, giving the Chinese names for my two dishes (xiao long bao, or soup dumplings, sometimes on the menu as pork bun or juicy pork bun, and shenjian bao, or fried pork bun). The lady not only understood my Chinese but complimented me on it. I relaxed. Nobody has ever understood my Chinese pronunciation of anything before. I liked the place already. The soup dumplings came out, and despite one being burst, the large order held extremely good xlb. They are certainly in my top few in the overall rankings (along with Long’s in Vancouver), which is impressive for a place that is little more than a hallway with a banner over the front door identifying the place. These were certainly worth the drive to the San Gabriel Valley. I think, even more than I liked the soup dumpling, though, I liked fried version (shenjian bao) more than I normally do. This is not quite as much of an art to make as the soup dumpling, as the soup fades into the fluffy bao (bread) on the outside. Still, this was one to remember. The juice had disappeared, absorbed into the meat, giving it an intense flavor as well as super soft texture. Meanwhile, the frying crisps up the bottom so there is still a textural contrast between the otherwise fluffy dough and the enhanced meatball within. Just as I was in dumpling heaven, though, we had to make a hasty escape from awkward advances of a Chinese grandmother with a penchant for white girls (as translated by her visibly mortified, completely Americanized 20-something granddaughter). R may have broken her heart when she wouldn’t give the woman her phone number. We moved on quickly, recovering with a bowl of decent but not good enough to delve into hand-shaved noodles at Kam Hong.
Xiang Wei Lou
Our final stop in the SGV, before we finally let B go to bed and nap off his illness, was a Hunanese place. I’d been craving Hunanese food for while. Like Armenian, we don’t have Hunanese food in Seattle, so I made a point to get here. It was totally worth it. Welcomed with the scent of spice wafting from the kitchen and the view of peppers hanging in the window, as well as in every picture on the photo menu. I got a few classic dishes to sample their wares, unfortunately we were down an eater and at the end of our crawl, so we didn’t get to try much. The smoked pork in our stir fry dish, though, satiated my need for Hunanese food. The Hunanese version of bacon, the softly smokey meat is to bacon what the soup dumpling is to the potsticker. Subtle, yet powerful, it flavors everything it touches, giving it a distinctly Hunanese flavor. When I enter a Hunanese restaurant, I don’t know what I’ll order, but the one thing I can promise, is that it will contain that pork. And Xiang Wei Lou’s version of it (we had it with stir-friend vegetables) was wonderful.
This is by no means a complete list of everywhere we went–of course we hit the requisite Mexican food (including birria, B’s favorite), some higher end places (post to come) and there was more to the SGV crawl. But these are the places that I’ll dream of finding near me. The places where I can go and feel so foreign until I bite into the food–and then feel nothing but welcomed. These are the restaurants that will get me back to LA.