Thursday, August 18, 2016

How to Cook Swai Fillets

Have you noticed that swai--a white-fleshed fish usually farmed out of Vietnam--has been selling for ridiculously low prices lately?

I recently picked up some at Wholesome Choice for $1.29 per pound--a price that, I should note, is cheaper than chicken.

So how do you cook swai? However the hell you like.

It is, as I've discovered, the most forgiving and versatile fish I've ever worked with. It absorbs flavors beautifully. It makes superb fish and chips. But most important of all: it's almost impossible to overcook.

Believe me, I've tried.

I dredged the first few fillets in flour and left them sauteing in butter for longer than most cookbooks would advise. But no matter how hard I tried to turn them into jerky, what slid off the frying pan was always moist, always flaky, and meltingly soft as fresh fallen snow.

After mastering the saute, I decided to turn the swai into Cha Ca Thang Long, which is what I think swai is meant for.

The dish is very easy. Although I won't share my recipe since I basically culled it from far better recipe sites, I can tell you it involves marinating the fish in turmeric, fish sauce, and galangal paste, then pan frying in lots of oil with bunches of dill, onions and scallions.

We ate it hot over a chilled bowl of Vietnamese rice noodle called bun and discovered that not only was it the perfect summer meal, it also honors the origins of fish.

After all, it came all that way from Southeast Asia, and judging by the prices, it must have flown coach.

Wholesome Choice
University Park Center
18040 Culver Dr.
Irvine, CA 92612

Coastal Kitchen - Dana Point

Saturday, August 06, 2016

Crepes Maison - Cypress

Crepes Maison in Cypress is my kind of crepe joint. It charges a reasonable amount, makes its crepes to order, and is housed in a building painted in tricolor as though the French flag.

Nevermind that the nice owners hail from somewhere closer to the Middle East. What's more important is that it's a mom-and-pop. Or in this case, a grannie-and-gramps.

The warm older couple who took our order and made our crepes made them to be of a thicker stock than a typical crepe. In fact, I think they're closer to tortillas than crepes.

They need to be of a sturdier constitution for they are intended to be stuffed with all sorts of fillings, formed into a cone, wrapped in foil, and eaten with your hands.

If you're hungry, you could conceivably ask for your crepe to be filled with shawarma, or burgers, or hot dogs. Crepes Maison even offers a Philly cheesesteak crepe while the traditionalist can have their crepes made into a Suzette with Grand Marnier. Or you can have it like we did: with Nutella and banana for about $5.

After the handsome gent you see above spread a generous glop of a Nutella onto ours and sliced pieces of a banana into it, we took it outside to eat it with a knife and fork. It was then we discovered how humongous and filling it was. It was good thing we didn't spring the extra 50-cents for whipped cream.

Crepes Maison
9952 Valley View St.
Cypress, CA 90630
(714) 236-5866

EMC Seafood & Raw Bar - Irvine

Monday, July 25, 2016

Torizo - Fountain Valley

You've may have hot pots before. Orange County has a menagerie of them, from nearly every country in Asia you can name. But have you had the one from Japan that feeds its sumo wrestlers? It's called chanko nabe, and it's essentially a stew of sorts, filled with all manner of lean protein and fistfuls of vegetables, all roiling and sputtering over a lit stove set up at the table.

Torizo, a barely-there slip of a restaurant that opened about a month ago in Fountain Valley, does the dish as its speciality and does it so well, it would stand out even if the county was full of other chanko nabe specialists.

Its soup is pure, unadulterated chicken broth; the vegetable plentiful; but oh, those proteins! There are chunks of chicken and pork, sliced, black pork sausage, shumai, shrimp, scallop, octopus, kuzukiri, and the best of them all: two kinds of homemade chicken meatball called tsukune, one of which has the refreshing citrusy flavor of yuzu that made me wish I could have either a whole entire pot of it with nothing else, or the recipe.

And once you've fished out all the goodies from the pot, the exceedingly friendly owner--who bows when you enter and holds the door open when you leave--will offer either ramen or a grilled onigiri rice ball to cap off your meal.

As of this writing, the chanko at Torizo is $26.99, but one order is usually enough for two normal humans...or one medium-sized wrestler.

