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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Monday, July 21, 2014

Plaza Inn - Disneyland


If you're in line for Star Tours or the Astro Orbitor and you suddenly feel hunger pangs creep in, it's because of Plaza Inn. The smell from the fried chicken it cooks permeates the entire area. And if you've tasted it before, you know it’s hands-down the best fried chicken not just in the park, but probably the City of Anaheim.

Plaza Inn, for the quick, cafeteria-style restaurant that it is, will serve its golden, inexplicably non-greasy chicken with mashed potatoes, loads of gravy, a heap of green beans, and a useless biscuit. It’s a monster of a meal. You don't just get one or two pieces of that chicken, you get three--a drumstick, a thigh, and a breast from the Dolly Parton of hens.

But you finish every bit, starting with that crunchy rendered skin, and leaving nothing but the bones. This is fried chicken that not only exceeds your expectations of theme park food but also the dish itself--a fried chicken that’s arguably better than the one that started Knott’s Berry Farm.

Plaza Inn
1313 Harbor Blvd.
Disneyland Park
Anaheim, CA 92802
(714) 781-3463

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Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Flappy Jack's - Orange


I wish places like Flappy Jack's opened past 3 p.m. Its food is the kind I'd rather be eating for dinner. But it closes early because our custom of relegating the best stuff that American cuisine has to offer (bacon, eggs, pancakes and hash browns) to the daylight hours is so ingrained, breakfast-centric places like Flappy Jack's would be deserted if it tried. Proof? The place used to Spires, which is a diner just like Flappy Jack's is, but open at all hours.

The fact is, even though there's nothing in our body clocks that would go haywire if we ate a McMuffin for supper, it's just weird for most people.

And that's too bad, because Flappy Jack's--which has Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, and Elvis kitsch trifecta of statues in the middle of the restaurant--serves glorious breakfasts that would be great anytime of day or night. These are platters of egg-centered morning meals surrounded by satellites of more food on the side.

My spicy Polish sausage, over-hard eggs, and hash browns in crispy shaved ribbons (oh those hash browns!) came with a separate plate of pancakes I didn't even touch. There was corned beef hash that didn't taste like it was scooped out of a can, but chipped off from a Saint Patrick's feast. There were waffles with pineapple and drizzled with coconut syrup that would sing a sweet Don Ho melody even if it wasn't called the "Hawaiian Waffle". There was a Dutch pancake, fluffy, eggy, like a thicker version of a crepe wrapped around fruit as though a burrito.

The greatest dishes are the omelets--gigantic flotillas of eggs that deliver your chosen cargo of protein, vegetables and cheese inside a hull of fluffiness. Did you know that the French eat omelets for dinner?

Heck, even Ron Swanson eats breakfast for dinner.

Leslie Knope: “Why would anybody ever eat anything besides breakfast food?”

Ron Swanson: “People are idiots, Leslie.”

--Parks and Recreation

Flappy Jack's
2848 N Santiago Blvd.
Orange, CA 92867
(714) 283-2800
flappyjackspancakehouse.com

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Thursday, July 10, 2014

French Market - Disneyland

Disneyland's New Orleans Square is as authentic to New Orleans as the Jungle Cruise is to Africa--which is to say, not very. But the red beans and rice I ate recently at the French Market couldn't have tasted more evocative of the balmy swamp city if Paul Prudhomme served it up himself.

I once read an article that said the people of Louisiana eat red beans and rice more than anything else, especially on Mondays. It's said that the dish is made with Sunday night dinner's leftovers--a low-simmered, one pot meal that required little effort but filled the gut for not much money.

So when I saw it on the menu at the French Market, it just had to be ordered. But I was still surprised how good it was.

The French Market, like most of Disneyland's busiest eateries, is a cafeteria where you line up with tray in hand and the food is slopped onto plates with little regard for presentation. But the red beans and rice was different. It was downright immaculate.

In the deep-bottomed plate, the red beans--spiced to a lip-numbing but pleasant hotness--was the base layer, with pieces andouille sausage mixed in. Then came a sprinkle of rice, a few beveled slices more andouille, and a cornbread muffin straddling the edge. It was one of the best meals I've had at Disneyland, and I've had the corndog.

