Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice - Singapore


Walk a few paces outside in Singapore and you turn into a hot, sweaty miserable mess. It's about then you wonder why anyone would want to live in a city with the climate of an equatorial swamp. Then you remember: it's the FOOD, stupid! And that's exactly why I went again to a place where eating is the national pasttime.

And one of the best things to eat is the beautiful plate you see above: Hainan chicken rice. This one comes from Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice, which is famous because Anthony Bourdain made it famous. Though I'm sure it was highly regarded among locals before the itinerant travel host came around, it's practically a national icon now.

I ordered it from the stall (which now occupies two spaces and has Anthony Bourdain's face on a poster) and when I did, one of the men took a bowl to scoop up rice from a repurposed 10-gallon cooler and plopped it to a waiting plate. Meanwhile his co-worker got to work with a cleaver chopping up the chicken. Shortly thereafter, my small plate of Hainan chicken rice (S$4) was assembled.



And was it glorious!

The rice was scrumptious, inexplicably warm despite where it was stored, but also rich, and as Anthony Bourdain said, worthy of a meal on its own. And the chicken, which is served cold, was moist, juicy, with its skin jellied--probably the best and most unadulterated piece of chicken I've ever had in my entire life. This was the essence of poultry purity.

Before I went to Tian Tian, I read that the original chef (the one featured in Bourdain's show) apparently had a falling out with the owner and quit to open his own shop a few stores down. But I couldn't not try Tian Tian. If I were in New York, I wouldn't not go to Kat's to follow the guy who used to make the pastrami...or would I?

Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice
1 Kadayanallur Street
#01-10 Maxwell Food Centre
(65) 9691 4852

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Saturday, November 15, 2014

Popcorn Chicken - Irvine



As we were eating this Taiwanese popcorn chicken combo plate at the new Taipei-night-market-inspired restaurant Popcorn Chicken in Irvine, two blondes went in, saw what was offered, then left.

One of them said to the other, "Ugh, too ethnic!"

"What's so ethnic about fried chicken and corn dogs?" I whispered to my date.

"They must've seen the gizzards-on-a-stick next to the fried chicken and the corn dogs," she said.

"Oh right, that!" I said.

Popcorn Chicken
15333 Culver Dr. Ste 420
Irvine, CA 92604
(949)733-9999

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Monday, November 10, 2014

Izakaya Wasa - Irvine

There are two Japanese restaurants at the Irvine Spectrum; but only one you should go to: Izakaya Wasa.

If you recognize the Wasa name, it's because it's once part of Chef James Hamamori's empire. You may have been to the original, Wasa Sushi, where he fine tuned his sushi "Treasures", which are upgrades on pieces of nigiri with such things as wasabi cream sauce, jalapeño and crispy onion as toppings or garnishes.

These days Chef Hamamori spends most of his time at his eponymous restaurant in South Coast Plaza, and his connection with the Wasas may just be spiritual now. But Izakaya Wasa is still a very good Japanese restaurant doing real Japanese food.



The "Treasures" are present and accounted for, but so are the dishes you liked at the original, like miso marinated sea bass and the fried baby octopus that you eat in one bite and chew and chew and chew--head, tentacles, and all.

As this is an izakaya, there are more cooked dishes than there are raw, but the Wasa ahi poke is particularly good, with the cubes of fish silken, seasoned lightly with a spicy, citrusy-soy sauce and a hint of sesame seed oil.

What's the other Japanese restaurant at the Spectrum you ask? Well, it's the one you're not going to.

Izakaya Wasa
59 Fortune Dr
Irvine, CA 92618
(949) 453-9500
wasasushi.com

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Wednesday, November 05, 2014

India Kitchen - Tustin


Last week, in celebration of Diwali, I ate at India Kitchen in Tustin, which was previously Traditions--a restaurant I reviewed long ago for The Weekly. I had their lunch buffet. It was great. But to be honest, if the place hadn't changed its name when new owners took it over, I probably wouldn't have noticed.

After the feast, I thought about why. Traditions was, after all, a Northern cuisine specialist, which rely on breads. India Kitchen now offered food from the entire subcontinent, even the Indian take on Chinese food. So why did it taste almost exactly the same?

I concluded that an Indian lunch buffet, no matter the kitchen's proclivities, must serve the same cast of characters. Red-tinged tandoori chicken. Fat samosas. Sludgy saag paneer. And of course, everyone's favorite: the chicken tikka masala, which is not actually Indian.

It must do all this because Indian buffets, especially around these parts, must cast the widest possible net to please the widest possible audience.


That's why the tikka masala--Great Britain's national dish and the Indian bastard child equivalent to Panda Express' Orange Chicken--had to be refilled by the kitchen more than once during my visit. And it tasted as gloriously creamy here at India Kitchen as it did at Traditions.

Still, there were standouts. The biryani was shotgunned with so much spices and herbs I had to spit out a few bay leaves. The sambar was a sweat-inducing, hellish chowder that I ate with the idli, puffy little life-rafts that soaked up the spicy soup like a loofah sponge.

