Thursday, January 22, 2015

MaDee Thai Kitchen - Costa Mesa



MaDee's cashier, who is probably also one of its owners, was frazzled. It was Sunday, 30-minutes before her restaurant was set to close up, but people were still streaming in as steady as a drumbeat. I was one of those people. I wanted to order something for take-out.

She says to me: "It's going to take at least thirty minutes. Is that okay? I've been telling people on the phone forty-five."

"Yes, it's fine!" I responded. "I'll wait."



Mine was a simple order: just the soft shell crab and sticky rice with mango for dessert. And so I waited. And observed. It's a tiny restaurant. Barely anything on the walls. Chairs in disarray. Two couples were there slurping on what I presume is the kha soi, their most popular dish. But like me, the rest of the customers who ambled in from the cold wanted take-out.

Half quietly left after they found out it would take upwards of a half an hour. The other half were smart enough to phone ahead.

There were three other people behind the register, working furiously in the cramped open kitchen, tossing things airward in a blazing wok, dropping battered pieces of something into a gurgling deep fryer.



At about minute 25 I see my crabs being prepared. Then all of a sudden she has my order ready. I take it home, the scent of the deep fried crustaceans causing me to drool all through the drive.

It's a simple dish: bite-sized pieces of lightly-battered and crisply-fried soft shells that I dunked in a tartly-seasoned soy sauce that's like a Thai spin on ponzu, all of eaten with the side salad.

The real revelation was the sticky rice with mango. The rice has its requisite sweetness, but also saltiness and a coconut-cream richness. I made little sushi rice balls using chopsticks, then laid a piece of mango on top as though it were nigiri and wondered as I was eating slice after slice of that not-too-tart, not-too-ripe fruit: how is it that Thai restaurants always have perfect mangos no matter what time of year it is?

MaDee Thai Kitchen
401 East 17th Street Unit C
Costa Mesa, CA 92627
(949) 631-2731

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Monday, January 12, 2015

I-Tea Cafe - Irvine


I-Tea Cafe in Irvine serves stinky tofu, that maldorous deep-fried treat that smells as though someone purposely dipped a sweaty gym sock in the sewer, stuck it under your nose, and then farted in your face. That's how bad stinky tofu stinks.

But what's curious about the I-Tea is that despite the fact it serves stinky tofu, the rooms actually smells like pizza. Anywhere you sit inside the brightly lit restaurant, but especially underneath one of the main air vents, you get whiffs of doughy bread baking with marinara and cheese.



After a few visits, I realized it wasn't my imagination--it was pizza I was smelling. A Papa John's is right next door and apparently the ventilation systems are connected. And so when I actually ordered the stinky tofu, my nose was fooled into thinking I was eating pepperoni pizza while my mouth enjoyed the slightly bitter, slightly tangy, slighty spongy tofu cubes in a sweet-and-sour soy sauce slurry and topped with pickled veggies.

Don't get me wrong: it still reeks if you encounter a particularly ripe one, as though something died on your plate and started decomposing. But if you can stand Gruyere, you shouldn't be afraid of stinky tofu--it's just another wonderful product of fermentation. Besides that, it's the most Taiwanese thing you can order in a restaurant that, in my opinion, is one of the best Taiwanese joints in a town full of Taiwanese joints.



Yes, you can conceivably just drop in to have a milky slush (which is a boba drink that forgets the pretense that you need anything having to do with tea in a boba drink). You can even have the pork chop rice (which is as fine an example as any, and served in portions enough for two people). But what you should do is order from the snack menu, which has the stinky tofu and the gigantic plate of popcorn chicken, morsels of lightly battered chunks of dark meat sprinkled with a flurry of spicy-salt and crispy fried basil leaves.

As a palate cleanser, I always order some of the really great brined cucumbers with bits of raw garlic. And I never go to I-Tea without asking for the pidan tofu--blocks of chilled silken tofu doused with a sugary sauce and topped with a thousand-year-old egg, pork rousong and scallions--one of my all-time favorite things.

I ate it all together and wondered: if it smells like pizza in here, does it smell like stinky tofu at the Papa John's?

