Thursday, April 17, 2014

Ginzaya - Irvine

There's a lot to love about Ginzaya Sushi. First, it has a Happy Hour, which, save for the ones that double as actual bars with the thump-thumpy music, not a lot of sushi bars offer.

Even better: the discount on the nigiri is substantial. They take 30% off the price before 7 p.m., which is significant for this kind of nigiri. These are serious cuts of fish that are sliced generously with proper technique. It's the kind of sushi whose weight, texture and silkiness feel exactly right in your mouth. You just know.

The squid chews like a forever-gum-drop; the salmon is satin smooth and full-flavored; and the amaebi comes with the heads and spindly legs deep fried and all delicious.

For people whose definition of sushi includes Philly cheese, the rolls are also specially priced during the Happy Hour. There's a salmon skin roll that is as good as Shibucho's and an eel roll with avocado that even the most ardent snob will admit to liking.

Another thing to love: Ginzaya Sushi servers also seem to actually give a damn. They're not on auto-pilot or just sticking around till they clock out. They'll offer to refill your kimchi dish, and will give you even more on the second go-round.

And if that last part about the kimchi seemed odd to you, it brings me to other reason to love Ginzaya--no one seems to care that they're not Japanese.

Yes, the place is owned and operated by Koreans. The specials are scribbled in Hangul. And there is more than one Korean dish on offer here. But if the Asian customers are as happy as the predominantly white ones, what does it matter that the greeting here is not "Irasshaimase!" but rather "Hwan-yŏng-ham-ni-da!"

Ginzaya Restaurant
4790 Irvine Blvd.
Irvine, CA 92620
(714) 505-0008

Wei Shian Noodles - Irvine

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Carthay Circle - Disney California Adventure - Anaheim

There was a time when California Adventure couldn't get any respect. When it first opened, it was the park that Roy Disney, nephew of Walt, criticized as being built-on-the-cheap. Even The Simpsons lambasted it. And you know you're on the wrong side of history when you are ridiculed by Homer Simpson. But with a new CEO and Pixar's John Lasseter leading the charge, DCA has had a rebirth. The attractions got better, and the restaurants, well, they've become attractions.

The e-ticket restaurant here is Carthay Circle, a brand new tower of a building that was erected in the spot where a giant sun sculpture previously did nothing.

Not counting Club 33, this is, without a doubt, the best restaurant inside either of the theme parks. You dine upstairs in a gilded rotunda room and its few hidden tributaries, the space designed to look like a Golden Age Hollywood steakhouse in Walt Disney's day. Your fellow diners are likely to be dressed in suits, ties and nice dresses, not in Mickey Mouse t-shirts.

And the food is done under the direction of Andrew Sutton, the current chef of Napa Rose (which is technically not in a theme park). As such, you will feast on steak cooked exactingly over pan sauce. A hunk of pork chop will be flavored deeply, sweet as it is moist, served with pears roasted with thyme and au jus. Salad will be composed of French radish, garden peas, shaved fennel, showered with parmesan over a bed of frisee and radicchio. Desserts like a warm apple pecan pound cake and chocolate mousse will look like art, the latter decorated with crunchy pearls--an extra touch of Disney magic.

And of course, wine is served here, because every kid who loves Disneyland and was content on corn dogs and Coke all eventually grow up. Thankfully Disney California Adventure has grown up too.

Carthay Circle
Disney's California Adventure
1313 S Disneyland Dr
Anaheim, CA 92802
(714) 781-3463

Samurai Burrito - Fountain Valley

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Sweet XO - Huntington Beach

If Willy Wonka partnered with Mr. Magorium and Spencer from Spencer's Gifts, it would result in this store--a candy-palace, bakery, ice-cream-shop, froyo-dispensary, and novelty-merchandise-emporium, all under one roof. In stock here--along with the buckets of gummy worms, jelly beans, cupcakes, cookies and more teeth-rotting confections that guarantees the entire dental profession will be in business for years to come--are T-shirts and books that teach you obscene hand gestures from different cultures.

And for some reason, they also sell bath salts. Yes, bath salts, which look like candy, next to the candy. It’s as if the store intended to sell everything that's frivolous and associated with pleasure (short of the carnal and the alcoholic). Think of the stuff they stock near the cash register at your local grocer or that long aisle of junk food at Fry's. This store is that, amplified by a thousand--a boutique of things you would normally buy on impulse.

If you come, you're going to get some ice cream. And it's where most of the employees are, in the back. And boy, is there some kooky flavors on offer (banana flambe and Frosted Flakes). When you buy some, it’s measured by the ounce, like an illicit drug. Get a scoop and they give you these color-changing spoons that turn blue when it comes in contact with the ice cream and then back to normal when it's warmed by your mouth. It's not unlike those 60's mood rings, which, I don't doubt is for sale somewhere in one of the aisles.

