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My Perfect Food Day: Lien Ta

by Leah Bhabha

For chefs, meals take myriad forms, from a spoonful of a dish in development to a crust swiped off the line during service to an overflowing plate eaten hurriedly during staff meal. So when they’re given larger pockets of time and the freedom to savor breakfast, lunch, or dinner, it’s a real event. Pre-COVID-19, hours or weeks away from the kitchen meant sitting at the table with family or flying across the country or world to try the creations of contemporaries. 

Without the bounds of time, stomach capacity, or the current pandemic, where would chefs eat? We asked them. Introducing My Perfect Food Day, a monthly feature where industry members share the tables they’d visit and the dishes they’d savor in varied locales.

This second installment features Los Angeles–based restaurateur Lien Ta of All Day Baby and Helluva Time in Silverlake, and, until the pandemic forced it to close, Here’s Looking At You in Koreatown. Ta has been vocal about the immense struggles faced by members of the industry, speaking out about how she was forced to immediately furlough all of her employees following the March shutdown. Here, she takes us on a journey that begins in Nicaragua, wends its way through Mexico and Hong Kong, and ultimately ends up in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. In this fantasy day, she dines with her late father and enjoys breakfast in LA, CDMX, and Tulum—all at the same time. 

6:00 a.m. Freshly-brewed local coffee at Finca Las Nubes in San Juan Del Sur, Nicaragua

Years ago, I visited a private nature reserve and organic farm called Finca Las Nubes, where I rode horses and held just-born goats. Included with my stay was a private cook (!), and every morning he would brew the most fragrant coffee— a sensational way to wake up. I don't typically drink drip, but I dream about this version: softly sweet with a tingle of cinnamon.

6:30 a.m. Croissant from Stohrer Paris, English Muffin from The Model Bakery in St. Helena, CA, and Chef Thessa's Salted Butter & Strawberry Jam from All Day Baby in Los Angeles, CA

My talented pastry chef at All Day Baby is well-known for her buttermilk biscuits, but it's her condiments of whipped salted butter and strawberry jam that I would need to pair with the tastiest croissant in Paris (which she recommended to me). I am also a big fan of English muffins, and I've never had better than the supple, chewy ones from Sonoma's Model Bakery, a tip from my former general manager Charlotte. 

mai tai

9:00 a.m. Cochinita Pibil at Taqueria El Turix in Mexico City, MX and Taqueria Honorio in Tulum, MX, Campechano from Tacos Drama in Los Angeles, CA, a crab tostada from Mariscos El Faro in Los Angeles, CA and a Drama's Michi from All Day Baby in Los Angeles, CA

A taco crawl in the morning is necessary— just as the cochinita pibil is first ready. The tacos at Honorio, like the cochinita pibil and poc chuc, are petite and delicious. Still, it’s the tableside fixings that I am extra fond of: fresh lime wedges, pico de gallo, guacamole salsa, and the intensely hot habanero salsa. 

In Mexico City, the cochinita pibil is rolled like loose cigars, and its juices drip down to your elbows without fail. Back in Los Angeles, my former culinary director, James aka "Drama," sporadically rolls out his Tacos Drama cart and serves the most exciting campechano taco my mouth has ever met: fresh-pressed yellow-corn tortillas fried with queso Oaxaqueño and topped with grilled steak, crumbled longaniza sausage, salsa roja, and chicharron. I am, of course, drinking a Drama's Michi, a spicy Michelada, which we still serve at All Day Baby. I finish with a tostada de jaiba (crab) from a food truck in Highland Park to cool down. Besides the lump crab meat, the most satisfying thing about this tostada is the abundant aioli.

11:30 a.m. Chicken feet dim sum in Hong Kong, soft shell crab special at Contramar in Mexico City, MX, frog's legs at Here's Looking At You in Los Angeles, CA, Mom's bun bo hue in Bluffton, SC with bottles of Tempier and Clos Cibonne rosé

When he was still living, my father and I used to go on a lot of father-daughter dining dates. He once took me to a buzzing multi-level dim sum restaurant in Hong Kong. What I would give to share a metal tin of tender, gelatinous chicken feet with my dad again. Now, whenever I try food that has a hint of Chinese influence, I think of him. I imagine us sitting at the glass dining room table at my mom's house in Bluffton, South Carolina. She's in the garage, cooking from her "outdoor" stove. My father and I indulge in a few snacks: a chopped-up soft shell crab special from Contramar kissed with soy and herbs and frog's legs tossed in ribbons of scallions and complex salsa negra by my chef/partner Jonathan Whitener from my late restaurant. This dish arrives with a dipping side of salt and pepper lime juice.