I-Tea Cafe
15435 Jeffrey Road
Irvine, CA 92618
(949) 551-4832

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Friday, January 09, 2015

Houston's - Irvine



Did I ever mention I like Houston's a whole lot. This is a chain that has all the corporate polish, and puts out food that's consistently good--the high bar when it comes to classic American meat-and-potatoes cooking.

There was a smoked salmon appetizer, a slab of it pink and flaky, served with toasted bread and a tarragon aioli that's simplicity and elegance defined. There was the French dip, a fist-sized wad of rosy-hued carved beef hugged between two shiny planks of a toasted roll with a mound of house-made shoestring fries.

And then there's the thing I always get: the ribs. It's not BBQ; it's just really, really good ribs. Kissed with bits of char, sugary glaze turned to caramel, and meat that tears off with a tug.

After I was done, they came around with steaming hot towels to wipe my gunked up fingers and sauce-covered lips.

Houston's
2991 Michelson Drive
Irvine, CA 92612
(949) 833-0977

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Saturday, December 27, 2014

MasalaCraft - Santa Ana

As far as I'm concerned, there's no such thing as a bad Indian take-out joint in OC. Yes, some are better than others. Heck, my Indian friends and even some of my white friends have dismissed Natraj Tandoori in Irvine as the lowest common denominator--the Indian take-out equivalent of Panda Express. But I still like it because I happen to like Panda Express, and Natraj was the place that introduced me to Indian food back in college--it was cheap enough for a student and there was always chicken tikka masala, a dish that I didn't know at the time was actually British.

But when I graduated from college I also graduated from Natraj, eventually moving on to the wonderful lunch buffets at Vishnu, India Kitchen, and Haveli for spice-ladened meals eaten in gut-busting portions. And then I eventually made the pilgrimage to Artesia's Little India, where the Gujarati thalis of Rajdhani opened my eyes (and also my palate) to the complexities of a cuisine I was only beginning to appreciate. If you haven't tried Rajdhani, you must do so, post haste! And no, there won't be a trace of tikka masala near the place.



When I don't want to overstuff myself or can't go to Artesia, there's Santa Ana's MasalaCraft--an Indian take-out joint to rule them all. The parking is atrocious at lunchtime, but the combo plates ($7 for a 2-item) is one of the best and freshest I've had in a long time. And there's the part that it's served in portions that might as well as be two trips to the buffet line.

One distinguishing trademark of MasalaCraft is actually the naan, the Indian flatbread that's made so tender here it tears like wetted tissue. Across the brown mottled surface, you also see a sprinkling of spices including sauf (which is what Indians call fennel seeds) for more flavor per square inch than some pizzas have in a square foot. The bread is, of course, perfect for dipping and sopping up all of the chicken tikka masala, because, let's face it, authentic or not, your ordering the chicken tikka masala.

MasalaCraft
2 Hutton Centre Drive
Santa Ana, CA 92707
(714) 696-6272

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Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Cafe Hiro's 2014 Christmas Eve Prix-Fixe - Cypress



Christmas Eve is one of the best nights of the year to visit Cafe Hiro. Six years ago on this blog, I literally waxed poetic on the wonderful Prix-Fixe meals it offers there the night before Christmas.

This year, I'll let the iPhone pictures and the menu descriptions speak for themselves.

Herewith is what Chef Hiro Ohiwa and crew served this evening--a 4-course dinner for $45 per person.

FIRST COURSE

Diced ahi tuna and fresh mozzarella cheese with daikon radish, cucumber salad and mentaiko sauce.


Sauteed oyster on seasoned daikon radish and sweet miso sauce.

SECOND COURSE

Seabass spring roll with sautéed mushroom salad, white truffle oil, and yuzu vinaigrette.


Seared beef tataki and poached cabbage with Italian parsley, parmigiano-reggiano and anchovy vinaigrette.

THIRD COURSE

Roast beef served with mashed potato and garlic soy sauce.


Sautéed salmon with sea urchin "uni" sauce and served with seasonal vegetables.

FOURTH COURSE

Croissant bread pudding.


Panna cotta.

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

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Friday, December 19, 2014

Grill City & Crispy Town - Irvine


The name Crispy Town may sound like it's inspired by the catchphrase of a certain Food Network host with spiky hair. It's not. It's Pinoy through-and-through--a turo-turo joint that caters to the best kind of food there is: the kind that's deep fried golden brown and delicious.

