Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Where to Holiday: Labor Day Weekend

Labor Day Weekend comes a little earlier than usual this year, falling on the last weekend in August. Taking place in the officially hottest month of the summer means that there’s guaranteed to be perfect weather to enjoy the many outdoor activities going on for the holiday.

Here’s a look at the #WilsonsGuide Top Five list of things to do in the L.A. area this Labor Day weekend:

5.) Los Angeles County Fair
The Merriment: Acres upon acres of fair festivities, day and night.

The Location: Pomona

The Vibes: Outdoors, family-friendly, vibrant, lively

Good for: Lots of stimulating, interactive fun for all ages.

When-To-Go: Now until Sunday, Sept. 28, with varying hours of operation depending on the day.

The $ Factor: Between $6 and $29.99 for adults, children, seniors and season passes.

Parking Situation: Parking passes range from $15–$60.

The 4-1-1: The Los Angeles County Fair is not your small town county fair! Launching Labor Day weekend and running until late September at the Fairplex in Pomona, it will feature the usual attractions you’d find at a fair—a petting zoo, an oddity show, lots of fair food options and carnival rides. But, it will also have a few unique features, including speciality Tasting Classes, an End of Summer Concert Series with award-winning artists like Charlie Wilson performing opening weekend, a massive monster truck show, and more than 300+ food options and 600+ vendors in the Shopping Marketplace. New attractions for this year include a nightclub, the Hall of Heroes and Luminasia, elaborate displays of scenes from the real world using larger-than-life Chinese lanterns. The fair is now in its 92nd year of operation.

For more information: Website

4.) The Leimert Park Village African Art & Music Festival
The Merriment: A three-day festival celebrating the culture and arts of the Pan African Diaspora.

The Location: Leimert Park

The Vibes: Outdoors, community-oriented, cultural, renaissance

Good for: Becoming immersed in the sights, sounds and tastes of the local community.

When-To-Go: Saturday, Sunday and Monday, 10 a.m.–7 p.m.

The $ Factor: Free

Parking Situation: Nearby free and metered street parking and parking lots.

The 4-1-1: The Leimert Park Village African Art & Music Festival picked up where the now defunct Los Angeles African Marketplace and Cultural Fare left off, providing the city with a chance to joyfully indulge in the food, music, dance, visual arts and spoken word of the African Diaspora. Since 2009, the Leimert Park Village Group, along with a number of other noteworthy partners, has hosted this lively festival in the epicenter of Leimert Park. Live musical entertainment, a daily Spoken Word & Comedy Showcase, the “Inspired by Africa” Fashion Show, a Hair, Health & Beauty Expo and numerous of food and consumer goods vendors will  be present. Listen to the beats of African drum & dance troupes or participate in a dance contest; get pampered in the Women’s Beauty Bar & Lounge or the Men’s Grooming Tent; taste the savory flavor of Jamaican, Caribbean and Soul Food. No matter what you decide to do, there will be many ways to celebrate and appreciate the multi-faceted arts of the past, present and future.

For more information: Website

3.) Los Angeles Times' The Taste
The Eats: A three-day showcase featuring the top chefs and restaurants of Los Angeles’ culinary scene.

The Location: Hollywood

The Vibes: Outdoors, aromatic, food-centric, informative

Good for: Anyone looking to get an insider’s look into the city’s exclusive restaurant scene while also getting up-close-and-personal with internationally renowned chefs, bartenders and industry key players.

When-To-Go: Friday, Aug. 29, 7:30–11 p.m.; Saturday, Aug. 30, 11 a.m.–3 p.m. + 7:30–11 p.m.; and Sunday, Aug. 31, 11 a.m.–3 p.m. + 7:30–11 p.m.

The $ Factor: Tickets range from $100 to $175 per event and include food, beer, wine and spirit tastings.

The 4-1-1: At Paramount Studios, more than 130 restaurants will offer tastings of their top culinary creations! Weekend events include Friday’s Opening Night; Saturday’s “Field to Fork” with an emphasis on local ingredients and seasonal dishes; Saturday’s “Dinner with a Twist” with L.A. Times restaurant critic Jonathan Gold; Sunday’s “Sunday Brunch” with internationally acclaimed chef/restaurateur/cookbook writer Thomas Keller; and Sunday’s “Flavors of L.A.”, a dinner highlighting international dishes. On each day there will be multiple bar and culinary stages to visit, with cooking demonstrations by chefs, friendly cook-offs and informative presentations and panels with industry insiders. A few #WilsonsGuide restaurants that will be participating include: Bar Pintxo, CHAYA, Cliff’s Edge, Faith & Flower, Napa Valley Grille, Pono Burger, The Churchill, and Zinc at Shade Hotel.

