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Apr 28, 2009 07:27 PM

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.