Shoya Izakaya - Doraville, GA

Atlanta, Georgia . . . The city seems like a huge metropolis to someone like the likes of me from Durham, NC. In fact I consider it to be one of the top 10 biggest cities in the US. Maybe I'm just naive. Atlanta is currently only the 33rd largest city in the US by population but packs more quality restaurants than some of the big boys. Shoya belongs in the big city, it produces super fresh seafood and yakitori while seemingly at full capacity at all times.

This is a long post so bear with me, I promise that some of these foods, as bizarre as they may seem, are truely delicious and deserve your attention if you stop by this strip mall eatery.

You may or probably have no clue what I'm talking about when I talk about Izakayas. Think of an izakaya like your local sports bar that you frequent that also sells fresh grilled chicken hearts. Izakayas are drinking establishments through and through, they just happen to serve up substantial Japanese eats. But don't come around here looking for wings and/or fries or you'll be sorely disappointed.

Tako Wasabi - Raw octopus with marinated with pickled wasabi leaf
I will say this, the order that these pictures show up are purely the order that we ordered this gargantuan meal. My cousins know how to eat. My girlfriend Em, she knows how to eat. We start with the palette cleansing raw octopus that has been marinated with pickled wasabi leaves. It's pungent to the nose, but nice and subtle to the palette. Think of it like drinking ocean water while someone shoves wasabi up your nose. It's pleasant, trust me.

Sea Cucumber Sunomono - Variety of seafood, cucumber and seaweed with vinaigrette
A lot of what Asian food is is texture. A lot of times we use the main piece in a dish as the medium for the sauce that surrounds it. If the main piece has a great texture it's like a win win for us. Sea Cucumber is light in flavor when fresh, and almost crunchy while being soft at the same time. The classic soy vinaigrette that comes with this dishe is nice and over powering to work in harmony with some of the "interesting" flavors of the sea cucumber.

Mountain Root Salad - Shredded mountain root, scallion, daikon radish, baby greens, and seaweed
And speaking of texture, sometimes, the texture of some dishes is just too hard to swallow. This is one of those that is a bit much for me. My cousins seem to love it, but I just can't seem to get around the consistency of the mountain root. It seems all crunchy like an Asian pear when you bite in to it, but then the slimey, mucous, consistency starts right in. It's like the inside of an okra without the seeds.

Ankimo - Steamed monk fish liver with ponzu sauce, scallion, and chili radish
I know the idea of eating a steamed fish's liver seems a bit far fetched. After all usually the experience we have with fish liver is cod fish liver oil. Supposedly really healthy for you but also some of the fishiest nauseating smell, am I correct? Well ankimo doesn't hold true to this assumption. The flavor is very mild, and the texture is much like a firm pate. This dish is extremely rich so don't go popping several into your mouth or you may just ruin your meal. The flavor is very much like a particular, but once you forget that it's monk fish liver, you actually start to like it a lot.

Ko Mochi Shishamo - Grilled half dried smelt fish(with eggs) with sea salt
I don't know how to explain to you that these dishes are not as odd as they seem. If I didn't grow up eating fish roe, then the idea of eating an impregnated fish would seem far fetched and gross. But I know how delicious fish roe is. Yes these fish are grilled whole with their egg sack intact. Yes they still have the head attached. But trust me, if you get beyond all of the aesthetics of it all, it's an extremely delicious dish.

Gindara - Grilled marinated silver cod with dashi soy sauce
I just realized I may have come to the first "normal" dish on this list of food. Silver cod is a nice oily fish with tons of flavor and there is an almost molasses-y sweetness to this fish. I can only say one thing umami(delicious).

Shishito Peppers - Served with lemon and sea salt
I wonder if these thin skinned peppers are in season. Eating Shishito peppers is like playing Russian roulette. You may or may not get one that's really spicy and will turn your mood south. At the same time though, maybe you can just consider it a reason to keep eating! There isn't much much that needs to be done with shishito peppers, just pop them in a broiler and get them a little charred sprinkle some sea salt and a squeeze of lemon and that's it. Simple.