17900 Magnolia Street #A
Fountain Valley, CA 92708

Sichuan Impression - Tustin

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Pie Hole - Orange

How good does a slice of pie have to be for it to be worth $7? The slice of Mexican Chocolate pie I tasted at Pie Hole was sublime--very chocolatey, satin-smooth, and with a hint of spice (was that cinnamon and cloves?) at the back-end. But was it worthy of its $6.50 sticker price?

The Maple Custard slice was excellent, too--one of the better custard pies I've ever had. And I could actually taste the maple. But would I come back to pay the $7.25 to do it again?

All told, with the money I spent, I could've gotten a whole pie at Marie Callender's (which does a very good custard pie, in my opinion), or an entire meal elsewhere. And then there was where this outlet of the hip LA chain was located, in Old Towne Orange, where I imagine 50 years ago, you could get a slice of pie and coffee at Watson's Drug Store for less than a dollar.

I suppose it's pointless to revel in the past or to lament inflation. But was it good enough to be worth that much? Right now, I'm not so sure it is. But ask me again in 20 years or when I've won the lottery--whichever comes first.

Pie Hole
177 N Glassell St.
Orange, CA 92866
(657) 236-4100

Anchor Hitch - Mission Viejo

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Pineapple Float at Jollibee - Irvine

The Irvine branch of Jollibee can be uneven. There are times when my order comes out lickety-split, but there are other times when the employees can be as comically disorganized as Keystone Cops fighting a fire. And then there's the food: while Jollibee's version of pancit palabok remains a favorite of mine, when I'm looking to eat a traditional Filipino breakfast, I'm much better off at the Grill City counter across the way, where I'll pay nearly half the cost for twice as much garlic fried rice and tocino.

Despite the unevenness, I've been to Jollibee twice in one week now. It's for our current obsession--a special drink that's not only cheap ($2.79) but surprisingly good despite that most of it comes out of one of those recirculating beverage dispensers that I always equate with artificial flavors and colors.

The drink is their Pineapple Float, and to make it, an employee scoops ice cubes into a cup, pulls a lever on that dispenser to fill it near to the brim with the chain's pineapple punch, then on another lever to plop a squiggle of vanilla soft serve on top of that. Finally, to finish, he adds a few spoonfuls of chopped up canned pineapple.

If you think it sounds like it would be a wretched combination, you'd be as wrong as I was. It is, in fact, refreshing, but also ice-creamy, and not as sickly sweet as I initially imagined. And unlike Dole Whip, which I've always thought had an artificial aftertaste, Jollibee's pineapple float finishes clean--a summertime icy drink/dessert that, in the two times I've had it, was consistent, not only in the way Jollibee's employees have made it, but also in my enjoyment.

2180 Barranca Pkwy #120
Irvine, CA 92606

Irenia - Santa Ana

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Yonaka Modern Japanese - Las Vegas, NV

If you're planning to go to Vegas any time soon, avoid the craps table, skip the buffets, forget about that Cirque Du Soleil show which will only put you to sleep.

Save your money for this: Yonaka Modern Japanese--a restaurant that, so far, only locals seem to know about, and is so off The Strip, it's actually in a strip mall.

This is a dinner I would drive 4-hours across the Mojave Desert to eat; a dinner that proves that Las Vegas is truly one of the greatest food cities in America and great sashimi with impeccably fresh fish in landlocked Nevada is possible.

What follows are pictures of the eight-course omakase we ordered and the menu's descriptions. This meal, as of this writing, is $146 for two people (note: ordering each dish a la carte would also sum up to that exact amount).

"Hongmaguro Yaki"

Grilled soy-glazed Bluefin tuna, lemongrass mocha, Asian slaw, white balsamic

"Sake Orenji"

Scottish salmon, orange supreme, yuzu tobiko, orange oil


Bluefin tuna belly, walnut, cranberry, negi, piment d'espelette

"Machi Ringo"

Yellowtail, apple, fennel, sweet chili zu, negi oil

"Meat Candy"

Twice-cooked caramel-glazed Kurobota pork belly, kimchee apple, smoked tofu peanut butter

"Kobe Parsnip"

Grilled Japanese 2.5 ounce Kobe Beef, poached quail egg, parnsip puree, pickled radish

"Gyu Kaki"

Shigoku oysters, A5 Kobe beef, ceviche topping, ikura

"Mango Cotta"

Mango, pistachio, coconut

Yonaka Modern Japanese
4983 W Flamingo Rd.
Las Vegas, NV 89103
(702) 685-8358

Quan Mii - Westminster

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Nutella Crunch Milkshake at Holsteins - Costa Mesa

If you haven't read my review of Holsteins, please do. Then go go go, if not for the burgers, then just for a particular "Bam-Boozled" shake they call the Nutella Crunch. And no, do not forgo the booze. You're only saving a couple of bucks if you do and the virgin version is cloying without it.

