As much as I hate flying, which I blame on a too-long tour of duty in a job that required commuting by plane every week (I wasn’t a flight attendant, but 10 points for you if you guess what I did), I love the airport and always have. Most people love to travel, but hate the airport, including shuttling guests or friends back and forth, but I’m the opposite. Unless I am already booked with a previous engagement, I am always willing to take a friend or family member who needs a ride to and from the airport. Eek! Now that I’ve admitted that, everyone will be calling me to save on cab fare! Well, not really, because a Delicious ride will still cost you ;)
LAX is my normal airport destination, but recently, I made a trip out to the Santa Monica Airport, a small, regional airport. It’s not my first loop around Donald Douglas – I had been there before for lunch at the Spitfire Grill, one of the three restaurants on the airport property, long ago with an ex-ex-ex (which means I’m never going there again! LOL!) and on a few Saturday mornings when the Santa Monica Farmers’ Market temporarily set up shop there. This time though, I went for lunch at Typhoon. Food. Airport. I was ready with my boarding pass.
Check-In: With a name like Typhoon and serving pan-Asian cuisine, for some reason I expected a very flashy colorful Asian decor, but the interior is simple and non-descript with dark wood and furniture that create a sort of Manhattan steakhouse-ness. It feels a bit formal and older, not in the age of the building and fixtures, but in the maturity level of the intended market. There are windows all around a dining that that nudges itself out over the airplane parking lot in a gentle half-circle. It was hard to pinpoint the dining crowd. There was a large table of somewhat loud and lively older men in Hawaiian shirts. If I had to guess, perhaps they are a men’s club of retired pilots – not the 747 captain kind, but the Santa Monica millionaire with expensive toys kind. If we had been sitting outside, I could imagine all of them smoking cigars. The rest is just a random mix of demographics, though I did note that there were very few Asians in this pan-Asian restaurant.
Seat Assignment: We sat against one window that overlooked the airplane parking lot – kind of cool to see little planes all lined up. My back was to the main room, so I was facing away from the view of the runway. If I had been facing the opposite direction, I would have been looking out the windows that overlooked the runway. Little planes were landing and taking off throughout our lunch.
Please Refer to the Materials in Seatback in Front of You: The lunch menu is printed on the placemat. It felt a little strange to have my head down looking at the menu – reminded me a bit of the Chinese restaurants we went to when we lived in the Midwest. Red and black, back then it was line drawings of various animals and their respective years for the Chinese zodiac (I was always so proud to be such a ferocious tiger!); and now a menu of foods from all over Asia, playing on the typhoon theme with Jillian-like seasonal forecasts.
Flight Plan: A quick scan proved that yes, indeed, Typhoon is pan-Asian, offering a little taste from a lot of countries. Lunch dishes range from Chinese dim sum to appetizers, soups and salads from the usual Japanese, Chinese, and Thai, to the increasingly popular Vietnamese and Korean, to the lesser known Malaysian, Indonesian, Burmese, Filipino. The rest of the menu is divided, not by course, but by main ingredient type: different types of seafood that are broken out into mollusks, shellfish, and fish; meats that are also broken out into lamb, beef, pork and poultry; vegetables, and finally, rice and noodles. Quite a comprehensive culinary tour of Asia. The menu looks impressive.
Shaky Take-off: But that’s where it ends. Not sure if it just seemed natural because of backgrounds and familiarity with the cuisine, but somehow, we ended up with what was supposedly an all Korean meal. We started with an ahi tuna tartar, curious to see what it’s claim to “Korean-style” would entail. It was a tiny mound of chopped tuna served with sliced cucumbers and fresh raw garlic. Other than the raw garlic slices, there wasn’t much Korean style to this ahi tuna at all. In fact, there wasn’t much of any style at all. The tuna was dry, even though the characteristic fragrance of sesame oil was very apparent. I also came across what felt like dental floss in my mouth – silvery, shiny fibers that should have been removed from the flesh. Slices of a cucumber that has been scraped lengthwise with the tines of a fork to create a lacy decorative edge looks much more Thai or Vietnamese than Korean to me. But that’s just a nit. The whole thing was supposed to be Korean, but it did not taste good, nor did it taste Korean.
