Day 99: Samoa
I guess I should have listened to Jonathan Gold. A couple of weeks ago, when things were getting really dire, I cold e-mailed the Pulitzer Prize winner and unofficial Food Czar of Los Angeles, begging for his help. He threw out a few suggestions in an e-mail that was sent around 3 in the morning, including a Samoan place down in Carson, which he warned was terrible, before adding “…but it’s your project, not mine.” Now that’s a ringing endorsement. But before things can get worse, they have to get bad. So we’ll start off with MamaBites and I driving down to Newport Beach for Bahamian food.
I briefly glanced at the menu for Tommy Bahama Café way back in early August, and dismissed it as not particularly Bahamian. Then, last week, my mom called and said “I Found a Bahamian place!” But unfortunately, a massive communications breakdown occurred. She hadn’t really looked at the menu yet, and I assumed that she had, and since she has been to the Bahamas, would be a good gauge of authenticity. So I never checked it out, and neither, really, did she. So when we arrive after an hour of driving to a fancy-schmancy outdoor mall, then walk up to what really just looks like an upscale Islands Restaurant, I’m getting a little worried. Then I look at the menu, find dishes like “Crab Calloway” and “Santa Barbara Sliders” and realize that there is nothing Bahamian here at all and we have to get out of here as soon as possible. Mom does sort of like the landscaping, though. Or at least thinks it would have been a great job to get (she’s a landscape designer).
So I sit in the car, on the phone with GirlfriendBites, as she helps figure out where we can go to fulfill our meal requirement today. It turns out that Gold’s Samoan not-a-recommendation is probably our best bet, based on location. We start driving, but now it’s around 3 o’clock, so we’re getting really hungry, a little chippy and then I have to drop the bomb. “So…this place is supposed to suck.”
“Really? How do you know?” she asks.
“Jonathan Gold told me,” I reply.
“Oh. Then it probably sucks.”
“Yeah. I know.”
“I may not eat there.”
If there were a list of “bad omens” on this Personal Project in Blog Form, then pulling into the parking lot for for the restaurant, then being approached to buy steaks out of the back of some guy’s truck, has to be at the top. He literally calls us over to a box of frozen rib eyes, then says “Okay. Listen. I don’t usually show customers this particular meat. It’s too good. I usually show them the other stuff.” Are you kidding me? Rib eyes are your special product that you only show to the really important customers that you just happen to meet in a parking lot? Unsurprisingly, we wave the man off, then head into our restaurant, called “South Pacific Cuisine – Polynesian Food.”
When we get inside, it’s almost promising at first. There’s a big space, there are lots of house-made products for sale, baked goods, imported snack food and a big menu up on the board. But with a closer look, I find that the food is all out in warming trays, sitting behind glass. The meat looks like it’s been there for a little while, soaking in some combination of water, fat and animal juice. But I suck it up and get ready to dive in. “What do you recommend as the best Samoan food you have here?” I ask the slightly intimidated woman behind the counter. She doesn’t really speak English very well, but I manage to get the point across. She directs me to their special “$10.00 Dollar Plate” which includes three meats, banana and taro root. I ask for the three best Samoan meats, so she scoops up povi masima (corned beef), si’usi’u pípí (turkey tail) and mamoe (lamb), dumps them into a massive Styrofoam container, then tops them with two dry, cold, off-white and hard looking things. The long cylindrical one, it turns out, is a banana. The one that looks like a segment from a large quartered sphere, is the taro root. Gulp. I smile, get a large Arizona iced tea (something prepackaged, since it is going to need to wash things down), pay the lady, and sit.
First of all, everything except the banana and taro is extremely moist. But not in a “this roasted chicken is extremely moist” kind of way. In a “that old sponge fell into the roasting pan that’s been soaking since Thanksgiving and is now extremely moist,” kind of way. Second of all, it’s really hard to cut an extremely thick cut of corned beef with a plastic knife and fork in a Styrofoam box. But the corned beef looks the most appetizing of everything, which isn’t saying much, but I manage to scrape away some of the soggy fat and form a squishy, glistening cube of cow, stab it with my fork and put it in my mouth. Okay. I hate to trash small, independent places. They’re trying their best. They didn’t ask me to come and judge them. There’s even a Samoan church across the street, which means that there are a lot of Samoans in this area, and this restaurant is their only option. But this food is bad. I don’t need to be mean. But dear God. This corned beef tastes like a retired wash cloth that had been used to scrub cow testicles for the last five years. Next up is the turkey tail. You know that weird hunk that just sort of hangs off the turkey when you buy it whole for Thanksgiving and usually end up using to make gravy? Well, I’ve got three of them on my plate. They may actually have been edible if they were seasoned at all, or hadn’t been sitting in brown juice for the past six-to-forty-eight hours. But it wasn’t any of those things. As for the lamb ribs, they do fall off the bone. Or more accurately, peel like cheap wallpaper. I try to avoid the particularly congealed, fatty sections, then find some hopefully salvageable meat and take a bite. If you were ever wondering what it tastes like to make out with a sickly barn animal, but don’t have the guts to actually do it, this dish may be for you. Moving onto the banana and taro, I cut sections of the weirdly malleable and dry, off-white plant matter, note that they really don’t taste much of anything, then come to the conclusion that I have absolutely no clue what they’ve done to these two objects.
All right. So… you know how there are people like me who are willing to eat anything, and then there are people who are terrified of doing that? Then the people who eat everything laugh and say “What’s going to happen? What are you afraid of?” Well, they’re afraid of this. I can honestly only manage a single bite of each dish, before I thank the woman behind the counter, take the food outside with me, then throw it away out of sight. Food like this just makes me sad. I don’t know what to do. Obviously, there is great food in Samoa. There are probably people that work in this kitchen that can make better food. The food may actually have been edible if it had been fresh. I feel terrible about it, but there’s just nothing positive about the food I ate there. I saw it coming, I knew it was going to be bad— and it was. Please, if you read this and know anybody that works at that restaurant, don’t send this to them, okay? Luckily, Torrance is on the way back (the center of most great Japanese food in LA), so with our hunger in full swing, Mom and I stop for some udon and a little cold soba to wash it all away. I have a macha green tea, then she drops me back home, over four hours after we initially left for lunch. Tomorrow, I’m making a big pot of my Sicilian grandmother’s minestrone soup and there’s nothing anybody can do about it.
South Pacific Cuisine – Polynesian Food
1756 E Carson St
Carson, CA 90745
Food Breakdown: 2 non-alcoholic beverages, 1 meat plate
Distance From My House: 20.5 miles