y4pcT1JaIwGptQJPO6l_mZmgv34 tiffin unboxed: August 2011

Sanamluang's Comfort Thai Food (Outside Thai Town)

Many Thai food lovers in the L.A. area are quite familiar with this place in Thai Town, known for its comfort noodles. 

There is another Sanamluang in Pomona that I actually prefer because it serves more seafood and other menu options, in bright orange plates to boot!

It's my family's standby Thai restaurant, when trying to think of something casual and inexpensive that everyone will enjoy.

These Deep Fried Fish Cakes are a prime example. I'm not sure what kind of fish they use, but it's pounded into a paste (bones removed) and blended with herbs, green beans, chilies and then fried.

They are crunchy outside and steaming soft inside. The side salad of cucumbers, red onions, peanuts and jalapeno chilies in a sweet and sour sauce help balance them out.

Their Tom-Yum-Goong, or spicy shrimp soup with mushrooms, lemon grass, lime juice, herbs and chilis comes piping hot and spicy. The sweet, sour, salty, bitter, hot typical Thai flavors are in great balance.

Pad Kee Mow noodles are almost always on the menu. It's something they have mastered. These spicy flat noodles are sauteed with green chilies, mint leaves, onions and bell papers.

It comes with choice of protein or vegetables. We often order it with ground chicken, as shown above.

My Thai friend Lisa often orders Pad Ka Pow to check out Thai restaurants. This dish of fried chili with ground chicken and mint leaves served over rice always satisfies despite being so simple.

My mother does not like to eat out much, and it's this Spicy Catfish dish that will get her out. Catfish is a staple in our Bengali culture's cuisine and we enjoy it just as much the Thai way.

Sanamluang prepares the deep fried catfish slices with red curry, chili, basil, bell pepper and herbs. The fish stays crunchy and the sauce packs a spicy punch while maintaining a fresh, herbal after taste.

It's great on steamed rice. In fact even the sauce alone tastes great with rice.

Despite the food's inherent spiciness, I like to add the roasted dry chili powder AND the sliced Thai chilies in fish sauce.

In fact I love this sauce so much I learned how to say this condiment's name in Thai language - Prik Nam Pla.

Sometimes after overdoing the condiments, a milky drink is in order to extinguish the heat.

I often add chili sauces to the point where my nose starts running and my head sweats a bit. In these cases, the Thai Iced Coffee with boba hits the spot. It also helps cut the "food coma" feeling if you've overindulged.

While I don't order dessert very often, when it's in season during the summer, one of my favorite all time desserts is Thai style Mango with Sticky Rice (Khao Niaow Ma Muang).

Sanamluang doesn't make the best version I've had, but it's still solid. They use sweet and tart Filipino mangoes. It's topped with crunchy mung beans.

We usually ask for extra coconut sauce to pour over the rice, as the rice can feel a bit dry.

Overall, this may not be my very favorite Thai restaurant in town, and it's a bit of a drive to the edges of L.A., but Sanamluang provides consistent, reliable, comfort Thai food. And that can never be a bad thing.

Sanamluang Cafe on Urbanspoon

Food Porn Laboratory (for Photography)

What is food porn? Pulitzer prize winning L.A. Times photographer Kirk McKoy posed this question to the audience at the Visual Communications' Food Porn Laboratory event last week.

An enthusiastic audience member responded, simply, "Pictures of food that turn you on".

Well this event purported to be a feast for the senses, offering "multiple foodgasms". Between that promise and the adorable photo on their site of the colorful cereal bowl with strawberries, it was hard to resist.

Community Potluck - Mochi cereal pops and cake

I read a blurb in the L.A. Times about this August 11 event organized by this organization that connects Asian Americans with the media arts, featuring Kirk McKoy and L.A. Times Photo Editor and Photo Journalist Ken Kwok. It was sponsored by Starry Kitchen.

As you may know from a prior post, which you can find here, I am a longtime and loyal Starry Kitchen customer/fan, and know that any event they take part in will be full of energy and F-U-N!

Community Potluck in courtyard

Part 1: Community Potluck

The event consisted of three parts, beginning with the Community Potluck and recipe swap. Admission to the event consisted of bringing a dish to share.

Because this component began at 5:00 p.m. while I was still at work, I notified the organizer that I would come during the tail end of that portion of the event.

Four Leaf's Matcha Milk Tea with Boba

Even though I was running late, I got off the train and stopped to fortify myself with some Matcha Milk Tea from Four Leaf in Little Tokyo, about 2 1/2 blocks from the event location. They claim to have the best boba in town, and it was indeed pretty good.

Despite being so late, organizer and summer intern Alexis Kim, who I'd emailed earlier, came to greet me warmly. Not knowing what to expect, it was nice to feel welcomed in.

I didn't get a chance to capture too many food shots or taste many things, although the adorable mochi cereal pops were hard to resist trying just one.

Courtyard - Community Potluck; Press in the background

The crowd looked enthusiastic and friendly. People were still mingling and eating. I met a few fellow bloggers and fellow foodies. Somehow I thought there might be some serious photographers present, but the group seemed to vary in experience. Pressure off, as I am a novice to photography also.

