Saturday, August 31, 2019

Pier 76 Fish Grill - Tustin


I think Pier 76 is going to become a weekly Thursday ritual. On that day, the restaurant offers a $3 beer and 99-cent oysters from 3-7 p.m. What kind of oysters are they? I have no idea because when I asked the oyster shucker, he didn’t know either.

At this price point, I don’t think it matters. Oysters don’t come cheaper than this. What’s more important is that they’re fresh, ice cold, and comes with lots of lemon, cocktail sauce, and a decent mignonette.

These condiments are essential as these oysters are also kind of basic—the vanilla ice cream of oysters. They weren’t particularly briny, sweet, or iron-rich. To put it another way: They showed up to class, did the required homework, but aren’t going for any extra credit.

In fact, in retrospect, I think I actually enjoyed Pier 76’s crispy fish tacos that I added on to my order more than the oysters. I paid the regular price for them, $3.25 each, and they’re worth every penny.

The crunchy battered fish filet inside them were so ripping hot from the fryer, the tortilla acts as an edible oven mitt. And they were so good—with two kinds of sauces, two kinds of shredded cabbage, and a tuft of gourmet pickled onion—that I think they might just be better than Los Cotijas across town, which automatically makes them one of the best fish tacos in the County.

And on Tuesdays, these tacos are discounted to $2.99. So I think Pier 76 will become a weekly Tuesday ritual, too.

Pier 76 Fish Grill
15080 Kensington Park Dr #330
Tustin, CA 92782

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Friday, August 30, 2019

Pacific Wine & Food Classic 2019 - Newport Beach


These are pictures from the Pacific Wine & Food Classic, which happened a few weekends ago at Newport Dunes Waterfront Resort. This is the third year for the event, and like all previous years, it’s a food frenzy and boozy bonanza that happens on the sand and under the sun.

As the all-you-can-drink and all-you-can-eat affair boasts appearances from virtually every big name chef, restaurateur, vitner, brewer, and mixologist in OC, admission isn’t cheap. But if you drink a lot and have the stomach capacity of a large aquatic mammal, you’d more than reap significant returns on your investment. Me, I don’t drink much and tend to get full quickly. This is why I’m thankful I was invited as part of the media.

This year’s event was as grand as the last two. Lots of restaurants wisely chose to serve cooling raw seafood dishes such as crudo, poke, and ceviche. Let’s face it, the last thing anyone wants to eat out there on the hot sand are heavy soups, chowders, or stews. I even saw a poisson cru this year, which was refreshing in both definitions of the word.

The best bite I had was a crudo from Ellie’s in Long Beach, a restaurant that I had no idea existed. But I think that’s the point of this thing—it’s a speed dating event for restaurants and their potential customers.

Pacific Wine And Food Classic
1131 Back Bay Dr
Newport Beach, CA 92660

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Thursday, August 15, 2019

Sam Woo Express - Irvine


This is Sam Woo Express, proof that you can still go somewhere that isn’t fast food and get enough to feed two people for under $7 in Irvine.

I should rephrase that last bit—it is “fast” food. You won’t spend longer than the drive-thru here. It’s just that it’s not processed food. For at least the last quarter century, everything is made from scratch and then dumped into steam table throughs.

Since it’s all cooked in the same kitchen by the same chefs using the same ingredients as the restaurant next door, those still unfamiliar with this Irvine landmark might operate on the assumption that the food here is just as good. This isn’t always true.

The chow mein is always greasy. The fried rice is near inedible. And some items tend to crust over the longer it sits under the heat lamp. As such, my strategy has always been the following:

Take the white rice and pick whatever looks like it just came out of the kitchen, which, when I was there, was the fish in black bean sauce.

Pick only one entree if you want a double portion of it for no additional charge.

Ask for the complimentary chili oil. It will correct any of the meal’s deficiencies.

And for those millennials who are reading this, bring cash. It’s the only form of payment accepted and no one who works there has heard of Venmo.

