Friday, June 26, 2015

Mendocino Farms - Irvine


Mendocino Farms makes a banh mi sandwich that isn't exactly a banh mi sandwich. The bread isn't a baguette; it's ciabatta in the usual ciabatta shape: square. But because it's crisped up on a panini press, the bread crackles when you bite into it, just as the crust of a proper baguette should.

And in eating it further you realize how very banh mi-like this sandwich actually is. Nearly all the flavors you expect and had in the last real banh mi you ate is present and accounted for: pickled daikon, pickled carrots, plenty of sliced jalapenos, cilantro, cucumbers, and a good spackling of mayo.

No, there's no pate, or the umami of Maggi. And the braised and caramelized Kutobuta pork belly stuffed in there as protein is a little bit of an overkill, but that's fine too, since what you're really tasting is everything else in this "banh mi"--an item described on the menu as a "playful take on the popular Vietnamese sandwich."

All of this is to say that it's still not a banh mi, not exactly--but that's doesn't mean it isn't good.

Mendocino Farms
4175 Campus Dr. Ste B
Irvine, CA 92612
(949) 783-2900
mendocinofarms.com

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Thursday, June 18, 2015

Afters Ice Cream - Tustin


Though I was one of the first people to write about Afters and its ice-cream-stuffed donuts, I think I'm one of the last people on Earth to try them.

There are about a hundred reasons why I didn't try them sooner. Those hundred reasons are probably still standing there in line at the Fountain Valley store as we speak.

But after finally getting around to tasting my first "Milky Bun" (that's what Afters calls its ice-cream-stuffed donuts) last weekend at the virtually deserted and newly opened Tustin store at three in the afternoon, my question to anyone who've actually stood in that line is: Was it worth it?



Because what I tasted was a glazed donut, split in half, with ice cream in the middle. Sure, the donut is reheated using some sort of unseen contraption so that you get a warm donut around the cold ice cream.

But it's still just a glazed donut.

With ice cream in the middle.

Actually, what I noticed above all else was this: The donut was all I could taste. Due to its sweetness, the ice cream became a big cold gob of nothing.

That's what perplexes me most about these Milky Buns. Afters obviously took the time to craft some ice cream in flavors that are creative and good; but stuffing them inside that donut is akin to writing the perfect song and then having William Hung sing it.

Afters Ice Cream
13662 Newport Ave. Ste C
Tustin, CA 92780

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Thursday, June 11, 2015

Mochi Cream - Costa Mesa



You know what Asian palates love? Chewy and jellied textures. Think of boba. Think of the tendon in beef noodle soup. And mostly, think of mochi, which is, I think, the penultimate in Asian textural foods. It exists simply because of its chew. The sensation in your mouth is similar to gnawing on your own inner cheek for dessert. And that's appropriate because, my, what desserts mochi makes!

For sure you've had mochi ice cream at Mochilato, or any random Japanese restaurant where they might offer it at the end of a meal. You may have even had J. Sweet Bakery's strawberry mochi, which unfortunately, they stopped making.



What the new Mochi Cream in Mitsuwa's food court does is a combination of the two. Mochi Cream's mochi creams have the smooth oval shape of a mochi ice cream, but are filled with all sorts of things other than ice cream.

I tried three last week and realized the caramel custard one actually contained caramel custard. The strawberry and the chocolate had a sort of mousse tucked inside. And the mochi that surrounded them were of the right thickness and yes, pleasantly chewy. I loved them.

But you know what else they have in common with mochi ice cream? Their price tags. Each mochi cream cost about two dollars. I think they know that Asians who love chewy and jellied textures won't be able to resist. Besides, beef tendon doesn't go so well with chocolate.

Mochi Cream
Mitsuwa Marketplace
665 Paularino Ave
Costa Mesa, CA 92626

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Thursday, June 04, 2015

Milt's Stop & Eat - Moab, UT


If you're going to see Arches National Park, you're going to have to stay in Moab. And if you're going to stay in Moab, you must eat at Milt's.

