Monday, January 20, 2020

My Top 5 Favorite Restaurants: Din Tai Fung - Costa Mesa


To start the new year and a new chapter of Monster Munching, I am counting down my top five favorite restaurants in the next few posts. And when I say "favorite", I mean it. Over the last year, I ate at these restaurants more than I can count. In fact, not only are they in my regular rotation, I visited all five again within the last two weeks of 2019. The next on the alphabetical list:

Din Tai Fung


When South Coast Plaza's management enticed Din Tai Fung to open at the mall, they knew it would attract its huge fan-base, some of whom belong to a growing class of affluent Chinese spenders (most of whom live in Costa Mesa-adjacent Irvine). In the new Riviera, the rich don't eat caviar; they eat dumplings — these dumplings. And what's a better waiting area for those Din Tai Fung-loving whales than a mall with thousand-dollar purses and Jimmy Choo shoes for sale.

Din Tai Fung isn't even an expensive restaurant by South Coast Plaza standards. But in the Asian world, Din Tai Fung has as sterling a reputation as Louis Vuitton.

The good news is the dumplings are just as good here as they are at the Arcadia branch — the skin thinner, more delicate and elastic than those at Mei Long Village and Mama Lu's, two of the most venerable Monterey Park xiaolongbao purveyors. And because Din Tai Fung is known for its consistency as much as its lines, the oil-blanched green beans are still crisp-tender and the pickled cucumbers garlicky and brisk. The pork chop fried rice is particularly perfect, a treatise on the clean, simple flavors that are hallmarks of Taiwanese cooking.

If you don't have kids in tow, the bar is where you want to sit. With a separate line that bypasses the hours-long wait, it’s where you’ll usually find me. Now that they’ve expanded the bar area to double the size it used to be, sometimes there's no wait at all. And to me that's important because instant gratification is just as good a condiment to the dumplings as the black vinegar and ginger.

Din Tai Fung
3333 Bristol St. Ste. 2071
Costa Mesa, CA 92626
(714) 549-3388

Monday, January 13, 2020

My Top 5 Favorite Restaurants: Cafe Hiro - Cypress



To start the new year and a new chapter of Monster Munching, I am counting down my top five favorite restaurants in the next few posts. And when I say "favorite", I mean it. Over the last year, I ate at these restaurants more than I can count. In fact, not only are they in my regular rotation, I visited all five again within the last two weeks of 2019. The next on the alphabetical list:

Cafe Hiro


Between Christmas Eve and the time I write this post today on January 13, we ate at Cafe Hiro three times. The first time was for their Christmas Eve prix fixe dinner, an annual tradition that we never miss. The second was for a weekday lunch when the restaurant offers free dessert if you get there and put your meal order between 11:30 a.m. and noon—a very narrow window of time that rewards you with $6 savings on the dessert on top of the discount you get on the blackboard lunch specials.



The third visit? It was this past weekend. It was a dinner decision made at the spur of the moment—one of the many times when one of us asks "What do you feel like eating tonight?" but we both knew the answer: Cafe Hiro.

To us, this restaurant is what Monk’s is to Seinfeld; what Central Perk is to the Friends gang.

So what more can I say about Cafe Hiro that I haven’t already said in countless posts on this blog? How else I can I convey to you, dear reader, that Cafe Hiro is the answer I give when people ask me “What’s your favorite restaurant?” (As a food critic, I get asked that question a lot). Do I need to write poetry? I already did that. Twice.

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

Monday, January 06, 2020

My Top 5 Favorite Restaurants: Alberta's - Tustin



To start the new year and a new chapter of Monster Munching, I am counting down my top five favorite restaurants in the next few posts. And when I say "favorite", I mean it. Over the last year, I ate at these restaurants more than I can count. In fact, not only are they in my regular rotation, I visited all five again within the last two weeks of 2019. So in alphabetical order, let's start the list with:


Alberta's


Back in the early nineties, the Alberto's empire stretched far and wide, built on the heavy-as-bricks burritos filled with nothing but carne asada steak and guacamole. Then something happened. The chain fractured into factions. Some Alberto's turned rogue, cleverly redubbing themselves as Albertito's, Alerto's, Rigoberto's, even Albatros, to avoid being sued by the original entity, but still getting the message across that the burritos haven't changed.

