Restaurant Review #264: Carmela Ice Cream, Pasadena

Brown sugar vanilla atop dark chocolate cacao nib ice cream in a waffle cup

I'll say it: Carmela Ice Cream is overrated.

The Pasadena location is tiny, with barely enough room for a few people to stand inside. It's incredibly warm--too warm--though it does smell incredible from the freshly pressed waffle cones. The staff are friendly and happy to give samples on small metal spoons. I tried the lavender honey ice cream (too sweet), earl gray ice cream, strawberry buttermilk ice cream (couldn't taste the buttermilk--tasted like ordinary strawberry), and raspberry rose sorbet, but none of them seemed like something I could eat an entire scoop of, particularly the earl gray, which didn't taste like much. Embarrassed by my inability to find a flavor I liked when others were oohing and aahing over their samples, and feeling the pressure of the mounting line behind me, I decided on a scoop of brown sugar vanilla--surely a safe option, since I love the homemade brown sugar ice cream at Kiriko.

The ever-patient and friendly server, acutely aware of my powers of indecision, said he could do two ice creams in a single scoop, so I chose another safe option--dark chocolate cacao nib. Of course, I had to get the waffle cone cup based on the incredible aroma in the place. I paid my $4.50--not a bad price for premium ice cream--and squeezed through the doorway past the now out-the-door line to sit on the lone bench outside, where I proceeded to be underwhelmed by my two flavor choices.

The brown sugar ice cream was not nearly as flavorful as Kiriko's, and the chocolate tasted like Breyer's. Now, Breyer's is my favorite store-bought ice cream, but I was expecting something special from a name like "dark chocolate cacao nib." I will say that the cacao nibs added a pleasant crunch.

I had a taste of my friend's salted caramel, and a taste of another friend's mint sorbet, both of which actually were something special, unlike my previous six attempts. The salted caramel had a rich, intense caramel flavor; the mint was made from real spearmint--no fake mint flavor, no pale green food coloring. Had I ordered one of those two flavors (or perhaps one of the other couple of flavors I didn't try) I might be raving about Carmela.  But my waffle cup still would have been soft instead of crisp--and I'm not just talking about the part the ice cream was sitting on top of. The aroma was much better than the flavor, too, which was just ordinary. At least the serving size was generous.

I've heard people rave that Carmela's flavors taste "so fresh!" because they use fresh ingredients. They use organic dairy, which from my own experiences making ice cream, I would agree tastes better. They also use fresh herbs and spices, flowers and seasonal fruits. While those flavors really shine in the mint sorbet and the lavender honey ice cream, the chocolate and strawberry tasted so ordinary.

Parking was difficult (street parking on crowded residential streets or busy Washington Blvd.), it was difficult to walk out of the crowded store without spilling my ice cream, and there was nowhere to enjoy it. Perhaps a to-go pint would have been a better option.

Sorry, Carmela--I won't be going out of my way to return.

Carmela Ice Cream
2495 E Washington Blvd
Pasadena, CA 91104
11am – 10pm Monday – Thursday
11am – 11pm Friday – Saturday
11am – 10pm Sunday


626 Night Market, Arcadia, CA

Stinky tofu from Tofu King

626 Night Market in Arcadia is an outdoor extravaganza of Asian food vendors. 2012 was the event's first year and more than 100,000 people attended. This year, you only have three more opportunities to visit: tonight, August 3 and August 4.

LA's only Asian night market and the largest Asian night market in United States takes place at the Santa Anita Race Track in the San Gabriel Valley from 4pm until midnight. There are more than 80 Asian street food vendors and 70 local merchandise vendors. Parking is free and plentiful; admission is $2 before 6pm and $3 after (children 12 and under are free).

First, let's discuss the stinky tofu. You know how when you're near a fast food restaurant, the delicious smell of fried food fills the air? Now change that smell to something lilke the smell of the funkiest, stinkiest cheese you can imagine. That is what you will experience from the several booths selling fermented tofu at 626 Night Market. I had never eaten it before, or even heard of it. Based on the smell, I had trouble convincing myself to eat it. But I will try almost any unfamiliar food as long as it isn't something like organ meats or other animal innards.

I wasn't sure which vendor to buy it from since there were no lines yet and lines are a sign of a good vendor. After two hours of preparing my stomach for stinky tofu by filling it with more familiar foods, I was ready. The place I was initially hesitant to try now had a line, but I overheard people complaining about the wait for their food. This was probably the place to go to, but I have little patience for food lines. So I tried a place with a very small sign that had no English menu, but I asked them what they were selling and they said stinky tofu and I bought some. They only sold the fried kind, which the girl in line behind me told me was better than the other, steamed variation. It looked and tasted like regular fried tofu, cut into triangles, but with larger holes in the tofu. It came on top of a bed of sweet kimchi and topped with a very salty, flaming red chili sauce. I think maybe I didn't get the stinkiest tofu available so I'll have to try again next time.