For more information: Website

2.) A Clockwork Orange @ Cinespia's Hollywood Forever Cemetery Outdoor Movie Screenings
The Merriment: An evening watching film classics in one of the city’s oldest cemeteries.

The Location: Hollywood

The Vibes: Outdoors, picnics, cinema

Good for: Not watching movies in a mundane movie theater, but instead at a unique location that has just as dramatic a historic storyline than any Hollywood film.

When-To-Go: Saturday, Aug. 30, gates open at 6:30 p.m., movie starts at 8:30 p.m.

The $ Factor: $14

Parking Situation: A nearby Paramount parking structure is $8 to park; all $15 Cemetery parking passes are now sold out.

The 4-1-1: Not only happening on Labor Day Weekend but actually occurring every summer weekend and select holidays since 2002, the Cinespia series shows film favorites on a large screen to hundreds of people on the on the Fairbanks Lawn of the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. This upcoming Saturday for the holiday weekend, the Stanley Kubrick classic A Clockwork Orange will be shown and a DJ will energize the crowd both before and after the movie. It’s highly recommended to bring your own blankets and chairs (no higher than 21”), and food, wine and beer are permitted, but not spirits. Future movies until the end of September include Purple Rain, The Matrix, Pretty in Pink and Rosemary’ Baby. All ages welcome at this cemetery that is one of L.A.’s most intriguing landmarks, with countless permanent residents who were once Hollywood greats.

For more information: Website

1.) Budweiser Made in America Festival*
The Merriment: The inaugural L.A. installment of the JAY Z-curated music festival.

The Location: Downtown L.A.

The Vibes: Outdoors, music-oriented, trailblazing

Good for: Music aficionados looking to hear a varied line-up of local and legendary performing artists, including DJs, rappers, singers, bands and more.

When-To-Go: Saturday, Aug. 30 & Sunday. Aug. 31, starting at noon.

The $ Factor: 1-day pass: $114.50; 2-day pass $200

Parking Situation: Nearby parking lots or accessible by the Metro; exit Civic Center/Grand Park station.

The 4-1-1: Launched 2012 in Philly, this is the first year that the Budweiser Made in America Festival is becoming bi-coastal and expanding into other cities, choosing the sunny City of Angels as its next destination. It’s also the first time a major festival will be staged in two cities simultaneously; while it’s happening at downtown’s L.A. Grand Park, it will also be taking place in Philadelphia’s Ben Franklin Parkway. Curated by JAY Z, the festival will feature more than 40 performances during its two-day run in L.A., by Iggy Azalea, Afrojack, Steve Aoki, Juanes, Cypress Hill, Juanes and more. Kendrick Lamar and Imagine Dragons will headline Saturday’s festival; Kanye West and John Mayer will headline Sunday’s. Beer gardens, food trucks and other activities will also be available.

For more information: Website

Let us know: How did you spend your last Labor Day weekend?

*Disclaimer: I work for the parent company that is promoting this festival. All images are not my own; photo credit for The Taste: Marie Astrid Gonzalez for LATMG.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Where to Eat: The Summer Sunday Brunch @ Sonny's Hideaway

The Eats: Classic brunch items, with a gourmet flair

The Location: Highland Park

The Vibes: Simplistic setting, complex dishes

Good for: Nonchalantly brunching in a sophisticatedly relaxed and comfortable setting

When-To-Go: Sundays, 11 a.m. – 3 p.m.

The $ Factor: Entrees are $7–$17; Cocktails are $9-$12

The Names behind the scenes: Owner Derek Lyons, Chef Alexander Abdel-Monem

The 4-1-1: Sonny’s opened in 2013 and launched its brunch menu earlier in Spring 2014, adding a few additional items in July as well. It also has a bar program that features intricate libations and Tiki Tuesdays.

Parking Situation: Street parking on York Blvd.; nearby public parking lots in the neighborhood

I’ll Be Back…: For the Chickpea Pancakes!

Ricotta Funnel Cake, hazelnut coffee, chocolate
Citrus Custard, seasonal fruit, sesame seeds
Chickpea Pancakes, tomato, eggplant, Swiss chard, cumin, Parmesan

When I first read the entrees above, from Sonny’s Hideaway menu on the media invite I received, I blankly stared at my computer screen. The ingredients didn’t seem to make sense. What in the world was a ricotta funnel cake? Citrus custard—with sesame seeds? And chickpea pancakes? Was that correct? While I could most certainly read the words in front of me, I couldn’t even begin to imagine how what I read could all come together to be edible entrees, presented to me on a plate.