It's not clear whether Alberta's in Tustin is a defector or a copy-cat. The mascot they've chosen is a blonde chick who wears no trace of a sombrero. What I get at Alberta's are two things: the fish burritos when it's Lent and the half-order of the super nachos the rest of the year.

While other Alber-clones are content to serve anemic scraps that are more batter than meat in their fish burritos, Alberta's stuffs its torpedoes with flavorful, big nuggets of crisp-fried white fish all wrapped in a giant tortilla that can be used to tuck you in at night.

And the super nachos are always a decadent treat. Two weeks ago, we munched them as we wrapped gifts. It occured to me as I did that nachos are the perfect food with which to do so. I would argue that they are more Christmas-y than ham and stuffing.

Think about it: the triangular shape of the tortilla chips evoke a Christmas tree. The sour cream, the snow. The pico de gallo and guacamole, the red and green colors of the season. And the carne asada and refried beans...um, the reindeer and their...okay, maybe I need to work on that part of the metaphor.

Alberta's
765 El Camino Real
Tustin, CA 92780
(714) 838-8226

Yet Another Apology for Unposted Comments

Well, it's happened again. An overzealous SPAM filter and my own ineptitude at this blogging software has resulted in lots of comments being stuck in Comment Moderation purgatory. I just published them and will reply to them all soon.

But I would like to apologize and say thank you to everyone starting with KirkK, NP, dumplings, Greg Hao, Gilbert M., joanh, Ernie Y., OC Paul, Oblio, Mike H., Karrie, Greg, and all those who wish to remain Anonymous for posting those comments in the first place.

Thank you for reading!

Now, back our regularly scheduled program!

Monday, December 30, 2019

Edwin Goei's Top 10 New Restaurants of 2019


Around this time of year, I usually produce a Top 5 list for OC Weekly, the paper where I filed my weekly reviews for the past twelve and a half years. In fact, my editor Cynthia Rebolledo and I were starting our plans for it in November. But then, as you know, OC Weekly was shuttered by its owner the day before Thanksgiving.

So this year, I’m not going to do a Top 5. Instead, I’m doing a Top 10. Herewith is the list of 2019’s best new restaurants, according to me.

10. Woodfire Kabob Restaurant



Woodfire Kabob’s koobidehs are the girthiest in the county. A typical serving comes in two foot-long lengths. If you dangled both upright and end-to-end, it would stand as tall as Verne Troyer. Only the lightest pressure of your fork is required; it’s so soft it melts. The chicken version—tinted orange from turmeric and saffron—weeps juice when you bite into it. But it’s when you smoosh the molten roasted tomatoes to make an impromptu rice-moistening sauce and squeeze lime over the char-kissed meat, singed onion and blackened green pepper that you begin to grasp how these basic ingredients has resulted in something miraculous.

24155 Laguna Hills Mall, Ste. 1055, Laguna Hills, (949) 220-0000; woodfirekabob.com


9. F & H Shack 


The man who single-handedly takes your order, makes everything on the menu, and then serves your food, does it alone. If he wasn’t doing it at F&H Shack, he’d be doing so from a street cart in Manhattan. And there would be lines down the block for his falafels, hummus and foul, the only three dishes he sells. Each is available as a plate or a sandwich, and all are vegan without even trying. Everything is so well-made it wouldn’t occur to you that just one guy is responsible--this guy.

512 S. Brookhurst St., Ste 8, Anaheim, (714) 860-4266; https://f-h-shack.business.site


8. Kyung Bok Kung


Kyung Bok Kung is one of the few places (if not the only one) in the county to offer han-jeongsik, a blowout feast originally designed for royalty in imperial Korea. The defining characteristic of the meal is an overwhelming spread served all at once. At Kyung Bok Kung, your table will be blanketed with about 15 different dishes, with no expense spared on presentation. Expect rock sculptures and sizzling plates. There will be rich porridge, gurgling soups, bright salads, savory pancakes, perfectly sliced sashimi, rippling barbecue meats, and whole fish. And that’s not counting the sides and sauces. By the end, you’ll think to yourself, “How am I going to finish all this?” Also: “My Instagram followers are going to be so jealous!”