Yam balls

We went on July 6 and arrived around 4:30. Only a couple of food vendors had long lines. We were able to walk right up to the Kogi truck, where we tried the beef, pork, and chicken tacos ($10). We also tried fried yam balls ($4). I would pass on those next time; they were a bit too chewy and didn't have much flavor. They would have been better with a sweet dipping sauce. I also tried the chicken adobo ($3), which was tasty and probably one of the most filling things at the market, especially for its price. The shave ice ($3) was also a good deal. The ice melted in your mouth and they had some interesting flavors--we got horchata and root beer with sweetened condensed milk drizzle. The mac and cheese grilled cheese ($6.47) wasn't as exciting as we hoped--it was good, but I wouldn't wait in line for it. At least it was a full-sized sandwich; we were afraid it might be a miniature version since food trucks aren't known for their generous portions. This vendor also charges tax (presumably, the other vendors build the tax into their prices), so you'll end up with an odd amount of change in your pocket.

If I'd had more space in my stomach or the patience to wait in line, I would have liked to try a Japanese pancake and some skewered grilled meats. I wanted to try the Hong Kong waffles, too, but couldn't find the booth.

Macaroni and cheese grilled cheese from the Grilled Cheese Truck

There were several food trucks: the Grilled Cheese Truck, Kogi (Korean BBQ), Ludo Truck (fried chicken), Phantom (Chinese-American fusion), Slummin' Gourmet (bistro fare), Hale'iwa (shave ice), Fluff Ice, Lobsta Truck (lobster and crab rolls) and Waffles de Liege. These provide good food options for anyone you want to come to 626 Night Market with you who says they don't like Asian food. (Don't get me started on how someone can categorically dismiss the various cuisines of multiple countries in one fell swoop, but some people just like to stick with what they know).

Kogi truck tacos

At the numerous booths, which are set up sort of like farmers market stalls, you can find boba, fried tofu balls, fish balls, sausages, doner kebab, cake truffles, candy, macarons, Korean BBQ, musabi, sugar cane juice, aguas frescas served in a whole pineapple, a spiral of fried potato slices on a stick, Burmese food, Filipino food, fried bananas, beer and liquor, funnel cake, ban xeo (Vietnamese crepes), kettle corn, baked goods and so many other things.

 Chicken adobo from Papa Bear's

Here are my tips to make the best of your experience:
-Arrive at 4:00. By the time we left at 7:00, it was so crowded we could barely walk down the aisles, the food lines were growing, and the folks just arriving had very long walks from their parking spaces.
-Park near a landmark like a hedge or a fence and pay attention to where you park so you can find your car later in the massive parking lot.
-They have real bathrooms, but they are small. Bring one of those travel packs of Kleenex because there might not be any toilet paper left.
-Bring cash.
-Expect to spend $20-$30 per person to try food from four to six vendors.
-When you see something you want to try, buy it right then--don't plan to come back later. The market is huge and by the time you find your way back to the thing you wanted to try it will probably have a longer line. Don't wander the whole event scouting out the best food before you try anything. Just dive in.
-Buy a cold drink early on. You're in a valley. It's hot. You can find cold bottled water and cans of soda for as little as $1.
-Plan to eat standing up. This is a food festival. There is only one area with tables (near the restrooms). You aren't going to walk over there every time you buy some food.
-Bring friends so you can try more food!
-Some of the food is overpriced. Get over it and just buy it if you want to try it.
-Trying to navigate a stroller or wheelchair through the market is a nightmare after about 6pm when it starts getting crowded. If you use one of these, arrive at 4.
-Be patient. After you wait in line to order your food, you'll also have to wait a while for it to be prepared.

Event Info: 626 Night Market
June 8-9, 2013
July 6-7, 2013
August 3-4, 2013
Santa Anita Race Track
Front Paddock Gardens
285 W. Huntington Drive
Arcadia, CA 91007
(Gates 3 or 5 off Huntington Drive; Gate 8 off Baldwin Avenue)


Restaurant Review #263: Phoenix Bakery, Chinatown

Strawberry cake, $4.50

Chinatown's Phoenix Bakery isn't known for its Chinese pastries; it's beloved for its seemingly mundane fresh strawberry whipped cream cake, a fluffy white cake with fresh strawberries nestled into a lightweight whipped cream frosting. It's tasty, if not unique, and is ideal for those who dislike the cavity-inducing sweetness of your typical cake. You won't feel like a glutton after eating a piece, either. You can order it with or without a coating of sliced almonds.

This cake is popular for special occasions, but it doesn't slice neatly so it might not be right for a more formal affair. Phoenix Bakery does offer reasonably priced, some might even say inexpensive, wedding cakes.