7631 Edinger Ave., Ste 151
Huntington Beach, CA 92647
(714) 893-1854

Dutch Club AVIO - Anaheim

Monday, March 24, 2014

Rocharin Thai - Seal Beach

OC doesn't have its own Thai Town, but this doesn't mean that we don't have great Thai restaurants. It only means that the ones we have are scattered throughout our fair county—the proverbial Easter eggs waiting to be found. Some of the greatest—Coconut Rabbit in Los Alamitos, Sutha Thai in Tustin and Tasty Thai in Lake Forest—are still waiting to be discovered. And then there's Rocharin Thai in Seal Beach, which isn't hard to find if you've ever decided to take the PCH scenic route instead of the 405 from Long Beach to Orange County.

I stopped in finally after what must be dozens of drive-bys, and it deserves its place among the greats. The interior design is straight-up Pier One. At sundown, they dim the lights low for a romantic mood, candle lights flickering on each table. Like Coconut Rabbit, Rocharin Thai is one of a handful of Thai restaurants that could conceivably and capably function as a first-date place. Wine and fruity soju-based cocktails are served. The shareable sticky rice with mango comes with two kinds of sticky rice.

And of course, the presentation is impeccable; but the food tastes even better than it looks. Nibble on shrimp bundled in crunchy-fried noodles, the cocoons crumbling into shards as you bite; or if you’d rather, swaddled up tight in golden wonton skin—they have both kinds. The fried tofu is just fried tofu, but it's served so hot it'll burn off the skin of your upper palate if you eat it too soon.

Then there are the main dishes. The crab fried rice is silky from the egg, with the sweet meat of the shellfish dotting the rice like confetti. A special red curry with pumpkin is amazing, proving that kabocha is a way better starch than potato to use for all curries—it’s sugary, comforting, and more colorful to boot. One of their specialties is simply called the Andaman Sea, which is a noodle dish not unlike pad Thai, but more zippy, and covered in seafood—squid rings, fish pieces, mussels, shrimp and scallop.

So discover this Easter egg already!

Rocharin Thai
600 Pacific Coast Hwy #108
Seal Beach, CA 90740
(562) 596-5156

Boathouse on the Bay - Long Beach

Monday, March 17, 2014

Yellowfin Fish Grill - Irvine

There’s a fine line with fish and chips. Either they're great, or they're not. There are more of the not-so-great ones out there than anything else. They can be too oily, too dry, too mealy in the batter. One time, I went out of my way to an Irish pub that was supposedly famous for it. I left thinking I had better and kind of sorry I paid so much.

For me, good fish and chips tend to be stumbled into accidentally. I don't find good fish and chips; good fish and chips finds me. That's exactly what happened at Yellowfin Fish Grill in Irvine. The fish and chips there (which was actually served as part of a fried fish and shrimp combo with the fries as a side) was something I ordered because my lovely dining companion had already ordered something grilled. But my, am I glad she did, because if she hadn't, I wouldn't have discovered this. What a surprise! It was wondrous. White and flaky, moist where it counts and encased in a golden cocoon that seemed leavened by air.

I ate the thing like I'd never ate fried fish before. There was something about it, something buttery, and light, and all-around perfect. It reminded me of the trout they do at Thai Nakorn, all splayed out thin and fried greaseless. This was similar. And then there was that extra flavor in it that made it that much more irresistible. In reading the menu, I think they actually did put some of their garlic butter sauce on it...but then why was it still crispy? The shrimp was excellent too--tasting as though they were hand-breaded, not dropped into the oil carelessly from a pre-frozen package.

And oh, because they're relatively new (they took over Oceanic Fish Grill), they have these free, serve-yourself troughs of tortilla chips and salsa bar, which may be reason enough to try the place during this Lenten season.

Yellowfin Fish Grill
6404 Irvine Blvd
Irvine, CA 92620
(949) 861-3800

Nesai Restaurant - Newport Beach

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Tabi-Ji - Orange

When you sit at the Tabi-Ji sushi bar, prepare to be fed. This offshoot of Shiki--one of the oldest (if not the oldest and continuously running Japanese restaurants in OC)--is barely months old, but it already has regulars who know that they will get their money's worth in food when they come. The space used to be an Italian restaurant up until a few months ago. Now it's a catch-all Japanese cuisine emporium. One area with two teppanyaki islands is dedicated to the rap-a-tap-tap showmanship of two teppan chefs. In between this and the regular tables is a sushi bar manned by four venerable-looking gents who look like their combined experience adds up to at least a century.

