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Andrew Zimmern on 3 Spots for Authentic (Stateside) Asian Food


Courtesy of Raku

Raku's warm and modern interior.

A few years ago, articles about Asian restaurants such as these all began with homages to “hole in the wall places and local ethnic gems bursting with character.” Today, these are some of the best tables in their towns, and while some are hard to find, the line of food nerds and gastro-nauts all waiting to get in speaks volumes. Need directions? You could ask your hotel concierge, but they have a tendency to steer you toward big-name chophouses rather than a tiny Vietnamese deli serving up the best bahn mi in town. Be insistent when you want something a little more off the beaten path.

Here’s the key to unlocking a city’s culinary secrets: Find out where chefs eat on their days off. It’s pretty simple. This is a group of people who are all about food first, with atmosphere and service often a distant second. I suggest you try hitting up your favorite chef (celebrity and local) via Twitter, Facebook or email. Who knows, maybe Mario Batali will Tweet you back with his favorite dive bar in Traverse City. Never hurts to ask.

Here are three places my chef friends and I all flock to in our quest to dine on superbly crafted, delicious, honest, authentic food.

1. Hunan Kitchen of Gran Sichuan in New York City

LOCALE: 42-47 Main Street, Flushing, Queens

SCENE: Seeking the best Chinese food in NYC? It makes sense to head to Chinatown. And you’d be right, sort of. There are some great established restaurants that I adore. But with Manhattan’s sky-high rents, recent Chinese immigrants are flocking to Flushing, Queens, and Hunan Kitchen of Grand Sichuan is on my short list in New Chinatown.

ATMOSPHERE: A light and airy space with exposed brick, warm lighting and a bit of kitsch (gotta love the pop art Mao portrait), Hunan Kitchen is less hole-in-the-wall than its lackluster, generic awning suggests. You’ll find tables with neighborhood families, Williamsburg hipsters and Manhattanites who have made the trek to scope out one of the most vibrant communities in the city.

WHAT TO ORDER: Chinese cuisine is all about contrasts, so order a variety. I like to kick things off with an order of cucumbers with scallion sauce. Try the dan dan noodles—though keep in mind that Hunan cuisine can be very spicy, but with a purpose. Smoke, garlic, chili oil and ginger work together for hot, complex flavors instead of an assaulting burn.


Bibimbap (rice with vegetables, egg and shrimp in a hot stone pot). Photo by Supia Song.        

2. Park's BBQ in Los Angeles

LOCALE: 955 South Vermont Avenue

STORY: Your first trip to LA’s Koreatown can be a bit overwhelming. Make it easy on yourself and remember Park’s BBQ. This simply marked (but stylish) Korean barbecue joint is authentic enough to appease those who grew up eating their mom’s version of these dishes, while being approachable for those who think kimchi is a cute girl’s name.

HOW IT WORKS: Chef-owner Jenee Kim keeps it simple, focusing mostly on traditional Korean grilled meats and sides. The best part? You get to help. Items such as bulgogi (Kobe beef that’s thinly sliced and seasoned) and gal-bi (seasoned short ribs) are cooked in the center of your table on a charcoal grill. Once cooked, you take the meat off the grill, place it in a lettuce leaf or rice paper and doctor it up with chili bean paste, scallions and garlic. Banchan, the traditional side dishes eaten with Korean BBQ, will overrun your table.

FLAVORS: Expect sweet and savory. Soy sauce, sugar, sesame oil, scallions and minced garlic are big players here; the meat is scored before hitting the grill to soak up the smoke. Park’s also makes a mean abalone, and the house noodle dish called mul naengmyeon is a stunner; get it spicy.


Raku's live sea urchin and noodles. Photo courtesy of Raku.        

3. Raku in Las Vegas

LOCALE: 5030 West Spring Mountain Road #2

STORY: Las Vegas is wholly intoxicating. It’s all about being the biggest and the best, a city dedicated to sensory overload. I can name a few dozen unbelievable restaurants on the strip, but even for me, this place gets a little overwhelming. When I need a respite, I call a cab and head to Raku, a serene little Japanese joint in a nondescript strip mall about 10 minutes away from the hustle and bustle.

MENU: While sushi bar staples such as peerless tuna-cut tastings and rare clams dot the menu, Raku also focuses on traditional izikaya fare: small soup bowls, homemade tofu dishes and a wide array of robata—meats, fish and veggies grilled on oak binchotan, a Japanese charcoal that burns at a higher temperature and contains less moisture, helping to cook ingredients with a crisper finish. From apple-marinated lamb chops to charred eggplant and grilled tomato with bacon, everything is served à la carte.

ATMOSPHERE: Neon lights and sprawling blown-glass chandeliers have been swapped out for simple natural elements such as wooden tables and deep oak. The crowd is 99 percent Japanese, with a few tourists brave enough to venture off the beaten path—and a famous chef here and there for good measure. Raku is open until 3 a.m., perfect for kitchen gods and their crew after a grueling night on the line.

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