7801 Beach Blvd., Buena Park, (714) 888-4948, kyungbokkungusa.com


7. Délice Breton


When you encounter the cloudlike structure of the omelet at Délice Breton, you will taste the effort taken into its making. Done in the same way it’s been done for ages in Saint-Malo, creating this omelet requires decades of know-how and tons of elbow grease. The result is an omelet so fluffy, it’s hard to overstate. As you cut in, the fork will pass through it as though it’s shampoo foam. It isn’t just light and airy, but creamy too, especially in the middle, where it takes on the texture of cheese fondue. It’s also huge—a bloated crescent that could double as a travel pillow. And since it’s served with a salad, it’s more lunch than breakfast. After having the omelet, order what’s possibly the best crepes in the county. You won’t find one that’s more delicate, eggy, and buttery. And in the banana-and-chocolate version, Délice Breton's resident crepe chef shows how an OG master does it. Instead of just slicing the banana, she mashes it into a paste that’s spread underneath the crepe so that every bite has equal portions of pancake, fruit and chocolate sauce.

31451 Rancho Viejo Rd., Ste. 103, San Juan Capistrano, (949) 503-1577; www.delicebreton.com

6. La Super Birria


Even though the owners finally changed the sign outside from Dulceria Caracol to La Super Birria, you still walk in feeling as though you’ve discovered El Dorado in the jungle. The golden treasure you find at La Super Birria is the birria de res itself, a spicy, brick-red stew of beef so tender it verges on collapse. And where it isn’t falling apart, there are just enough bits of fat left behind to make you shudder with delight. The fact that it’s the kind of home-style bowl of food an abuelita would make is confirmed by the actual abuelitas tending to the huge stew pot in the kitchen. These ladies also hand-make the tortillas you eat on the side--which are the thickest, best specimens in a town with a lot of tortillas. Soft but also chewy, light but also hearty, they possess a pure corn flavor and are as perfect an accompaniment to the birria de res as oyster crackers are to clam chowder.

1041 W. First St, Santa Ana, (657) 245-3810


5. Banana Leaf Kitchen


In every part of Banana Leaf Kitchen’s name, there’s truth in advertising. As it’s first and foremost a takeout joint designed for GrubHub orders, the Huntington Beach eatery’s kitchen takes up nearly 80 percent of the floor space. There are no public restrooms, and all the food is packed in to-go containers, so they’re ready for pick up by customers who aren’t staying very long. You could opt to dine-in, but you’d be doing so inside a small waiting area equipped with six chairs. This dining room—if you can call it that—is too cramped to bring even the tiniest nuclear family and too casual for dates unless you’re already past the getting-to-know-you part of the relationship. But if your sweetheart is originally from a Southeast Asian country where banana trees grow like weeds, bring them anyway. They’ll be impressed that Banana Leaf Kitchen serves every dish on top of a strip of banana leaf, just like how it’s done on the streets of Indonesia, Thailand and Laos. To a Southeast Asian expat, this subtle touch makes a huge difference. And when you do decide to dine in, you’re offered a free plate of hot rice mounded over a leaf strip. The heat releases the leaf’s aroma, and as it wafts up to your nostrils, you’ll swear the rice tastes better than any you’ve ever had. But even if the banana leaf weren’t there, rice is essential to everything you consume here. The chicken stir-fried with holy basil, the Lao sausage, heck, everything on the menu just wouldn’t be the same without rice as Huntington Beach’s take-out scene wouldn’t be the same without this place.

19092 Beach Blvd., Ste. V, Huntington Beach, (714) 377-6614; www.bananaleaf.kitchen

4. Hole in the Wall Burger


Hole in the Wall Burger's burger combo, which come with fries and a drink retails for less than $10 before tax. By comparison, you’d already hit that mark by ordering a basic burger at any of the recently overhyped burger vendors located inside any number of food halls. But Hole In the Wall Burger is not competing with those, nor does it seem interested in attracting the same kind of customer. It will remind you instead of Huntington Beach’s TK Burgers and San Clemente’s Riders Club. Like them, it’s old-school--a no-frills burger stand that sells food at a fair price. In fact, Hole In the Wall Burger is currently invisible to Instagram’s so-called “influencers.” It recalls the lessons from that Parks and Recreation episode in which Ron Swanson’s rudimentary beef burger triumphs over Chris Traeger’s froufrou ground-turkey sandwich. This burger, like that episode, proves that when it comes to hamburgers, it’s the basics that count. Ground from chuck and never frozen, Hole In the Wall’s beef patty is formless and has more in common with French steak tartare than a Big Mac. Its texture is as soft as the bun. And when you come face-to-face with it, you don’t eat it; rather, you embark on a torrid love affair. Things quickly get hot, steamy, messy and juicy. Once you finish and bask in the afterglow, you need a few napkins to wipe yourself off.

