Dear Tony

Dear Tony,

This summer I am traveling to Vietnam, because you have written that it is your favorite place on Earth.  In the years since I first picked up Kitchen Confidential I have had the privilege of seeing much of the world through your eyes.  A devotee of your essays and memoirs and travel shows, I discovered distant cuisines and communities, and now places as seemingly remote as the Congo and Beirut have opened to me, a Jewish girl from the Bay Area, thanks to your thorough pursuit of knowledge—better yet, of understanding.

You are the guide that makes these parts knowable.  You can enter any room with your balance of acerbic wit, total respect and sincere curiosity, and disarm people, connect with them, truly see them.  You taught me that flavors are a gateway into other worlds, a bridge across continents and eras. 

You have introduced me to some of my very favorite tastes and most vibrant memories—Under Bridge Spicy Crab and roasted goose in Hong Kong, “carrot cake” in Singapore, fresh cheese with local honey in Sardinia (a stop on my honeymoon with the express purpose of eating what we watched you eat there).  An episode of “No Reservations” featuring an endless green noodle brought me, miraculously, (after attempts to communicate its whereabouts to two different cab drivers) to a noodle shop in Beijing, where I got to deploy my Rosetta Stone-practiced Mandarin, “two beers and one tea, please.”   

I am lucky to have had many food-lover influences in my life.  But it was you who saved me from inheriting my Mom’s germophobia (my brother got it, sadly), by showing me that a willingness to commune over a choice cut of “squeezle” or glass after glass of home-brewed Chinese moonshine will pay dividends in experience, even if it may wreak havoc on the digestive system.

Your veneration for other food cultures inspires me to want to taste the world.  Your humility in writing that the more you travel, the less you know fuels my curiosity and my sense of adventure.  I am proud to claim you as an American ambassador to other lands.  Your tough-guy persona belies a deep commitment to the values of respect, humility and kindness.

Before I had the terminology for what I was, (“foodie” is so obnoxious, anyhow), I was simply someone who had an insatiable hunger for travel, for chocolate almond croissants, galaktabourekos, lamb vindaloo and claypot chicken.  And you were my beacon, guiding me to the certainty that a life devoted to making a true connection over a shared plate was possible, even admirable.  You showed me that food is the universal language that tells our stories when words cannot.  Someday I hope to be half the explorer and translator that you are. 

With Love,

Jessica Jacobs


To celebrate our one-year wedding anniversary, my husband and I fulfilled a longtime dream and traveled to Japan in November. We spent five marvelous days in Tokyo (and I mean that literally, as we marveled at the endless curiosities the city has to offer) before moving on to visit Singapore and Hong Kong. (We couldn’t resist a stop in Hong Kong, our all-time favorite city, since we were already flying out to East Asia.) It was our first time in Singapore, and the food was incredible, a unique blend of Indian, Malay and Chinese cuisine with a twist, but a discussion for another post. Tokyo was a wonderland to me, every corner of the city offering a glimpse into a world I knew I could not fully comprehend. No, not even close. From the meticulously polite and self-effacing culture to the seemingly infinite variations on the food we know as “Japanese cuisine,” e.g. soba, udon, yakitori, Japanese BBQ, to the beyond strange experience of certain Tokyo nightlife attractions, I made a feeble and wide-eyed attempt to absorb it all. Each and every alleyway, every tiny yakitori joint or 8-seater bar, every small boutique or coffee shop we passed seemed like a can’t-miss. We did a healthy mix of walking around the Shinjuku, Shibuya and Harajuku areas, exploring whichever shops and bakeries we came upon that looked intriguing, and visiting our designated points of interest, including the legendary Sukiyabashi Jiro, of “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” fame. Yes, Jiro himself hand made and placed each piece of nigiri in front of us. It was a pretty incredible experience. And a fast one! We were in and out in 25 minutes. We ate 19 pieces of sushi, beginning with a firm and flavorful sole fish and ending with that unrivaled Tamago that plays such a featured role in the documentary. The piece of Tamago, an egg cake of sorts, was revelatory. Sweet and fluffy and truly unlike anything else we’ve tasted. We had Sea Eel the consistency of custard, and Ark Shell, a clam I had never even heard of before. I'm a little excited outside of Sukiyabashi Jiro

