conquering convoy

ON CONVOY // Grandma Tofu & BBQ

| March 07, 2014

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Usually, I gather a little bit of information about a new-to-me restaurant before I decide to visit. I’ll ask friends whether they’ve been to it and what they’d recommend off the menu. I’ll read a few Yelp and Urbanspoon reviews. Usually.

Grandma Tofu & BBQ was an exception. My husband and I first ate there thanks to a couple of pangs.

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It was a night of indecision some time last year, one that found us driving down Convoy Street hungry and tired from the work day. We were dangerously impatient and all we could think about was what we didn’t want to eat. Not ramen. Not pho. Not chicken panang curry.

“We just need to pick something!” said my husband.

So we picked Grandma Tofu & BBQ. I don’t remember why it stood out as the place to go to, especially when it’s set off the corner of Convoy and Armour Street in a small strip mall behind Roberto’s Taco Shop. But it did.

We pulled in to the tiny parking lot, quickly (and luckily) found a place to park, and walked in without a clue of whether it would be good. We figured if we weren’t as drawn in with the menu as we were with the K-pop videos playing on repeat on the restaurant’s handful of television screens, we’d just walk over to the other end of the strip mall to buy a couple of Vietnamese sandwiches from Cali Baguette.

Fast forward to today and Grandma Tofu & BBQ is our we-want-Korean-food-for-dinner spot and a restaurant we take friends and visiting family to for a hearty, fulfilling meal.

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Like many Korean restaurants, each booth and table is outfitted with a call button (to signal wait staff), spoons, and chopsticks. Patrons are also served a variety of communal side dishes, known generally as banchan, shortly after food orders are taken.

The banchan served at Grandma Tofu & BBQ is adequate, both in number and flavor. Eight silver bowls of pickled and/or fermented vegetables and proteins are delivered, each of which can be refilled at no extra cost. I like it when pickled seaweed, spicy cucumbers, potato wedges, and kimchi are part of GTB’s banchan mix because they’re consistently flavorful and fresh (if you can say that about pickled food).

But the pickled daikon and fish cake strips they serve can be hit or miss. Sometimes the spaghetti-thin cuts of daikon are the right balance of sweet and tart; other times it lacks flavor all together. It’s the same with the fish cake, which is chewy and tasty on a good night, and mushy and dull-tasting on a bad night. In the grand scheme of dinner, though, I easily gloss over these details once my main entree and its accompanying stone bowl of rice arrive.

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The mixed tofu soup and the stone bowl of rice is the reason why Grandma Tofu & BBQ is one of my favorite soup spots on Convoy Street. Silky tofu, shrimp, clams, squid, beef, and enoki mushroom lay in a bubbling broth that I like to order at medium spiciness. Once set in front of me, I immediately crack a raw egg over it (provided by GTB) and then use my spoon to gently burrow through the tofu, creating a path for the egg to slip to the bowl’s bottom where it can cook in the heat of the tongue-burning soup.

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Delicious as it is, I never eat the mixed tofu soup straight out of the black cauldron it’s served in. In fact, I’ve yet to see someone eat tofu soup directly from the bowl. In my experience so far, tofu soup is best eaten when poured over a helping of rice you’ve placed in a single-serving silver bowl (also provided by GTB).

At other Korean restaurants, the rice I’ve been given has typically been white long-grained rice that’s been steamed in a rice cooker. Happily, that isn’t the case at Grandma Tofu & BBQ, where each person is served a hot stone bowl of purple-tinted black rice. Scoop from the middle and you get a spoonful of chewy, glutinous goodness. But take on the task of scraping the rice that sticks to the stone bowl’s sides and bottom and you’re rewarded with rice patches that add a crisp texture and nutty flavor to the entire soup-and-rice combo.

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To keep the overall cost of our meal reasonable, I’ll order the mixed tofu soup and chicken bulgogi barbecue combo ($15.99) and my husband will order one of the $10-ish tofu soups (he’s been favoring the dumpling tofu soup lately). This way, we each get our own soup and bowl of rice while sharing barbecue and banchan. This also works out for me, who prefers a just-right size of tofu soup; the single orders tend to be larger, too big for me but perfect for my husband’s papa-bear appetite.

Lesson learned, Universe. Being open to your guidance can lead to positive outcomes, even when I’m on-the-verge-of-angry hungry.

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***
Grandma Tofu & BBQ // 4425 Convoy St., San Diego, CA 92111 // Call (858) 277-2220 for their current hours of operation.

Christine’s picks // Mixed Tofu Stew and Chicken Bulgogi combo // Beef Bulgogi

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5 Soup Spots on Convoy Street, San Diego

| December 20, 2013

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I enjoy going out for soup as much as I like making it from scratch. Pair that with the fact that my husband and I live near Convoy Street, a wondrous boulevard in San Diego lined with a diverse array of Asian restaurants, and the common response to an admission of “I don’t feel like cooking” is to head out for a broth-fueled meal. Here’s my short list of the Asian soups I go out for and the spots on Convoy Street I go to get them.