Fortunately, Chef Alexander Abdel-Monem and Owner Derek Lyons (pictured below, respectively) didn’t seem to have the same creative culinary inhibitions that I had. One sunny summer Sunday at Sonny's Hideaway, with a handful of guests present, during our brunch, Abdel-Monem explained to us that when creating the menu, he wanted to feature popular brunch items that anyone could potentially make at home (side note: there’s no way I’d be able to recreate anything I ate at Sonny’s in my kitchen). He also mentioned that growing up in Florida heavily influenced his cooking style.

After sampling about half of the brunch menu, a trend became apparent; each entrée distinctly has its own individual personality, no one dish the same—in taste, appearance or ingredients. And every entrée is as lovely to look at as it is to eat. In other words, Abdel-Monem's daring combinations work! Sonny’s also caters to everyone. There are plenty of options for the meat-lover and the vegetarian alike. There are both Sweet and Savory items, with a nice balance of light and heavier options, to satisfy all appetite sizes. The majority of the entrees incorporate some sort of fruit or vegetable, whether it’s the berry syrup with chunks of blueberries on the Brioche French Toast, the fried green tomatillos accompanying the Carnitas or the bed of fruit in the Passionfruit Custard. There are 12 entrees in total and also five sides, ranging from market greens to smoked home fries, eggs and bacon.

Here’s a look at what I sampled:

The Passionfruit Custard – More of a sauce than an actual custard, it’s generously drizzled on a bed of fruit, including blackberries, raspberries, apples, oranges, pomegranates and passionfruit. This dish gets a big plus for the diversity of fruit and for the delicateness of the sweet, subtle sauce. A perfect starter to share.

The Ricotta Fritters – Were a delight to eat. Dusted with powdered sugar, they’re crunchy on the outside and moist, fluffy and soft on the inside. I couldn’t make up my mind which sauce I liked better: the creamy chocolate, the hazelnut coffee, or a bit of both eaten at the same time.

The Chickpea Pancakes – Here’s a savory take on the traditionally sweet pancake. While the actual pancake alone has its own unique earthy flavor, it’s really the toppings it’s paired with that make this entrée so good. Whole chickpeas are mixed with poignant Swiss chard, with thin slices of Parmesan finishing it. Very filling. 

The Fried Chicken – Includes fried chicken breasts, a pan poached egg and hollandaise perched neatly atop two buttermilk biscuits. I can’t fail to mention the creamy gravy on the plate, which should definitely be sopped up with a biscuit or two – it’s divine. Don’t let it go to waste!

The Brioche French Toast – Exactly what French Toast should be: thick bread with a crunchy crust and a soft, warm center. It may seem like it’s a lot going on to have pecans, berry syrup and a cinnamon crème fraîche all covering the French Toast, but in reality, the flavors don’t overpower one another and in fact work very well together.

The Citrus Beet Salad – Is an intriguing blend of lettuce, radishes, beets, orange and goat cheese, all underneath a creamy yogurt dressing. It’s large enough to be a brunch entrée, or also a nice portion to share.

Another noteworthy mention is the Carnitas entrees. Since I don’t eat beef, I didn’t try the actual carnitas, but I did try everything else that comes with them – the delightfully tangy mix of pickled onions and peppers and fresh cilantro, the eggs with an avocado puree, and probably my favorite part, the delicious, golden-brown fried tomatillos, similar to fried tomatoes.

Just as the saying “don’t judge a book by its cover” goes, the lesson I've now learned about Sonny’s Hideaway brunch menu is clear: don’t judge an entrée by its menu description. 

See you there soon!

For more information: 

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Where to Eat: Southern Thai Food @ Emporium Thai Cuisine

The Eats: A menu of 100+ traditional and street Southern Thai dishes

The Location: Westwood

The Vibes: Warm, intimate, casual, inviting

Good for: A relaxed dining experience with friends, dates or groups of people

When-To-Go: Monday–Thursday, 11 a.m.–10:30 p.m.; Friday–Saturday, 11 a.m.–11 p.m.; Sunday, 5–10:30 p.m.

The $ Factor: Between $10–$15 per item

The Names behind the scenes: Owner John Sungkamee; Executive Chef Gina Sungkamee

The 4-1-1: Eight of the 12 Sungkamee siblings live in the States and work in the restaurant industry, at Westwood's Emporium Thai Cuisine, L.A. Thai Town’s Jitlada and North Miami’s Happy Sushi and Thai

Parking: Limited metered street parking on Westwood Blvd. and surrounding neighborhood streets

I’ll Be Back…: For the Seafood Hor Mok!

