If you have already read the introduction to this blog, then you already know that I like movie references. You must also know that this is intended to be a meditative space regarding the topic of food, food culture, eating, thinking, and thinking about eating. I don’t expect you to embark on this voyage with me without at least having a basic understanding of what makes my stomach horny. That being said, I can’t think of a better way to do that than by answering one of the most cliché questions in the world of food-related small talk: “what would your last meal be?”
This is a deep, philosophical question that has the potential to make or break someone’s impression of you, because there might not be a better reveal of character than impending doom. So, let me get into that mindset and put myself on death row to better be able to answer the question. Maybe, I killed a stranger because he told me that Yogurtland is better than Dairy Queen. Whatever the hypothetical case, I have 24 hours left to live and my executioners are giving me my last true taste of freedom.
Honestly though, having gone through this thought exercise innumerable times in the past, I have never been able to nail down a definitive answer that I’m comfortable with. It might be because as people of modern times, we get to try incredibly delicious things all the time, which creates a crisis of choice. Or, it might be because I’m too insecure with my go-to answer that I fear the uncomfortable judgmental leer that might sear into my face depending on who I’m having the conversation with. Luckily, I’ve devised a clever workaround so that I can adequately express who I am as an eater.
For my imaginary last day on Earth, I’m opting to stretch that “last meal” out into a full day of “last meals” (movie reference incoming). Not only that, I’ll be embracing my inner hobbit, and helping myself to not just breakfast, lunch and dinner, but second breakfast, elevensies, afternoon tea, dinner, supper, and just for fun I’ll throw in dessert to top it all off. I know, I’m taking a ton of artistic liberties here with the original question, but I’ll be balancing that out by making it an amount of food I believe I could reasonably finish in a day. It’s not just going to be eight different full course Michelin quality meals with my favorite buffets sprinkled throughout the list. So, my friends, bib up with me as I take you down this rabbit-hole of gastronomical indulgence.
Breakfast: Breakfast Burrito – Nick’s Deli (Seal Beach, CA)
I’m kicking off this gourmet playlist with a hometown staple, the standard breakfast burrito from Nick’s Deli (I or II). Unless you’re from anywhere just outside the Los Alamitos/Long Beach area, there’s a strong chance you’ve never even heard about this place. So, if you live in LA/Orange County you’re welcome—you have another great burrito spot to add to your collection; if you’re not from around here, then I’m genuinely sorry, because these burritos kick much ass.
I think the biggest problem with most breakfast burritos is getting the integration of all ingredients just right. Sometimes, there’s way too much cheese which makes the whole thing a limp sack of breakfast foods, while other times the texture or amount of the potatoes might dominate the whole thing so you feel like you’re eating pure starch. At Nick’s they have nailed the formula, and it makes all the difference. I’ve never had two burritos from here that tasted different from each other. They are the definition of consistent, delicious, affordable, and re-eatable. If you do get a chance to come here, please remember: if you’re not spooning a healthy dripping of their homemade hot sauce over each bite, then you’re not getting the full experience. Just do it.
Second Breakfast: Chilaquiles – Ramos family recipe
This will be the only entry on this list not coming from a business. The first thing you’ve probably noticed is that there is no picture provided, and that’s because the last time I ate this, smart phones did not exist. To be honest, the genuine version of this dish that I’d want to eat on my last day alive doesn’t even exist anymore, because the woman who made them for me in my childhood passed away when I was in middle school. So, if you don’t know what chilaquiles are, do a quick Google search if you need a visual reference, because I will not be sullying the memory of MY favorite chilaquiles with a random photo from the internet.
When I was a kid, my family had a nanny (middle class alert). Her name was Adela Ramos, and she lived with us on weekdays and returned to her home on the weekends. Naturally, she cooked us a lot of meals, a lot of which were Mexican because that’s what she knew. Her chilaquiles were a rare dish, because she would only make them for breakfast and usually, we just had oatmeal or some Eggos before school. Despite that, they were my all-time favorite and would get all of the men in my family juiced.
If I were to request these as one of my last meals, they would have to come from her daughter, whose chilaquiles, while not perfectly the same, are still her mother’s recipe and are still soul-warmingly delicious. They’re slightly crispy on the edges with a perfectly moist center. They have just enough of a spicy kick that it doesn’t get completely buried by the melted cheese, nor overpower the whole dish. They’re perfect with some fried eggs, frijoles and rice, and absolutely taste like the loving affection only a grandmother can give you. She wasn’t related to me by blood, but she was as much family to me as anybody, and even though we could never communicate because she could only speak Spanish, she taught me my first great lesson about the ability food has to bring people together and bond them for life more than language ever could.