25262 Jeronimo Rd., Lake Forest, (949) 328-9049


3. Il Palco


This Italian restaurant set atop the highest floor at the Source in Buena Park is very service-oriented--the kind of establishment where your water glass is a chalice and the servers offer to refill your soda before you think to ask. But even if you subtract the attentive waiters, Il Palco would still be the classiest restaurant in this M.C. Escher-eque mall. A jazz-piano soundtrack echoes in the white-marbled space. String lights dangle above the smaller of the two outdoor patios, and the larger one has a railing that separates you from a four-story drop. You will also notice that Il Palco is Korean-owned. You'll see mostly Korean customers here. But aside from the very subtle Korean touches, the restaurant can compete against any trattoria this side of the Atlantic. The Bolognese is flawless and the pizzas are incredible. Made with the same dough as the pita-like bread that’s offered as soon as you sit down, the crust is unimaginably tender. It’s as though it was made of down feathers and clouds rather than flour and water. For appetizers, start with the deep-fried octopus. If there’s more than four in your party, order two. It’s that good. The skin is blistered and crispy while the meat is soft like a moist piece of turkey breast. Is it Italian? Korean? A hybrid? Who cares? A great dish such as this transcends any and all nationalities.

6980 Beach Blvd., Ste. H-304, Buena Park, (714) 690-1430; www.il-palco.com


2. Gram’s Kitchen


You wouldn’t think of finding much of a nightlife in La Palma, let alone in a mini-mall where a printing shop, a dry cleaner and a State Farm agent close up before sundown. But as you approach Gram’s Kitchen after dark, you hear not only signs of life, but also boisterous live music pouring from the open doors. The place feels as if it were teleported from New Orleans’ Bourbon Street itself. A jazz-and-blues band rocks the house on the weekends, and the food rivals anything produced by Emeril Lagasse and the late Paul Prudhomme. The red beans and rice, a soul-food dish that’s a meal unto itself, gets topped with an oar-sized slab of succulent fried catfish cocooned in cornmeal. In the shrimp and grits, the heat of the cayenne travels from your face toward your legs, which, because of the music, will be eager to get out on the dance floor. Reservations are recommended on the weekends, especially if “The Art of Sax” is playing.

12 Centerpointe Dr., Ste. 106, La Palma, (657) 255-4036; gramskitchenlapalma.com


1. Gem Dining


Gem Dining is already a game-changer in Little Saigon. As word spreads that it’s the new restaurant by the Vox geniuses, prime-time reservations are impossible to snag if you don’t plan weeks in advance. The head chef is a chiseled Asian dude with a shaved head who looks as if he could go toe-to-toe with John Wick. No one in his entire kitchen crew is older than 30. They all talk and operate like second- and third-generation Asians who revere the cooking traditions of their parents but also worship at the altar of David Chang and Roy Choi. Although most of its customers are Vietnamese, Gem Dining isn’t interested in rehashing things you can get on Bolsa Street. Instead the menu catapults you to the rest of Asia, covering the uncovered, taking risks and betting that you're up for a little adventure. There’s even a roving cart that offers oysters, dim sum-style. This is a modern take on Asian food the chefs themselves want to eat. And if you happen to be from one of the countries to which they pay special homage, like Indonesia and Malaysia, you’re in for a treat. The nasi goreng and laksa is so spot on, someone on the team must have gotten a hold of their grandma's recipe book and followed it word-for-word.

10836 Warner Ave., Fountain Valley, (714) 516-8121; www.gemdining.com

Monday, December 23, 2019

Longo Seafood - Chino Hills


The crispy dough baton we Westerners call a Chinese cruller is also known as a Chinese oil stick. But when I bit into the one I had at the new Longo Seafood in Chino Hills, I thought the kitchen staff took the latter definition literally. It was so drenched in grease, if I had wrung it out like a sponge, I would've squeezed out enough oil to shallow fry a chicken.