Every town has a place like Milt's. It's one of those lunch counter/greasy spoons that's been around longer than most of us have been alive. On the walls, there are faded photographs with people wearing horn-rimmed glasses before wearing them became ironic. And when I was there, I heard a cop proudly announce to the couple next to him that he'd been eating at Milt's since he was five.

If you're in Moab, it's where you should eat too. All the travel books, TripAdvisor, and Yelp will tell you the same. I concur.

Park on the unmarked gravel lot, creating your own space if you have to. Then mosey in, breathe in the beefy fumes from the patties that sizzle on the flattop griddle, and don't forget the tater tots, the onion rings, the hand spun milkshakes for dessert. There's nothing you don't know here. Everything is cut from the cloth of classic Americana. The burgers are thick, the meat loosely packed and sandwiched between a toasted bun with an excess of mustard and pickles.

Milt's is as a beloved and iconic part of the landscape as the Delicate Arch of Utah and will probably last just as long.

Milt's Stop & Eat
356 E Mill Creek Dr.
Moab, UT 84532
(435) 259-7424

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Sunday, May 31, 2015

Cha For Tea - Irvine

I've said it before, but I'll say it again: I've grown tired of boba milk tea. There was a time that I craved it like a crack addict, when I relished the forever chew of those marble-sized pellets, yearned to feel the thunk-thunk-thunk of them being propelled up through the oversized straw. It was something I discovered in my late teens, then gorged on for a decade, then got sick of.

These days, I pass on the boba. Don't get me wrong. I still go to Tapioca Express on a fairly regular basis. It's just that now I always order the taro milk tea, sans the tapioca pearls.



Taro milk tea is, to me, the closest I can get to a malted milk shake without actually committing to all the ice cream fat and calories. It has the same mellow Ovaltine sweetness--that union of the slightly starchy and the creamy. And it comforts me, every time.

Tapioca Express makes my favorite rendition, which I'm not sure even has any tea in it; but just as good, if not lighter and with a more tea-like tannins in it, is Cha For Tea's.

And whenever I get a taro milk tea there (or anywhere, for that matter), an order of spicy popcorn chicken is a must. And Cha For Tea's chicken is one of the spiciest and crispiest in town. The drink complements the chicken, a pairing as essential as milk and cookies, beer and pretzels, but even better than that.

Cha for Tea
4187 Campus Drive M173
Irvine, CA 92612
(949) 725-0300

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Friday, May 22, 2015

Napa Rose's Chef's Counter - Disney's Grand Californian Hotel



Here are 9 essential tips you need to know about dining at Napa Rose's Chef's Counter.

1. There are three Chef's Counter seating areas.

The two that fill up the quickest are the group of seats in front of the main kitchen. The last is in front of the dessert station, where we sat with front row seats as two pastry chefs assembled strawberry tarts and torched creme brûlées.

2. There are two seating times: 5:30 p.m. and 8:30 p.m.

You need to reserve at least a week or two in advance. The 8:30 slots go quickest, so plan ahead. You probably want the 8:30 time slot. It's the most relaxed since no one comes after you, so you can pace yourself. This brings me to my next tip.

3. Plan for a 3-hour dinner.

Course by course, one by one, 'til you shout, "Enough! I'm done!"--a meal at the Chef's Counter is a slow, pleasureable affair. When you think you've reached the last course, you haven't. It's like one of those but-wait-there's-more informercials.

When the chef noticed a person in our party had hardly touched a steak dish, she asks if anything's wrong.

"No, it's great," my lovely companion replies. "I'm just so full!".

"But we've got another dish lined up for you guys!" said the chef.


4. Expect a five-course meal, not counting the small tastes of other things in between.

If I counted everything that came at us, there were actually about seven courses. The amuse bouche. A salad or appetizer course. The fish course. A savory mushroom cappuccino in an espresso cup. A meat course. Another course after that where anything can happen. A dessert course. And finally, a tiny box of chocolates we took home and ate two days later because it took us that long to digest this meal.