Chicken Heart and Japanese Conch - Served with lemon and sea salt
This was only my second experience with an izakaya. My first time was at Yakitori Totto in NY, NY. And my first time I had to eat chicken hearts as well. Remember I was talking about texture and how important a roll it plays in asian cuisine. Well, chicken hearts are nice and chewy and have a very meaty flavor to them.

Funny enough these two dishes came out at the same time and seem to have very similar textures. Though the flavors couldn't be farther apart, the texture is very similar. Conch tastes a bit fishy but in that steamed clam sort of way. Not offensive, just good.

Chicken Meat Ball - With Cheese
Funny enough, when I was going through these pictures to create this post, I got to this picture of the chicken meat balls and was more grossed out than any other dish. Just the thought of putting american cheese on what looks like a glorified hotdog made me a little grossed out. I can say though that this meat ball is safe for the kiddies. They'd probably love how it comes on and stick and has cheese on it. Very juvenile, but also comforting in the same way.

Pork Onigiri - Two rice balls with bbq pork
Onigiri comes in all different variations with all sorts of fillings. I obviously gravitate towards anything pork. I am what I eat I guess. I wasn't so fond of their preparation of this onigiri. I was expecting a grilled rice ball with a nice crusted outside and a smokey flavor, but instead these were wrapped and grilled and lacked all that I love about grilled rice balls. However, another not-so-difficult to eat dish. Easy on the palette and the texture is quite easy to stomach even for beginners.

Chicken Skin - Served with lemon and sea salt
How many times have you wanted to eat the chicken skin off of a nice fried chicken wing only to be told that it will give you a heart attack? Well this dish is for all those times. It's just what you think it tastes like. Crispy, fatty, goodness. And oddly enough, it's not as rich as you would think. In other words, they remind me more of a potato chip fried in lard (YUM!) than a stick of butter.

Chicken Gizzard - Served with lemon and sea salt
If I were to hand you a skewer and said "here eat it, it's chicken gizzard." Would you? Well I guess that's not fair, you'd be out of your mind to eat a skewer of chicken parts from who knows what source and eat it. I digress. Anyways, what I'm trying to say is, if you don't give it a try on your own account, then you may never know the wonders of odd chicken parts. The gizzard is almost 100% texture. The flavor is light and what flavor you do get from it can easily be covered with the lemon and salt that goes along side the dish. The texture is crunchy though. At first you don't think that any meat product should be so crunchy but then you forget what you're eating and the next thing you know you're snacking on gizzard.

Tonkotsu Ramen - Egg noodles in creamy pork soup with roast pork, boiled egg, and more
And so we get to the final two courses, noodles and dessert. Kind of. So it's no secret I love noodles. So easy to eat, filling, and portable. These are the japanese versions of the famous ramen noodles. Don't get the water boiled out and set your timer to 3 minutes for these bad boys though. You're never going to get the richness of creamy pork broth without a ton of effort and time. I want to believe that tonkotsu ramen is one of the more classic ramens because I love to eat it at any chance I get. The broth is nice and creamy and the trimmings are superb. Now if I could just get this to dehydrate well.

Tan Tan Ramen - Egg noodles in spicy soy-chicken soup with pork, boiled egg, and more
Just based on the flavors going on in this ramen dish, I would venture to say it's influenced by chinese cuisine. The broth has more kick and the ground pork reminds me of chinese dan dan noodles. Either way, I'm in love with this dish and would probably go back to Shoya just for these noodles.

Okonomi Yaki - Japanese pan cake with pork, egg, and vegetables
The first time I heard about okonomi yaki was when I was studying to be a food lover watching Anthony Bourdain's show, No Reservations. His episode on Japan really opened my eyes to a lot of Japanese cuisine. I called this dessert only because it was so late in the game showing up to the table, what else could it be? Think of okonomi yaki as a japanese "Rooty Tooty Fresh and Fruity". It's a pancake of sorts, filled with all sorts of savory goods, fried on the griddle, and topped with bonito flakes and japanese mayo. I also like to call it a cardiac arrest. It's dangerously decadent and probably should come with a warning label for the roof of your mouth.

