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.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

And Where Do You Where To?: BOWL for BLOOM

While the 2014 BET Experience took over L.A. Live the last weekend in June with scores of events, concerts, exhibits and the highly anticipated BET Awards Ceremony, I attended another very important event that was quietly happening at L.A. Live, in the midst of all of the bustling action. Tucked away at Lucky Strike, BOWL for BLOOM Presented by California Community Foundation took place Saturday, June 28, hosted by actor Larenz Tate and Buffalo Wild Wings franchise owner Karim Webb.

The afternoon affair brought celebs like Ludacris, Seattle Seahawks’ Terrelle Pryor and Washington Wizards’ Trevor Ariza together to support the BLOOM program and its participants, known as BLOOMers. Created by the California Community Foundation, BLOOM—which stands for Building a Lifetime of Options and Opportunities for Men—is an L.A.-based, five-year initiative launched in 2012. It provides a variety of professional and educational opportunities for young men living in South L.A. who have been, or currently are, under L.A. County Probation Department supervision.

From left to right: Larenz Tate's brother, PCF Management Partner Edward Barnett, Larenz Tate, Karim Webb and Larenz Tate's brother. 

“BLOOM takes young men who are 14-18 years old and have had a brush with the probation department and attempts to divert them by helping them graduate high school and/or get a GED and get job placement,” Karim, pictured above, second from the right, explained to me in a brief chat we had at the event. “As importantly, we really find out what’s wanted and needed in terms of the gaps in their lives—either from a family perspective, from a mental health perspective, or in any way in which they need to be supplemented, in terms of getting what they need to be successful members of society moving forward.”

Webb went on further to share that the program already has 200 BLOOMers participating and plans to expand to 600 within the upcoming year. According to the I am BLOOM website, the goal is to serve 2,000 youth by 2017. He says that the program had a 98 percent success rate in reducing recidivism in its initial year.

I had a chance to talk with some of the BLOOMers who were at the event, including Joseph (pictured below), who had recently relocated from Oakland to Los Angeles. At 18, he had already experienced a lot, including being shot multiple times, and was now looking forward to putting his past behind him to pursue a career in the music industry. BLOOM works with other nonprofit organizations, including the Community Coalition for Substance Abuse and Treatment, L.A. Brotherhood Crusade, L.A. Urban League, Youth Justice Coalition and Youth Mentoring Connection.

“BLOOM gives us an outlet to get engaged,” said Webb. “As you can see, we’ve got young men here. We’ve got bright eyes and bright futures, and we’re committed to making sure that they are exposed to and have all the opportunity to accomplish whatever they’re willing to work for.”

Throughout the afternoon, BLOOMers, celebs and supporters bowled, networked and ate complimentary appetizers. There were about 80 guests in attendance.

Sports figures, like Trevor Ariza pictured below, took tons of photos with BLOOMers.

At one point, Ludacris joked and told BLOOMers: “One thing I know, I’m glad that y’all aren’t getting strikes in the system, but I heard that none of y’all are getting strikes on the bowling alley.”

Towards the end of the event, several key figures addressed the crowd and specifically BLOOMers, encouraging them to continue their pursuits. Speakers included Webb, Ludacris and California Community Foundation Vice President, Programs Nike Irvin, pictured below with Larenz Tate.

Larenz Tate also shared a heartfelt story about how his brother previously had a run in with the law but fortunately had the much-needed support to rebound back, similar to what the BLOOM program provides.

“We truly are appreciative,” Larenz told BLOOMers in a final address. “We have not forgotten about you; we will not forget about you, and don’t forget about each other. All I can say is I love you guys—y’all keep y’all heads up. Peace and blessings.”

For more information about BLOOM and its initiatives, visit its website.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Where To Suggestions: 4th of July Weekend

Independence Day is right around the corner, and here are a few ways to bring in the holiday, whether it’s at the beach, at a pool, at a jazz festival or a soul dance party.

Check it the #WilsonsGuide Top 10 Independence Day in LA List!

10. 4th of July Block Party @ Grand Park
The Merriment: Coining itself as downtown’s biggest rooftop fireworks display, the Grand Park Block Party will have multiple stages with live entertainment in the afternoon and fireworks at night.

The Location: Downtown

The Vibes: Outdoors, musical, big crowds, lively, dancing

Good for: All ages

When-To-Go: Friday, July 4, 1 p.m. doors open; 4 p.m. live music begins; 9 p.m. fireworks start

The $ Factor: Free

Parking Situation: Options include Pershing Square, FIGat7TH (beginning at 4 p.m., you can get the $5 PARK + PLAY). Additional parking recommendations can be found at PARKME.COM. You can also take the Metro Red and Purple lines to PERSHING SQUARE STATION or the Gold Line to UNION STATION or LITTLE TOKYO/ARTS DISTRICT STATION.