We also had some incredible meals under $20, most notably those we found wandering down Yakitori Alley in Shinjuku, an alleyway near the train station dotted with tiny yakitori restaurants, each one similar in its coziness and offerings. We had no way of knowing which was a good one, our only guide being our noses and an intentional passing over of anywhere boasting “English menu.” We pointed. We ate. We drank cold Asahi Super Dry and feasted on chicken meatballs and whole salted coal-roasted fish. It was a delight. Yakitori Alley

We were pleasantly surprised to find that an artisan coffee culture has blossomed in Tokyo and there are now dozens of wonderful coffee houses to rival Intelligentsia or Blue Bottle here in California. Easily the best coffee experience we had was at the wonderfully cozy Chatei Hatou in Shibuya. Tucked away in an alley, with only a small sign featuring a decorative bird to indicate its presence, Chatei Hatou is both lavish and quaint inside, a little sanctuary of deliciously strong pour-overs, chiffon cake, and mismatched gilded china. An oversized vase bursting with flowers and branches that reach the beamed ceiling tops a wooden table adorned with small art nouveau style lamps. The wall is lined with different glassware and hundreds of pretty teacups, no two alike. The sign for Chatei Hatou Coffee

Enticed by the photos on the restaurant sign next door, we ventured downstairs to a Japanese BBQ restaurant. The host quickly ushered us to a back room, our own little stone cave with a sliding door shielding us from view (perhaps the foreigner treatment)? We removed our shoes and slid onto bamboo mats in front of a grill built into the table. As in most worthwhile establishments, the menu was again all in Japanese and we pointed to our selections from a plate of different raw meats the server brought to demonstrate our options. We asked for beer and he delivered two steins of Kirin the size of our heads. The marbled meat sizzled on the grill, curling and dripping and developing delicious sear. It was fatty and chewy and meaty, and we dipped it in thick Worcestershire-esque sauce and ate it over rice. The lunch also included a fresh side salad with tofu, and the entire thing came out to around $10/person. Japanese BBQ

We did more than just eat in Japan, surprisingly enough—we visited some lovely gardens in Shinjuku and Bunkyo, and walked for hours around Yoyogi Park, saw the Meiji Shrine there, and came out the other side to shop in Harajuku. We contemplated purchasing a small monkey from a pet store near our hotel, but settled for a video of him hopping around in his little cage and emitting tiny howls. We also stopped into a number of Tokyo’s famously tiny bars and sampled cocktails and Japanese whiskies. At one such establishment, a refined and intimate underground bar in Ginza known for its mixology called Star Bar, we passed an hour drinking G+T’s with fresh pear puree, chatting with the bartender about Tokyo and comparing its bars to those in the US. At one point, the bartender had come out from behind the bar to help a businessman who had been sitting next to us with his coat. I felt his hand on my shoulder, and when I turned he said, “Excuse me, but this gentleman would like to say something to you.” The businessman, who spoke too little English to participate in our earlier conversation, smiled and said, “I hope you enjoy your time in Tokyo.” That was all.

That moment really stuck with me as an indication of the extreme kindness, politeness, and humility we encountered throughout our short stay in Japan. I had about a thousand questions I wished I could ask about the culture there, but I didn’t have the vocabulary to explore them. For someone without any knowledge of Japanese, navigating Tokyo is not easy. But the city offers so very many rewards for your efforts. Rigukien Park