It wasn't the only disappointing dim sum dish I had there that Sunday morning. The shrimp rice roll we were served was unrecognizable. It was more of a shrimp rice clump, made by someone who must have never seen a cheung fun in his life.

That the dish was allowed to come out of the kitchen like this would not have been surprising if this was the Chino Hills of forty years ago. Back then there more cows in this town than Chinese people. But the Chino Hills of today has a vibrant Chinese community. Home to a few crazy rich Asians, a 99 Ranch does brisk business around the corner and authentic regional Chinese restaurants dot the parkways.

Apart from the unimpressive food, the service at Longo Seafood is impeccable. And you won't have to wait for a table if you come before 11 a.m., which is rare for a dim sum restaurant. But maybe it's not crowded for a reason.

Longo Seafood
13161 Peyton Dr Ste B
Chino Hills, CA 91709

Monday, December 16, 2019

Pho Lovers - Westminster

If I was blindfolded, taken to Pho Lovers and asked to guess where I was, I’d be able to tell just by the smell that I’m in a pho restaurant. Like any of the hundreds of other pho specialist in Little Saigon, Pho Lovers smells distinctly of the dish it serves. The room is humid with the unmistakable musk of boiled beef, anise, herbs, and lime.

It’s almost a sour scent, with a hint of mildewed mops mixed in, along with perspiration from the labor it took to make the soup. Spend any amount of time in the place and these smells cling to your clothing like steel shavings to a magnet.

To those unaccustomed, it might even be unpleasant. For me, this eau de pho is intoxicating, especially when it’s cold outside and all want is to stick my face over a steaming bowl of noodle soup.

Pho Lovers is not an old school pho joint. Compared to the others in the enclave, it’s a relatively new entrant. But you wouldn’t know it from looking at it. The servers are gruff, the menu grimy, and the prices reasonable.

A small bowl of will cost about $8. A large one, not much more. The noodles are silken, the green onions cut thick. And the broth—a scalding hot elixir that proves there is, in fact, a cure for the common cold—is rich and lip-smacking, the product of hours of simmering.

The beefy liquid starts out a light brown, but then gets murkier the more you stir, especially if you get the “tai”. These thin-shaved pieces of raw filet mignon shed protein as they cook in the soup. The other beef cuts aren’t as good or as tender as the “tai”, but whatever you get, the kitchen piles on the meat. You get a whole steak’s worth in every bowl.

Also generously portioned is the plate of herbs served on the side. And in this pile, there’s more than just the usual basil and bean sprouts. There’s also sawleaf, and something resembling sprouts that I could not identify as easily as the bowl of pho itself, which is a meatier, heartier, funkier bowl of pho than any I’ve eaten from restaurants that don’t smell half as pungent.

Pho Lovers
9325 Bolsa Ave
Westminster, CA 92683

Monday, December 09, 2019

Fogo de Chão - Irvine


Fogo de Chão isn't the biggest churrascaria chain in America. Texas de Brazil beats it by 15 with 57 units across the country as of this writing. Fogo de Chão also isn't the first churrascaria chain to debut in the U.S. either. Rodizio Grill claimed that title when it started in 1995 in Denver. But it's likely that even if you've never been to Fogo de Chão, you might already regard the brand as though it was the Ruth's Chris Steakhouse in a sea of Outbacks. Its expansion into key markets like Houston, Atlanta, Chicago, Washington, and especially Beverly Hills, burnished its reputation as the "fancy" churrascaria chain.

Upgrading the churrascaria is how Fogo de Chão started forty years ago in Brazil. In 1979 two brothers decided to take this backcountry concept of all-you-can-eat meat served by roving gauchos and turned it into a fine dining experience. They catered their first restaurant to the businessmen and fashionable types in São Paulo. The rest is history.


Last month, Fogo de Chão finally expanded into Orange County when it opened in Irvine, a city that had long been the turf of Agora Churrascaria until Texas de Brazil moved into town in 2016. That year I wrote a mixed review of Texas de Brazil, noting inconsistencies in the meat that seemed to get more noticeable the fuller I got.