Sam Woo Express
15333 Culver Dr Ste 720
Irvine, CA 92604
(949) 262-0688
samwooirvine.com

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Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Charlie Wong Saigon Garden - Kalispell, MT


This is what a bowl of pho looks like in Kalispell, Montana. I had it at a restaurant called Charlie Wong Saigon Garden. Charlie Wong, as you might have already guessed, served not just pho, but also Chinese food of the sweet-and-sour-pork-and-chow-mein variety.

But while this pho may look average at first glance, it was unlike anything I’ve ever encountered before. Since Vietnamese restaurants are still a rarity around these parts, the basil served on the plate with the bean sprouts was not Thai basil; it was Italian basil, the kind you put into pesto.

Also, the broth was more sugary than herbal and the rice noodles were pre-cut into two-inch lengths, suggesting that the chef designed it to be eaten by people who are used to soup spoons, not chopsticks.

In fact, chopsticks aren’t automatically supplied with the bowl. I had to get mine by going up to the counter and specifically asking for a pair.

What this pho didn't have in short supply, however, was meat. There was about a half pound of beef in the bowl--an amount equal to a decent steak dinner. And it was sliced into thick chunks, every piece tender and soft.

So was it an authentic bowl of pho? No, not if you're judging it against pho from cities where the Vietnamese population is larger than the family that owns the restaurant; but for Montana, it was everything it needed to be. And if you ate it after a day of hiking in the frigid wilderness of Glacier National Park like I did, you'd agree with me that there's no better bowl of pho in the entire state.

Charlie Wong Saigon Garden
1645 U.S. 93 S
Kalispell, MT 59901
(406) 755-5290

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Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Musubi Mondays at L&L Hawaiian - Irvine


As one of Hawaii’s most iconic foodstuffs, Spam musubi may be simple, but it’s history is complicated. It’s derived from the Japanese rice ball snack called omusubi. The first person to add Spam to the mix was a Japanese woman named Barbara Funamura more than 30 years ago at her restaurant in Kauai. The idea quickly spread to the other islands.

But the protein its centered on, Spam, came to Hawaii around the time of Second World War via the U.S. Military. Point is, nothing about the Spam musubi is actually indigenous. Few things usually are.

What is has become, however, is arguably the gateway drug that introduces the rest of the 49 states to Hawaii’s culture and history. And if you live in Irvine, there’s no better day to indulge on Spam musubis than Monday, when L&L sells it for a buck each.

I bought ten (as that is the limit they’ve instituted per person) and when I ate it, it didn’t so much remind me of my last Hawaiian vacation as it did the lesson of how food continues to evolve.

Perhaps a food writer living 80 years in the future will wax nostalgic on the humble and unlikely origins of the San Frangeles’ most popular dish: spaghetti tacos.

L&L Hawaiian BBQ
14310 Culver Dr Unit A
Irvine, CA 92604
(949) 262-9088

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Friday, July 19, 2019

Barbadian Fish Cakes in Barbados


These are the Barbadian fish cakes I ate while on vacation in Barbados. They’re to Barbados as pizza is to New York and donuts is to Boston. Rihanna probably grew up eating them.

I had them three times from three different places.

The first time was as hors d'oeuvres at the free cocktail reception hosted by the hotel I stayed in. The next two times I ordered it at restaurants just outside the boundaries of the resort. When I did, I came to a few conclusions.

First, these fish cakes are essentially a cross between a hush puppy and a beignet, except with flakes of dried fish added to the batter.

Second, they’re delicious, especially if there’s a bottle of a local hot sauce within reach.

Third, I should’ve tried them at restaurants farther from the hotel, because even with local delicacies that ought to be cheap, the closer you are to the rich tourists, the more expensive things gets...even fried dough.

Marco Polo Bar & Grill
Lower Crane BB18079, Barbados
+1 246-271-2583

Cutters of Barbados
Diamond Valley BB18079, Barbados
+1 246-423-0611

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Thursday, July 18, 2019

Chirashi Sushi at Sushi Shibucho - Costa Mesa


This is Sushi Shibucho’s chirashi, the happy intersection of a bento box and a nigiri omakase meal. It is one of the most economical and instantly gratifying ways to eat at Shibucho. You’re essentially getting a complete run of the fish in stock, served over a bed of sushi rice.