Anyways, I'm sorry you had to sit through that one. It was a long road but you've made it. Now go out and get some good eatin' done!

--Joe Kwon

For more info on Shoya click on this link.

Local Eats: Lantern - Chapel Hill, NC

One of my sponsors happens to be my brother-in-law, Larry J Moray. Larry and Jin Yi (my sister) decided to take me and my other sister Si Nae out to a nice dinner at the Lantern. The Lantern has quickly become the "go to" spot for delicious local food in Chapel Hill. They feature some exciting appetizers and amazing entrees and in my honest opinion, the best deserts in town. This was our meal in all it's glory. Foodies beware, there are dishes here that will make you drool on the keyboard.

North Carolina Blue Crab Cakes
Maybe it's because I carry a large camera and notepad, maybe it's because my Jin and Lar are regulars, whatever the case may be, the restaurant was so kind to send us out two free apps. This was one of them. Now I LOVE LOVE LOVE blue crab. Turning blue crab into crab cakes at first thought seems like a total travesty. Why ruin a perfect food right? Well, I couldn't be more wrong, the sweetness of blue crab is perfect for crab cakes. My only concern is that they aren't large enough to get just pure crab flavor, and that there wasn't a nice seared crust on the outside of these crab cakes. Other than that, the garlic chives were a nice touch, and the tomatoes really 'popped'!

Chaat - crispy chickpeas and potatoes with tomatoes, pickled red onions and mint chutney
This is one of my favorite apps to get at Lantern. It's a delicious mix of herbs and spices with crispy chickpeas. It's a fun dish with tons of flavor. If I had to order just one app, it would be this.

Fiery Japanese eggplant salad with garlic, chiles and mint
I really liked the flavor of these eggplant, the spice was a bit mute in the dish but the sesame seeds were nice and fresh so they did add a little lingering flavor in your mouth. There are nice hints of mint in the dish which catch you by surprise in such a good way. This may not be my favorite way to prepare japanese eggplant but it was delicious nonetheless.

Thai chicken salad with chiles, lime, roasted peanuts,red onions and crispy noodles
I look back at my notes and I see nothing about this dish. I do remember that it did not strike a chord with me. Of course, when you have bold dishes, a dish like this may not be the most memorable. It wasn't offensive, or bad, it was just the pairing with the other bolder flavors that made this dish difficult to stand out. This would be a great app. salad for the seafood hotpot.

Braised Pork Belly with Daikon Radish
As you might have guessed, this was my favorite appetizer. I love pork belly so much you pretty much can't go wrong feeding it to me. The texture was nice and soft the sweetness was so nice and caramely and the daikon really was a nice clean balance to it all.

Salt and pepper shrimp - fresh wild shrimp with crispy shells, fried jalapenos, coriander and sea salt
I'll come right out of the gates with it. Maybe it's because I've had some stellar salt prawn in LA's Chinatown, but I was just a bit underwhelmed by this dish. The flavors were almost all there, except for the spicy red pepper that should be fried along side this dish. If you were lucky enough to get a bite of the jalepenos it was quite nice, alone the shrimp were just salty shrimp.

Mackerel Tartare
This was the other complimentary appetizer the restaurant sent out for us, and am I SO thrilled they did. You've never tasted raw mackerel so fresh and non-fishy in your life. This nice tartare was so rich and smooth I could almost mistake it with a savory desert. What a nice surprise!

Icy Spicy - Cold Cucumber Soup
Speaking of surprises, this dish wins for best soup of the year. The cool cucumber was perfect for the hot summer, while the bite in the back of the neck from the 'spicy' of 'Icy Spicy' left your appetite screaming for more. My compliments to the chef!

Lemongrass-grilled Niman Ranch beef with cool rice noodles, lettuce, herb salad, roasted peanut-hoisin and chile-lime sauce
This dish had some really exciting flavors going on in it. The chili pepper sauce that comes with the dish really adds a ton of pizazz to the dish when composed. The meat was grilled very well for the dish and each of the different parts of the dish went well wrapped in the lettuce leaves. Is this dish intended to be a wrap? I don't recall, but it seemed right at the time. This is the dish I'd probably have my girlfriend order so I could eat off of her plate while I devoured my dish. It's was very different from all the other entrees in just the right way.

