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the joys of self-assembly

I was just thinking about the joys of self assembly - possibly because, in one of the fish taco threads, somebody was complaining that there was something essentially wrong about having to finish and top your fish taco yourself. I think they said something like: when they go to Spago's or something, they want to have it *precisely as the master chef intended it*, and that it was somehow wrong to have to finish it yourself.

This I thought was really interesting, because it explains how hard it is for me to get certain people, from certain backgrounds, to add anything to their pho or Korean oxbone soup or any of that stuff. Pho is *intended* for stuff to be added to it - the lime, the herbs. It's not *finished* until you add stuff to it. Korean oxbone soup *come* undersalted, with no chile spicing, and in desperate need of scallions, and you *have* to add it. Maybe it's a cultural divide or something.

But mostly I was thinking about the joys of self-assembly because the other day, when I was tired and strung out and sad and my friend expressed a deep desire for brisket, or maybe lox and bagels, I took her to Langers and we split a gloriously lox and whitefish platter and it was the perfect thing. I was thinking about how absolutely satisfying it was to assemble each bite yourself - just the amount of cream cheese you want, maybe you have onions this time, maybe you don't, maybe a cucumber, and then just the amount of fish you want - proportions and amounts and ingredients varying from bite to bite precisely as the mood strikes you. Maybe this is why a smoked fish *platter* is so much more satisfying then just getting a smoked fish bagel *sandwich* - the latter, you give up control, each bite is pretty much the same. Maybe it's because sometimes everything is stressful and awful because everything is spinning completely out of control and you have to compromise and sacrifice and fail, and then, for one brief lunch, you can have this smoked fish platter which is like a little oasis of the complete control over and indulgence in each little whim. Want a bite that's a mass of cream cheese? Go ahead. Want a stack of lox? Go for it. Want a little of each thing, in perfect balance, with a bit of onion bite? Go for it. Slow, luxurious decision and assembly between each bite.

I can see that there's a cultural divide here - some folks want it exactly as the chef intended it. They've expressed this to me over pho, when they refuse to add any herbs, and I have to say, "The chef intends you to add herbs," and they say, "But how much does the chef intend me to add?" and I say, "It's not determined - the chef intends for you to *decide for yourself*." I can see how somebody could think of this as somehow less high and aesthetic - there's this big thing of getting authorial intent right that floats around - but maybe a truly glorious platter for self-assembly is an art-form too, a different one. A hard one. An interactive one. Like great genius boardgame design, or great interactive interface user design, or maybe little improvisational audience-participatory theater, it's a hard task to give the user an experience they have control over, but also make it so that it's pleasurable and satisfying, instead of just an onerous task.

So I guess my question is: if I wanted to explore the idea and experience of self-assembly in food, where should I go in LA?

There's definite self-assembly aspects to a lot of Asian soup - pho, oxbone soup, soontofu, etc. - but it's sort of a one-time thing. You add your stuff, and you're done. The soup is set - you can add more spices and herbs, but you can't modulate each bite effectively. You don't get to construct each little bite as an independent entity, like with the lox platter.

I guess the closest is Korean BBQ. Especially once you're *rolling* the meat - making one roll with lettuce and a little rice and a lot of meat, and maybe a strand of onion banchan, and then making the next roll with some dduk and rice and meat, and maybe a little miso paste, and then the next one... Also, I suppose Mongolian hot pot is like this, though it's rather simple. You pretty much eat each boiled bit independently - you don't stack or roll. There's not the aspect of construction, with all its attendant contemplation and creativity.

(In Vietnamese hot pot, you end up making little spring rolls with what you boil.)

But I guess the major difference between Korean BBQ and hot pot type stuff, and the smoked fish platter, is that cooking it yourself is, well, a lot of work sometimes. The smoked fish bagel platter is the ultimate in self-indulgent laziness - leaning back in a booth on a Saturday afternoon, no more effort required than a flick of the knife and yoinking a bit of fish off the plate. (Ever read Calvin Trillin's beautiful essay, Ben's Dairy? It's about the pleasures of spending a Sunday morning running around town, pulling together the perfect ingredients for a smoked fish platter - the perfect bagels, the perfect creamed cheese, the perfect smoked fish - and then sitting down with a newspaper and slowly noshing it for a long, lazy afternoon.)

(I suddenly had the image of a person sitting in front of a korean BBQ set up - raw meat, charcoals, piles of banchan, herb platter, and demanding, "But how did the chef *intend* that I eat this?")

Anyway: sorry for all this rambling. My question is: what other forms of self-assembly food can I get in LA?

Last note: on the Langer's platter. Bagels are pretty cruddy. Cream cheese is pretty good. Smoked fish is surprisingly great - especially the whitefish.