I do not know if my father will join me in drinking rosé, but I have a couple of bottles for us: Clos Cibonne and Tempier. My mother emerges from the garage holding a bowl of homemade bun bo hue. The steam of the red broth fogs up my father's glasses. The noodles are round, not flat like pho's, and slip easily from my chopsticks. I am finally a grown-up so I will try a cube of pig's blood.

frog legs

1:00 p.m. Mezcal margaritas and Armenian dumplings with Hourie in Los Angeles, CA

One of my favorite traditions is making hundreds of Armenian dumplings, or "manti" with my friend Hourie. Hers are tiny; little balls of ground beef and spices held together by a small dumpling wrapper pinched on the sides like pieces of wrapped candy. I will make us mezcal margaritas, and she will prepare a shallot yogurt sauce for dipping the dumplings. 

3:00 p.m. Canele from a bakery near Loire Valley's Savenièrres, France

My sweet tooth is very faint, but when it gets triggered, it's usually in the middle of the afternoon. A canele is the ideal treat for me. I'll never forget the time I was driving through the Loire Valley with my friend Danielle and we swerved off the road to wander inside a local bakery. The chewy canele was boozy and gooey with a wonderfully crisp outer armor. 

canele

5:00 p.m. Shigoku oysters and Vilmart Champagne at Taylor Shellfish Farms in Seattle, WA, fried chicken from Dooky Chase in New Orleans, LA

I prefer West Coast oysters to East, a Shigoku bivalve being my very favorite. It's a little bit bigger than "small," and the supple oyster sits in a cavernous little scoop. I eat them naked in their natural saltwater juice, and ideally the "wine bar" area of Taylor Shellfish Farms. I've got a bottle of Vilmart bubbly with me -- the Krug of grower's Champagne! -- and there's still some left to pair with heavenly fried chicken from Dooky Chase in New Orleans, my favorite city in America.

8:00 p.m. Langoustines on Cíes Island in Galicia, Spain; tapas at Mercado San Miguel in Madrid, Spain with Pierre Girardin Puligny-Montrachet; lobster roll from Pearl Oyster Bar in New York City

It's dinnertime, and I have a surf 'n double turf planned. All of the incredible seafood in Spain is sourced along the coastal region of Galicia, and I developed a newfound respect for shrimp after eating fresh head-on langoustines on the vehicle-free Cíes Island off the coast. 

Back in Madrid, I hit up the lively Mercado San Miguel for tapas of cured fish and conserva toast. I'm lugging around my favorite bottle of white Burgundy right now: a Puligny-Montrachet from the 22-year-old winemaker wunderkind Pierre Girardin. I cap off the "surf" part of my dinner with a decadent lobster roll from Pearl Oyster Bar in the West Village of NYC. It's generous in meat, mayonnaise, and girth— something you can't say about many lobster rolls.

10:00 p.m. Lamb chops in fenugreek curry at Vij's in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada; Psychic Reader cocktail at Here's Looking At You in Los Angeles, CA

My first-ever visit to Vij's in Vancouver was a profound lesson in enlightened hospitality. I was delighted to see the kind faces of four Indian cooks peeking out of the service window of an all-women kitchen. And the pleasure would be all mine to feast upon their tender, grill-kissed lamb "popsicles" bathing in bright yellow fenugreek curry once more. I would pair this meal with a Psychic Reader cocktail, hailing from the opening menu at Here's Looking At You in 2016, featuring a whole shot of Angostura bitters, fresh lime, mango nectar, coconut cream, and aquafaba.

11:30 p.m. Three-by-three at In-N-Out Burger in Hollywood, CA; $26 Mai Tai at Here's Looking At You in Los Angeles, CA

In lieu of a traditional dessert, I would finish off my favorite meal of the day with my favorite food of all time: a cheeseburger. My no-fail go-to is In-N-Out Burger. My order is a three-by-three (three meat patties + three slices of cheese), "Animal" style (mustard-grilled patties, pickles, grilled onions and extra spread), minus tomato (not necessary), add chopped chilies (very necessary). Though this would be impossible, I would want to drink the $26 Almost Original Mai Tai from Here's Looking At You. It featured the now-extinct Smooth Ambler Jamaican Revelation Rum, which was aged in the same distillery as the original Mai Tai's mythic rum.

in n out

1:00 a.m. Banh mi from Banh Mi Huynh Hoa in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

The last time I traveled to Vietnam, I traveled alone. I met up with my uncle, the last member of my family on my mother's side still living in Vietnam at the time (he has since made it to America). I rode on the back of his motorcycle as he introduced me to the most delicious nooks in all of Saigon. 

One night, after already eating a full-blown dinner, he took me to wait in line for what would be the best, meatiest banh of my life: the LGBTQ-owned Banh Mi Huynh Hoa in District 1. He wanted me to have it in case of an "emergency."



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