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Served up during Jasmine Seafood Restaurant’s daily dim sum hours, the rice porridge known as congee (pronounced con-JEE) is a delicious gloopy soup that sticks to your fingers and ribs. Hidden amidst its tasty opacity are chunks of chicken and dark grey slices of creamy century egg. It’s topped with crunchy fried wonton strips and chopped scallions to offset the soup’s viscous texture, and it’s excellent eaten as is or with a drop or two of soy sauce mixed in. Dim sum served from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily. 4609 Convoy St., Suite A. jasmineseafood.com

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Of the six different ramens at Yakyudori Yakitori, my favorite is the karamiso, aka the spicy miso. Soaking in the murky reddish-brown broth is a tangled mix of fresh ramen noodles, ground pork, plump kernels of yellow corn, crisp bean sprouts, bamboo shoots and dark green leeks. It’s salty, slightly nutty, and spicy enough to make your lips tingle with warmth but not so spicy as to require gulps of water after every bite. Adding a seasoned soft-boiled egg like the one pictured above costs extra but it’s worth it. 4898 Convoy St. yakyudori.hinotez.com

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When I first noticed this restaurant, my proofreader half winced at the fact that its name lacked a possessive.

“Why isn’t it ‘Grandma’s’?” I said to no one in particular. The sign over the entrance even looks like there’s space to include an apostrophe and an “s.”

Then I ate there and I got over it. Aside from serving the most robust mixed tofu soup I’ve tried on Convoy to date, I appreciate that I can order a small cauldron of the soup in a combo with my choice of Korean barbecue served up on a sizzling plate. And by “cauldron,” I literally mean an it-will-burn-you cast iron bowl that the still-boiling soup is served in for you to eat from. The mixed tofu soup includes silky tofu, squid, clams, shrimp, beef, enoki mushroom and scallions, and is served with an equally hot stone bowl of rice and eight different Korean side dishes (banchan) including kimchi, spiced pickled cucumber, fish cake and pickled daikon. 4425 Convoy St., (858) 277-2220

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Let’s set the record straight: pho is pronounced “fuh,” as in it rhymes with “uh-huh.” It’s incorrect to pronounce it as “foe,” as in “d’oh!” Also, according to my cousin-in-law, it’s the soup that can set your health straight when you feel a cold coming on. It’s because of her sound wives-tale logic that I tend to eat pho when I feel like I need to regain strength. Each slurp is like a hug and a reassurance that everything will be better again soon.

Phuong Trang’s pho broth is brewed from beef and there are eight versions of pho to order. Consistent among the pho options is the plate of fresh ingredients brought out with your bowl and left at your table, allowing you to decide how much or how little bean sprouts, Thai basil, cilantro, lime, and jalapeno peppers to add to the rice noodle soup. 4170 Convoy St. phuongtrangrestaurant.com

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A cream-colored coconut milk soup laced with lemongrass and Kaffir lime leaves, I crave tom kha (pronounced tom KA) on nights when I want something hot and sour. It’s also chock-full of vegetables like green beans, cabbage, broccoli, green bell peppers, baby corn, mushrooms, and tomatoes. All that’s left to have added is your choice of protein–tofu, chicken, pork, beef, shrimp, squid or a seafood combo of shrimp, squid and scallops. Beyond its cuisine, I dig Thai House for its neon Miami-Vice-colored sign, the castle spires on the roof outside, and its URL which is descriptive without being “Thai House” specific. 4225 Convoy St. sandiegothairestaurant.com

(All photos by Christine Pasalo)
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ON CONVOY // Pangea Bakery Café

| November 05, 2013

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This Taiwanese bakery arrived on Convoy Street in 2011 and it has been a dessert staple for this blogger ever since. A dinner date with the husb somewhere along our beloved Asian food boulevard isn’t complete without stopping by Pangea on the way home.

And I hold fast to stopping by. Though there is plenty of seating in the vast café, and free Wi-Fi to boot, my husband and I prefer to park in a 15-minute spot just outside of the entrance, meander in, grab our usuals, and go. The clientele that stays awhile screams “student,” and being around them as they hunch over notebooks and laptops with their white ear buds horse-blinding their attention towards their open textbooks coaxes an anxiety out of me I prefer to repress.

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Much of Pangea’s goodies are either offered up on a central island or on open shelves backed with orange plexiglass that separate the doughy delicacies from a range of two-top table seating that line the café’s southwest windows. So, no matter what time of day it is, the pastries have an odd heat lamp glow to them. But that doesn’t speak to their quality. Pastries sold in the standard, sealed “Pangea Bakery Café” plastic bags are baked fresh every morning and set out around 10:00 a.m.

