Sunday, December 30, 2012

Treasures of the San Gabriel Valley: Spam musubi croissants, fine falafel and innovative Indian

Spam musubi croissant
Everyone knows that the San Gabriel Valley is the place to go for dim sum, dumplings and sumptuous Chinese seafood banquets. But with a roiling hotpot of cultures in the valley, there are plenty of other places to discover. Bloggers GourmetPigs, FoodGPS E*starLA and I were invited recently to try Azusa's Mediterranean spot Falafel Me! and we managed to fit in two other terrific stops.
Taza Coffee is at 11 West Huntington in Arcadia

Coffee pairs with fusion pastries at Taza

First up was Arcadia's Taza Coffee House, which brews artisan coffee from Ritual Roasters, Handsome and others, and in all likelihood brews the best coffee between Intelligentsia in Pasadena and in Coffee Klatch in San Dimas. On weekdays, they make dense, chewy waffles with interesting toppings.
But weekends are when you want to go, for fascinating fusion pastries from Sharon Wang, a former Bouchon baker who has her own Sugarblooom pastry company. A Spam musubi croissant was an inspired combination of the down-home Hawaiian poor man's sushi and Parisian savoir-faire. Two logs of Spam are combined with kimchi and enrobed in delicate pâte feuilletée, then sprinkled with nori seaweed for a crunchy, salty flavor bomb that could probably pair well with some hot green tea.
The bacon maple scone is perfectly executed, just right to order with a cappucino. There's also miso-butterscotch cookies, again deftly playing the umami-meets-Viennoiserie game with finesse. But the real revelation was the pretzel croissant, a pastry which I didn't even bother taking a picture of, instead starstruck by Spam and miso. (FoodGPS has a good one.) Made with whole wheat flour and sprinkled with sesame seeds that toast on top of the lye-washed croissant, it's a slightly earthier pastry with a toasty brown butter flavor that I absolutely could not stop eating. Again, the pastries are served only on weekends, so combine a trip to Taza with the nearby Arboreteum, Santa Anita Racetrack or just REI or the mall.
Have a kebab at Falafel Me, 1123 Alosta Ave., Azusa

Fresh falafel, beefy kafta at Falafel Me!

When I was in high school, we used to frequent a place on Pico Blvd. called the Hungry Pocket. Probably mostly because the liquor store behind it would sell booze to just about anyone, but I remember the food being pretty solid too. The guy who started Hungry Pocket, Robert Atallah, has since sold it, but he went on to found the big CedarLane natural frozen foods company. Well, now he's back in the restaurant business, and the first outlet of his fresh Med concept is Falafel Me! in beautiful downtown Azusa. Falafel sandwiches come in Mexican, Greek, Italian and Indian varieties, while the Kafta kebab is a huge and hearty plate of freshly grilled ground beef skewers and rice. Of course there's beef and chicken shwarma, grape leaves and the like, and a garlic sauce to rival Zankou. For maximum flavor punch, get the chicken shwarma sandwich, a large garlic-laden roll that's way more than the sum of its parts. Look for more Falafel Me's in possibly more central locations soon, and don't forget to check out the wacky art on the walls. (This stop was comped.)

Dosa from Ashirwad, 583 E. Foothill Blvd., Upland

L.A.'s best Indian? Maybe! 

So FoodGPS sat next to a guy on an airplane who told him the best Indian food in the L.A. area, in fact the only Indian restaurant where he would deign to eat, was located in Upland. I might have shrieked "We're going all the way to Upland?" when Josh first told us, but hey, if you're already in Azusa, then why the hell not? Ashirwad means The Blessings, and it was indeed a blessing to find about this clean little strip mall gem with a friendly owner, featuring Gujurati specialties and other vegetarian Southern Indian dishes.
fenugreek leaf roti

Among the dishes we tried were Bhel Puri, a cold snack with deep-fried dough pockets doused in fruity chutney and puffed rice, and stuffed with potatoes and onions. Khichdi with khadi is known as Indian comfort food, a Gujurati specialty made with rice, lentils, chilis and subtle spices, served with poppadums and yogurt soup. Shak, thepla and dahi comes under the Gujurati specialties section of the menu -- it was a deeply-flavored eggplant and potato curry served with a dish of tangy, thick fresh yogurt and a plate of fenugreek roti bread.

Made with fresh fenugreek leaves, these unusual flatbreads had an herbal flavor that was a great combo with the smoky curry. Rava masala dosa wasn't the burrito-like type of dosa, but rather a plate of beautifully lacy pancakes incorporating onions and chiles, surrounding a potato filling. Some of us dabbed on a fiery mango pickle on some of them to up the heat quotient -- the owner is very accomodating about racheting down the heat depending on your tolerance. The intricate seasonings and less-familiar dishes at Ashirwad makes it a welcome departure from the familiar tandoori 'n curry menu.

And definitely try to save room for some sweets afterwards. The housemade Indian sweets include a milky ladoo, walnut burfee, and Adad-Yo, a nutty-tasting winter energy food with Ayurvedic remedies to fortify you during the cold season.


Food GPS said...

Glad that you had such a good experience. That was an awesome pre-holiday crawl. When do we return to the I.E.?

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Unknown said...

This looks really really good!