Monday, October 20, 2014

Cafe Gelato at Bellagio - Las Vegas


Over the years we've developed certain habits when we go to Sin City: we avoid the buffets, eat off-the-strip as much as possible, and then come back to Bellagio for dessert at Cafe Gelato.

It's located in a deserted hallway on the casino floor, next to the art museum, which is, by the way, even more deserted. I always order a small--about $5 for a serving that I always forget is too much for me, and that I should've shared it with my lovely companion instead of getting two orders.

The flavors I default to: half scoop Bailey's, the other half Stracciatella, the Italian version of chocolate chip.

The Bailey's has that distinctive Irish Cream, almost-malty finish at the end, and the fine-shavings of chocolate in the Stracciatella melts on contact on my tongue. Gelato, in my opinion, doesn't get better than this--lighter and fluffier than ice cream, but with more body and richness than soft serve.

We always eat ours outside in the hallway in the plush armchairs next to the window--yet another habit we've developed. And after all these years, Cafe Gelato still serves theirs in a specially-designed cup, which we rinse out and bring home as a souvenir.

How many of these souvenir cups have we accumulated in our cupboard? The answer: Enough to prove that we go to Cafe Gelato habitually.

Cafe Gelato
Bellagio Las Vegas
3600 S Las Vegas Blvd
Las Vegas, NV 89109
(702) 693-8133

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Monday, October 13, 2014

Uoko Japanese Cuisine and Sushi - Tustin


I eat a lot of sushi. I can't have a steak or burgers two days in a row, but sushi I could eat for every meal if I were given the chance. This is why you see a lot of sushi joints on this blog, and why you will continue to see more.

Last night I went to Uoko. It was the second time for me in two weeks. And I'm sorry it's taken me this long to try it, because judging by the faded sun-bleached photos tacked up on the walls, the cozy tatami room, and the sheer volume of accumulated trinkets and doodads all over this Japanese restaurant's interior, Uoko has been here a while.

On this visit, I decided not to eat in a booth like last time, but at the sushi bar itself. We would pick out our meal from what ever was written up on the white board.

After last night's meal, I realized Uoko is one of the best sushi bars in OC, certainly Tustin. It's the kind of place where I heard a white customer say to the itamae, "Please make me something with natto! Anything!" And he did: a hand roll with natto and squid pulverized to bits with the edge of his knife.



We, too, ordered things on a whim. There was a luminous conch nigiri that had the crunch of cartilage, the subtle sweetness of the sea, and a bullet of rice that was still slightly warm. After that, there was some ponzu-doused raw oysters. This was followed by asparagus, enoki mushroom, and scallops sauteed with butter, garlic, and sake--the whole thing served sputtering on a fajita platter.

When we asked for the poke bowl, it was for its quantity-to-price ratio--something to fill our stomachs with. And it came with salmon, octopus, tuna, and various other scraps of slippery/tender fish and seafood, tossed in soy, sesame oil, lemon, and other flavorings, piled on top of sushi rice.

The uni we got was the very last piece they had in supply that night, and it was luscious. And then came the best thing we ate: red snapper collar, smoked in hickory--not a typical sushi bar fodder--intensely aromatic, practically caramelized, and so sweet it was fish candy.

Still kind of hungry, we asked for some of the tempura that made us swoon two weeks prior, and it was just as good this time as it was last--freshly fried, hot, lacy, everything tempura should be.

After we signaled we were done, dessert came free. It was some sort of wiggly delicious red bean mousse with a slice of orange.

The total for our meal for two? A little under $55.

Uoko Japanese Cuisine and Sushi
17582 17th St #103
Tustin, CA 92780
(714) 838-2300

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Sunday, October 05, 2014

California Plate - Santa Ana


At the food court sandwiched between the ground floor and the theater at MainPlace in Santa Ana, your choices are the usual mall food offerings of Sbarro's and Hot Dog on a Stick, and then what seems like carbon copies of the same teriyaki chicken bowl restaurant. California Plate is one of those; but for some reason it transcends them all.

At first you may have your doubts. The chicken they'll use to assemble your massive $4.99 plate is already pre-cooked, sitting in a mountain on the griddle. The vegetable pile sits opposite. And when you order, they take some from the top, push it around the hot surface a few times to get a sear, and then slide it over a Styrofoam plate with rice on it. But when you eat it, you're floored on how good, hot, simple, and satisfying it is. The rice is fluffy; the shredded veggies still snap; and the chicken is surprisingly wonderful.

Cut not into pieces, but whittled down to pebbles, the final sear on each tiny bit's surface area caramelizes and transforms to become crispy shards of concentrated flavor akin to candy.

California Plate's staff comes not from the land where teriyaki originates, but then neither does this dish, which is as Californian as the hard shell taco.

California Plate
Westfield MainPlace
2800 N Main St. # 916
Santa Ana, CA 92705
(714) 900-3399

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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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