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Chickenjoy, eel rolls: Pop goes the fast food

Times Staff Writers

IT’S molded, it’s pressed, it’s presented in a shape no panini has ever known (but a McMuffin might recognize). And yet -- it’s steaming hot, has a wonderful breakfasty aroma, and there’s a nice thick layer of bright green spinach along with the egg and melted cheese between pieces of bread with real substance. It’s a breakfast panini, made (or rather remade) on the spot at our local Famima!! and it’s one of our new grab ‘n’ go guilty pleasures.

Fast food is fun again, in a way it hasn’t been since In-N-Out Burger heated up or Krispy Kremes made a splash. This time, the fun is thanks to some bright, upbeat chains from abroad and to the local imitators they’ve inspired.

The new generation of chains, with names such as Santouka or Pinkberry or Pollo Campero, has a youthful pop-culture aesthetic, with food that’s a bit distinctive and instantly likable. They’ve got bubble. They’ve got swirl. But what do they have to eat? And how does each measure up? Food section staff writers hit the streets recently to find out.

Pollo Campero, the bright, shiny Guatemalan chain, has folks lined up for fried chicken, and we understand why: It’s terrific, with a light, faintly spicy crust. The dark meat is extremely moist, the white meat acceptable. Don’t be tempted by the coleslaw though; it’s a terrible mush.

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Grilled chicken at Pollo Campero is good -- especially the grilled chicken bowl -- juicy, perfectly cooked slices sitting atop smoky beans and red rice garnished with diced onions, tomato and cilantro. Fried plantains are fine, though pretty sticky-sweet. For dessert? Flan and mango flan from Cozy Shack, the familiar supermarket brand.

Famima!!, the suddenly ubiquitous Japanese convenience store chain, is like 7-Eleven gone chic, with cool notebooks and pencils, kombucha drinks and a countertop steam cabinet full of bao. But the star attraction is the large display of prepared foods -- sushi, sandwiches, pasta dishes, stir fries and salads to take them home or eat in (custom microwaving available). Don’t miss the hand rolls -- there’s barbecue eel or shrimp with wasabi for those (like us) who are just a tiny bit nervous about eating fast-food raw fish. The cellophane package looks like a cone-shaped hand roll but it unwraps and flattens out to expose a sheet of nori. Pull the cone of rice with filling out of another sleeve, wrap the nori around it and enjoy. The nori is crisp, the rice has the right vinegar zing, the eel is nicely sweet, punctuated by cool cucumber.

Sushi is another story: Whitefish cut roll is filled with desiccated fried fish and wrapped in mushy nori; California roll is too sweet, with the avocado turning brown. Other offerings are a mixed bag. Tempura is a soggy mess, with a coating that tastes like raw flour; soba is gummy.

Chicken-salad wrap tastes like cardboard; the only decent dim sum are the steam-cabinet bao. Chicken korma, though, is respectable, with lots of cashews that balance the texture and taste of the dish. The prize for cute factor goes to a bag of chocolate cake bites. Each tiny petit four is like a supersophisticated Ding Dong.

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Cross-cultural baking

TOUS Les Jours is a Korean-owned bakery chain with a flagship store that has an upscale takeout cafe. At all branches, there are baked goods of the intriguingly cross-cultural variety: breads, rolls and pastries baked in European styles, many with fillings that use Asian flavors such as red bean, green tea, chestnut and sesame.

The almond croissant is nice and buttery with good almond filling and sliced almond topping. But watch out for the foot-long PB&J; huarache called Mammoth Bread. It would send an entire kids’ soccer team into sugar shock.

A hot box offers chewy-puffy tuna croquettes -- like piroshki with a spicy tuna filling -- as well as pigs in a blanket that improve on the original with crisp panko crusts. Sandwiches are faux Euro, with diced chicken and melted mozzarella between quasi-focaccia slices. Cold sesame noodles are delicious with a light but flavorful spicy sauce.

At Jollibee outlets, the “crispilicious” chickenjoy is a euphemism for fried chicken with a sodden crust. And the Palabok fiesta may not be the best introduction to the Filipino dish of rice noodles with shrimp sauce and ground chicharron (pork rind); it’s soggy and funky.

But sotanghon soup, a garlicky chicken broth with lots of cellophane noodles, fresh sliced green onions and carrots and half a hard-boiled egg, served with a packet of lemon juice, is a tasty, light lunch.

The Yum Burger is fine, with a soft, fairly salty patty that seems to be boosted with something that’s not beef -- soy perhaps? The Amazing Aloha Burger is a real winner. Though it’s just a Yum Burger with the additions of a limp piece of bacon, slice of pineapple, American cheese and a big dollop of mayo, it somehow, weirdly, all comes together.

Is Santouka, the chain of ramen shops located in food courts in Mitsuwa markets, worthy of the buzz it’s been getting among ramen aficionados? You bet. Order at the window, choosing from a streamlined menu of pork ramen with four options for its pork broth: salt (plain), miso, soy sauce or spicy. The basic ramen comes in a ceramic bowl -- no Styro in sight, save for water cups (no drinks are sold). A few slices of flavorful pork (that many will find too fatty), sliced green onions, wood ear mushrooms, bamboo shoots and a slice of fish cake garnish the springy ramen.

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You can add rice and a flavored hard-boiled egg. The rice can be topped with “leeks” (which look and taste suspiciously like scallions) and mushrooms; salmon roe; diced pork; or natto -- fermented soy beans with scallions. Natto is an acquired taste, but Santouka’s is very good, with beans that keep their integrity, and a low goo-factor.

Everything we tasted here was terrific -- and we tasted through almost the entire menu. Best, though, is toroniku -- the special pork-salt ramen. The ramen is seasoned with sesame seeds, and you get a separate plate of sliced pork that’s less fatty and even more flavorful than the regular pork. It’s garnished with scallions, mushrooms, bamboo shoots, a slice of fish cake and a tiny, salty plum.

Frozen yogurt that tastes like yogurt, a little tart and tangy, is what sparked the Pinkberry frenzy. And the lines don’t seem to be getting shorter in spite of the chain’s expansion. An imitator itself (it’s similar to Korean chains Red Mango and Iceberry), Pinkberry has not only spawned multiple pink-and-green polka-dot L.A. branches, but also raised a flag in New York City (Chelsea) and inspired local wannabes Kiwiberry, Roseberry and BerriGood. Two flavors, original (plain) and green tea, come with your choice of fresh fruit toppings: diced strawberries, mangoes, kiwis, bananas, blueberries, boysenberries. The yogurt, creamy with just a touch of iciness, comes perfectly swirled by barristas of frozen yogurt.

Also on the menu is shaved ice with green-tea frozen yogurt, little chewy rice cakes and fruit. It’s like a pared-down, elegant version of Korean bingsu, minus the fun factor of red beans and cereal flakes. Order a yogurt instead and pull up a plastic chair to sit in -- if you can snag one.

susan.latempa@latimes.com

brenner@latimes.com

Betty Hallock and Charles Perry contributed to this report.


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