Salads can be stealthy. Rarely does one say, "Lets go out for salad," yet a salad craving can hit anytime and anywhere. During the heat for some cool crunchy relief. Even during the winter as a break for the usual hearty fare. Salads are found on many menus regardless of cuisine, but sometimes the best versions are found in the most unexpected restaurants.
Since salads are more composed than cooked, by their nature they can adapt to myriad international tastes. And because most 'ethinic' salads are considered more interpretation than authentic, it's helpful to look at them through the lens different cuisines to give them a fresh look. At least, so we found with the salads at Savoy Kitchen, Torihei and Bloom Café.
As the crowds waiting outside on any given afternoon can attest, Savoy Kitchen in Alhambra is usually the answer to "Lets go out for Hainan chicken." For that reason and several other good ones, the Italian dishes on their menu such as creamy seafood pastas and puffy crusted pizzas are often overlooked. But even when we are there to answer the call of that gingery succulent chicken, we also always order their cold pasta salad with smoked duck.
But this is no standard pasta salad. The pasta, a tricolored fusilli, is tossed with a lettuce and cabbage mix and comes undressed. The dressing on the side is a dark roasted ginger sesame, which gives it a savoriness unlike any other pasta salad and its strong notes of ginger enlivens the slices of cold fatty duck. The pasta is cooked al dente, never gummy and serves as an ideal carrier for the flavorful dressing.
Dipping each corkscrew into the bowl of dressing and then picking up a bit of the lettuce and a slice of duck, allows for enjoyment of each element on its own. The crisp greens. Then the meaty smoked duck. And finally with a bite into the bouncy pasta comes a burst of dressing. Making it one of those rare dishes where the second bite turns out to be so much better than than the first.
Torrance's Torihei is modeled closely after traditional Japanese taverns, izakaya. Its menu of mostly yakatori and oden, grilled skewers and customizable soups, reflects everything good in Japanese cuisine that can be had with beer or sake. And to lighten up the bites in-between chicken tail and dumplings in dashi, there are also inventive takes on items like Italian carpaccio and the classic Chinese first course, cold dishes.
The rotation of Torihei's cold dishes are seasonal. So lately, before we order anything else we have been asking for the cabbage with homemade spicy sauce. Roughly chopped leaves of green cabbage comes heaped with Torihei's version of the beloved Chinese condiment, Lao Gan Ma, crushed dried chiles with sesame seeds preserved in oil. Just how cold dishes are meant to do, the tone of the meal is set.
Most Chinese cold dishes feature finely cut vegetables that are pickled or blanched, but the cabbage in this version is raw. Torhei's own spicy sauce is as complex as Lao Gan Ma but also has a hint of mirin, sweet rice wine. The raw cabbage adds crunch while the mirin makes the sauce brighter and with its sweetness compliments the flavor of the fresh cabbage. All in all, creating the best salad to ever go with beer.
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Bloom Café on Pico is one of those healthful neighborhood spots where lunch can be either a veggie wrap or veggie juice. So as one might expect, there is a fair amount of tofu on the menu as well. But what we didn't expect was that our favorite Japanese-inspired salad could be found here too: their soba noodle and tofu salad.
Despite its reputation as the king of healthful foods, more often than not, tofu in salads is a disaster. It offers little in terms of texture and tends to water down dressings. Thankfully Bloom Café seems to have realized this because the tofu, topped with fresh ginger and daikon sprouts, is placed along side the soba. So that that soba, which is tossed with crisp julienned vegetables and a miso dressing, retains all its flavor and texture until the knife begins its dance with the fork
The best way to enjoy this salad to have a bite of the soba. The buckwheat noodles with a bit of tooth stands up to the crisp carrots and snow peas. The flavor of the clingy miso dressing is amped by the sweet nuttiness of the cashews. Then, cut a thin slice of tofu and dip it in of spicy sambal sauce on either side. It cleanses the palate, but leaves a little bit of heat on the tongue for the next forkful of soba. A diplomatic play with ingredients showing that even when it comes to flavor, borders are not always barriers.