So budget your stomach space wisely. No matter how divine those cheese-crisped triangles of lavash in the basket of bread are, save them for the doggie bag. You've got courses to finish.

5. The cost per person as of this writing is $100. Wine pairings, $45.

The a la carte menu and the $100 Vitner's Table prix fixe are also available at Chef's Counter. But it would be a waste of your reservation not to surrender your evening to the whims and talents of Napa Rose's chefs and sommeliers.

Besides, if you're a fussy eater, the Chef's Counter is made for you. You don't like a certain kind of meat? Allergic to shellfish or peanuts? Have an irrational fear of vegetables? This is the time you get to tell them all your weird food aversions and fetishes. They will customize every course to you as much as they can.

Here's an example: my lovely companion told them early on she doesn't eat anything rare and doesn't like duck; so on one course, she got a lovely risotto while another friend got a still-bloody slice of duck breast.

On that same course, I (who told them "I eat everything") got the most advanced dish of all: pan-seared sweetbreads.


6. Contrary to other reports, the person who will be taking down your likes and dislikes might be your sommelier, not the executive chef or chef du cuisine.

Be sure to tell who ever asks exactly what's on your mind, or else you might get something you won't particularly enjoy.

7. For every single course, each person in your party will get a completely unique dish.

This is the mind boggling part of Napa Rose's Chef's Counter: they cook individual meals for every member of the party for each course. If you go with 3 other people, you will potentially get to sample at least 20 distinctly different dishes. You won't ever see the same dish twice. No other restaurant I know of that offers prix fixe meals would do this willingly. Napa Rose thrives on it.


8. If you do the wine pairing, you will also get a unique set of wines different than anyone else in your party.

I tasted 5 different wines that went with 5 different courses, each one completely different than what another friend was served. And be prepared to drink a lot of wine--the sommelier is not stingy with his pours. This brings me to my final point.

9. You will gain weight from this meal.

After going home fuller than I've ever been in years, when I got on the weighing scale the morning after this feast, I weighed three pounds heavier than the day before.

Napa Rose
Disneyland Resort
1313 Disneyland Dr.
Disney's Grand Californian Hotel & Spa
Anaheim, CA 92802
(714) 635-2300

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Friday, May 15, 2015

Wei-Chuan's Microwavable Stewed Beef Noodle Soup

Ah, noodle soups. What better dish is there when it's cold and rainy? It's the kind of meal I crave all the time, but especially during downpours, which is exactly the kind of weather that's not conducive to going out to get it. But what are you options? Well, short of calling delivery, there used to be just two: make it from scratch or phone it in with instant.

Now there's a third option: nuke it from frozen. Wei-Chuan, the Taiwan-based manufacturer of oyster sauces, pickles, and frozen dumplings has started selling these babies: frozen beef noodle soup, a.k.a. niu rou man, the dish served in more restaurants in Irvine than burgers, tacos, or pho.


Wei-Chuan is actually not the only producer of microwavable noodle soups; it just seems to be the only one that's making this specific kind. And it is delicious. The noodles, a shade thinner than udon, are a pleasure to chew. The soup is fragrant of anise, rich, dark, with a meaty richness, sweetness, and tang. And although there isn't as much meat in the bowl as it shows on the box, it's real stewed beef, with, you know, beefy fibers and stuff. And there's actual spinach, you know, with spinach-y fibers and stuff.

In fact, if you served me this noodle soup at a restaurant, I probably wouldn't be able to tell it was microwaved. Honest!

Each box retails for about $4. I found mine at H-Mart. And though the instructions--involving tearing out a perforated circle from the cardboard to make a sort of cradle for the bowl and pouring a measured amount of water in two separate steps--are slightly more complicated than for a Nissin Cup Noodle, the rewards are worth the effort. Besides, what else are you going to do? It's pouring outside.