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My top three picks are (clockwise from the left) the almond puffs ($1.59), chocolate toast ($0.99/slice, $4.39/loaf) and coconut bun ($1.39). They’re so good, I seldom ever buy anything else to take home.

I’ve ventured before. I’ve tried their almond cookies, nutella cookies and pumpkin chocolate chip cookies, and they’re each of them great. But the amount in their package is so generous that my husband and I can’t (and shouldn’t) eat them all before they go stale. So I’ve concluded that if I ever want to have them again, I’ll need to host an afternoon tea some weekend. Or join a book club.

Pangea also sells pre-packaged small batch desserts from other vendors. I tried one once and have regarded it as a lesson to never branch out from what Pangea bakes fresh daily. It was a moon cake filled with pineapple and it was so sweet that I’m surprised my teeth didn’t rot on the spot.

Sadly, I can’t speak to any of the cakes, macarons and other desserts in Pangea’s refrigerated display case because I always leave with at least two of my top three picks and I am trying to keep my dessert eating in moderation.

Out of their packaging, Pangea’s pastries are wonderful things.

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Sticky, fluffy, buttery, moist. It takes practice NOT to eat everything in one sitting. I like that kind of practice.

Oh, Pangea. You are my vice and my virtue.

***
Pangea Bakery Café | 4689 Convoy St. Suite 100, San Diego, CA 92111 | Visit Pangea’s website for their current hours of operation and info on their menu of pastries, desserts and drinks.

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Bánh Mì A La Cali Baguette Express

| August 18, 2011

Cali-Baguette-Express-Convoy A couple of Fridays ago, I decided to treat myself to lunch. I was craving a Vietnamese sandwich, also known as bánh mì, the way Carrie Bradshaw aches for a pair of Jimmy Choos, so it was a good time to check out Cali Baguette Express, the bánh mì shop featured in the August issue of San Diego Magazine.

I rolled up to the shop on Convoy — there are also shops in the College Area and in Mira Mesa — around 1:30 p.m. Having arrived at the end of peak lunch hours, the shop’s adjoining parking lot was pretty much empty. I chose a spot in the shade near the service entrance, a spot the MacGyver-ish Cali Baguette owners reserved for their customers using a sign attached to an empty bread cart.

The shop was practically empty, too, but in an in-between-rushes way. There was one shirt-and-tie gentleman enjoying his sandwich purchase, his tie thrown over his shoulder so that his lunch wouldn’t spoil it. A young woman sat alone at a round table near the entrance of the shop, her wadded up trash awaiting disposal after her smart phone session. Two customers came in to pick up their take-out orders, customers who I assumed were regulars with the way they joked with the man at the register.

One look at the menu above the register and Quiznos and Subway this is not. The foot-long sandwiches run between $2.75 and $4.50 and are built up from proteins like fried egg, cajun shrimp, bbq pork loaf, Vietnamese ham and pâté. Not wanting to play favorites, I placed my order for the bánh mì called “Cali Express” ($3) which consists of bbq pork loaf, Vietnamese ham and pâté, paid cash (since it’s cash only) and took a seat as my order was prepared.

My wait? 10 minutes. Enough time to notice the framed painting that hangs on the wall adjacent to the soda machine, a painting that features a 19th century woman tending to a chicken she is roasting in a wood-burning stove. Because when I think of Vietnam, I see Colonial Williamsburg.

I’d originally placed my order “to go” thinking that I’d eat one half of the sandwich in the shop and the other half at home for dinner. By this time, the shirt-and-tie gentleman and smart-phone girl were gone and it was just me. Everyone else worked there and they were in the back. I unwrapped the sandwich, the sound of crinkling paper bouncing off the whir of the ceiling fans, then thought to myself, “Screw demureness.” I began to eat up the whole sammie in one sitting.

In hindsight, it isn’t that big of a feat. The fresh-baked French baguette is hollowed out in order to fit the thin slices of meat with the usual bánh mì suspects: sweet, pickled strips of radish and carrots, refreshing cucumber and cilantro, and green chili pepper slices. Pressed tightly, the girth of the sandwich isn’t much bigger than a sandwich one might make at home. Or so I tell myself.

It was the kind of chewy yet crumby lunch that clings long after you’ve finished — on your collar, your pants, the corners of your mouth. I fully understood why the shirt-and-tie gentleman had his tie over his shoulder. When you’re finished, there’s no leaving the table unnoticed. Evidence the likes of bread crumbs and a cilantro leaf or two mark your former territory no matter how carefully you crunch down.

Was it worth it? Well, put it this way: Should I ever make it to another Padres game this season, I’m stopping at Cali Baguette Express first to order a couple of bánh mì to take into the park.

