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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Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Pizza Rev - Santa Ana



Pizza Rev is the umpteenth build-you-own-pizza restaurant to open in OC. And there are no signs it will be the last. As similar as it is to the others we've seen before, it still attracts a crowd--proof that the market is not quite yet saturated. But if they're all going to be as well-managed and as tasty as Pizza Rev is, then let them come, I say.

The ritual is the same. You get in a line. You pick the sauce. Sauce gets swirled on a flattened dough disc. You pick the cheese. Cheese gets spread on top. Then as you walk with your pizza down the assembly line, other employees put on as much meat (everything from anchovies to spicy chorizo), and as much veggies (everything from artichoke hearts to spinach) as you want. Finally, it's whisked off and then slid into the blistering floor of a dome oven. You find a seat somewhere. The pizza comes out hot, delivered on a pie tin.

No matter how many toppings you managed to pile onto it, you paid the same price as everyone else--$8.

But since all the meats are pre-cooked, you could conceivably make one hell of a meaty entrée salad, which is actually my favorite thing to do here. Bacon, chicken, blue cheese--that's what I load mine up with...everything that makes a Cobb great minus the hard-boiled egg.

Now, it's true that I could patronize similar concepts that do salads instead of pizza. They would have hard-boiled eggs for sure...but care to take a guess why build-you-own-salad joints aren't popping up all over like a disease? Because even if you just want a salad, you still want the possibility of pizza.

Pizza Rev
3605 S Bristol St.
Santa Ana, CA 92704
(714) 708-2587
www.pizzarev.com

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Thursday, September 11, 2014

Cozy Cone Motel - Disney's California Adventure

Like all things in Cars Land, Cozy Cone Motel looks exactly like the movie. But that's not what it makes it special. In about four or five separate traffic cone-shaped buildings, Cozy Cone Motel serves its food all in cones. I mean everything.

We're talking ice cream cones, popcorn in a cone, churros in a cone. You get the idea. And it's not just a gimmick. The point is that you can walk, talk, or stand in line for Radiator Springs Racers and still eat what you buy here.

The best cone meal of all is the Chili Cone Queso, a dish that's as fun as it sounds. It's basically thick beef chili, poured into a sturdy, leak-proof, hand-holdable cone made out bread (think of something between a pretzel and breadstick) that's topped with grated cheese and Fritos.

At first, you eat it like a stew with a spoon; then you eat the rest like an ice cream cone, leaving nothing behind. It's the next evolutionary step after those ubiquitous clam chowder bread bowls and it's way more delicious.

Cozy Cone Motel
Disney California Adventure Park
1313 S Disneyland Dr.
Anaheim, CA 92802

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Saturday, September 06, 2014

Strawberry Mochi at J. Sweet Bakery - Irvine


The idea is simple, but ingenious. Take a small rectangle of yellow cake. On top of this, add a whole strawberry suspended in whipped cream. Then, sculpt it into a dome covered in a thin, chewy layer of mochi. What do you get? The best dessert revelation I've had since Cream Pan's Strawberry Croissant.

J. Sweet Bakery makes it, sells it in cute little pink trays. And it's as decadent as the hand-holdable strawberry shortcake that it is. But it's also the sexiest dessert you'll ever have. It's all because of the mochi, which has the supple consistency of nibbling on a lover's ear lobe, their lips, and other body parts.

Let me put it this way: You remember the infamous scene from 9 1/2 Weeks? You know the one. It's the only scene anyone actually remembers from that movie. With Mickey Rourke feeding strawberries to Kim Basinger's lips?

J. Sweet's Strawberry Mochi is that entire scene condensed into a foodstuff you can buy for about $3.

J. Sweet Bakery
5408 Walnut Ave. Ste D
Irvine, CA 92614
(949) 654-1768

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Saturday, August 30, 2014

Class 302 Tea Cafe - Irvine



I think it speaks to Irvine's changing demographics that it can support not one but two Class 302's. I've said it before and I think I'll say it again: if they ever decide to name any city in Orange County its official Taiwan Town, it would have to be Irvine.

Boiling Point, Four Seas, 85 Degrees, Yu's Garden, the venerable A&J--these are all Taiwanese joints among many others in a town whose population might not have known the difference between kung pao chicken and teriyaki if you set your time machine back to 1980. But now, look at it: Class 302, the school-classroom themed restaurant that made it big in Rowland Heights, and then made it big in Irvine next to Wholesome Choice (which is a Persian supermarket, by the way), has opened its second outlet at the Irvine Marketplace. And there are lines out the door!

Most of the people you encounter come to do the self-serve boba drinks, which is not just new for Class 302, but Orange County in general.

With mechanized spigots you expect to dispense frozen yogurt, you construct your own milk tea, ice slush, you name it. Then, from troughs kept behind a sneeze guard, you scoop in your choice of jelly, fruit, or boba. Whatever you get, however much boba you add to your cup, it's a flat fee of about $4.

