Nan ru peanuts
Are nan ru peanuts the obvious stars of the snack aisle at your local Chinese supermarket? Unlikely. They're usually shelved at the bottom, almost invisible among the haw flakes, salted plums and anise-flavored watermelon seeds. And when you rip open a foil bag of them — my favorite is the Farmer brand, from Singapore — they are among the homeliest nuts you will ever come across: shells small and twisted, dyed an alarming shade of pink, and pungent in a way that may have certain nonfood resonances. The peanuts are flavored with a fermented bean curd that is occasionally ranked, albeit unfairly, with the smellier seasonings in the Chinese kitchen. But when you crack open a shell and pop a tiny kernel into your mouth, all is pretty much forgiven. Because the crunch is profound, the taste of the nut sings through, and there is an umami-perfumed sweetness you will find nowhere else.
Carmen's nachos at El Cholo
If you are a current or former USC student, chances are you've spent more than a few memorable nights tucked into a booth at the original El Cholo on Western Avenue. This is where you lick your wounds after an evening graduate class, in need of faculty gossip, two rounds of margaritas and a plate of Carmen's nachos. Because there is something oddly comforting in how unfussy a plate of nicely fried tortilla chips covered in melted cheese can be. The chips are not piled high on the platter. Instead, they have been arranged as a relatively flat layer, making it possible to cover each one almost completely with jack and cheddar cheeses. The structure of the nachos is key. After spending eight hours battling Avid NewsCutter in the editing dungeon at school, the last thing you want to do is flip out at dinner because the chips on the right corner of the plate are cheese-less.
The idea of ramen at Lukshon
Sang Yoon cooks beyond the genius of his stoves, to paraphrase Wallace Stevens a bit. Or at least that's the idea, not only at his burger destination Father's Office and at Lukshon, his Southeast Asian-focused restaurant, but also in his lab, also in the Helms Bakery complex near Culver City. So: noodles. In this case, ramen. On the small noodle quadrant of Lukshon's menu, Yoon has had versions of Chinese ramen, dan dan mian, Chiang Mai curry noodles and Cantonese chicken soup; and he experiments with them all. The dan dan mian has gone missing (that sound you heard was Yoon's fans wailing), to be replaced by what's listed on the menu as "chilled sesame ramen." You'll find nothing like tonkotsu, but rather a dish more akin to what you'd order at Shaanxi Gourmet on a hot summer day. Cold ramen noodles, ground beef tongue, scallion, sesame sauce and seeds, and peanuts. Ta-da.