All visitors were given a name tag with a number in the order in which they arrived, and that determined one's spot in the competition.

Part 2: Workshop

Soon afterwards, the group moved indoors to begin the food photography and styling workshop. A couple of members of the Visual Communications family welcomed us and introduced themselves.

Starry Kitchen's Nguyen Tran
Nguyen Tran, owner of Starry Kitchen, gave some background about his involvement with the organization, the illegal underground start of Starry Kitchen to where they are today.

Notorious for his, shall we say "colorful" language, he did not dial it down for this crowd.

Workshop Introduction

We then moved into the workshop, with Kirk and Ken tag-teaming the discussion, as well as answering audience questions.

Kirk McKoy

This imaginative plate of food could not be any more perfect for Food Porn talk. What a great opener.

Kirk McKoy

As he spoke more examples of his work displayed on screen, such as this lively salad shot.

Kirk McKoy

With this behind the scenes view of the setup.

One of the main themes of the presentation was working in a restaurant type setting with dim lighting. The overarching theme was to always find the natural light and/or shoot in daylight as much as possible.

If there isn't any, use whatever you have to reflect the light - compacts, cell phone light, anything is fair game. If you must use flash it should point off center from the subject.

They also mentioned rotating the dish until you find the right angles to focus on and bringing in light from a complementary direction.

Using lighting

There were a few audience questions about current trends in food photography, and the answer was natural, white, light, bright and airy. Kirk also answered questions about equipment.

He demonstrated strobes and other lighting sources he uses as well as silver and white reflective materials to brighten or diffuse the lighting.

Photo by Steven Lam | www.dusome.net | Du Some Productions

Many members of the audience furiously captured notes. That's me on the second row on the left, scribbling in my notebook.

It was engaging and useful information.

Kirk and Ken demonstrating photographing liquids

Kirk demonstrated the setup he'd use for different photos, in terms of lighting, camera angle and placement of the subject.

He suggested holding the camera a 30-60 degree angle to the food, the idea being that you want it to look like it does when you look down at it right before eating. That's a useful tip for me because I tend to get really close into detail and get down to the food and plate level quite a bit.

Part 3: Competition

Alexis came back up to go over the competition rules, before we went back to the courtyard to wait for our assigned time slots.

Alexis Kim - explaining the rules

In general, there was NO touching the food since all groups would shoot the same dishes.

DSLRs will be judged separately from Point and Shoots, but any equipment and props brought in is fair game. There were tables with props provided as well.

No post processing such as Photoshop is allowed, which greatly reduced my chances, as I rely heavily on Photoshop with most photos (although the ones posted here are not retouched).

And there are prizes! The winning photo will be displayed at Starry Kitchen restaurant, on the menu and on the website. The Grand Prize Winner gets 2 All-Access festival passes for the 2012 Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival.

The dishes were donated by Starry Kitchen.  Nguyen and Thi Tran will judge and select the winning photos.

The Competition Rules - handout

Handouts were provided with the rules, time slots by participant groups/numbers, a map of the layout of the competition area, etc.

Categories consisted of:
  • Most (Food) Pornographic
  • Best Composition
  • Best Color
  • Best Ambiance/Mood

Group waiting to enter competition area

Each group had 10 people in it, who were admitted one by one and got to choose their first dish to shoot based on order of entry.

I was last in my group (of course!) so it was a bit of musical chairs to find a spot. From one's starting point, you shoot that dish and the next 4 consecutively numbered dishes.

So instead of focusing on the first dish, it would have been wiser to look down the road at the other 4. But we had 30 seconds to arrive at a station and 2 minutes to shoot each dish, so there wasn't a lot of time to get picky.

Kirk assisting competitors with setup

Kirk stuck around to assist contestants with setup of one of their shoots, which helped a lot.

Two minutes go by fast, making it difficult to decide on whether to focus on lighting, staging , angles, manual camera settings, etc. I didn't stop to look at photos after taking them, just hoping there would be a good shot in the bunch during the 2-minute period.

Lighting was bright so absolutely no need to use the flash, but holding the camera steady was another challenge.

This race to take photos gave me an inkling of what a reality show contestant might feel like. In our case though, we were not being filmed, we were not sleep deprived or sequestered and thankfully, there was no drama!

Using a prop

This dish sort of halted me in my tracks. I didn't expect black tablecloth. If I'd brought a prop, a white napkin would have been desirable. I opted not to use props, but to focus more closely on the food detail.

Kirk came to my rescue, as if reading my mind, and helped me stage this napkin (a provided prop) to frame the star of the dish, as well as point to the right angle.

Overall, this wasn't a hit with me due to proportions of the napkin to the food.

Tasty chicken wings

Even though the chicken wings was the first station I chose, from only 2-3 open spots when I walked in, I was worried about how to make it look crunchy, warm, etc. Besides the fresh garnish and sauce, we are dealing with one color too.

On another note, I ate these wings before and wanted so much to make them look as great as they taste.

This shot also didn't please me because of the focus on the center of the plate.