Seafood hotpot- NC shrimp, wild striped bass, diver scallops, fresh squid and clams in broth with slippery noodles, fresh lime leaf and baby bok choy
Much like the Thai chicken salad, this dish just came at the wrong time in my sampling of the entrees. I think if this was the first dish I had tried I would have really loved it. It has all the components of a great dish from fresh seafood, to a nice broth and glass noodles. But, I had just eaten some spicy and sour beef wrapped in a lettuce leaf that was kicking my mouth's ass! So would I order it again? Probably, considering the dish is in fact one of their signature dishes, it is tasty. I just happen to get it at the wrong time.

Vietnamese Cane Creek Farm pork chop with a fried farm egg, spicy cucumber-mint salad, steamed jasmine rice and chile-lime sauce
I must say that this dish seemed very out of place to me. The flavors I guess are asian inspired, but the dish composition was off putting somehow. Frisée, next to hot rice, chile-lime sauce, a thick cut pork chop, some frisée, and topped off with an egg? I didn't know where I was trying to be pulled. It really seemed to be too much of a hodgepodge of conflicting flavors. I will say that the pork chop was awesome and I LOVED the fried egg with it. But, the plate as a whole left me puzzled. This made me think that too much of a good thing is sometimes not all good.

Fried whole North Carolina fish with chiles, garlic, tamarind, fresh lime leaf, carrot salad and jasmine rice
The whole fried fish is another staple dish at Lantern. It's done well 99% of the time, the fish is always fresh, and the flavors are exactly what you might expect. I love this dish and I must say I don't think there is anything they should do differently with it, except maybe serve it with a small bowl of fish consommé. That would send it over the top!

Schezuan pepper-salt and Ginger Spring Onion Sauce
These are the dipping sauces that came with the next dish. Although just calling them dipping sauces does them a certain level of injustice.

Tea and spice smoked local chicken with yang chow pork and shrimp fried rice, local green beans and housemade XO sauce
I really wanted to love this dish. I looked at my smoked chicken, I could smell the smokey aroma rising off of it. I wanted it to be sweet and succulent. . .But, like so many times that you eat chicken, it was over cooked. The flavors were great, but the chicken was dry. I was longing for some rendered chicken fat to dip each bite in, something to get the moist juices back into the meat. Oh well, I guess you just can't win them all. The fried rice was a hit at least!

Clockwise from Left: Hot chocolate cake with preserved local strawberry ice cream | Cherry stone panna cotta with organic sweet cherries and pistachio cookie | Wine poached Sandhill peach with local honey ice cream and blackberry crush | Coconut Cake with Rose Water
Ah, the desserts. There are two things I have always returned to Lantern for over and over again. They have tremendous cocktails and delectable desserts. You can't go wrong with the hot chocolate cake, it oozes molten chocolate as soon as you break through the first layers of the cake. This dessert is served with whatever ice cream flavor is on hand. This night it was preserved local strawberry, and it was delicious AGAIN!

The panna cotta and cherries were to die for. The cherries were the perfect acidity for the smooth panna cotta. The combination was perfect!

Lantern, why are you so good to us? Another two complimentary dishes made their way to our table. First the peaches and honey ice cream. Holy cow, the peaches reminded me of my childhood eating peaches with sugar out of white coffee cups, and the honey ice cream is so good when it hits your lips. Darn I wish I had a pint of that ice cream right now.

And then came the coconut cake with rose water. When we all looked at the dessert menu, I remembered not even considering the coconut cake as a dessert hopeful. I mean how can you pass up a hot chocolate cake and panna cotta? The majority of the table wasn't thrilled with the dish, but I loved how simple it was. The rose water is such a delicate flavor that is very well paired with the coconut shavings on the cake. I loved it and I will never leave coconut in the corner again!

--Joe Kwon

For more info visit Lantern's website.

