Thursday, February 11, 2016

A Din Tai Fung Story

We were having dinner at Din Tai Fung South Coast Plaza when a Caucasian guy in his twenties wearing a Detroit Tigers baseball cap and camouflage pants sat down at the table next to us. He was with an older gentleman, a man of about sixty who looked like a frazzled version of the Dos Equis guy.

Since the tables at Din Tai Fung are close together, we couldn’t help but overhear the conversation. Turns out they were father and son. As they looked at the menu, the son tells the dad that he’ll order “the good stuff”.

“Leave it to me”, he says to the older man.

The dad, who obviously had not been there before, looked apprehensive. His hands were folded across his chest. Though he didn’t say it, you could tell he was uncomfortable.

“Why couldn’t we just get a burger somewhere?” I imagined him thinking.

Then their food started arriving. And as the older man sampled each dish, we watched how he reacted with baited breath. On the stir fried broccoli, he exclaimed “Wow, this is so fresh!” On the wontons in chili oil, he repeated one word: “Delicious!”

When it came to eating a juicy pork dumpling, the son instructed the father on how to pick it up with chopsticks, dip it in the vinegar and then sip the soup after biting off the top.

He loved it.

Dish after dish, we witnessed this man’s conversion from skeptic to believer. All throughout the meal, the son kind of beamed--and so did we.

Din Tai Fung
3333 Bristol St.
Costa Mesa, CA 92626
(714) 549-3388

Krave Asian Fusion - Irvine

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

Avo - Newport Beach

I think I ate more red meat last week than I have my entire life. If I get gout, gain a few pounds, or need to be put on cholesterol meds, I have only myself to blame.

It's not that I like to eat steak that often. But steak happens to be expensive, and when you're rooting out the best Newport Restaurant Week deals, I had to order the steak to get the best bang for my buck.

Avo, the restaurant inside Fairmont in Newport Beach, had a particularly irresistible deal: a $30 3-course dinner that included the flawless 10-ounce flat iron you see above, which by itself would've cost $34. But with the shrimp cocktail app and dessert, the Restaurant Week price represented at least a 50% discount on the whole meal.

As great as it was, it was probably a steak dinner I didn't need to be eating. I probably also shouldn't have eaten the whole basket of the restaurant's cool version of curly fries. And I probably shouldn't have consumed all that bacon they showered the fries with.

The good news is Orange County Restaurant Week isn't for another few months. Until that time, I guess it'll be salad for me. Lots of salad.

Avo at the Fairmont
4500 MacArthur Blvd.
Newport Beach, CA 92660
(949) 476-2001

Saint Marc - Huntington Beach

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Woody's Wharf - Newport Beach

If you're reading this before January 31, 2016, you still have time to take advantage of Newport Beach Restaurant Week, which began this past Monday, January 18, and lasts until Sunday, January 31.

Those who are good at math are probably saying right about now, "Wait, shouldn't have it been called 'Newport Beach Restaurant Two Weeks', then?"

Never mind semantics--these are pretty good deals and a lot of restaurants offering them, so you want it to last more than a week.

Those familiar with these post-holidays, city-wide restaurant promotions will know that it involves multi-course meals for $10, $20, $30, $40, or $50.

For my budget, $30 is the sweet spot for a restaurant week dinner. It's enough that you're not stuck with just sandwiches as the main course, but not so much that it's no longer a bargain.

Still, before I chose Woody's Wharf's, I did some research.

I tallied up the most expensive items on its Restaurant Week menu and compared them against the regular prices listed on its website. I determined the specials represented about a 25-30% discount.

That was good enough for me.

And now, I finally had a food-related reason to visit the infamous dock-side, bar-cum-restaurant that routinely makes OC Weekly's Best Of list--last year for "Best Place to Pick Up a One-Night Stand" and in 2010 for "Best Bar in Which to See Fake Boobs".