Kirk is the second instructor I met who mentioned the law of thirds, and not focusing right at the center for the subject of the shot.

Salad at eye level

The salad provided a lot of texture and color, which is also why I eyed the noodle dish that I never got to shoot. I tried to tilt the camera a bit to add drama, though I should have tilted it more.

Salad from above

With this shot I like that the dressing glistens on the plate and the corners of the plate echo the height and pyramid shape of the salad.

Seared tuna

Having this much color definitely helps, and I got a few good shots from this vivid plate of tuna. Some were close up showing the texture and colors of the fish and some were of the whole plate with a narrow depth of field.

This isn't the one I submitted, which got lost in the shuffle of my camera, once I got home.

Pandan Donut Holes

This plate excited me. Great rounded shapes, multiple elements and colors. In a couple of the shots the sauce looked neon green, and in some mint green.

I tried shooting the plate from afar and as a whole, then preferred getting closer for the shot.

This composition above appealed to me, but the photo lacks the sharpness I wanted.

Pandan Donut Holes - detail

Once again, I'm not certain that this was what I submitted, but I submitted one similar to this in two categories.

Waiting to upload the photos

After the photo shoot time flew by, we caught our breath and waited for access to the computers to review our photos and upload the final choice for each category.

With all the bright lights, it got warm in the room. While waiting we took the time to delete the definitely bad shots. For me I had a couple of blurry ones that had to go right away.

Nguyen hung out and chatted with people as we waited.

Photo uploading stations

Both Mac and PC stations were set up and we had 10 minutes to upload, review and drop our submission choices into folders. The team helped out those with technical issues, and really let us take our time if needed.

I had to dig through a lot of photos of the event itself to find the food shots, so I must have exceeded the time. However, I only spent about 5 minutes on food photo selection, to be fair.

Choosing photos to submit

Looking over this gentleman's shoulder while waiting for a station, I decided my salad shots would not fly! He had a very good lens and obviously a good eye. Some people brought tripods also.

Overall, people were not too competitive. Many like me were just looking for tips, practice and fun.

After uploading our choices we were free to go.

Results and winners will be announced on August 26th. Stay tuned for an update to this post after that date. Based on Starry Kitchen's unorthodox candidate selection process, which you can read about here, I can't wait to view their final selections!

In fact, I briefly met a Starry Kitchen job applicant also participated in this event, a savvy move on his part.

Nisei Week and Tanabata Festival decorations

On my short walk back to the train station, as I was reflecting on this exciting evening, I saw these lovely festival decorations against the almost full moon.

The event proved to be a smashing success. It was so lovely to meet the whole team and I must give a special shout out to Alexis for being so well-organized, creative and generally sweet. She gave everyone goodbye hugs. We have since become online friends and I'm sure she has done the same with many participants.

Thanks to event organizer Daina Solomon for excellent follow up as well. The whole team really connects effectively and I look forward to future events with this organization.

Update: 8/26/2011

Congratulations to the winners! You can see their winning photos at this link.

Sublime Noodles & Crab at Crustacean

It's hard to believe that I recently discovered dishes at Crustacean, a Euro-Vietnamese very trendy restaurant going strong since 1997. But in its heydey of popularity, I was working in the arts/non-profit and could not dream of affording this Beverly Hills establishment.

Truth be told, it's not too affordable for me even now, and the description "pan-Asian" does not reassure me about any restaurant, but recently I met a couple of friends there and we shared this simple yet soul-satisfying meal of three exquisite courses.

Course 1 - Appetizer Sampler

Seared Tuna, Lobster Spring Rolls, Grilled Steak Cubes and Crispy Shrimp Mousse on sugarcane skewers served with duo of kiwi and strawberry sauce.

The next 2 courses came from the An family Secret Kitchen, within the main kitchen, which mother and Master Chef Helene An built in 1975 in San Francisco to protect the family's culinary legacy. No staff members except family and chefs with over 10 years of employment may enter. I am convinced this helps account for the restaurant's success.

Can you get delicious noodles and crab all over L.A.? Yes. Is it executed and does it taste this perfect? Probably not.

Course 2 - An's Famous Garlic Noodles

The first word that comes to mind upon remember this dish is magical. I can't articulately explain it's comforting appeal. I could have and would have happily eaten 2 more portions of this dish.

They are warm, Chinese style, garlicky, perfectly seasoned noodles that you will remember long after you've inhaled them (which you will).

If you do a web search of this dish you will find countless recipes trying to mimic it. If you found one that compares, please send me the recipe.

Course 3 - An's Famous Roasted Crab

This roasted dungeness crab comes three ways, with 3 price levels ($41-$50): whole, cracked, and completely de-shelled and cleaned. We chose the middle ground.

It's prepared with An's garlic sauce and secret spices and tastes of freshly cracked black pepper. Juicy, oceany and finger licking deliciousness.

From its secret kitchen to its opulent colonial decor including the famous winding 80 foot long "walk on water" sunken floor aquarium at the entrance to its impeccable service, and of course the food, one can see why Crustacean strongly withstands the test of time in this fickle city.

Crustacean on Urbanspoon