Just be careful of one thing: If you, like me, pull the membranes off of sliced peppers before eating them, remember not to touch any place on your face with those fingers before you’ve washed them. Don’t use the tissue that you wiped your fingers on to dab your nose, either. “Slow burn” is just the short of it.

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Column 1, top to bottom: The other use of bread carts; Cali Baguette’s camera security sign; cross-section view of the Cali Express bánh mì. Column 2, top to bottom: top view of the Cali Express bánh mì; the after-lunch-hour crowd; also for sale at Cali Baguette are teddy-bear-shaped plastic containers filled with lychee jellies. Column 3, top to bottom: the colonial painting on the wall adjacent to the soda machine; crumby bánh mì evidence. | Photos taken by Christine Pasalo.

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Lost and Found at 3904 Convoy

| May 24, 2011

Izakaya-Sakura-1It’s one thing to set a dinner date with friends at a place that’s old to you but new to them. It’s another thing to set a date with friends to try a new place together, one that has proper signage and enough photos on Yelp to figure out where it is.

But to set a dinner date with friends at a spot you suggested, one that none of you have been to before and a place you know is unmarked? That requires Ghandi-patient comrades who share an Anthony Bourdain-sense of food adventure, a supportive husband and an idea of how to pronounce the restaurant’s name with a rolled “r.”

Gratefully, I have all three.

The 3904 Convoy spot in question was Izakaya Sakura and the pronunciation came in handy when I asked the host of another of Plaza 3904’s restaurants where “Sakura” (pronounced SAH-koo-rah) was located. He pointed, I followed and I now know that Izakaya Sakura sits to the right of Mirage Cafe and Hookah Lounge. The foreground of the restaurant is framed by black-grated two-tops and its right window sports its restaurant grade (”A”) and a neon “Open” sign.

Traditionally, an izakaya is something of a Japanese gastropub: they focus on serving liquor and the food they serve is intended to help soak it up. This wasn’t quite the case at Izakaya Sakura. There were between 7-8 pages of menu to look over, only two of which were dedicated to soju and sake. That screamed more “eat” than “drink” to me.

Of course, when you’re inundated with the pressure of so many choices, the default first choice to make is the alcoholic one. My friend, Derek, ordered a chilled sake and my husband ordered a bottle of Yebisu (pronounced YEH-be-sue), a premium Japanese malt beer bottled by Sapporo. Both were smooth in their own way, cutting the stress of selecting an entree the way a cold beer in hand makes a hot day endurable. Maybe Izakaya Sakura does know what it’s doing with that many menu pages.

The boys each ordered a hot bowl of soba with tempura shrimp and Derek’s wife, Kristi, and I each ordered a small bowl of the restaurant’s ramen, called sakuramen, with a side of onigiri, two seaweed-wrapped triangle-wads of rice with your choice of seafood or pickled vegetable or fruit inside. Kristi’s onigiri had a center of ume, a salty and sour pickled plum, and mine had a center of salted grilled salmon.

Derek and my husband both devoured their bowls of soup but, on sneaking a taste, I wonder if they did so mostly because they were uber-hungry. The soba noodles were overdone in my opinion, having the consistency of gummy, overcooked pasta. Perhaps if they weren’t cooked to al dente before added to the hot soy-based broth, they would have kept the best texture upon service.

I found the portion size of the “small” sakuramen bowls Kristi and I ordered to be just right alongside the onigiri. The ramen was set in a rich, cloudy base known as tonkotsu, a base made from boiling pork bones. But while the broth was silky on the tongue, the noodles were my kind of chewy and the pork belly pieces practically dissolved in my mouth the way rapturist hopes dissipated around noon on May 21, 2011, I found myself wishing for ramen at my favorite spots. This was my first taste of tonkotsu and I’m probably just too loyal to the miso based ramen I tend to order everywhere else in Kearny Mesa.

On the other hand, my salmon onigiri was order-it-again good. I didn’t care much for the pucker-up sour of Kristi’s ume onigiri but she dug it enough to finish both pieces.

Verdict? Open. Over 150 people on Yelp reviewed Izakaya Sakura and the restaurant’s average rating on it is four stars. Having only tasted four of the multitude of options at Izakaya Sakura, I know I need to go back to give it a few more chances to win me over. I mean, I left seeing something on the menu that featured ox tail and I need to go back just to see if it stands up to my mom’s ox tail dish.

Should you come with, I promise I won’t get lost.

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(Clockwise from top left: the menus of Izakaya Sakura; a serving of salmon onigiri is made up of two onigiri; soba with tempura shrimp; cold sake served in a masu; the inside of Izakaya Sakura seats close to 70 people; the sakuramen; and my husband’s bottle of Yebisu. | Photos by Christine Pasalo.)

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