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  1. the only thing I can think of off the top of my head is Vietnamese catfish, which i'm sure you are well aware of and than desserts like yogurt, shaved ice etc

    1 Reply
    1. re: peppermonkey

      Shaved ice is a good call - Korean bingsoo especially. You have all these little piles of things scattered around, and you sort of assemble each spoonful as you go, right? This time kiwi and a bit of ice cream. The next bite: red bean, and banana, and maybe some of those Fruity Pebbles. The next bite: ice cream, creamy ice, a piece of mochi, and maybe a piece of that fruit cocktail. Next bite: red bean and fruit cocktail, baby!

      There are lots of disparate pieces, and they're arranged in a way that invites you to assemble.

    2. Mostly everywhere I order food that is some type of sandwich, I specify that I will put it together myself. I got that way from Saturday night smoked fish, bagel, butter, tomato dinners. That was before I was 5 years old. Not much has changed for me. I eat lox, bagel, and cream cheese that way, too. Shmear some cream cheese on the bagel half (bottom half first) then, just as you describe, yoink some fish off the plate. I love that word "yoink." That's exactly what it is.

      1. Okonomiyaki can be a self-assembled, cook it yourself deal assuming you don't let the restaurant staff do the work for you.

        Gaja Moc
        2383 Lomita Blvd, Lomita, CA 90717

        2 Replies
        1. re: Professor Salt

          This is not quite the bagel thing, I think, right? You pick a bunch of ingredients, and then you cook them together into one big lump?

          We can distinguish between two levels of self-assembly:

          #1 Original Self Assembly:
          -You put it together once at the beginning, and then you have this finished thing you eat.

          #2 Perpetual Self Assembly:
          -You are constantly assembling it as you go, putting together each bite individually.

          Smoked fish plate, korean BBQ with lots of wraps, and things like Korean shaved ice fall under #2 - where okonomiyaki, and Asian soups, fall under #1.

          1. re: Thi N.

            Yes, okonomiyaki falls in the #1 paradigm.

            Many Asian rice based meals, like your Korean banchan example, will fall into #2. So how about Japanese bento boxes at places like Nijiya, Mitsuwa, Shin Sen Gumi Sozaiya, etc? For that matter, the bento style meals at Kyochon would be similar.

        2. I might be the guilty party. We were talking about The Best Fish Tacos from Ensenada on Hillhurst. I like the places where they put it together, ofcourse you can add stuff, but the basics should be there. My 2 centavos!

          1. a while back we made a mess out of goods acquired at Zeke's in Montrose. Pulled pork sandwiches, sides of their sweet/sour slaw, beans, collards, grilled veggies, fried sweet potatoes and hush puppies and applesauce. I deconstructed a pork sandwich since I don't eat meat, and then rebuilt it with just grilled goods topped by slaw and a dab of bbq sauce...a little of the pork cue flavor was left on the roll- a bite of sandwich, then a sweet potato...then maybe some beans,more sandwich...really good stuff.

            1. Fondue?


              Ethiopian food (esp. inerja with wat)?

              1 Reply
              1. re: ipsedixit

                Fondue, yes, but it's relatively simple. It's a one-shot choice - which thing do you dip next? There's typically only one dipping choice - it's not the combinatorial wonder of the stacking/rolling stuff.

                Ethiopian is an excellent call. You know, I would have said, in an earlier era, that ethiopian wasn't much of a choice, assembly wise - injera, and one filling. But at Meals by Genet, I was taught to stack by the (incredibly cool) waiter. Certain things were intended as condiments. He suggested stacking kitfo with collared greens. Somehow it hadn't occurred to me to combine.

                Though a lot of the stuff at Meals by Genet goes: injera, main dish, condiment. And a lot of the condiment-y things (like the super-horse-radish-y mustard-y stuff) I haven't had anywhere else in town but Meals by Genet.

                So, yes: Ethiopian is complex-stackable. Although, for some reason, I totally didn't get this until I was told. Which is weird, because I'm normally always into mix-and-match stacking.

              2. Any Russian drinking establishment will serve you zakuski, which you combine however you like to create the taste/texture/whatever you like. Start with a blin, or maybe a potato pancake, maybe a bit of smoked cheese, or pickled fish, or fresh cucumber, or a slice of egg. Or maybe you want to add a bit of smetana (the thickest sour cream you've ever had) to a little bit of dill salad, or vinegret -- a beet-and-walnut spread.

                2 Replies
                1. re: Das Ubergeek

                  Awesome! Exactly.

                  Can you recommend a Russian drinking establishment?

                  1. re: Thi N.

                    Troika on Sunset, or Russian Nights in Sherman Oaks on Moorpark, or if Little New York is still open on SaMo Blvd. in WeHo...