Favorite LA Restaurants 2012

You may have noticed I have been on a bit of a hiatus. Things got a little crazy towards the end of 2012—I got married in October! We honeymooned in Italy and France, where we ate to our hearts’ delight, got back and I started preparing for a work trip to Israel in December. Between Thanksgiving, thank-you notes and teaching and settling in to married life, blogging got a little bit lost in the shuffle. But I have certainly been trying my usual share of restaurants, if not more. We’ve already been to 9 of the 10 “Best New Restaurants” from this year’s Los Angeles Magazine issue, and we’re busily working our way through San Gabriel Valley’s dizzying number of delicious Chinese options. We’ve had phases where we went to Mitsuwa marketplace almost every night of the week for ramen or soba or udon or tempura (I’ll be posting about that soon) and we had Mexican food kicks where we ate mountains of tacos and enchiladas, mostly from trucks or La Sandía in Santa Monica. I didn’t want to return to LA on 20 with a run-of-the-mill blog post, it seemed unceremonious, so instead of the usual recommendation I am beginning 2013 with a list of my 20 favorite LA restaurants in order. People so often ask me for restaurant recs when they’re coming into town to visit, and I always feel a weighty obligation to outline for them an appropriately diverse and delicious selection of restaurants I feel to be essential LA spots, so this list will serve as my reference point to visitors this year.

Now, most of these places are not really in the ballpark of $20/day. But some of them are, and that is a testament to the strength of LA’s street food culture and the vast number of gems this city has to offer. Below you will find my favorite restaurants—not necessarily the hottest or even the best, but the restaurants I want to visit again and again, the restaurants I feel represent LA’s food scene right now and make me happy and excite me. Some of them are homey and some are innovative, some are ethnic and some are market-driven. They are all over the city and all over the globe, cuisine-wise. But if I had to select twenty places in LA where you cannot go wrong, where you will be delighted and leave fulfilled and wanting to return, these are my best bets. Enjoy!

1. Osteria Mozza 2. Milo and Olive 3. Sycamore Kitchen 4. Gjelina 5. Rivera 6. Son of A Gun 7. Kiriko 8. Salt’s Cure 9. Delicious Food Corner 10. Huge Tree Bakery 11. Guisado’s 12. Lukshon 13. Samosa House (Both East and the original) 14. Mitsuwa Marketplace (West LA) 15. Noodle Boy 16. Ink. 17. Blue Plate Oysterette 18. Waterloo and City 19. Church and State 20. Bottega Louie

Alice Waters' Worst Nightmare

Just thought I would share this angry letter I wrote to the Food Network this week regarding some of their new programming... Dear Food Network,

I am an avid viewer and fan of your programming, an aspiring food writer, and a lover of food. I often make recipes by Giada, Barefoot, and Anne Burrell. Regardless of what my idol, Tony Bourdain, says about your network, I remain a loyal viewer and defender. However, I was completely dismayed when I recently tuned into an episode of your new show, Hungry Girl. The chef was making her "Fettuccine Hungry GirlFredo," a supposedly healthier version of Fettuccine Alfredo. What appalled me was the list of ingredients in her health food version: tofu noodles, fat free sour cream and a wedge of Laughing Cow cheese. Laughing Cow cheese is a pre-packaged, highly processed cheese product. I love that the Food Network always advocates using fresh, real produce and ingredients, and I find it to be frankly insulting to the intelligence of your viewer to suggest that anyone watching the show would satisfy a craving for creamy pasta with this sad imitation containing microwaved tofu noodles and waxy, tasteless faux cheese. This recipe flagrantly promotes everything that turned us off to "health food" in the first place, back in the '90's when we were taught that anything "fat free" was guilt-free, regardless of how many preservatives or how little taste that food product contained. As a country, we're now moving away from that mentality with the farm-to-table movement, and this program has it backward.

It seems that all of your other chef/hosts know what any real food lover knows: that fresh produce and a little bit of real food, whether it's cheese or pasta or anything else that has integrity of ingredients, beats the processed stuff any day. If you want to give Tony Bourdain fodder for claiming that your network appeals to the lowest intelligence and taste level of the American public, then surely this new program is the best example. I would appreciate seeing the Food Network get back on track with programming that teaches America how to make real, nutrient-filled foods taste good with authentic recipes that aren't dumbed down. I am a lover of your content, but seeing that recipe come together was honestly disgusting--I had to change the channel after the first ten minutes.