And no, there are no refills.

Still, getting a boba drink here requires you to have a certain level of trust for the person ahead of you and the people ahead of them. So if the thought of the hundreds of unwashed hands handling the wares is too much to process, then you are a germophobe, and you're probably better off getting your boba drink at Lollicup. Instead come to Class 302 for the food, especially the pork chop, which comes with the deep-fried batter already shedding, the pork sliced and sweet of its rice-wine marinade.

And if you order the chops as a bento, you'll be given a cute little lunch tin, which disassembles into two containers--one with ground-pork-and-pickled-vegetable-strewn rice, and the other with sautéed vegetables, pickles, and a tomato-and-egg scramble.

Also great: the thousand-year-old-egg and cold tofu appetizer that's doused with a savory brown sauce, pork rousong, scallions, and bonito flakes. It is refreshing, the perfect cooling bite of food when the weather is as hot as it has been. But then is there bad version of this dish?

The service might be a bit frenzied and forgetful right now--it's only been open a few weeks. And just like the original, they only accept cash. And once in a while, someone at the next table orders a stinky tofu dish that brings with it its usual smell of rot and decay. But this is Irvine in 2014, O.C.'s unofficial Taiwan Town, and if you live and eat here, you will need to learn to love the stench of stinky tofu.

Class 302
13256 Jamboree Rd.
Irvine, CA 92602
714-508-8989

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Saturday, August 23, 2014

Mama Lu's Dumpling House - Monterey Park


The big news right now is that Din Tai Fung has finally opened at South Coast Plaza--the first time the Taiwanese-based chain has stepped foot in OC. But most of the chatter isn't about Din Tai Fung's food, it's about the familiar and inevitable Din Tai Fung wait, which is predictably long--upwards to 2 to 3 hours according to some first-hand accounts I heard.

I'm going to go anyway because, well, because it's goddamn Din Tai Fung and I'm of the belief that there is no better juicy pork dumpling (a.k.a. xiao long bao) out there than the one they make.

This, however, isn't to say that I don't appreciate other dumpling houses, especially Mama Lu's Dumpling House in Monterey Park which I tried recently on the recommendation of a friend who goes out for dumplings more than I do.

Yes, they make xiao long baos, too--pretty darned good ones that have the proper number of pleats and burst scalding hot soup if you eat them too soon. And though Mama Lu's dumpling skin isn't as thin or delicate as DTF's, the xiao long bao's here are just as consistently well-made, and fresh. Also, there's this: a meal here costs about half what you would pay at Din Tai Fung.



The other reason you should come is everything else. The onion pancakes might be the lightest, bubbliest, and greaseless I've ever had. They use these same pancakes for wrapping rolls slathered in hoisin and stuffed with tender tendon-jeweled slices of beef. There's also non-juicy pork buns, where meat-stuffed fluffy steamed bread with sesame-crusted bottoms are pan-fried to crispness. Their boiled chive, shrimp, and pork dumplings are exquisite in their simplicity. There are deep-fried breads you're supposed to dip into saucers of sweetened condensed milk. And vermicelli noodles with salted fish and chicken. And sautéed green beans in family-sized quantities freckled with garlic, dried shrimp and pickled vegetables.

Another thing about this place: the food comes out hot and fast, mere minutes from when you ordered, which will be mere minutes from when you were waiting to be seated.

Yes, I said minutes. Not hours. And when you sit, there's free peanuts and pickled cucumbers to munch on. Mama Lu's may not be as famous, glitzy, or as fashionable as Din Tai Fung, but when did dumplings and this kind of food need to be?

Mama Lu's Dumpling House
153 E Garvey Ave.
Monterey Park, CA 91755
(626) 307-5700

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Saturday, August 16, 2014

Kitakata Ramen Ban Nai - Costa Mesa


Surely you heard about the recent headline that instant ramen has been linked to heart attacks and diabetes. That along with MSG and the chemical preservative tertiary-butylhydroquinone (TBHQ), which is a petroleum byproduct, it's also high in saturated fat.

This is why you probably should eat more real ramen. Made-from-scratch noodles in a made-from-scratch soup. And the city you need to go to have it has always been Costa Mesa. Costa Mesa is Ramen Town. Costa Mesa is home to the venerable Santoka with its rich-as-gravy broths, Ramen Yamadaya with its equally weighty bowls of pure pork bliss, but also the indies Mentatsu and Ramen Zetton.

There used to be one more: Kohryu. It closed earlier this year. But guess what took over the space? Yes, another ramen shop called Kitakata Ramen Ban Nai, which is the first U.S. store of a chain that has about 60 locations in Japan. Costa Mesa isn't called Ramen Town for nothing.