                2. korean food in general and especially at home are of the same sort of concept, but the mixing occurs in your mouth more often than in some sort of wrap. You place some sort of protein and various pickled/marinated banchan and rice and nori or whatever else you can cram in your mouth so you get a wonderful mix of all the strong flavors and textures. I think that's how you're supposed to eat korean food and that's why the pickling and marinating is so spicy, sweet, vinegary etc. It's all meant to come together. That's what kinda irks me sometimes when people try to eat everything individually at a korean restaurant. Of course it's gonna be too spicy, acidic etc. You need mix that shit up.

                  2 Replies
                  1. re: peppermonkey

                    This reminds me of my favorite self-assembled thing, of which my favorite version is at Chung Ki Wah: boiled pork belly, kimchee, raw oyster. Roll that up, baby.

                    1. re: Thi N.

                      We had that recently at Dwik Gol Mok. Great drinking food, though my husband wouldn't touch the raw oysters. I thought they acted like a flavor enhancer.

                  2. No idea what this is called, but here's a cute little self-assembly appetizer I had when I was in Seoul recently:


                    Could probably find that in K-town if I knew what it was called. :P

                    8 Replies
                    1. re: huaqiao

                      Crap! I had that!

                      At the... high end 14 course place on Vermont called... wait... it was called... it's in the Counter Intelligence book which I can't find right now...

                      Is that with mung bean pancakes? Because what I had was made with mung bean pancakes. Although it was brought like that and then assembled *for* me (with chopsticks, which is sort of impressive)...

                      1. re: Thi N.

                        The one I had we just used the pink sliced daikon in the middle as the wrapper. Was a real pain to assemble with those metal chopsticks Koreans insist on using. :P

                        And similar to your original post, when I go to my local NY-style deli(with the very original name of NY Deli) I always get the pastrami and chopped liver plate instead of the sandwich even though the ingredients are the same. In the sandwich, every bite is proportioned out for you, but sometimes I just want a mouthful of chopped liver. Plus I can control the bread to meat ratio when I do eat it in a sandwich format.

                        1. re: huaqiao

                          I had a version with roast beef at Go Goo Ryeo in Orange County. Delicious! Pyun Chae appetizer:


                          I also love the Korean dish where you take a piece of pork and wrap it in cabbage or daikon and add a little fermented shrimp past.

                          1. re: maiweezy

                            It's called Bossam. If you add fresh raw oyster even better.

                          2. re: huaqiao

                            it's called gu jul pan (9 section dish) and you can get it at the restaurant in the Rotex hotel (on Olympic, next to Manna). I think it's called Yuh Soo. The wrapper is traditionally made from wheat flour. Some places will make it with thinly sliced daikon which is really a lazy version because the wrappers take much more effort to make. I had a pretty good traditional meal here and it was nearly empty but for a few tables occupied by folks twice my age.. probably residents of the hotel/condo.

                            1. re: soniabegonia

                              There you go. Gu Jul Pahn! It was on my tongue.
                              I agree with you about wheat flour. It should be very thin and soft like frnch crepes but thinner. It is one of those traditional Korean food you can't enjoy often. It's all about time and effort you put into preparing it.
                              And you can assemble on your own-you can choose what goes in.
                              Yuh Soo has the best Geh Jahng-fermented raw crap in soy based sauce (?)- IMO.

                              1. re: jblee

                                raw crap?!? ummm... tasty! I know what you meant. LOL.

                          3. A good Mexican fajitas (or carne asada or chile colorado or...) platter. It comes to you deconstructed and you're *supposed* to build your own taco/burrito/whatever. Beans, guacamole, grilled veg, salsa, etc....vary the combination on each bite of tortilla. Sometimes I pile a bite of stuff on a crispy tortilla chip instead. I love to make my own platters at home for a lazy meal.

                            1 Reply
                            1. re: happycat

                              “…or…” Mexican food came to my mind also. Almost every plate comes with corn or flour tortillas, chips and salsas. Some platters like carnitas have extra stuff like peppers, chopped onion, cilantro, guacamole, sour cream, and maybe some radish on the side. You add it all, including the rice and beans, to your taste when assembling your taco or burrito. The first thing that came to my mind is a bowl of Menudo. You add the side condiments which may include oregano, dried chili flakes, fresh lemon or lime, chopped onion and cilantro. After I create my work-of-art I like to hold my fork or spoon in my right hand and a long green onion, hot jalapeno, or tortilla in my left hand when I eat Mexican food. With every bite I hear “Viva mi Rasa” echoing inside mi cabeza.