As I said in my review, the alcohol is essential in cutting through the richness of the milk, sugar and cream.

All the flavors are great, but the Nutella Crunch is particularly scrumptious, with bits of caramelized hazelnut pieces suspended in the concoction and the Frangelico smoothing out the dairy. Before I knew it, I sucked up the last remaining dregs of whipped cream from the bottom of my soda-fountain glass and ate the crunchy brittle they put on top.

It was then that I realized how dangerous Holsteins' shakes were. It wasn't because of the alcohol (which can hardly be tasted or felt), but because at $13, these are nearly 3 times more expensive than the $5 milkshake referenced in the classic film scene below.

Holsteins Shakes & Buns
3333 Bristol St.
Costa Mesa, CA 92626
(714) 352-2525

Summer Issue: America Asia Bus Tour
SeaSalt Woodfire Grill - Huntington Beach

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Longboards Ice Cream Truck - Orange County

No matter what you think about food trucks, you can't not like those that peddle ice cream. Ice cream trucks, after all, predate the recent craze. Whose childhood doesn't have memories of chasing a slow-crawling, sticker-covered van offering prepackaged treats such as fudgesickles, ice cream sandwiches, and half-and-half bars through their neighborhood?

They were a staple on my block during the summer and they left chime-y music box renditions of "The Entertainer" and sugar-fueled kids in their wake.

These days, they're joined by the gourmet kind of truck, which doesn't so much prowl the suburbs as they Tweet, Instagram, and blog where they'll be next.

One of the better ones is Longboards since it not only sells ice cream bars it makes in-house, but lets you customize them whatever way you like. You might say it's the Chipotle of ice cream trucks.

You pick your flavor of pre-frozen bar from chocolate to coconut. Then, you choose what melted Ghirardelli chocolate you want it to be dipped in: milk or dark. And finally, you pick a topping from peanuts to Oreo to potato chips in which it will be covered.

The best combo I've discovered so far is a strawberry bar, dipped in milk chocolate, rolled in graham crackers. Unlike some of their signature combinations, this one has no official name. But if they asked me, I'd call it "chocolate-covered strawberry shortcake".

Longboards Ice Cream

Local. Healthy Tapas & Sake - Costa Mesa

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Harbor Seafood in Kenner, Louisiana (a.k.a. The Best Place To Eat in New Orleans)

So far, I've talked about Cafe Du Monde and Cochon Butcher, the most iconic and the hippest places we ate in New Orleans; now let me talk about Harbor Seafood & Oyster Bar, the best place we ate in New Orleans.

Actually, that's inaccurate. Harbor Seafood isn't in New Orleans. It's in Kenner, which is actually the city you land on when you arrive to Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport.

That is to say: Kenner is to New Orleans what Inglewood is to L.A. You're still technically in Inglewood when you're in LAX, and you're in Kenner when you land at MSY.

This fact makes the place even more elusive to non-locals. It's not listed in any guidebooks. It's never been featured in any travel shows. Bourdain and Zimmern haven't been here.

For these reasons, most tourists are clueless about its existence and pass right by it when they beeline it to the French Quarter. We did too, until one of our Uber drivers casually mentioned it out of the blue.

"Hey, do you guys like seafood?" he said in a hushed voice as he was making a turn.

"Yeah! We love seafood!" we said.

And it was then that he told us.

"Harbor Seafood," he said. "It's amazing. Crawfish. Oysters. Been there forever. Lines out the door. Gotta get there early. Have you had lunch? Go there now! It's just about to open. It's around the corner from your hotel. Down that way three blocks!"