Local Eats: Sandwhich - Chapel Hill, NC

Bread and Butter (Gorganzola/Parmesan compound butter)
What a wonderful way to spend a beautiful summer night. The temperature was just hovering in the upper 70's and there was just enough of a breeze to cool your warm back from the sun. There were people walking all around and the town just felt alive. That seems to be what food means to me these days. It's a wonderful life indeed.

I've been to Sandwhich a handful of times and I've always been so impressed at how simple ingredients could come together to make such alluring meals between two pieces of bread. The old Sandwhich was housed in a small near a boutique cupcake store and shared a common area with Penang. Another sad excuse for an ethnic themed restaurant. The new location is right on the main drag that is the life line of Chapel Hill, Franklin Street.

Local Bibb Salad
Tonight there was 6 of us. I love it when you go out to dinner with people who you know just well enough to eat family style with. We all passed around our dishes as if we were siblings at Thanksgiving. The local bibb salad is just what it says. It's simple, is dressed with a nice light dressing and a little sea salt, and was so fresh.

Beets, Blue, and Walnuts
Leon and I had to go with something a bit bolder of course. And with my love of beets it was a clear choice to go with the earthy beets with blue cheese and spiced walnuts. I swear sometimes, it's the little flavor that just kicks you in the back of the head, that makes you rekindle a new love for certain foods. The walnuts, in this case, were just slightly spiced with some cayenne or some other spicy pepper that got you just in the back of the throat, and were toasted to perfection!

Whole Roasted Chicken with a Side of Broccoli Rabe
It was agreed upon that enough of us were into getting chicken such that we ordered the whole roasted chicken. I take much pride in being able to dismember a chicken carcass down to the bone and remove every bit of skin, meat, cartilage, and connective tissue as humanly possible. Sandwhich does a great job with their chicken. Cooked with a crispy outside skin and well seasoned on the inside as well. When you get to the carcass in the middle it's full of herbs and yummy goodness. Thinking back on it now I realize why our food was taking so long to come out. We ordered a whole freaking bird. What on EARTH were we thinking! Even still, this chicken fed 4 and we were all full by the end of it.

The broccoli rabe was a younger thinner variety than I've had, but I love the bitterness of rabe so much more than regular broccolini. Their version was simple sauteed in some garlic and olive oil and complimented our chicken quite nicely.

Our French Fries
This was our second side selection that came with our chicken. I've said it before and I'll say it again. If there are french fries on a menu I have to order them. If they are fresh cut, double fried, fries, then it's a no brainer and you better watch your hands if you want to keep them. Don't come in between this man and his fries!

Mac & Cheese
Now if you take a look at a menu in a restaurant and there is a section called "For The Table" and you find "Mac & Cheese" as your first option. You might as well expect the mac & cheese is going to be a gimme. You HAVE to order it. If a restaurant takes pride in their mac & cheese it's for a reason. Trust me on this one. Order it. You won't be dissapointed. Rich, gooey, slightly spiced, and all baked to a nice brown crust. Perfection in a bowl.

It takes a special person to be able to down a sandwich that's key ingredient is sardines. In fact it takes a German woman to do it. Ulla, ordered the one dish I was afraid to order. Of course, I wasn't afraid to ask to try it though. If you've never had a sardine this is not the time to try it. It'll knock you on your back with flavor and if you're not ready for it it'll quite possibly make you a little queazy. I loved it, although I don't think I'd be able to make a meal of it.

Cremini Mushroom Risotto
When it's just cool enough outside, and someone has already ordered a whole roast chicken, only then is it permissible to order risotto. Just kidding. But traditionally risotto is a dish you order when you've got some time on your hands and you're not worried about pissing off the kitchen. If you've ever made risotto, it's a bit work intensive. You practically have to stir for a solid half hour while adding broth in small amounts to get the creamy consistency every risotto deserves. It was obvious Hitch, was no stranger to risotto. Wonderfully executed, rich, and full of flavor.

Hitch - Owner/Chef

--Joe Kwon
Special thanks to Ulla, Bri, Sarah, Mary, and Leon for a wonderful evening!

For more information about Sandwhich visit their website.