Quite appropriately, it was a tall, long-legged and big-bosomed Amazonian server who took our order and brought out our first course: a massive bowl of clam-packed chowder that, on a normal night, would probably be the only thing I'd need to get full.

We ate only about a quarter of our bowls, purposely holding back because I had a monstrous rib eye steak coming and my lovely dining companion had a pan-seared ahi with fresh avocado, tomato and crispy rice.

And we were right in doing so. The rib eye was big and bloody--a satisfying beef slab as I've ever had--covered with onion straws, topped with three gigantic shrimp sauteed in a creamy parmesan sauce. And it came with an insurmountable mountain of mashed potato and Brussels sprouts in a balsamic reduction that already constituted more food that I would consume on a typical day. I only managed to get a third of the way into it before my lovely companion told me that she needed help finishing her entree.

She said that the crispy rice in her dish--which reminded us of Persian tahdig and the stone-seared rice at the bottom of a Korean bibimbap--would not fare well as tomorrow's leftovers; so we had better finish it tonight. She was right. But I would've eaten every grain of it regardless, no matter how full I already was from my steak.

Desserts were cheesecake and a warm, cake-like brownie with ice cream, but it was this ahi dish with which warrants Woody's Wharf being finally nominated for something other than boobs and one-night stands.

Woody's Wharf
2318 Newport Blvd
Newport Beach, CA 92663

Hong Kong Banjum - Fullerton

Friday, January 22, 2016

Buns N Rice - Costa Mesa

What do you expect out of a place that's called "Buns N Rice"? Sandwiches, maybe? Teriyaki rice bowls, for sure.

But you would wrong about the teriyaki. Since Buns N Rice is actually a Korean-owned lunch joint, the rice bowls don't have a speck of teriyaki in it. Instead, it's beef bulgogi, chicken, or spicy pork.

And when you order the any of their "bowls", you don't get a bowl; you get a massive clamshell container. And it comes out steaming hot from the griddle. You have to blow on it for a few minutes before you dig in.

I tried the spicy pork--which was in ribbons with onions--and realized, since it was still fuming, it was like eating at a Korean BBQ without having to cook the meat myself.

And then there was the price. For the big pile of hot, made-to-order food you see above, I paid $5.49 (before tax)--less than a Subway sandwich.

Didn't expect that, did you?

Buns N Rice
20048 Santa Ana Ave
Costa Mesa, CA 92626

Skyloft - Laguna Beach

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Crazy Rock'N Sushi - Irvine

If you allow me to generalize for a moment: There are two kinds of sushi bars for two kinds of people.

Crazy Rock'N Sushi, just by the virtue of its name, is for the sushi consumer who'd rather have Katy Perry blasting through the speakers as they eat than stodgy shamisen music. The kind of person you'd find here would also most likely chase his meal down with a sake bomb or two.

Depending on my mood, I can be exactly that kind of person. And when the mood does strike, I go to places like Crazy Rock'N Sushi, where no one, not even the chef, will flinch if I make a thick sludge out of my wasabi and soy sauce.

Yes, Crazy Rock'N Sushi is, for lack of a better term, a Bro Sushi joint. But it is a good one, even as the service staff at new outlet of it in Irvine is still earning their sea legs. The food and drink, though, was flawless. The nigiri was cut so thickly and generously, I couldn't see the rice beneath it. And the unagi was nicely broiled--sea candy at its most sweet.

Although I've rarely met a salmon skin roll I didn't like, Crazy Rock'N Sushi's was particularly crisp and particularly good. I enjoyed everything I had here, especially a luscious spicy scallop roll that was actually spicy, a tender-crisp sauté of green beans freckled with loads of garlic, and fried oysters that went rather well with a yuzu beer cocktail--a drink that I can only seem to order at places like Crazy Rock'N Sushi.

Crazy Rock'N Sushi
5365 Alton Pkwy.
Irvine, CA 92604

Spicy Lao - Garden Grove

Sunday, January 10, 2016

O' My Buns - Rowland Heights

If you've never had an O' My Buns bun I don't know if anything I write here will adequately describe it to you. But I'll try.