Our chef was younger man, but he happened to be the most jovial and cherubic of the bunch. When he wasn't laughing or toasting his customers with a big beer in hand, he cut his fish with a cheeky smile spread across his face. I whispered to my date that he looked like the human embodiment of one of those perpetually pawing cat statues. We liked him immediately, and not just because he gave us complimentary starters of seasoned fish salad atop of wonton cracker and fruit for dessert (they give that out to everyone). No, we liked him because he looked like he was genuinely lucky and glad to be there...and so, too, were we.

He makes big, generous, honking sushi. When most salmon skin rolls are anemic, his is overloaded, nigh pregnant, with more meat than skin--fat cylinders that we could hardly fit in our mouths. His uni is luscious and as sweet and creamy as custard. A special of conch sushi chewed with a deliberate crunch. Then there was the Mango Roll, spicy tuna hugged with fistfuls of rice, then covered in salmon and formed into wheels gilded in sliced mango. Had we known this was enough for a meal in and of itself, we wouldn't have ordered the hamachi kama. But it's a good thing we did. We got the last one of the night and it was as good as always--the one food that rewards those who are dexterous with chopsticks. I'm of the belief that just as there is no such thing as a bad publicity, there is no such thing as bad hamachi kama.

In the meantime, a Caucasian man came in, sat next to me at the bar, then ordered a "Big Asahi", some edamame, and sashimi. When he was served his plate of immaculately cut fish, he had already made himself a soy-wasabi slurry that at this point looked like smooth peanut butter. Every piece of fish he took from the pile, he rolled around in that stuff, covering every inch in the greenish-brown sludge. When he ate one his eyes rolled to the back of his head. If you couldn't tell, he liked the place. And so did I.

665 N Tustin St
Orange, CA 92867
(714) 633-6000

Tabu Burgers & Bites - Santa Ana

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

TK Noodle & Grill - Irvine

Now here's something I never would've thought could open in Irvine: Com Tam Thuan Kieu, which is perhaps the most Little Saigon of all the Little Saigon restaurants. What do I mean by that? I mean it's divey--or at least the original was, the one I first wrote about here on these pages so many years ago.

This isn't quite the same Com Tam Thuan Kieu I knew. It's called Thuan Kieu Noodle & Grill, which is, from what I can see, a rebranded chain owned by different members of the family.

Furthermore, the newly opened restaurant in Irvine's Northpark neighborhood goes by the official title of TK Noodle & Grill, and it serves pho, which the original does not do.

But make no mistake: this is still a Com Tam Thuan Kieu. It says so in big bold letters inside the restaurant itself. And the menu has grand plates of broken rice surrounded by as many as 10 different toppings...yes, I said 10!

I did not try the 10 topping plate, which looks more like a party tray than something one person eats for dinner by himself. So I got the special, a reasonably priced combo of their grilled lemongrass-perfumed chicken, a whole mess of cha gio (deep fried Vietnamese egg rolls), veggies, and dome of broken rice garnished with sautéed green onions. It came with a bowl of hot soup ladled from the pho pot, the scalding liquid sweetened with bits of fried onion and meat to lubricate your mouth in between shovels of rice and meat. And of course, there's plenty of nuoc cham for dousing.

It was in the nuoc cham that I realized, once and for all, that this was truly a Com Tam Thuan Kieu and not some impostor--onion bulbs floated in it, a signature touch of the original.

3951 Irvine Blvd.
Irvine, CA 92602
(714) 389-4800

Craftsman Pizza - Placentia

Monday, February 24, 2014

Luna Grill - Irvine

Is Luna Grill to Persian food as Panda Express is to Chinese? Probably. But let's not misconstrue that as a bad thing. For the record: I like Panda Express. And I like Luna Grill. I've eaten at Luna Grill enough now to see that they are consistent, clean, and a well-managed chain that makes one hell of a chicken kabob.

Yes, it is a bit expensive if you compare it to what Wholesome Choice charges for the same quantity of food. At Luna Grill, a plate with an avalanche of fluffy Persian rice, salad, three pita triangles, a roasted tomato and the meat off of one skewer goes for $10. But in my opinion, their koobideh, (which is just called "ground sirloin kabob" here), with the roasted meat in braids, is much better than Wholesome Choice's.

But oh that chicken! It's bursting with juice and flavor, deeply marinated at the molecular level, and did I mention that it's breast meat? Yes, breast meat, a protein that's more apt to being dry and boring, is so good here you will forgive Luna Grill for taking further liberties with the cuisine.

For example, they have spanakopita, which is actually Greek. Order it anyway. It's a massive thing—enough for a lunch in and of itself—where a flaky Phyllo dough cocoon is pregnant with creamed spinach, the pastry drenched in either butter or the fat coming off the cheese.