So buy it now and then save it for a rainy day...literally.

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Thursday, May 07, 2015

Fast 5 Pizza - Santa Ana


The pepperoni pizza you see above is $5.50. Yes. $5.50 for 8 slices: the highest satisfaction-to-price ratio of anything I've ever paid money for.

I don't know how the economics of it works. Fast 5 Pizza--a growing chain that gets its name from the fact that they actually used to sell these puppies for $5 each--must operate on the thinnest of margins. And though Little Caesars offers a similar deal, the difference is that these are pizzas I'd actually want to eat.

They're thick crusted, baked in pans within 8 minutes of your order, and actually all ready to go if you want the pepperoni during the dinner rush. But they're more than I expected them to be for a whole pizza that costs less than foot-long at Subway.

I got a whole bunch of them to feed a gathering of friends for the Mayweather-Pacquiao fight, which, I don't think I have to tell you, had the LOWEST satisfaction-to-price ratio of anything I've ever paid money for.

Fast 5 Pizza
1473 S Main St
Santa Ana, CA 92707
(714) 550-4115

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Thursday, April 30, 2015

Rutt's Hut - Clifton, New Jersey


There are hot dogs, and then there are rippers. Rippers, if you haven't seen them before on countless Travel Channel and Food Network shows, are deep fried hot dogs that split open and practically tear themselves apart in the fry oil. And if you have seen those shows, you'd know the only place in the country where you should have them is Rutt's Hut in Clifton, New Jersey.

I happened to be in New Jersey last week and I went through a gauntlet of turnpikes, toll plazas, and pothole-covered streets to find it. Rutt's Hut, let me tell you, is in an odd place--kind of perched in an industrial area, overlooking a highway and nowhere near anything else. It has apparently been on this spot since 1928. But parking was ample (a rarity in Jersey, as I discovered) and the rippers were worth the drive.


There are no chairs. It's cash only and it's a stand-and-eat joint. The countermen look like they came out of a Martin Scorsese flick with East Coast accents thicker than the housemade relish you slather with wooden spoons from the communal metal buckets near the register. And man! That relish! It's a sweet wonder gunk made of mustard, and other ingredients I can't begin to decipher--and it counters the richness of the fried hot dog in a way I didn't think possible.

Not unlike In-N-Out, Rutt's Hut also has a secret menu. If you want your hot dog extra well-done, you can ask for a "Cremator", wherein they leave the wiener to soak in the oil until it practically dries out and mummifies. Though I expected it to taste like jerky, it didn't. It's crisp, nearly bereft of juice, but still tender, as though I was eating a hot-dog-flavored fritter.

And oh the onion rings here! It further proves that, in the right hands, deep fryers are magical instruments.

Rutt's Hut
417 River Rd.
Clifton, NJ 07014
(973) 779-8615

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Thursday, April 23, 2015

Nello Cucina - Costa Mesa



Sometimes, great service goes a long way at a restaurant, even if the food is just okay. Nello Cucina at South Coast Plaza made this kind of impression.

The grilled seafood platter I had was kind of meh. But as I ate the scallops, shrimp, salmon and swordfish, thinking the lemon butter sauce that sluiced everything was just a tad too tart, the team of servers who hovered over our party of ten made me feel like we were VIPs and had the restaurant to ourselves.

They anticipated our needs before we asked; they remembered what everyone ordered; and most importantly, they seemed genuinely happy to have us as guests on that Sunday afternoon--not one person had less than a smile.



Since ours was a birthday celebration, they not only offered to store the birthday cake we brought in their fridge until it was time, but also took it back to the kitchen, cut it into equal pieces, and served it on their own restaurant plates after the birthday girl blew out the candles.

But just look at how they did it: they actually took the time to decorate every single plate with their own strawberry sauce, which, in terms of what I already thought of their service, was the real icing on the cake.

Nello Cucina
South Coast Plaza
3333 Bear St.
Costa Mesa, CA 92626
(714) 540-3365

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