During the summer’s recent dineL.A. Restaurant Week, I was invited to an intimate media dinner at Emporium Thai Cuisine with a small group of guests and Emporium owner, John Sungkamee, pictured above. Located in Westwood just a couple of blocks south of the main UCLA campus, the restaurant's proud claim is that it's the only one in the area serving traditional and street Southern Thai food, since opening its doors in 2000.

The evening was a highly engaging, informative experience, providing insight into the colorful textures and nuances of Southern Thai food.

Leading the night’s narrative was Sungkamee himself, weaving bits and pieces of his captivating, almost-too-hard-to-believe-it’s-true, adventure-filled life story in between dinner’s three courses and his extensively thorough explanations of the culinary customs and culture of Thailand, his native country.

It all began with Starters*, which included two of the restaurant’s most requested and well-known dishes, the Seafood Hor Mok and the Morning Glory Salad.

The Seafood Hor Mok, pictured below (and which also happened to be my personal favorite of the night), is presented in a curiously shaped yet beautifully decorated plate with eight tops covering eight holes. Underneath each top is a piping hot, small mound of baked shrimp, crab and scallop, soaked in a sweet chili and coconut sauce. This is truly a dish for the serious seafood aficionado, thanks to the generous portion of seafood in each bite!

The Morning Glory Salad is a crunchy medley of watercress and shrimp, lightly battered and tossed in a light fish sauce, lime and chili dressing. It’s one of the scores of Southern Thai dishes that's featured on the menu.

Yet a menu—or even a restaurant—wasn’t initially in Sungkamee’s plan. Born and raised in Southern Thailand and the youngest of 12 children, although he emigrated to the U.S. with his parents as a teen, Sungkamee told us that he originally had intentions to return to Thailand to launch his career after graduating from an American university. Even after Thailand’s economy took a turn for the worse, forcing him to reconsider returning, with an MBA, he ventured into Corporate America. He eventually opened Emporium, thanks to how passionate he was about Southern Thai cuisine and because of how much he had enjoyed working in restaurants part-time as a college student.

He also enjoyed sharing more with us about the three main courses we sampled: the Pad Prik King Crispy Pork, the Pad Woonsen Chicken (Glass Noodles) and a Southern Curry. In Southern Thailand, he explained that individual restaurants would typically specialize and serve only one specific dish. Fortunately, we didn’t have to travel from restaurant to restaurant that night; all three entrees were in one location!

The Pad Prik King Crispy Pork has crispy pork belly and pork rind stir fried in a dry red curry with vegetables carrots, green beans and red chili. It’s delightfully filling with a “spicy” level that can be adjusted per order.

The Pad Woonsen, or Glass Noodles—named for the soft, silver noodles in the dish—are in a clear, thin broth along with scrambled eggs and a variety of vegetables including carrots, onions, mushrooms and bean sprouts.

The Southern Curry with tofu has more bitter vegetables like bell pepper juxtaposed to the sweet, fragrant yellow curry that everything is tossed in. Sungkamee explained that the curry includes a medley of spices, and some dishes can even include up to 13 spices. He credits his sister Gina Sungkamee, Emporium’s Executive Chef, for the ingenuity that’s behind each dish, often derived from their mother’s tried and true recipes.

The night culminated with dessert, which included Fresh Mango with Sweet Sticky Rice and a pleasant surprise: coconut ice cream on sticky rice, both pictured below, respectively. Sungkamee’s childhood was filled with eating more than a few of the latter dessert during the summer. He shared with us the “best” way to eat it—letting the coconut ice cream slightly melt into the sticky rice before digging in.

The entire night took place in Emporium’s warm, inviting atmosphere of earthy, muted colors and an array of eye-catching artwork, including a creative display of partitions from Cost Plus World Market along with a Buddha statue that Sungkamee acquired during his time residing in a temple as a monk.

And yet as quickly as he'll share the success or the back story behind each dish and can rattle off a long list of celebrities who have eaten at Emporium, he was candidly transparent about the challenges he's faced. There’s trying to get the delivery system down perfectly to keep customers content and not waiting too long for their orders. Figuring out how to effectively utilize social media and how to find the most value through programs like dineL.A. Restaurant Week. And of course, there’s that always-present, ever-looming question that most restaurants face: how to get even more and more bodies coming, again and again.

But with the relaxed ambiance that serves as a comfortable backdrop to the colorful, rich Thai dishes, I’m sure it won’t be long until more people flock to Emporium in the very near future.

See you there soon!

For more information: 
WebsiteFacebook, @EmporiumThai

*Note: The Crying Tiger Beef appetizer, pictured below, was also served but I did not eat it as I do not eat beef.