The 4-1-1: Venture off to one of downtown’s newest parks for food vendors, live music and of course, fireworks. The ALTimate Main Stage and the SOULNIC Stage will feature musical performances by acts such as Brick + Mortar, Echosmith, DJ ALA, Tailwind Turner and Derrick Wize. Also, several eateries like the Grand Central Market, a #WilsonsGuide pick, are providing discounts before and after the party if you show a valid TAP card, Metro employee ID or LA County employee ID. Check the Grand Park website for more details, which also has an extensive list of what not to bring (including alcohol, water bottles with liquid and large coolers...make sure to read that carefully before going). And if you do attend, use the hashtag #GO4THDTLA for all your social media posts.

For more information: Website

9. SOULNIC at the 4th of July Block Party @ Grand Park
The Merriment: Part of the previously mentioned Grand Park Block Party, SOULNIC is the 4th annual summertime outdoor dance music event, presented by Extra Mild sauce, highlighting soulful house, deep house, disco and everything that’s the “soulful side of EDM/House music.”

The Location: Downtown

The Vibes: Funky, energetic, dance

Good for: Anyone who loves soul music

When-To-Go: Friday, July 4, starts at 4 p.m.

The $ Factor: Free

Parking Situation: Options include Pershing Square, FIGat7TH (beginning at 4 p.m., you can get the $5 PARK + PLAY). Additional parking recommendations can be found at PARKME.COM. You can also take the Metro Red and Purple lines to PERSHING SQUARE STATION or the Gold Line to UNION STATION or LITTLE TOKYO/ARTS DISTRICT STATION.

The 4-1-1: SOULNIC is technically part of this year’s Grand Park Block Party, but it’s actually been its own separate event for the past three years, previously held at Griffith Park. With the venue change comes DJ sets by Extra Mild Sauce residents Tailwind Turner, Drack Muse and Derrick Wize, and also from a special guest, DJ ALA. Comedian Deon Cole will be the host. And of course, stick around for the fireworks!

For more information: Website

8. Redondo Beach Seaside Lagoon Independence Day Celebration @ Redondo Beach
The Merriment: Water, sport and kids activities, music and fireworks in the Redondo Beach lagoon.

The Location: Redondo Beach

The Vibes: Outdoors, beach, packed, lively

Good for: Families, especially those with young children

When-To-Go: Friday, July 4, 2 – 9:30 p.m.

The $ Factor: $15 – $22 for individual tickets; $100 - $250 for tables of seats

Parking Situation: Nearby lots, including the Redondo Beach Marina, City Hall/Library lot, the Redondo Beach Pier parking structure and the Pier Plaza parking structure (some ticket packages include parking already).

The 4-1-1: Redondo Beach is providing a variety of active, hands-on experiences, including a Big Slide Obstacle course, a Beach Sports Piano Run, free paddleboard experiences and swimming in the lagoon. Music will be diverse, with an iPod playing, a DJ, a drum circle where everyone can participate and several performances from live bands. There’s also a lot of activities to keep the kiddies occupied, from traditional arts & crafts to an educational “Sounds Like Science Show” and the eighth annual Kids’ Parade. The night culminates with fireworks over the water; seating is available in tables and on the sand for the show.

For more information: Website

7. Special Target Sundays/Celebration with Fireworks @CAAM
The Merriment: Museum exhibits, a free concert and fireworks at the California African American Museum.

The Location: South Los Angeles

The Vibes: Cultural, informational, educational

Good for: All ages

When-To-Go: Friday, July 4, 11 a.m. – evening

The $ Factor: Free

Parking Situation: $10 in the lot adjacent to Fig and 29th. Or, take the Exposition Line and exit EXPO PARK/USC STATION.

The 4-1-1: One of L.A.’s most prominent museums, CAAM will be open from 11 a.m. until 5 p.m. Currently, there are several exhibitions on display, including: Hands On Design and The March on Washington: A Tribute, 50 Years Later. At 6 p.m., CAAM’s outdoor Plaza Stage will feature a concert, and you can stick around to see the fireworks from Exposition Park that will start at dusk.

For more information: Website

6. Jazz on the Hill @ Norman O. Houston Park
The Merriment: Several prominent jazz musicians will be giving performances throughout the afternoon at this Baldwin Hills park.

The Location: Baldwin Hills/Ladera Heights/View Park

The Vibes: Outdoors, musical, parks & recreation

Good for: All Ages

When-To-Go: Friday, July 4, noon – 5 p.m.

The $ Factor: Free

Parking Situation: Shuttles will be bringing guests to and from the park in 20 minutes intervals from the free parking lots at the nearby Park Hills Community Church. Or, you can walk from the parking lots to the park; it’s about two blocks away.

The 4-1-1: Eighth District Councilmember Bernard C. Parks and the City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs are hosting this mellow afternoon of live jazz music. Expected to perform are Derf Relaw, Karen Briggs with Jazz in Pink and someone I personally think is quite amazing, Barbara Morrison. As of last week, sewage construction adjacent to the park has been going on for months, so let’s hope it’s finished in time for the event.

