Our Jungle Cruise Food Marathon guide Mattatouille set up a foodie adventure like no other. We would be eating food from jungles around the world. We’d forge rivers (the 405), cross dangerous landscapes (Inglewood), explore the unknown (Gardena), face treacherous landscapes (Long Beach), and span continents (Little Saigon). The other adventurous souls on the cruise included, FoodMarathon, L.A. and O.C. Foodventures , Gourmet Pigs, FoodDestination, and Teenage Glutster.
We headed into Inglewood for our first stop at Nkechi African Cafe. The somewhat surprised host/waiter/chef couldn’t believe his Nigerian eyes as our large group descended into this modest and homey cafe on a Saturday afternoon. But he quickly threw some tables together and went over the small menu with us. We decide on a few dishes to share (hey, it’s a marathon, you can’t stuff your face at each location) and settle in for our adventure. We got some Palm Juice. Slightly carbonated, it had a bitter aroma and sour taste, but a nice nutty finish. My favorite dish was the Jollof Rice. A tomato based rice with spices and topped with deep fried “mixed meat.” I only took a bite of the last two dishes, Ogbono Soup and Egusi Soup. The flavoring was nothing like I had ever tasted, similar to a curry taste, made from the seeds and nuts of melons and mangoes respectively. It had a sort of rubbery flavor and was very off putting. It didn’t agree with my taste buds, but I’m glad I was able to try it.
Next on our stop was El Rocoto, a Peruvian joint in a Gardena strip mall. Peruvian food has influences from mostly Asian, French, British and Italian immigration, and it’s rich food reflects that. In 2006 Lima was even declared “Gastronomic Capital of the Americas” at the Summit of Gastronomy Madrid Fusión. I could live off their Aji Rojo and Aji Verde salsa with rice alone. My favorite dish was the Seco de Cordero, a cilantro lamb stew. The gaminess of the lamb paired very well with the bold flavor of the cilantro stew. On the same plate was the Cau Cau, a tripe stew. I’m not a fan of cow stomach, but tried it anyway, and I’m still not a fan. We also ordered the Ceviche Mixto, a mixed plate of shrimp, white fish, octopus and scallops. It was swimming in a tart citrus lime marinade and covered with red onions.
Next were off to Siem Reap Restaurant in Long Beach. A popular Cambodian joint who claims to be “World Famous”. It’s a large restaurant, catering to family style dining and large wedding parties. Perfect for our large group of foodies. With Cambodian karaoke playing on the TV’s around us, we order up some a Fish Salad with (very) bitter Sadao Leaves, a slightly spicy Ground Pork Curry, a delicious plate of beef Lok Lak with a lemon & pepper dipping sauce, a Fish and (tiny with the shells on) Shrimp Soup reminiscent of a traditional sour Thai soup, and a tender Beef and Anchovy Salad.
Our next destination is Little Saigon and a trendy Vietnamese restaurant Quan Hop. This is my first real experience with Vietnamese food, and it sure to not be my last. I was eager to try every Bahn Mi and noodle dish on the menu, but being our last stop I was about 80% full already. So we shared a variety of dishes. They start you off with a Banh Beo, steamed rice-flour pancakes topped with chopped veggies and little pieces of pork. We also had Banh It Ram (uber-gooey Vietnamese rice paste potstickers), Tu Tiu Hop Dai (rice noodles with pork and shrimp), Banh Hoi Thit Nuong (thin sliced sheets of vermicelli noodles topped with grilled pork), Jack Fruit Salad, and finally Goi Cuon Nem Lui (deep fried shrimp paste spring rolls).
Our last stop of the night is right up the street. In a mini mall filled with Vietnamese businesses, is the market Nuoc Mia Vien Tay. Filled with sugary and salty snacks from Vietnam, this place is known for it’s Sugar Cane drink. The workers feed sugar cane through a large juicer and out comes a greenish sweet juice that they mix with kumquat nectar. Milky green in color, surprisingly it had a very distinct citrus flavor. It’s a refreshing drink, perfect for an after dinner treat, especially after a long 7 hour Food Marathon.