                              El Buen Gusto (Carnitas plate, Hard Shell shredded beef tacos, Huevos Rancheros).
                              10820 Beverly Blvd # A2 (East of the 605 at Beverly, Workmen Mill Rd. and Norwalk Blvd. Next to Baskin Robbins)
                              Whittier, CA 90601

                              El Jacal (Carnitas plate, Mexican breakfast, Real Mexican style asada tacos with only marinated asada and avacado slices, several different shrimp plates, )
                              13414 Ramona Blvd
                              Baldwin Park, CA 91706-3902
                              (626) 813-4419
                              Open 7 days, 8am to 9pm.
                              Several blocks East of the 605

                              Tacos LA Bufadora (Menudo on Sat & Sun also try the shrimp or fish tacos here)
                              10990 Lower Azusa Rd
                              El Monte, CA 91731-1352
                              (626) 575-7174

                              Antojitos (Menudo on Sat & Sun, also try the asada sope made with fresh masa)
                              4721 1/2 Peck Rd
                              El Monte, CA
                              (626) 279-2109

                            2. One of my erstwhile favorite burger joints in NorCal, Kirk's in Palo Alto, cooked massive patties over open flames and then gave you the burger (with or without cheese) on a bun on a plate. From thence you went to a counter laden with every condiment and relish imaginable and embellished burger and plate to your heart's desire. The last place I found that did that was a Fuddrucker's in Nashville; never went to the one here in Pasadena and now it's closed. Anybody know of another place like that? Or has laziness truly taken over?

                              12 Replies
                              1. re: Will Owen

                                Fuddruckers is a chain. The closest to Pas is probably Burbank. The Lakewood Fuddruckers was a favorite hangout of mine in high school. Then we'd walk over to the Bullock's clearance center across the parking lot and buy loads of crap... The burgers seemed really good then but not so good now. Not sure if the burger has gone downhill or my palate has gone uphill. Probably the latter.

                                1. re: soniabegonia

                                  Could be both. I don't recall being charmed by the burger itself, just impressed by all the free embellishments. And I was not on my own mission, but lunching with a carload of co-workers, a practice which introduced me to a ton of places I'd never have gone to on my own and haven't returned to since.

                                  1. re: soniabegonia

                                    The Fuddrucker's in Lake Forest (OC) has got to be one of the 'oldest living restaurants' in this area. I've lived here 27 years and I don't remember it not being here. It is still getting good (if somewhat mixed) feedback and, if I didn't live 20 minutes away now, I'm sure I'd be able to critique it myself. My wife won't go because the burgers are too big (imagine that?.) Probably doesn't hurt that (I think) they do a vintage car gathering just about every weekend [sortof of like Bob's Burbank.]

                                    1. re: Midlife

                                      Well, I need to go check that out, since I have a professional interest in such gatherings. That was my main reason for lamenting the demise of our Colorado Blvd. Fuddrucker's - they did a car show every Saturday, and it was always very good. And maybe I need to check out the burger, too...

                                      1. re: Will Owen

                                        Just called them. They still do those gatherings every Tuesday from 4PM til ?
                                        ph:(949) 830-7210

                                        I had a '62 Corvette for 20 years and used to enjoy those things. Probably still would.

                                        23621 El Toro Rd, Lake Forest, CA 92630

                                  2. re: Will Owen

                                    I think Wolfe Burger on Lake in Pasadena may be the closest thing - although they have a smaller (but maybe better quality) selection of condiments.

                                    1. re: RoxyGrl

                                      Tried Wolfe once, and was okay with it, though char-broiled is not my favored cooking method (Kirk's being a major deviation). But thanks for the reminder; I'll need to re-visit.

                                      1. re: Will Owen

                                        Kirk's -- yes! It's been a long time, but I remember the sizzle of the meat, the smoky broiling smell, and then the decision re what to pile on it. Anticipation was the best part of the meal.

                                    2. re: Will Owen

                                      Burger Bar, eh?

                                      How about Sizzlers?

                                      Weird, I know, but hear me out.

                                      You could order one of their burgers and the all-you-can-eat salad bar. Then just go to town on the burger with the condiments and selections at the salad bar, which includes things like chili, cheese, ketchup, mustard, onions, lettuce, tomatoes, bacon bits, etc.

                                      Or ... you could just go to Five Guys Burgers, where all the toppings are free (but you don't get to assemble it yourself, however)

                                      1. re: ipsedixit

                                        There are Five Guys Burgers around here?

                                        Edit: Huh, well, I'll be damned. Maybe I can make it to Cerritos for lunch.

                                        1. re: Das Ubergeek

                                          I've been to the one in Carson. It's pretty good. So many people try to make the comparison to In-N-Out, but they're very different burgers IMO. A bit apples to oranges.

                                          1. re: huaqiao

                                            Totally agree re: the comparisons with IN-N-OUT.

                                            The Five Guys in Tampa has been the best I've been to.