Elevensies: Kaisen-don – Uogashi (Itou, Japan)
Alright, I’ve gotten the breakfasts out of the way, now I’m hopping a jet plan across the world to my second home, Japan, for the next few meals.
What is the first food you think of when you think of this country? It’s okay, I’m not judging you, I think of it, too. I’ve had the privilege of eating incredible sushi in Japan from bottom tier convenient store to Michelin star, but nothing came close to the transcendental experience I had at Uogashi, which serves sushi’s less refined cousin: the kaisen-don (or fresh seafood bowl).
Look closely at that photograph. Do you see any unnecessary filler like edamame, seaweed salad, or pineapple? No. Do you see any kind of sauce or marinade drenching the protein to hide the fact that the quality of the fish is suspect? No. HAVE YOU EVER HAD SOMETHING LIKE THIS WHERE THE RATIO OF SEAFOOD TO RICE WAS SOMETHING LIKE 8:1?? I doubt it. And there’s good reason for it, too.
This extremely humble shop tucked away in a side alley in a beachside town, serves food each day until they sell out. How quickly do they sell out? As soon as they open. They count the people in line before they open and determine where it will be cut off, because they won’t have enough fish left to sell. Seriously, if you aren’t lining up at least 90 minutes before lunch service you are shit out of luck until the next day, which is precisely why I chose it for my elevensies meal.
The portions of fish are generous, full-flavored and glistening with their natural oils. Each bite differs from the next not just in flavor, but in texture as well. The thick slices of tuna give you an unctuous satisfaction, while the diced strips of squid give you a delicious neutral chew best matched with the beautiful aoba leaf garnish in the center. At the end of it all, you’re not left with anything but genuine fulfillment and a profound new understanding of what true artisans can do with seafood and rice when they aren’t allowing themselves to be hamstrung by bottom lines and supply costs. You would think these owners must be extorting their customers with outrageous prices, because their supply is so low, but the demand is so high, right? Nope. You can get one of the best meals of your life for just $10 American. Fucking mindblowing.
Lunch: Miso Ramen – Shoshikantetsu (Kofu, Japan)
I love ramen. It’s something you can easily become obsessed over because the culture that has developed around it is like indie music fandom. In Japan, the ramen chef is like a Soundcloud artist: there are hundreds of thousands of them creating something niche, each trying to be different from the next, with the occasional Post Malone ascending out of obscurity. How do you think his earliest fans feel knowing that before he got big, they were the ones supporting him from the very beginning? Probably how I feel about this ramen shop.
“Miso ramen.” If you’ve spent even five minutes of your life watching a random YouTube video about ramen, you know that this style is most closely associated with the northern island of Hokkaido, and more specifically the city of Sapporo. If you live in SoCal, you may have even been to Santouka once or twice and can say you’ve tried miso ramen. My friend, if you’ve had a cheeseburger, you might as well be proud to say that you’ve eaten Five Guys. This tiny shop in the relatively unknown inland city of Kofu, Yamanashi (where I proudly lived for five years) is where you can find my favorite bowl of noodles on this whole gosh darn planet.
For me, this ramen is associated with so many different emotions. I associate it with happiness, because it was a place me and my now wife would often eat together. I associate it with regret, because it’s the place we ate the night we had our fist monumental fight. I associate it with triumph, because I became so inspired by the owner and his food that I dedicated a whole year to improving my Japanese because I wanted to work there part-time, and was ultimately given the opportunity to do so. And, I associate it with failure, because it’s where I realized hard work, sweat, and pain is not always enough to please others (more on this another time…maybe).
I realize that associating food from our past with emotions often results in nostalgia being the only reason it’s important to us, and the only reason we’d defend it no matter how average or bad it might actually be if we looked at it objectively. We’ve all done it! I probably did it earlier in this list! But I cannot stress enough that even though this bowl of ramen is so important to me on a personal level, it is still, genuinely, delicious. It’s delicious in the way that “Bohemian Rhapsody” is great. I can’t really explain it with words. Listen to the song—really listen. Hear how it moves, hear every individual sound, hear the emotion. That’s a lunch worth dying after.
Suffice it to say I could wax poetic about ramen for an uncomfortably long period of time, but I will refrain from that now, and let this be a tease for much, much more ramen content to come. As I said, I love ramen, and have a sacred obligation as a citizen of the world to make everyone who has ever eaten Cup Noodles aware of how wonderfully complex this humble comfort food can be. In the meantime, help yourself to Part 2 of this list as soon as you’ve wiped off the drool sliding down your chin.
By J. Michael Beza