To put it simply, Texas de Brazil did not convince me that a corporate outfit could do churrasco better than an independent like Agora. But with its sterling reputation, I went to the new Fogo de Chão hoping it would change my mind. Yet the impression I got after dining there was the same as my trip to Texas de Brazil. I came away with a distended tummy, a huge debt on my credit card, and a still unshaken belief that I would’ve been happier going to a traditional steakhouse.


It's not that I couldn’t have treated it like it was a Mastro's or a Fleming's. Fogo de Chão actually has a non-all-you-can-eat option where you could conceivably order steak, chicken, lamb, salmon and sea bass a la carte.

But to go to a churrascaria without doing the all-you-can-eat rodizio will feel as pointless as a trip to Disneyland without going on the rides. And unlike Texas de Brazil and Agora, Fogo de Chão offers different tiered pricing for its rodizio that range from $54 for the basic "Brazilian Cuts" to $125 for a meal that involves Wagyu beef sirloin.


I'd advise against the latter unless you possess a limitless appetite and a limitless bank account. Modest eaters on a budget should keep it simple with the lowest priced option. Let's face it: When it comes to all-you-can-eat anything, your enjoyment will only hold up until the law of diminishing returns kicks in. And when what you’re binging is meat, you'll reach that point at a churrascaria sooner than at any other type of buffet.

My night started promisingly with the picanha, a fat-rimmed, C-shaped sirloin cap that's always the most enjoyable cut you could have at a Brazilian steakhouse. Balanced between its char, salt, fat and ruby-red flesh, the picanha was the slice that whetted my appetite for more meat, more fat, more pieces of cow. Unfortunately, the picanha-wielding gaucho would never come around again, and the more I ate of the other lesser and chewier cuts that came in its stead, such the Alcatra (top sirloin) and Fraldinha (bottom sirloin) the more I realized I was filling precious stomach space with meat I wasn't particularly enjoying.


It continued that way the rest of the evening. For every juicy parmesan crusted pork loin and crusty slices of lamb, there was a mealy bacon-wrapped sirloin, a gristly garlic steak, and chicken breast so dry it turned to dust. By the time the pork ribs came around, served with a lime wedge, I couldn't bite off more than a nibble.

I probably should’ve gone easy on the feijoada and rice, which is essential to the Brazilian food experience but ultimately just filler when you're trying to recoup the admission cost. And I probably should have skipped the salad bar’s marinated vegetables and stopped after the first round of the brown-sugar-glazed bacon--the second batch the kitchen put out was burnt so badly it didn't just taste like charcoal, it was charcoal. Thankfully the mashed potatoes brought out by my server, who disappeared for most of the night, had already cooled to a solid block by the time the first gaucho arrived--so it was easy to pass on.


The pao de quiejo, however, were another matter. Perhaps more than the picanha, these cheese bread balls--here resembling tiny popovers--have been and always will be a churrascaria favorite of mine.

And when the empty basket was finally refilled after my repeated requests, I ate them with gusto disregarding the fact that they’re an insurance policy the restaurant took out to ensure its profits stay in the black--a buffer against the insatiable meat eaters who might enjoy Fogo de Chão more than I did.

Fogo de Chão
623 Spectrum Center Dr
Irvine, CA 92618
949) 398-1500
https://fogodechao.com

Sunday, December 08, 2019

Delice Breton - San Juan Capistrano (My Last Review for OC Weekly)


The review linked below is my latest for OC Weekly and also my last. You should read it not because it is, but because it shows (yet again) that in Orange County, unexpected food can happen in unexpected places. This is the kind of review I live to write. I am also especially proud of this piece because of the title. A pun doesn’t get more perfect, but I can’t take credit. The genius behind it is my wife, who is also my live-in editor, cheerleader, and now, official pun-maker. Please enjoy. And thank you for reading my column in OC Weekly for the last twelve and a half years!

THIS WEEK ON OC WEEKLY:
Delice Breton - San Juan Capistrano

Saturday, December 07, 2019

Faka's Island Grill - Santa Ana


“A scoop of rice. Macaroni salad. Fried chicken. Disassemble a typical Hawaiian plate lunch to its components and you’re left with things that, by themselves, aren’t very special. But put them together in a clamshell container, and something magical happens.”

Read the rest of my OC Weekly review of Faka's Island Grill. Link below.

THIS WEEK ON OC WEEKLY:
Faka's Island Grill - Santa Ana