Kitakata Ramen Ban Nai makes great noodles. And they are perhaps the ones that feel the most homemade of the bunch. The strands are particularly bungie-like and elastic here, with an imperfect crinkle that speaks of its manual process. These noodles are a pleasure to chew. There's a considerable bounce to the texture and a thickness that lies somewhere between udon and angel hair--characteristics indicative of the region from which they came.

Another distinctive feature of the bowls from this area is the broth, which is clear, not milky. When you sip Kitakata Ramen Ban Nai's soup, it will be light--virtually spring water when compared to Santoka and Yamadaya's rich oily sludge. This is not to say it isn't flavorful. It is. But you don't drink your sustenance here; you eat it in the form of those bloated noodles and the thick pork belly slices they layer on top.

Kitakata Ramen Ban Nai adorns all the bowls with the toro chashu (fatty roast pork). In their most expensive bowl, they carpet the entire surface with layers of pig. Less pork-endowed but just as substantial is the green chile ramen, which has tufts of shredded scallions, strips of red onion, napa cabbage and thin slices of chili hiding near the bottom of the bowl. It's not particularly spicy until you run into them.



Their signature bowls of Kitakata ramen have corn, snow peas, bean sprouts and menma. Portion sizes are generous. You probably want to add an egg. They're perfect. The yolk is flawless--balanced in a state of matter between liquid and solid. Also great, their chicken karaage--greaseless, soft, moist throughout, and just the right amount of crisp on the outside.

During these first few weeks, service is over-the-top nice. There are so many floral arrangements and bouquets from friends and well-wishers, the restaurant smells like a funeral home where it isn't steamy and crammed with people.

Ramen is alive and well in Ramen Town.

Kitakata Ramen Ban Nai
891 Baker St. Suite B21
Costa Mesa, CA 92626
(714) 557-2947
ramenbannai.com

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Thursday, August 07, 2014

DelSushi - Irvine


You may have your doubts about DelSushi--the sushi delivery service whose coverage area is bordered by the 405, Culver, Jamboree, and the 73. How good can delivery sushi be? Answer: Very good. Amazing actually. And if I may be so bold: Better than the sushi fast-food chain that rhymes with Pushy Toy.

I know what you’re thinking: “That’s not saying much”, but hey, just try it. You can afford to. The prices are fairly reasonable for the girth of the rolls they offer. The average price is about $10 for a fat, generously proportioned maki that yields 8 mouth-muffling pieces with lots of fish and just enough rice.


Take a gander at the large ruby core of the spicy tuna; the egg-and-unagi-and-crabmeat-and-cucumber stuffed Futo Maki; the thick slices of unagi on the Double Dragon; and the rice-less Pink Lady, which looks like flower petals made of salmon.

And for those of you who aren’t lucky enough to live in the coverage area, you can get the sushi straight from its storefront (which also stocks a variety of Korean instant noodles and snacks). It’s sandwiched in between Berkeley Dog and CyberDeck across from the UC Irvine campus--one more reason that University Center is all kinds of awesome.

And oh, DelSushi is open until two in the freaking A.M.!

DelSushi
4249 Campus Dr.
Irvine, CA 92612
(949) 324-7171
delsushi.com

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Wednesday, July 30, 2014

California Gogi Grill - Irvine

Twenty years ago a car-less UCI student had only a few choices when it came to eating out:
  1. The food court at the Student Center, which had the fast-food usuals and a Chinese steam-tray take-out that no one thought was any good; 
  2. The dormitory cafeterias which only served the edible stuff on Thursday nights; 
  3. Or what was at the time the University Marketplace, where they stir-fried a decent pad Thai at Asia Noodle Cafe or oven-heated a thin slice of pepperoni at Z Pizza. 
That was about it. Yes, there was Chinatown--an Americanized Chinese restaurant that had tablecloths and table settings of forks and knives--but if you were a student, you couldn't afford the place.

These days, University Center (that's what it's called now) boasts so many more choices, from Blaze Pizza, to Yushoken Ramen, to Tender Greens, it almost makes an alumni like me wish he was back in college.

Almost.

Truth is, the choices there these days are so varied and, heck, downright good, it might have compounded my Freshman 15 to 50. Take for example California Gogi Grill, which copies the Chipotle business model and Asianized it before Chipotle's own Asian concept (called ShopHouse, donchaknow) even sets foot in O.C.

For under $8 (that's about what Panda Express charges for less food), you get two meats, rice and the choice of six side dishes.

But what I can't get over is what a no brainer California Gogi Grill's concept is. Korean panchan is made for this. And the Kogi truck already proved that Korean bulgogi and spicy pork make great burrito filler. Put them together, execute it with some consistency and actually well-prepared dishes like the fried tofu and the mustard-tang of the potato salad, and you've just won over not just the student body, but us townies, too.

California Gogi Grill
4237 Campus Dr Ste B157
Irvine, CA 92612
(949) 854-0000

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