Think of the sweetness and fluffiness of Filipino pan del sal or maybe a French brioche. Then think of the Mexican pan dulce called concha with its corrugated sugary shell baked onto its crust. Now think of a bread with the properties of all of the above, but also imbued with a coffee flavor and a hollow pocket in the middle, where a single pat of butter was tucked.

These buns--let me tell you--are addictive, especially when they're warm and you're the kind of person who likes the aroma of coffee but not the bitterness. And the only place you can get them right now in our area is inside a Tutti Frutti frozen yogurt store in Rowland Heights.

They have a few flavors on offer, including some with fillings such as cream cheese. But all are essentially born from the same mother dough, risen into domes and swirled on top with a coffee-flavored cream before they're baked.

The first U.S. O' My Buns outlet opened at a Tutti Frutti in Yorba Linda five years ago (and there's an awkward promo video to prove it), but that one fizzled--probably because it was in a non-Asian neighborhood that still favors donuts over these coffee-flavored-butter-pocketed-pan-del-sal-meets-a-pan-dulce things.

O' My Buns at Tutti Frutti
17861 Colima Rd.
Rowland Heights, CA 91748

Holiday Cartoon Issue 2015

Saturday, January 02, 2016

Red Robin - Tustin

Red Robin is just about the only national restaurant chain we go to voluntarily. In fact, we go to it often enough that we are part of their loyalty program, which entitles us not only to a free meal every once in a while, but a free burger during our birthday months.

But I also like Red Robin for other reasons. I like that they don't blink an eye when we tell them that we're splitting our burger (the kitchen cuts the burger in half automatically when we do). I like that they have a wedge salad for $3 with bacon and crumbles of bleu, and it tastes as good as the one Mastro's Steakhouse charges $12 for.

And obviously, I like that they'll still refill the fries that goes with our split burger, even if they're obviously being shared by two people. I also like that if the occasion arises when we can't finish the fries, Red Robin actually let us take them home (they reheat well in a toaster oven).

And although it can vary from visit to visit, I like the burgers--the patties seared on the outside to a crisp, as all burgers should be.

I also like the fried zucchini when we want to kid ourselves that we're eating our vegetables. The kitchen seems to take some care in preparing them, raking off just enough of the green zucchini skin so that there's something for the sheer, tempura-like batter to cling to. They're served so fuming hot they have a tendency to scald us when we forget to let them cool.

On our last visit to Red Robin, I've noticed that the restaurant has installed those tableside tablets that lets you order and pay without so much as interacting with the wait staff. This was, at first, disconcerting to us. But we were assuaged when our Freckled Lemonade was refilled just as often as usual.

Sat what you want about chains--their often impersonal staff and mass-produced food that's cooked elsewhere--but there are some chains, like Red Robin, that bucks the stereotype and that a jaded restaurant nerd like me can adhere to. I have the loyalty card to prove it.

Red Robin
2667 Park Ave.
Tustin, CA 92782
(714) 258-7657

Aji Peruvian Cuisine - Long Beach

Friday, December 25, 2015

$49 Christmas Eve Prix Fixe at Cafe Hiro - Cypress

Cafe Hiro's prix fixe Christmas Eve Dinner is a holiday tradition we intend to continue for as long as Cafe Hiro offers it. I first waxed poetic about seven years ago. Last year, when I wrote about it, I merely put up my snapshots to let the pictures speak for themselves.

This year, I'm going to implore you to remember this post come next Christmas Eve and make a reservation, because last night, despite the bargain base price for a meal of this magnitude, there was barely anyone there to enjoy it.

If you did you would've been dazzled by Chef Hiro Ohiwa's food and pampered by his attentive staff.