But in the end, I left India Kitchen the same way I do most other Indian lunch buffets: overstuffed, happy, and my clothes reeking of curry.

India Kitchen
14131 Red Hill Ave
Tustin, CA 92780
(714) 505-0300
indiakitchenoc.com

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Tuesday, October 28, 2014

It's Boba Time - Tustin


If you've been to any new boba shop or Asian drink/dessert shop lately, you've probably noticed that they like lists--Top Tens, to be exact. It could be just scribbled on a chalkboard, displayed on their flatscreen monitors, or made-up as a poster. Whatever the medium, these are countdowns of their most popular items--the things most customers go there to consume and basically suggestions of what you should.

"It's Boba Time" (yes, that's the whole name), the new outlet of the drink chain that recently opened at The District in Tustin, has such a list, and when you go, you'd be foolish to choose anything outside of it. I did once and was stuck with a nearly $5 artificial-tasting and too-sweet smoothie that I had to force myself to finish.


Now I know better. The last few trips I made, I had the so-called Coconut Strawberry, which is #9 on the countdown list. I asked the cashier as to what exactly was in it. He said ice cream, milk, ice, coconut powder and macerated strawberries. And as the list foretold, it was a glorious drink. Creamy without being too rich, sweet without being cloying, it's like having a frothier, lighter version of a shake or a frosty pina colada with strawberries on the bottom.

Confident that I knew what to avoid, I also tried a Frosty Milk Drink with "Honey Boba, Pudding & Caramel", which gets it close enough to my favorite maker of the drink, Meow Meow Cafe in West Covina, without driving to West Covina.

Next time, I might try the #1 item on their Top Ten: The Cookies-n-Cream milkshake, but then that's already in my Jack-in-the-Box Top Three (after the mystery-meat tacos and Sourdough Jack, of course).

It's Boba Time
2481 Park Ave
Tustin, CA 92782
(714) 677-2820
itsbobatime.com

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Monday, October 20, 2014

Cafe Gelato at Bellagio - Las Vegas


Over the years we've developed certain habits when we go to Sin City: we avoid the buffets, eat off-the-strip as much as possible, and then come back to Bellagio for dessert at Cafe Gelato.

It's located in a deserted hallway on the casino floor, next to the art museum, which is, by the way, even more deserted. I always order a small--about $5 for a serving that I always forget is too much for me, and that I should've shared it with my lovely companion instead of getting two orders.

The flavors I default to: half scoop Bailey's, the other half Stracciatella, the Italian version of chocolate chip.

The Bailey's has that distinctive Irish Cream, almost-malty finish at the end, and the fine-shavings of chocolate in the Stracciatella melts on contact on my tongue. Gelato, in my opinion, doesn't get better than this--lighter and fluffier than ice cream, but with more body and richness than soft serve.

We always eat ours outside in the hallway in the plush armchairs next to the window--yet another habit we've developed. And after all these years, Cafe Gelato still serves theirs in a specially-designed cup, which we rinse out and bring home as a souvenir.

How many of these souvenir cups have we accumulated in our cupboard? The answer: Enough to prove that we go to Cafe Gelato habitually.

Cafe Gelato
Bellagio Las Vegas
3600 S Las Vegas Blvd
Las Vegas, NV 89109
(702) 693-8133

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Monday, October 13, 2014

Uoko Japanese Cuisine and Sushi - Tustin


I eat a lot of sushi. I can't have a steak or burgers two days in a row, but sushi I could eat for every meal if I were given the chance. This is why you see a lot of sushi joints on this blog, and why you will continue to see more.

Last night I went to Uoko. It was the second time for me in two weeks. And I'm sorry it's taken me this long to try it, because judging by the faded sun-bleached photos tacked up on the walls, the cozy tatami room, and the sheer volume of accumulated trinkets and doodads all over this Japanese restaurant's interior, Uoko has been here a while.

On this visit, I decided not to eat in a booth like last time, but at the sushi bar itself. We would pick out our meal from what ever was written up on the white board.

After last night's meal, I realized Uoko is one of the best sushi bars in OC, certainly Tustin. It's the kind of place where I heard a white customer say to the itamae, "Please make me something with natto! Anything!" And he did: a hand roll with natto and squid pulverized to bits with the edge of his knife.



We, too, ordered things on a whim. There was a luminous conch nigiri that had the crunch of cartilage, the subtle sweetness of the sea, and a bullet of rice that was still slightly warm. After that, there was some ponzu-doused raw oysters. This was followed by asparagus, enoki mushroom, and scallops sauteed with butter, garlic, and sake--the whole thing served sputtering on a fajita platter.

When we asked for the poke bowl, it was for its quantity-to-price ratio--something to fill our stomachs with. And it came with salmon, octopus, tuna, and various other scraps of slippery/tender fish and seafood, tossed in soy, sesame oil, lemon, and other flavorings, piled on top of sushi rice.

The uni we got was the very last piece they had in supply that night, and it was luscious. And then came the best thing we ate: red snapper collar, smoked in hickory--not a typical sushi bar fodder--intensely aromatic, practically caramelized, and so sweet it was fish candy.