Thank you for your consideration.

Best, Jessica

Donuts are for Homos!

Or so says some group of douche bags who were driving by the Donut Man in Glendora last night around 10:30PM. I’m more of a donut egalitarian myself, but I’m sure these guys knew what they were talking about. I found myself in Glendora—a highly unlikely locale for a Santa Monican—last night because I saw a peanut butter and jelly donut on The Best Thing I Ever Ate that made me want to cry it looked so good. Being the highly suggestible types, the boyfriend and I went online to peruse our LA options, as the aforementioned PBJ donut sadly resides in New York. I don’t usually go out looking for donuts, especially 45 miles from my home and late at night, but having recently spent three days in Seattle, donuts are kind of on my radar. You see, Seattle is home to Top Pot Donuts. You’ve probably heard of them, either because Starbucks carries a couple of their varieties, or because their 5 Seattle locations are pretty famous, and for good reason. These donuts are worth writing home about, especially the old-fashioned, which are chewy and dense and not cakey like I expected them to be. They are only elevated by the glazes. Whether we’re talking raspberry or chocolate or maple, the glaze is gooey and sweet and full of flavor. The maple glaze is so rich it makes eating an entire maple donut practically impossible, but it’s so worth being sick over. With that sinful maple glaze still fresh in my mind, I agreed to drive for 50 minutes to Donut Man, because Yelp and Jonathan Gold and everyone else assured me I would find there the best donuts in Los Angeles. I was underwhelmed. The tiger tail that everyone on Yelp is salivating over was good, but nothing extraordinary. The real disappointment was Donut Man’s maple glaze, which I must say was quite tasteless in comparison to TP. It’s not that the donuts were bad, they just weren’t that awesome. And I tried five completely different donuts to be sure my selections weren’t the problem. It probably didn’t help that on my way back here from Seattle I spent a few days in my native San Francisco, home of Dynamo Donuts, the most inventive, fresh, delicious donuts I’ve ever had. From the maple bacon to the vanilla bean to the orange blossom, even Top Pot doesn’t top Dynamo. After the relatively poor showing last night, I’m starting to believe that the best donut in LA is sitting in the pastry case at Starbucks. I’m on the lookout for an LA donut I can be proud of, and suggestions are welcome. image credit: flickr user m. bibelot.

A Plea for Ice Cream

You know what is woefully absent from this town? Decent ice cream. Sure, we have plenty of yogurt, which is lovely, but there is not a single decent ice cream joint in Los Angeles, as far as I can tell. I have traveled far and wide in search of such a place, and I’ve taken a decent sampling of the scene, from the ever-popular (and cheap as dirt) Diddy Riese, to Milk on Beverly, to the CoolHaus truck, to Carmela at the Hollywood Farmer’s Market, to Jonathan Gold’s beloved Bulgarini Gelato way out in China…sorry, I mean Altadena. Maybe I’m spoiled, but nothing holds a candle to San Francisco ice cream. San Francisco has a complete monopoly on good ice cream. My home city harbors the incomparable BiRite, with its salted caramel that blows away even Bertillon’s in Paris. And as if that weren’t enough, there’s also Humphrey Slocombe, and the underrated Three Twins, where I could eat Earl Gray all day long. You can even get decadent, luscious Fiorello’s Valhrona Chocolate Gelato at Whole Foods there. Share the wealth, SF! I went through a brief phase where I drove the 40 minutes to Scoops in Hollywood multiple nights a week for their inventive flavors that change daily, but then I spent a few days back in San Fran and had some BiRite, and now I can’t even bear to go back to Scoops. It’s too depressing. The flavors are good, but the consistency is all wrong. It is a great option for vegans and lactose-intolerants. Nevertheless, the search continues. If you have any insights, I implore you to share them. I am at a loss.Bi Rite Ice CreamImage Credit: flickr user roboppy