You would've started your five-course feast with the sashimi plate of Fanny Bay oysters, sea urchin, scallop and octopus that he mixes with dashi gelee, yuzu-vinaigrete and white truffle oil. Your date would've swooned over her first course, too: a creamy spread of smoked salmon, shrimp, crab meat and cream cheese eaten with red onion, caper and cherry tomatoes over crispy toast.

Your second course would've been thin slices of beef tataki with poached cabbage, anchovy-vinaigrette, reggiano cheese, garlic chips, all drizzled with a balsamic reduction. She would've said her course--the breaded monkfish with tartar sauce over an Asian mango slaw--tasted like the best fish sticks crossed with a lobster she'd ever had.

Next, you both would've tried not to fill up on the uni spaghetti, a Cafe Hiro classic, or the ume-shiso spaghetti with oba mint and nori, with dried bonito flakes that flap in the hot updraft as though they were still alive.

And for a main course, you both would've opted for the hunk of roasted beef--yours cooked to a rosy pink, hers well-done--both soft as silk and doused with garlic soy sauce, served with Chef Ohiwa's ultra creamy mashed potatoes.

Finally, for dessert, you would've been able to choose from the regular menu of sweets, but then you would've also noticed a gateau au chocolate with macaron, fresh berries and whipped cream that Ohiwa added just for Christmas Eve. You would've ordered it but also the croissant bread pudding, because that's what you did last year, and tradition is tradition.

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

Tackle Box - Corona Del Mar

Friday, December 18, 2015

Turon at Valerio's - Irvine

No, those aren't egg rolls; they're turon. What's a turon? Well, it's an egg roll. Filled with banana. And sometimes jackfruit. But for sure, banana.

I have an unresearched and yet unproven theory that all equatorial countries in Asia have a version of a fried banana dessert. This one is the Philippines'. And as I've said in a previous post about the subject, Valerio's does a very good version--even accounting for variations between branches.

I've had the turon at the Valerio's inside Seafood City in Irvine on many occasions. Though the banana inside can vary in sweetness, one thing about it is constant: its crunch. And it's not just because it's deep fried like all egg rolls; it's because it's also covered in a glassy cocoon of caramelized sugar not unlike on a creme brulee.

It's this finishing touch that hermetically seals the egg roll as though it was locked in amber, preserving the texture and ensuring that the crunch from every bite will rattle your bones.

And if you come to Valerio's near closing time, the cashier might just give you a few extra for free. Normally, they're 50-cents a piece.

Valerie's inside Seafood City
2180 Barranca Pkwy
Irvine, CA 92606

MIZUiro - Rancho Santa Margarita

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Naked Salad at Grill City - Irvine

Filipinos might recognize the dish Grill City offers at its steam tables as lumpiang hubad. For the non-pinoys who might wander in, Grill City has named it "Naked Salad", which is kind of like calling a burger "chopped steak"--true, but not always accurate.

Lumpiang hubad, or, in this case, "Naked Salad", is actually the unwrapped version of lumpiang sariwa, which, if you've ever attended a catered Filipino party, are the things your host might call "fresh spring rolls"--delicate burritos filled with veggies swaddled inside an unfried egg roll wrapper. They're usually eaten with lettuce and doused in a sweet and punchy garlic sauce.

The contents are simple: lots of chopped cabbage, carrots, green beans, garbanzos and tofu, all of it cooked together just until the vegetables are crisp-tender. Grill City offers its version of lumpiang hubad as a turo-turo and packs the sauce (which tastes like a garlic-enhanced sweet and sour sauce) in a separate container.

Whatever it's called, Grill City's is a bargain because for about $3.50, the guy behind the counter will pile on enough in that container for two meals. I use it as a quick veggie side dish to whatever I've got leftover at home. It even goes well with a fried egg and some rice--the quickest way to a nutritious dinner that includes a salad that's not exactly a salad.

Grill City inside Seafood City
2180 Barranca Pkwy
Irvine, CA 92606
(310) 834-9700

Spencer's Bistro - Buena Park