And what you save in the time the itamae would’ve used to sculpt them into individual pieces, you see reflected in the price. Currently the cost of this meal is $21.50, which is not cheap. But when you compare it to what you’d pay ordering by the piece, the savings are significant.

Inside this compartment, I counted at least 16 pieces from at least 7 different species that I would’ve probably eaten in succession over an hour during a proper omakase meal. Some were oily, others tangy, sweet, or salty. All of it was sublime. And when I had them in concert with the same seasoned rice as the nigiri, the experience was like a self-guided tour rather than a guided one. Either way, I was eating sushi at Sushi Shibucho!

Sushi Shibucho
(949) 642-2677
590 W 19th St
Costa Mesa, CA 92627

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Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Tsukemen at Kashiwa Ramen - Costa Mesa


This is Kashiwa Ramen’s tsukemen. It’s, by far, my favorite thing to eat there. It wasn’t mentioned in my OC Weekly review because it wasn’t yet on the menu at the time. They were likely still developing the recipe, tweaking it to get it just right. But when I got around to having it in later visits, I realized it was worth the wait.

Kashiwa’s tsukemen is a ramen for all occasions. In the summer you can request the noodles be chilled; in the winter, heated. Either way, the strands has the al dente bounce of pasta but with a lightness that doesn’t weigh you down.

And since they’re coated in sauce rather than submerged in soup, tsukemen (if you’ve never had it) is halfway between a plate of spaghetti and a bowl of ramen. The dish is the best of both universes.

When you dip and slurp it, you experience and then appreciate all the nuances of all the components: the acid tickle of the squeezed lime, the concentrated umami of the reduced-to-gravy soup, the chewy comforts of the ramen.

Kashiwa Ramen
1420 Baker St
Costa Mesa, CA 92626
(657) 232-0223

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Friday, June 14, 2019

Sushi Imari - Costa Mesa


There was something specific I really liked about the original Sushi Imari in Costa Mesa. It wasn’t the complimentary items that were doled out at random. It wasn’t even the sublime piece of uni nigiri I had there several years ago. It was actually the size of the dining room.

Sushi Imari was tiny and cramped. And because it was, it felt intimate and cozy. It was as though I stumbled into a hidden spot no one knew about. The reality is that, of course, everyone knew about this place. It’s one of the most reviewed sushi bars on Yelp, largely due to its generosity with those complimentary apps. People love free stuff.

It got so popular, in fact, it recently felt the need to move to a bigger space on Harbor, in what used to be I Love Sushi and EON. And in so doing, I think it has lost what made it special. It now looks like a diner and for reasons I cannot explain, the sushi has taken on the personality of those made en masse at an all-you-can-eat joint.

I didn’t like what I had here at this new location nearly as much as what I had then, at the original place. The rolls tasted pedestrian and the uni I tried had an off flavor. An appetizer of gyoza is offered as the complimentary item. But since the things are fried in huge batches and every diner gets one as soon they’re seated, it felt more like it was done to fulfill an expectation than something that’s supposed to be welcoming.

At the new Sushi Imari, bigger isn’t better.

Sushi Imari
2340 Harbor Blvd
Costa Mesa, CA 92626
(714) 641-5654

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Monday, May 27, 2019

TeaAmi - Monterey Park


Several weeks ago I was invited to a sneak preview of TeaAmi, a unique pop-up experiment that my friend, Chef Bonnie Jiang, is launching at her Beard Papa’s franchise in Monterey Park.

The idea behind TeaAmi is simple: Chef Jiang—who was formerly the sous chef at LA’s The Spice Table—is a passionate about tea, and when you sit down for a session, which is limited to six guests at a time, what you will taste are three teas personally curated by her.

Through the intimate experience, Chef Jiang will guide you through each tea, brewing, pouring, and pairing every cup with food such as a quail egg toast topped with Neuske bacon, herb mayo, Hawaiian lava salt, and Japanese sansho pepper.

If you’re interested, she holds the tastings on Sundays and Mondays. The cost is $25 per person and the sessions last about two hours. Text 626.366.0933 to RSVP.

Beard Papa's
141 N Atlantic Blvd #106
Monterey Park, CA 91754

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