Local Eats: China Express - Durham, NC

짜장면 - Jjajangmyeon - Noodles in Black Bean Sauce
Between China Express and Thai China I don't think there is a more frequented restaurant for me, Em, and my cousins. We love these "comfort foods" and we love that they are in our town.

Jjajangmyeon is a dish I remember eating as a child and loving instantly. I can't remember the first time I had it but I remember being a kid and finishing my noodles and adding rice to the black bean sauce. The dish isn't much for looks but it's a huge punch in the face of flavor. Salty, earty, and smooth, that's about the best way to describe it. The flavor is very unique, so it's impossible to describe it well. The black bean sauce is obviously the highlight of the dish so it has to be prepared just right. I'll make sure to post a recipe sometime soon for this dish. In the mean time, try to find it in your area!

짬뽕 - Korean-Style Jampong - Spicy Noodle Soup
It's rare that I will go on tour and I will not start craving some good "jampong." It may be one of those ultimate comfort foods for Koreans. It's spicy, it's full of vegetables, it's very filling, and it's cheap. I've eaten this dish at a LOT of restaurants all around the country, and outside of mom making this for me at home, this is the best I've found.

Jampong is a spicy noodle dish that is usually based around a beef or seafood broth. The rich flavors of the broth are enough to cut through the spice from the peppers. A good jampong will have chewy noodles, scalding broth, a generous amount of peppery spice, and a lot of vegetables/protein. Without all of these facets the dish is just not accomplished.

Chinese-style Jampong
The Chinese style of this dish is a bit different. The broth is lighter in color and tastes a little sweeter as well. I often bounce between these two styles a lot to change it up but lately I've found the subtleties of this dish appealing. However, on a deserted island, if I could only take one of these dishes it'd be the Korean style.

깐풍기 Kamponggi - Sweet and Spicy Chicken
This dish is one I remember I'd get as a treat. It takes too much preparation and makes too much of a mess to make it all the time, but my mom would make it for me for my birthday or for special events. It's not terribly difficult, just timing consuming. The sauce is based with soy, sugar/honey, red peppers, and toasted sesame oil, a common combination of flavors for Korean cuisine. It's sweet and spicy in all the right ways.

Anyways, go check this place out. I'd say tell them I sent you, but as many times as I've visited they seem to never remember me. Oh yeah, that reminds me. Don't expect any nice decor or service in a place like this. China Express solely stays open because they offer dishes that the clientele come back for regardless of looks or treatment.

--Joe Kwon

If you want more info on China Express click here.

Xich Lo - Oslo, Norway

We had the day off here in Oslo, Norway and I would have done more had I not realized that Oslo-ans make 4 times more money than we do in the states and therefore everything is 4 times more expensive. We found out that McDonald's employees make a whopping 130kr (~20USD) per hour! You can't go to Burger King and get a whopper meal for less than $15 USD. Needless to say it was going to be a challenge to try to find a place that would satisfy my yearning for good food and keep it under 20 bucks.

I had my work cut out for me but I did the classic move of asking around. My first thing to ask was . . . "Where should I eat? Lemme rephrase that. Where should I eat and not pay and arm and a leg?" The concierge lets out a chuckle and gives me this look as if saying "Silly American you can't eat for cheap in Oslo!" I guess I'm a poor judge of character because he says "Just down the street is a great little Vietnamese place, hardly anyone in the place and it's very reasonably priced. It's just above the 7 Eleven on the second story of the building." I was floored, he just hit all the points I was looking for: 1) Vietnamese, 2) Cheap, 3) Hardly anyone there! Have I just been blessed again by the culinary gods?!

Xich Lo is very nice. I'm not going to say it's a cheap dive you can find authentic Vietnamese food in. In fact they don't actually have any authentic dishes at all. The dish I got was what would traditionally be a Chicken Bun (vermicelli noodles with grilled chicken). The restaurant didn't even have pho which I was hoping for. Nonetheless, the food was very well prepared and flavorful. And the nice lemon, mint, orange water, that they serve with the food is a nice touch too.

--Joe Kwon

For more information click here.