Everything--I mean EVERYTHING--at this food stall at the back corner of the new Seafood City in Irvine is either made of pork, deep-fried, or both. They have crispy pata here, bone-in pork hocks, that are to-go-boxes of heart-disease. They have Filipino-style fried chickens with nary a batter--which is to say they're more authentic than those sold by the bucket at the more popular Jollibee at the front of the market.

And boy, are there are egg rolls--four kinds. Chicken. Pork. A veggie that's thicker than the previous two combined. And the cigar-sized lumpia Shanghai, which are great to take to potluck parties at $20 for a 60-piece tray.

But if you can't live on fried food alone (a truer statement than you realize), you also must make a stop at Grill City where foot-long skewers of pork and chicken "barbecue" are roasted over hot grates behind a glass window. They sell 'em 4 sticks for $10, which is easily a meal for two if you have a pot of rice waiting at home.

If you must, Grill City also has chafing tables (let's call them "neighborhoods") of veggie dishes such as the lumpia sariwa, which is the anthesis of the deep fried egg rolls found at Crispy Town. Lumpia sariwa translates to "fresh egg rolls", which in this case is just the filling of cooked cabbage, carrots, tofu and other veggie matter served with a garlicky sauce.

Other "veggie" dishes like kare-kare aren't technically vegetarian as there's often always some sort of meat or pork in it. This is probably a good time to point out that in no Filipino supermarket, Seafood City included, is there ever gonna be a stall called Vegan Ville.

Grill City & Crispy Town
2180 Barranca Pkwy
Irvine, CA 92606
(310) 834-9700
seafoodcity.com

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Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Leelin Bakery & Cafe - Cerritos



We go to the Filipino food haven that is Artesia and Cerritos maybe once every two months. As such, we suffer from a month-long lag in news of developments in the area. We only found out last week that Magic Wok (my favorite Filipino restaurant of all time) closed suddenly and has been closed since October (No need to worry though: I just got word they will reopen soon).

And one day a few weeks ago, after deciding we were overdue for a meal at Goldilocks, or at least a mocha roll, we discovered that it has turned into a bakery and cafe called Leelin.

But when we walked inside, it looked as though nothing has changed. The cafe was still there, to the left. The array of breads were stacked on its usual shelves to the right. But most importantly, the mocha roll tasted as good as it always has.

In fact, everything was the same--down to smell. The only different was the rebranding. The new name and logo replaced all that used to say Goldilocks, as though someone went through a bad breakup and photoshopped any traces of an ex from a stash of old pictures.

Word is that after 38 years, a rift developed between the owners of this Goldilocks and the rest of the family. (All L.A. area Goldilocks are now Leelin).

It reminds me of that old adage about doing business with friends and relatives. But perhaps more apropos here is the one that says: the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Leelin Bakery & Cafe
11489 South St
Cerritos, CA
(562) 924-5990

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Thursday, December 04, 2014

Sam Woo Seafood & BBQ - Cerritos



What did you do last Saturday? Me, I got this $8.25 lunch special of a tofu and seafood hot pot at Sam Woo in Cerritos, which with tax and tip was essentially free after I paid for it with American Express. Yes, it was Small Business Saturday: an annual event that, to me, is way better than Black Friday and Cyber Monday. Charge $10; get credited back $10. Still, even it wasn't covered by the offer, what a deal!

I've always been amazed how Chinese restaurants, Sam Woo especially, charges so little for so much food. Not only was I served this massive, gurgling, steam-billowing pot of tofu and various sea critters simmered in a gingery gravy, I also got a container of rice enough for five people, a bowl of egg drop soup, all the hot tea I could drink, and two fortune cookies for dessert.

I only made a dent in the hot pot, a smaller one on the rice, and the rest of the leftovers fed me for one and a half more lunches. Which goes to show: if you want a bargain, you don't have to wait for some made-up sales day--just go to a Chinese restaurant and get their lunch special.

Sam Woo Seafood & BBQ
19008 Pioneer Blvd
Cerritos, CA 90703
(562) 865-7278

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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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