Besides, if we're sticklers for geographical accuracy in what our ethnic food restaurants serve, we would first have to reconcile what country Panda Express' cream cheese rangoons come from. Because it's certainly not Myanmar.

Luna Grill
3965 Alton Pkwy
Irvine, CA 92606
(949) 654-5862

Chianina - Long Beach

Monday, February 17, 2014

Valentine's Prix-Fixe at Cafe Hiro - Cypress

OC Restaurant Week begins soon, but I believe I've already eaten the best prix fixe deal of the month. And on Valentine's Day, no less.

Last Friday, I treated my better half to Cafe Hiro, the restaurant that I've blogged more than any other on these pages and the only place that I will willingly go during Valentine's Day--a day which usually becomes an excuse for other restaurants to gouge naive couples trying to force a romantic evening. Believe me: I've been a gougee.

But no matter whether it is New Year's Eve, Christmas Eve, or Valentine's, Chef Hiro Ohiwa has never disappointed with his prix fixes. He has always charged a fair price for these meals that often turn out to be discounts if you do the math on what you usually spend on a normal night. It is because of this that I've spent many a New Year's Eve, Christmas Eve, and yes, Valentine's Day at his restaurant--it is the best time to visit.

Last Friday was no different.

The price was $39 per person for 4 courses, and it went like this:

There were two choices for the first course: either beef tataki, over sliced red onion, garnished with a crispy garlic chip, and grated daikon, finely diced scallion and a jellied ponzu sauce for dribbling; or seared ahi tuna steak piled atop soft planks of fresh mozzarella cheese, over Asian herb mix and tomato, drizzled with extra virgin olive oil and ginger miso sauce.

Second course was either a scallop spring roll stuffed with mushrooms, served over mesclun salad dressed with yuzu vinaigrette; or crispy fried chicken thighs served on sticks of sautéed daikon with green onion and decorated with squirts of Asian pesto sauce.

For the entrees, he sautés Scotch salmon with black mussels, red bell pepper, asparagus, broccoli, cauliflower, and an au jus broth that came from cooking the mussels. He also offered a roast beef with mashed potatoes; or a beautifully roasted pork plated with the same silky spuds.

We chose the salmon and the pork. Both were cooked perfectly. The salmon was as crisp as creme brulee on the outside, creamy at the center. The pork was as supple as the softest part of my inner cheek, and as juicy and as flavorful as a steak.

For the fourth and final course, we had free reign on all the desserts they offered. We asked for a slice of the homemade pear tart, a tall, slightly dense cake of sorts that had a crumbly crust and was packed full of pears. And of course, we also had to have a wedge of Chef Ohiwa's incomparable croissant bread pudding in a sea of bitter caramel sauce.

And for you who are fans of this restaurant already, I've saved the best news for last: we found out that night that Cindy, Cafe Hiro's best front-of-the-house manager and server who left to take care of her growing family, is now back! She was the one that cut out all those construction paper heart garlands they hung for the occasion: the best restaurant deal of the month.

Cafe Hiro
(714) 527-6090
10509 Valley View St
Cypress, CA 90630

Tasty Garden - Irvine

Friday, February 14, 2014

Honda-Ya Box - Costa Mesa

When I was a few years younger and in possession of more patience, waiting an hour for a table at Honda-Ya in Tustin was something I did every other Saturday night without even thinking about it. Now? Not so much. Honda-Ya Box in Costa Mesa is made for people like me who want instant Honda-Ya gratification without the Honda-Ya wait. It features some of the items the real Honda-Ya offers, just repackaged into a smaller frame. This is the Honda Fit to the original's Accord EX.

Yes, it feels a lot like the economy model, without all the bells and whistles--a stripped down, bare bones experience that tries to get you there and not much more. And in the kakuni lunch box I tried, it mostly does. The stewed pork I had tasted a little different than what I've had at the original. This one is a little less melting, a little more stringy. But I can't ask for a better miso soup than the one they serve it with. It's got noodles in it. And tofu. And vegetables. It's practically a meal into itself.

The combo comes with greens drizzled in a miso-like dressing, a pasta salad that seemed superfluous. But I like this place. I like the idea that Honda-Ya brings to the genre of quick Japanese bento box food. It doesn't resort to dumbing it down to teriyaki chicken and tempura specials. And they're slowly but constantly importing more and more items from the mother ship. Like crispy chicken skin. Asparagus bacon with garlic butter soy sauce. And those pickles they give you at the start of your meal. The one hour wait times? They can keep that there.

Honda-Ya Box
2969 Fairview Rd
Costa Mesa, CA 92626
(714) 557-2688

Solita - Huntington Beach