It was a fortunate finding – before our feast began we also discovered that our answers to a FoodDigger flavor profile quiz made us completely incompatible when it came to our restaurant preferences. We were sadly at opposite ends of the dining spectrum, so would need to find unity over other topics of interest – namely, running, sarcastic humor and our cameras.
Despite our disparate palates, over the past year and a half, Cathy and I have overcome "the odds" to become close friends. While I still prefer cooked fish to raw and she will always favor hers unblemished by heat, our tight friendship has helped us to break down some of the food barriers that once stood between us. Our shared love for carbohydrates and noodles has also been instrumental in that process.
This past Saturday night, Cathy and I came one step closer to dining compatibility when she introduced me to her favorite restaurant in Pasadena, Cham Korean Bistro. The casual, neatly groomed eatery on Cordova Street specializes in healthy, contemporary Korean food that incorporates fresh, local ingredients into its substantial menu of globally-inspired eats. In other words, it’s the perfect meeting ground for Cathy and me.
After I secured a glass of Pomello Sauvignon Blanc ($8.50), we started our meal with a trio of the restaurant’s playful tofu pockets composed of fried tofu skins stuffed with seasoned rice and various savories like pickled seaweed,. arugula & radish, and blue crab. At Cathy’s urging, I opted for the spicy tuna version ($1.50) – her self-proclaimed favorite. It quickly became apparent to me why she is so fond of the hand sushi roll-like vessels. I loved the brightness of the tuna that punched my mouth with a stab of satisfying heat, and the pliable tofu envelope and slick, sesame-flavored rice added welcome girth to the already substantial bite.
For my main course, I requested the Sizzling Hot Bibimbap with brown rice, vegetables, a fried egg, and seared tofu ($10) – a healthfully portioned plate that is healthfully composed without the assertive flavors of oil and other additives. Cathy and her husband Vern decided to split orders of the Beef Bulgogi Bibimbap and the Beef Bulgogi Rice Cakes sautéed with bell peppers, broccoli, button mushrooms, and sweet soy sauce ($8) that they insisted I also partake in.
While I loved the generous medley of fresh vegetables – sautéed kale, carrots, bean sprouts, and zucchini – and the crusty lumps of rice that get nicely toasted in the hot cast iron skillet, once I’d tasted the rice cakes (topokki), I had a hard time keeping my chopsticks on my side of the table. The dense cylinders of glutinous rice flour are like a cross between gnocchi and mochi, and the chewy carbohydrate pillows have an intensely satisfying and craveable texture that I am still dreaming about four days later.
In the past, I’ve only experienced topokki that’s been bathed in a sweet and spicy red sauce – a treatment that can be a bit cloying and intense for my tastes, so was pleased with Cham’s reinterpretation that is slightly reminiscent of broccoli beef. Cham does, however, offer a crispy version of the rice cakes that comes with the more traditional sauce.
After Cathy, Vern and I had maxed out on carbohydrates for the night, we floated back to their home nearby to continue our conversation. As Cathy showed me her newest cookbook – America’s Test Kitchen Healthy Family Cookbook – and filled me in on all the vegetable-heavy dishes she and Vern had made for dinner that week, I smiled thinking about how far we’ve come in a year and a half.
2011 is sure to bring us even closer. By the end of the year she may even be gorging on quinoa, and I may even be the one asking her to come with me to Chego in Culver City for a pork belly rice bowl.
And if not, we’ll always, always have noodles – and, now, rice cakes at Cham.
Cham Korean Bistro
851 Cordova Street,
Pasadena, CA 91101