Please Return to Your Seats, We are Experiencing Some Turbulence: For the main event, I was a little nervous. I always get that way when eating Asian foods with non-Asians because of the difference in dining style. Usually, Asians eat family-style, and I’m never sure if my dining companions who order broccoli beef or chicken fried rice intend to eat an entire plate by themselves. But then I feel stupid when I have to ask because no matter how I word it, inevitably it sounds like this, “Are we going to be team players and generously share family-style, or are you going to be a selfish loner and eat your own?” That’s not how I mean it, I swear, but I don’t know how else to ask! But I didn’t really have to worry because he knows – let’s share. *phew*
I was excited to see yook-gae-jahng (my spelling; Typhoon spells it as “yukkae-jang”). This spicy Korean beef soup is one of my favorites, and since I hadn’t had it in a very long time, I thought now would be as good a time as any other to get my fix. Even after the somewhat disappointing tuna tartar, I was anxious to see how a pan-Asian restaurant would do with full-blown Korean rather than just i
n-the-style-of Korean. I’m pretty sure we had ordered a small (all soups can be ordered small or large) but the bowl was one of those enormous plastic white bowls with a red and dark pink Asian border around the edge that Chinese restaurants use to serve sizzling rice soup and such. But it wasn’t the size of the bowl that surprised so much as the contents.
Yook-gae-jahng is spicy, and when I say spicy, I mean it is literally red-hot. The goh-choo-gah-roo (red pepper powder) that is used to season the beef tints the broth a deep reddish brown, but it’s the oil that floats on the surface, from both the beef fat as well as added sesame oil, that gives the soup a shimmering bright red color. Though the soup is dyed, normally it remains fairly translucent and brothy. But Typhoon’s, though as deeply red as I’ve seen, was opaque and when I dipped my spoon into it to find some of the ingredients, it had a much thicker consistency of sauce, rather than a soup. It looked like a red velvet béchamel.
This was not the yook-gae-jahng I’m used to. The soup base not only didn’t feel right because it was thick and opaque, but it didn’t taste right either. It was spicy, but not as spicy as I would expect from the color. It was actually, sweet! It had not been made with goh-choo-gah-roo. They had used goh-choo-jahng, red pepper paste used for heat/flavor in cooking as well as a texture element because starches that are used to make it a “paste” can thicken liquids. I am suspecting they used chap-sal goh-choo-jahng, a red pepper paste that’s made with sweet rice that’s used more as a condiment rather than a cooking ingredient. If not, then Typhoon had to have simply added sugar to the soup. So not only was the yukkae-jang a red béchamel, but it was a candy apple red béchamel.
But the base wasn’t the strangest part of the yukkae-jang. The ingredients in the soup, I always call them ahl-maeng-ee, were unusual. Traditionally, yook-gae-jahng is made from flank steak that has been simmered in water that eventually goes on to become the soup’s beef broth. The flank steak is then shredded, rendering long fibers of meat, like carnitas, not cut across the grain into slices. Long fibers are definitely not the best for optimal eating in the grand scheme of things, but that’s just the nature of yook-gae-jahng. The beef in Typhoon’s yukkae-jang were thin slices of beef cut across the grain, and looked like they had been cooked in a separate sauté pan and added to the soup later, not cooked with the soup from the beginning. The meat tasted like it had been marinated, like bulgogi. Had Typhoon put bulgogi in the yukkae-jang?!?! I saw bulgogi on the menu, so I wouldn’t be surprised.
The strange thing is, if I hadn’t known it was yook-gae-jahng, perhaps I would have been a bit more forgiving. As a sweet and spicy soup, it tasted alright. As yook-gae-jahng, it did not.
Nose-dive: He ordered jahp-chae, Korean rice noodles and julienned vegetables that are tossed with a soy and sesame oil seasoning. From the moment the dish was placed on the table, I was suspicious of Typhoon’s jahp-chae, which had an abnormally light color, and was garnished with a few thick and wide strips of nori that looked out of place. Given the appearance, I was doubtful. And I was right to be. The noodles were not the noodles that are normally used for jahp-chae – they were thinner, and unfortunately, could have been forgiven except that they were overcooked, mushy, and broke apart when I lifted them from the dish. Some of the vegetables were unusual, as I’ve never seen cabbage, red or green, in jahp-chae. Like the noodles, these were all overcooked, too. The seasoning didn’t taste bad, but it definitely did not taste like jahp-chae seasoning. Unlike the yukkae-jang, which still tasted okay, even though it didn’t taste like yook-gae-jahng, the jahp-chae didn’t taste good, no matter what it was supposed to be.
Crash Landing: Lunch was pleasant, not for the food, but because our conversation was so engaging, and on such a gorgeous day, it was nice to sit by the window, overlooking the airport runway. The “Korean” food however, was less than pleasant. The yukkae-jang was the only thing that actually tasted okay, but is it even fair to say that it was good if it didn’t actually taste at all like it was supposed to? The two other dishes, the tuna tartar and jahp-chae, however, didn’t even taste good , no matter what they were supposed to taste like. For a nice lunch at the airport, I'd probably try the Hump for the first time before going back to Typhoon. But if I have to go back to Typhoon, I'll order foods from another country, like Japan or China, or even try Burma. For Korean food though, I’ll stick to trips to Koreatown or Mom’s house.
at the Santa Monica Airport
3221 Donald Douglas Loop
Santa Monica, CA 90405