And to wash it all down: an icy-cold, green-tinged mint juleps. Yes, real mint juleps aren't this green and should be made with bourbon, but it was still refreshing, recharging my batteries so that I could stand in line for that safari through fake Africa.

French Market
Disneyland Resort
Anaheim, CA 92802
(714) 781-3463

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Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Gourmet Burgers - Irvine

Contrary to what I previously thought, a good burger is not hard to find in a food court. I was recently floored by a thick behemoth of a burger I had at Aioli, which as you might have read earlier in this blog, is in a food court. So I was ready to accept that good burgers exist at other Irvine food courts, especially the one that boasts not only Franco’s Pasta Cucina but also The Chippy, two of the finest food court eateries in O.C.

But because Franco’s and The Chippy are there, I’ve been putting off trying Gourmet Burgers, because, well, like anyone, I’m a creature of habit, and Franco’s pasta dishes and The Chippy’s flawless deep fried cod are hard habits to break. Now that I’ve finally tried Gourmet Burgers, it confirms my earlier theory: you can find good burgers in food courts.

These are not thick-pattied burgers. The beef is actually as thin as In-N-Outs, but with twice the surface area that extends past the perimeter of the bun, and pleasantly un-uniform in shape. But like In-N-Out, it’s griddle-seared when you order, served hot, slathered in sauce, and in my case, stuffed with crispy onion straws that lent a nice texture.

Judge them not by the fact they use stock sesame-seeded buns. Also, do not underestimate their size; these are gut-busting burgers that are bigger than you anticipate. I peeled back the paper again and again, coming to the realization that there’s still a lot of burger left when I thought I should be done--this is the hamburger equivalent of Hermione’s bag in Harry Potter.

If it reminds me of any previous burgers I’ve had, it’s like the ones served by Yellow Basket. Yet it’s not an apt comparison because Gourmet Burgers uses what I'm pretty sure are hand-packed (Halal) patties instead of frozen discs. And with any burger, it’s how they treat the meat that makes all the difference--not whether it’s served in a food court.

Gourmet Burgers
2222 Michelson Dr Unit 208
Irvine, CA 92612
(949) 251-0786

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Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Le Petite Sourie - Santa Ana


There's no fancier pastry than macarons, those much sought-after cookie sandwiches that usually cost more money than a thing of that size should ever cost.

Yeah, it's French. And yeah, it's, like, really fashionable right now, much more so than cupcakes, I think.

And the fact that it takes significantly more skill to make a macaron than a cupcake might justify the upcharge some of these places charge.

But me? I'm ambivalent about macarons. I'd much rather get, well...everything else. And there are much more than macarons at Le Petite Sourie, a French bakery in Santa Ana that seems to have appeared out of nowhere.

I tried the Black Forest cake, which is densely chocolatey where it should be, fluffy everywhere else. But then there's the meringues--the items that I think they're put on this green Earth to sell.

They're packaged in clear plastic bags, about a half dozen or so in each satchel, and they're wonderful. Shaped like small meteorites, kind of uneven, with rough craters here, smooth surfaces there, you bite into one and discover that the insides are filled with just a touch of filling. Strawberry jam hides underneath the pink ones. There's pistachio (I think) in the greens, and probably mango inside the yellows.

Most importantly, they got the right consistency throughout--a shatteringly crisp outer shell leading to a chewy center. Even better: they're cheaper than the macarons for the same amount of pleasure.

Le Petite Sourie
2801 MacArthur Blvd Ste A
Santa Ana, CA 92704
(714) 966-9969

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Thursday, June 19, 2014

Matcha Love - Costa Mesa

After slurping Santoka's legendary but ultra-savory bowls of ramen at Mitsuwa's food court in Costa Mesa, you want something cold, something sweet.

Until recently, that meant one of two things: Some sort of boba drink at Sky Express or a box of mochi ice cream from the supermarket.

Now that Matcha Love has opened here, there's is a third and much preferable option—soft serve green tea ice cream in sweet, tannic swirls; but also a black sesame flavor that tastes like smoky peanut butter. Another tea flavor called hojicha is almost floral.

But then you eat them all of them together in the same sitting and attain Zen enlightenment in a waffle bowl.

Matcha Love
665 Paularino Ave
Costa Mesa, CA 92626

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