For more information: Website

5. 12th Annual Fireworks Spectacular @ Van Ness Park
The Merriment: “Family-friendly Independence Day festivities” featuring food trucks, activities for children and a fireworks show by Pyrospectaculars.
The Location: South Los Angeles

The Vibes: Outdoors, lively, parks & recreation

Good for: All Ages

When-To-Go: Friday, July 4, noon – 10 p.m.

The $ Factor: Free

Parking Situation: There are several shuttle parking pick up and drop off locations on W. Slauson Ave., Crenshaw Blvd. and Degnan Blvd. Shuttle service will run every 15 minutes, from noon – midnight.

The 4-1-1: Eighth District Councilmember Bernard C. Parks will be rather busy this Independence Day! While he’s hosting a jazz in the park event in the Baldwin Hills area, farther east in L.A., he’s also putting on this Fireworks Extravaganza along with the City of Los Angeles at Van Ness Park. He originally started this event 12 years ago to help prevent illegal firework activity in the city. Event partners include Unity One, Inc., the Regalettes and 94.7 Wave, which will have a DJ synchronize music along to the fireworks show. Fireworks will be produced by the same company producing the fireworks show at the Rose Bowl. This is the first year that Parks’ Fireworks Spectacular will be held at Van Ness Park; the previous 11 years, it’s been at other locations, including the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

For more information: Website

4. IndepenDANCE Pool Party @ The Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel
The Merriment: Poolside DJ sets

The Location: Hollywood

The Vibes: Lounge, pool, outdoors

Good for: 21+

When-To-Go: Friday, July 4, noon – 8 p.m.

The $ Factor: $40

Parking Situation: Valet parking is available at the hotel; there’s also limited street parking and a nearby parking structure across the street.

The 4-1-1: If stereotypical 4th of July festivities like BBQs, the beach and fireworks aren’t really your thing, head to a #WilsonsGuide favorite, the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel for a poolside function featuring rotating DJs throughout the afternoon. Headlining the party is Mark Farina and there will be other acts, including Anthony Shah, Shanto and David Bullock.

For more information: Website

3. A Stones Throw Picnic @ Grand Performances
The Merriment: An outdoor concert, voter registration and vinyl records "Beat Swap Meet" at the California Plaza.

The Location: Downtown

The Vibes: Eclectic, outdoors, musically vibrant

Good for: All ages, music-lovers

When-To-Go: Saturday, July 5, doors open at 5 p.m., show starts at 7 p.m.

The $ Factor: Free

Parking Situation: $7.50 cash-only at the Cal Plaza parking structure, beginning 90 minutes prior to the 7 p.m. show time.

The 4-1-1: Let the celebrations continue the day after 4th of July with a special appearance of Stones Throw Records Label artists Peanut Butter Wolf, Madlib, DâM-FunK, the Lions and others at the Cal Plaza’s Grand Performances. Arguably one of the most significant labels to come out of L.A., Stones Throw Records has a track record of having represented many industry game changers and trailblazers, including Madlib (a.k.a. Quasimoto), Aloe Blacc and the late J Dilla. This year marks the record label’s 10th anniversary and this special set is part of the 28th annual Grand Performances at Cal Plaza that will run until September.

For more information: Website

2. Independence Day Weekend @ Battleship Iowa
The Merriment: Three days of Independence Day festivities on a U.S. navy warship.

The Location: South Bay

The Vibes: Informational, patriotic, outdoors

Good for: All Ages

When-To-Go: Friday, July 4 – Sunday, July 6

The $ Factor: Single day tickets range from $7 – $15

Parking Situation: Park at the Port of Los Angeles lot, $2 per hour.

The 4-1-1: Experience what this holiday is really all about by going onboard a massive battleship that’s been involved in three wars—World War II, the Korean War and the Cold War—and is one of only four open museum ships stationed on the West Coast. Take a historic tour to learn about the ship’s legacy of defending the U.S., and also try your luck on the obstacle course. Food and drinks are an additional cost at the All American BBQ and Beer Garden, and there will also be live entertainment.

For more information: Website

1. AMERICAFEST @ The Rose Bowl Stadium
The Merriment: The Rose Bowl’s 88th time celebrating Independence Day.

The Location: Pasadena

The Vibes: Massive, impressive, grand, outdoors, the ultimate fireworks show of all shows.

Good for: All ages

When-To-Go: Friday, July 4, 2 – 9 p.m.

The $ Factor: $13 - $25, depending on seating location in the stadium; veterans and up to three of their guests receive complimentary admission.

Parking Situation: Parking at the stadium is available in advance for $20 and for $25 on actual event day.

The 4-1-1: The Rose Bowl has one of the largest fireworks productions in the L.A. region, produced by Pyro Spectaculars by Souza. Doors technically open at 2 p.m., but most of the action doesn’t start until later, around 7 p.m. That’s when you can expect to see motorcycle stunts and the Liverpool Legends and Ian Thomas take the stage. And, the grand finale, the fireworks show is at 9 p.m. For an additional fee of $8-$10, you can take guided tours of the stadium between 2:30 and 6:30 p.m.

For more information: Website