Wintermelon cake, $2

The spacious bakery has tables if you'd prefer to eat your goodies on the premises. The service is friendly and fast; the prices aren't as cheap as you'd like them to be, especially for Chinatown, but they're still reasonable for baked goods. There's a $10 minimum if you want to pay with plastic.

Wintermelon cake

Skip the wintermelon cake. The scant wintermelon filling only has a dull sweetness.  The other pastries that look like it might have better fillings, but they wouldn't make up for the dense, doughy pastry that tastes like little more than shortening and flour.

They also sell ice cream mochi in the usual flavors--chocolate, green tea, strawberry, and mango. I was disappointed that they didn't have the durian mochi I saw on Yelp.

Phoenix Bakery
969 N Broadway
Los Angeles, CA 90012
(213) 628-4642
Mon-Sun 9 am - 8 pm
Phoenix Bakery website


Restaurant Review #257: Tsujita LA / Artisan Noodles, Sawtelle, West LA

Char Siu Tsukemen, $13.95

Tsujita LA / Artisan Noodles on Sawtelle in West LA is two restaurants in one. At lunch, it serves tsukemen and ramen; at dinner, it serves traditional Japanese cuisine, sushi, and sashimi. The restaurant hails from Japan, with four locations in Tokyo, one in Bangkok, and the one on Sawtelle, which opened July 30, 2011. A second location will open soon across the street in the former gr/eats space.

We visited Artisan Noodles on a Sunday afternoon around 1:00. Like all the new restaurants on Sawtelle, the interior is impossibly tiny. The limited tables and high demand mean waits are inevitable, but the restaurant has an efficient system for shortening the time you spend standing on the sidewalk, jealous of the patrons seated on the umbrella-shaded patio who are already slurping noodles. There's a sign-in sheet, and once you've signed in, the hostess will take your order ahead of time when she knows a table will be opening up soon. There are plenty of menus available for browsing, but don't sign in until you know what you want to order.

The menu can be confusing to the uninitiated; it's short and the English isn't perfect. I thought I was at just another ramen joint--I hadn't researched the restaurant in advance, just popped in on a whim because I love noodles. The restaurant does serve the wavy noodles in broth that we're all familiar with, and you can specify whether you want them cooked firm, medium, or soft (the restaurant recommends firm). However, the real draw are the tsukemen, or dipping noodles.

For the char siu tsukemen that we both ordered, the  long, chewy noodles are served cold in one bowl, topped with a sheet of nori (seaweed); several slices of tender, fatty char siu (barbecued pork); and a petite lime wedge. Served in a separate bowl is an unctuous broth made from pork and chicken bones, vegetables, bonito, and dried sardines slowly simmered for 12 hours. In the broth are smaller pieces of pork, a seasoned soft-boiled egg called ajitama, scallions, and dark brown bamboo shoots called men-ma. A set of somewhat helpful, somewhat irritating instructions on the back of the menu instructs diners in the proper way to eat tsukemen.

You can add a squeeze of lime to the noodles whenever you like, but the limes were so small that they were only worth about one squeeze each. The small limes aren't a big deal, but they do seem like an oversight in an otherwise meticulously prepared dish, and if the servers don't come by to check on you (ours didn't), you can't ask for extra limes unless you manage to flag someone down.

There are also several condiments on the table that you can add to your dish: strands of neon red pickled ginger, mustard greens marinated in chili paste (not for the faint of tongue), sesame seeds, tonkatsu sauce, soy sauce, black pepper, and a mild chili powder with black sesame seeds. Extra limes are free; for $1 each you can order an extra egg, seaweed, or bamboo shoots.

 Men-ma (Bamboo shoot)

We sat on the patio, which was cold and windy and a bit of a rushed, intimidating experience since you're in such close proximity to the throngs who are hungering for your table. The interior is beautiful; I'll sit there next time, even if it means elbowing up to a stranger at the bar since there are few tables and they mostly seem sized for parties of four. One strange oversight in this otherwise polished space was the bathroom faucet, which is loose, dirty, and in desperate need of replacement. (I hate bathroom sinks where I feel less clean after using them than before.)

While the servings look small and $14 seems steep for what is essentially a bowl of soup, it's incredibly filling and satisfying. I ate less than half of mine (probably a good thing given what I'm sure is an astronomical amount of salt and fat in that incredible broth). The nice thing about tsukemen is that unlike ramen, you can pack it up and take it home without the noodles getting ruined since they're separate from the broth. Plus, with so many amazing eateries in the area, you'll probably want to save room for a coffee, boba tea, or some shaved ice around the corner or down the block.

Make sure to hit the ATM on your way to the restaurant; it's cash only.

Tsujita LA / Artisan Noodles 
2057 Sawtelle Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90025
Lunch: daily, open at 11, last order at 2
Dinner:  6:00pm - 12:00am, Sun - Thur.; 6:00pm - 2:00am, Fri. and Sat.