Still kind of hungry, we asked for some of the tempura that made us swoon two weeks prior, and it was just as good this time as it was last--freshly fried, hot, lacy, everything tempura should be.

After we signaled we were done, dessert came free. It was some sort of wiggly delicious red bean mousse with a slice of orange.

The total for our meal for two? A little under $55.

Uoko Japanese Cuisine and Sushi
17582 17th St #103
Tustin, CA 92780
(714) 838-2300

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Sunday, October 05, 2014

California Plate - Santa Ana


At the food court sandwiched between the ground floor and the theater at MainPlace in Santa Ana, your choices are the usual mall food offerings of Sbarro's and Hot Dog on a Stick, and then what seems like carbon copies of the same teriyaki chicken bowl restaurant. California Plate is one of those; but for some reason it transcends them all.

At first you may have your doubts. The chicken they'll use to assemble your massive $4.99 plate is already pre-cooked, sitting in a mountain on the griddle. The vegetable pile sits opposite. And when you order, they take some from the top, push it around the hot surface a few times to get a sear, and then slide it over a Styrofoam plate with rice on it. But when you eat it, you're floored on how good, hot, simple, and satisfying it is. The rice is fluffy; the shredded veggies still snap; and the chicken is surprisingly wonderful.

Cut not into pieces, but whittled down to pebbles, the final sear on each tiny bit's surface area caramelizes and transforms to become crispy shards of concentrated flavor akin to candy.

California Plate's staff comes not from the land where teriyaki originates, but then neither does this dish, which is as Californian as the hard shell taco.

California Plate
Westfield MainPlace
2800 N Main St. # 916
Santa Ana, CA 92705
(714) 900-3399

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Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Kotobuki Sushi - Laguna Hills


Can you imagine a time when "neighborhood sushi bar" was a phrase as strange as "The Internet" or "smart phone"? It wasn't that long ago when most of the American public considered the eating of sushi downright exotic and uncivilized, akin to stories of tribal cannibalism and that scene from Temple of Doom with the monkey brains. "Only those crazy Asians would eat fish raw!" they'd say.

Now look. Sushi is everywhere: in supermarket deli cases, cruise ships, and yes, practically every corner in America--even in Wichita, Kansas, where I once had sushi despite being in a place where the closest ocean was a three-hour plane ride away.



Kotobuki in Laguna Hills is one of those neighborhood sushi bars that reminds me how far along we've come in embracing sushi into our stomachs and our culture. It was recommended to me by a friend who was not Asian and when I ate there there were no Asian faces anywhere in the restaurant except those of the people who were cutting the fish.

It's been around 25 years, not exactly in this spot, but a few yards away in the same plaza that also has Break of Dawn. The landlord relocated both of them to their present spot a few months ago to make way for apartments. And here Kotobuki will stay for probably another 25 or until its head sushi chef and owner decides it's time to hang up the knives.



Because of the lack of actual Japanese customers present, I wrongly assumed that Kotobuki is the kind of place that one wouldn't expect omakase to be offered. So when I asked if they did it, I half expected them to say no. Except he said "of course", in a way that kind of made me feel a bit silly for even doubting.

What followed was an omakase meal that was balanced between the cooked dishes they offered (such as the butter-sautéed asparagus, mussels broiled with mayo, fried fish scraps, stir-fried mushrooms) with the raw (various cuts of nigiri sushi, sashimi drenched with ponzu, hand rolls stuffed with salmon skin, and a cut roll)--for about $70 for two, a reasonable amount.



Kotobuki may not use too exotic an array of fish, sticking mostly with the tried-and-true tunas and salmon, and they can often rely too heavily on lemon and ponzu for flavoring; but the cuts are precise and generous, the chefs are chummy, and the service obsequious.

And when you toast their "Awesome Sushi" (which is a motto they themselves coined for themselves and made t-shirts for) it will be with Kirin, Asahi, or Sapporo, the trinity of Japanese beers that's as common to America these days as Bud Light--and it's all thanks to neighborhood sushi joints like Kotobuki--purveyors of assimilation as well as sushi.

Kotobuki Sushi
24351 Avenida De La Carlota
Laguna Hills, CA 92653

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Sunday, September 28, 2014

Stage Door Cafe - Disneyland


You may think the only place at Disneyland that serves those perfectly fried and decadent corn dogs is the red truck parked at the end of Main Street.

Not so.

The Stage Door Cafe is probably the better venue, not because the corn dogs are any more decadent, but because they serve it with actual fries, not just chips.

And even better, Stage Door is the one place in the Magic Kingdom that makes hot, crispy funnel cakes--and in three variants, no less.

So if you're looking to get your fill of all the deep fried theme park food in one place and at one time, this is your Mecca.

And here's a tip: once you've gotten your haul, bring it into the Golden Horseshoe, go upstairs, then eat it in the air-conditioned mezzanine while looking over the tourist ribble-rabble below you.

Stage Door Cafe
Disneyland
1313 S Harbor Blvd.
Anaheim, CA 92802

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