‘I’m from the Northwest,” says Lu Hong. She means Northwest China. “In Xinjiang, people like their food spicy and hot. Same like Szechuan. But this food here is from South-East China. More like Shanghai, where they like everything sweet. So if you are confused, just think Asian fusion!”
She has a nice glassy laugh. My friend Mary and I are sitting staring at a plethora of choices in the menu Lu Hong has laid before us.
Potential problem: Mary’s from the Midwest. US Midwest. Not totally into the Asian thing. Definitely not into spicy, or sweet. Or squiggly things such as gizzards, quail eggs, chunks of sautéed liver on bamboo skewers.
4647 Convoy Street #101C, Kearny Mesa
I’m thinking of these things right now because they’re part of a selection of skewered apps which really look like deals, only two and three bucks each, here at this place we’ve happened on in the middle of Little Asia, Convoy’s crowded food paradise. It’s called “Facing East.” Sits in Seoul Plaza. Has two massive stone lions snarling at you right outside the entrance. And behind, hundreds of strung-up to-go boxes acting as entrance curtains.
So we wandered in here. Big room with paper origami birds fluttering up and down one wall, and on another, a rag-tag collection of posters showing, uh, punk rock British flags. Menu said they combine Japanese, Taiwanese, Chinese, and Korean cuisine, “specializing in soup dumplings and ramen.”
And they did have all kinds of everything on the menu (including totally wicked-looking desserts like Salted Caramel Pretzel Freak Shakes for $8), but upfront, they’re featuring ramen and dumplings, including, natch, xiao long bao, soup-filled dumplings. Typical deal is five dumplings of “squid ink skin and black truffle” ($10). Or ten pieces of pork xiao long bao ($11). Boy, I remember at the last soup dumpling place, I chewed right into a xiao long bao, got squirted with really hot soup from inside, burned my mouth. Learned my lesson well. Now I always open up the top first with chopsticks.
Meantime, Mary’n me were looking at other stuff. For instance, best deal seemed to be your simple braised pork rice, a plateful for $8.50. The ramens start around $10.
But then I noticed that whole column on skewers. Obscure skewers such as liver yakitori or quail egg, or more standard ones like prime beef. They all go for $2 each. Deal! Okay, the prime beef one’s $3.50. But I can see this is a way to sample the goods without paying a fortune. Anything from beef tongue to pork belly to eggplant to chicken heart to gizzard yakitori (yakitori actually means skewered chicken) at two buckeroos each.
Mary’s not totally brimming with enthusiasm for things like tongue and gizzard, so we go for that black truffle ramen as our back-up.
“And I’ll have a skewer,” she says. “The prime beef.” Great. Now I can hit some of these interesting ones.
“Let me try the quail eggs, for starters,” I say, “and the chicken liver yakitori, and hey, the gizzard yakitori. Gizzards. Like, what are gizzards?”
“Sure you wanna know?” says Mary.
“Nice delicacy, very popular in China,” Lu Hong says, mysteriously.
One delicacy I do need: a bottle of that Asahi Dry Black beer ($4.80).
The food comes out in short order. The quails’ eggs are a tiny, slightly sweet, and mild little accompaniment to the meats, neatly lined up on brown and black ceramic dishes.
“Mmm, the beef’s got that soy flavor, and garlic,” says Mary.
“Mmm,” I say, because I’m so pleasantly surprised by the liver. Usually, liver has that back-of-nose flavor I’ve never really liked. Not this. It has a savory, almost dark, crispy thing going on. So good. We did order a bowl of rice, just in case ($1). But no need for it.
For me, the most interesting meat skewer is the gizzards. They’re nubbly, rubbery, almost crunchy, mild in flavor, and muscly as heck. They really make you want to chew them down.
Mary’s been looking them up. “Oh yeah. I remember now. Gizzards are how the chicken grinds his food. Like a little second stomach, a processing plant in his craw. That’s why they eat pebbles, to use instead of teeth. Can we appreciate what a miracle of adaptation that is?”
She says crocodiles have them. Lizards as well. “Ever heard of lizards’ gizzards?”
Uh, takes a moment. But at least I appreciate what these robust little balls of muscle did in life.
We’re saved from thinking too much about it by the arrival of the ramen. No gizzards required here. Actually, we could have saved our money. It’s too much, but nice comfort food all the same. The great slab of pork belly comes with all kinds of little extra tastes, from corn to bamboo to cabbage to truffle oil to fried onions to bean sprouts to a big half-egg to seaweed. And the good thing: the longer we leave it, the richer the soup becomes. We gradually slurp it down, head to head, nose to nose, till all we have left are noodles and slabs of pork fat. What remains is the flavor of truffle oil.
“Gotta do this again,” I say.
“Gotta try those soup dumplings first,” says Mary. “Because what I want to know is, how do they get that squirty soup into the dumplings in the first place?”