We didn't go right then. We waited until dinner. It was our last meal before we flew out the next morning. And rather than walking, we took a Lyft. And when the Lyft driver asked us where we were headed, she corroborated the Uber driver's story.

"Oh, that is a VERY good place. My family and I go there all the time. Get the gumbo. It's been there forever. See, there's already a line. But it's a small place. It'll move quickly. I'll drive you up right to the front. Enjoy your dinner!"

And thus began an amazing night. A mind-blowing night. It was the New Orleans feast we'd been waiting for.

We ate until we nearly burst. We drank sweet tea and sweaty mugs of cheap $2 beer. We sucked the spicy juice out of crawfish heads, sunk our teeth into a snappy-spicy Cajun sausage, and gulped creamy, sweet, ultra fresh gulf oysters the size of paddles.

We ate and ate.

There was an amazing potato salad with bits of egg in it. And the gumbo was like New Orleans history in a cup.

We even devoured a fried-oyster-and-shrimp po boy and gumbo on special even though we were already stuffed by then.

"My God," we said to each other with wide-eyed disbelief as we bit into those sandwiches. "How spectacular is this po boy!?"

The bread's so light, airy, fluffy, with just the barest hint of a crackly crust.

How is it possible that the fried seafood, and the mustard, mayo, lettuce and tomato--something locals refer to as having your po boy "dressed"--end up tasting so much more than the sum of its parts?

And how is it possible this gigantic plate of food is $10.50, and the crawfish is $2.99 a pound, and the oysters $4.50 for a half dozen?

"Did you notice the crawfish isn't drenched in butter like it is at those crawfish joints in California?"

"Yes! Yet still it tastes better, spicier, sweeter!"

"We should've been eating here all along! Can we move here?"

"No, it's too humid. You'd die of heat stroke."

"But the next time we visit, we're eating here, like every night, okay?"

"Oh yeah, absolutely!"

Harbor Seafood
3203 Williams Blvd.
Kenner, LA 70065
(504) 443-6454

Angelina's Pizzeria Napoletana - Irvine

Tuesday, June 07, 2016

Cochon Butcher - New Orleans

If you read The Lonely Planet guidebook for New Orleans, it will suggest that you add Cochon Butcher to your itinerary. It is not wrong.

This deli counter and sandwich shop in the middle of an industrial district is attached to Cochon, one of Donald Link's places. If you don't know who Donald Link is, perhaps you've heard of his restaurants Herbsaint and Peche, both of which won several prestigious awards I won't begin to list here. Or maybe you've seen the guy eating crawfish with Anthony Bourdain in New Orleans on his CNN show.

But the real reason I would second Lonely Planet's recommendation to visit Cochon Butcher is the fact that this deli is a bonafide charcuterie. It makes all the meats it sticks into the sandwiches.

As the name would suggest, most everything is pig-based. The kitchen even makes a sandwich called Le Pig Mac, which looks exactly like a Big Mac--two patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese on a sesame seed bun--except made with pork, and supposedly way better.

I didn't try the Le Pig Mac, but I mention it because it shows Link's sense of humor. There's also this: he's got a big Star Wars fetish. As soon as you walk in, there's a life-sized Chewbacca wearing sunglasses. A 3D model of The Death Star appears to have crashed into one of the walls. And in the men's restroom, there's Chewbacca again on the wallpaper, watching you pee.

The most popular thing to order here is probably the muffaletta--the quintessential sandwich of this area after the po' boy.

And it was a behemoth--packed with layers upon layers of salame, ham, bacon and a few other porcine-based products I could not begin to identify. All of this was tucked between a gigantic dome of a sesame-seeded crusty loaf of a bun that crackled just slightly when I bit into it. And slathered between it and the melted cheese was just enough olive spread to counteract the pork. One order was big enough for the two of us. The kitchen knew it since it's cut into quarters.

Apart from being the first muffaleta I've eaten in New Orleans, it was the best pork sandwich I've ever had. And if it could speak, I imagine it would say "May the Pork be with you!"

Cochon Butcher
930 Tchoupitoulas St.
New Orleans, LA 70130
(504) 588-7675

P.S. This post is the second of three that chronicles the best food we had during a recent trip to New Orleans. Stay tuned for a post on the best meal we had in The Big Easy!

Irrawaddy Taste of Burma - Stanton