Monday, January 16, 2017

Hanna's - Rancho Santa Margarita

This was one of the last meals we ate in the waning days of December, before the New Year dawned.

Why? Well, because sometimes all you need in life is a big, bloody top sirloin (Wagyu, no less), a mess of crispy fries served in a cone, and one of the best, most understated beef Stroganovs in OC.

We consumed it all with reckless abandon under an oversized American flag and as out butts sank slowly into a soft leather booth.

And for dessert, since we were already a few thousand calories into it, we capped off the night with a hunk of dense butter cake, which was basically an oversized Danish butter cookie topped with ice cream.

It was a good introduction to Hanna's, arguably the best steakhouse in Rancho Santa Margarita, if not South County. Our good friends who live in the area have raved about it for years. They finally took us as a last hurrah to 2016.

So I thank them, but I should mention that this meal was one of the reasons I started using the treadmill again.

22195 El Paseo #110
Rancho Santa Margarita, CA 92688
(949) 709-2300

Mix Mix - Santa Ana

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Frozen Banana at Sugar 'n Spice - Newport Beach

"There's always money in the banana stand."

If you know where that quote is from and what it's referencing, then congrats, you're a real Orange Countian!

It's from Arrested Development, one of the best TV shows ever produced about OC, and what it's referring to is a peculiar speciality of Balboa Island: the frozen banana.

There are two places within feet of each other on Balboa Island that sell frozen bananas, both claiming to be the "original". The real story is a bit more complicated. But on this particular Sunday, Sugar n' Spice had the longer line.

The recipe for a frozen banana is quite simple--take a skewered frozen banana, dip it in melted milk chocolate, then roll it in whatever topping your customer wants, be it crushed Oreos, almonds, peanuts, chocolate sprinkles, Heath Pecan Crush, rainbow sprinkles, "Sweet 'n Salty" (crushed pretzel and chocolate sprinkles)...or what you see in the picture above: all of it in the "Everything".

Right now you might be asking: "So what distinguishes frozen bananas at Sugar n' Spice or Dad's Donuts from those you get at a theme park?"

The answer is that they're not rock hard; they melt in your mouth like actual ice cream. Also, they were part of the lore of Orange County way before Arrested Development made the world aware that Balboa Island was the place to get them.

Sugar 'n Spice
310 Marine Ave
Newport Beach, CA 92662
(949) 673-8907

Northgate González Market - Anaheim

Saturday, January 07, 2017

Sushi Gozen at Sagami - Irvine

I've eaten at Sagami in Irvine for at least a decade.

I wrote this about the place six years ago:

Sagami has been around for as long as I can remember. It made a name for itself as a quick-pick-up-and-go lunch stop for sushi rolls and teriyaki bowls. And for the most part, it still is. But since Flame Broiler opened next door, or maybe it was before that, Sagami shed its work-a-day cred and became a full-fledged Japanese restaurant and izakaya.

Dinner diners range from the casual family out for a meal to Docker-decked business men on expense accounts. The dining room is separated into two parts, both awkwardly claustrophobic like a mouse maze, due the building's Tetris S-block footprint. The space was originally conceived to occupy two stores but they busted through a wall to expand.

But the more I went, the more dishes I uncovered and the more articles I wrote, such as the one about the hitsumabushi and, most recently, the ultra comforting hot pot called oden.

Which brings me to this post: the part where I reach the same kind of realization that a prototypical rom-com protagonist comes to in the third act of the movie. You know, when he/she realizes the one who's always been there is the one he/she should've been in love with all along!

So here's my running-through-the-airport, jumping-over-security-check-points proclamation:

Sagami, you're the most authentic and the very best Japanese restaurant in Irvine!!!

This epiphany came because of the last meal I had there--the Sushi Gozen. It was a dinner that, when I first saw it on the menu, looked kind of expensive at $25.95 but was, in actuality, one of the best prix fixe bargains in OC.

It included not just six pieces of assorted nigiri and cut rolls, but also rice, soup, salad, an entire plate of lacy tempura, pickles, and best of all: four intricately prepared seasonal dishes that's about the closest thing to traditional Japanese kaiseki as you'll get in this part of Orange County.

On that night, my kaiseki-style dishes included:

- Poke with avocado
- Simmered kabocha with homemade fish dumpling and fried shiitake
- Agedashi tofu
- A meltingly soft and deeply flavored braised pork belly that turned out to be the biggest star of them all.

So, Sagami, in keeping with rom-com movie tropes, I have this message for you:

3850 Barranca Pkwy B
Irvine, CA 92606
(949) 857-8030

"How My New Year's Eve Plans Have Changed"

Thursday, January 05, 2017

Brazi Bites at Costco - Tustin

Of the many reasons Brazilian churrascarias are great, chief among them is pão de queijo.

What's pão de queijo? They're those ping-pong sized balls of cheese bread that come piping hot and free as soon as you sit down to begin your Brazilian meat marathon.

They have a thin, crispy crust on the outside but are wondrously pliant and chewy on the inside. If you've never had them, the best way I can describe them is that they're a cross between a gooey fried mozzarella stick and a Pillsbury crescent roll.

Trust me: they're wonderful. And for the longest time, I thought the only way I could have them was by paying the steep AYCE churrascaria entry fee. Last year, I finally realized that Taste Brazilian Style Gourmet, a Brazilian bakery in Huntington Beach, actually makes them fresh--without the churrasco requirement.

But when I told a Brazilian friend of my discovery, he revealed that Costco actually carries pão de queijo in its freezer section!

As soon as he sent me a photo of the bag in his Costco shopping cart as proof, I bolted to the nearest one, and there it was...Brazi Bites--raw morsels of frozen dough that you bake on parchment paper in a 400 degree oven for 20 minutes.

Although I overbaked it a touch, when they came out, they were exactly like--if not the same as--the ones at Agora, Texas de Brazil, et al.

I served it to guests over the holiday break along with Cream Pan's strawberry croissants and, for the first time, the strawberry croissants played runner up.

Costco at The District
2700 Park Ave.
Tustin, CA 92782

Water Grill - Costa Mesa

Thursday, December 22, 2016

"How Christmas Breakfast Has Changed For Me Over The Years"

This year's edition of OC Weekly's Annual Holiday Cartoon Issue comes out next week.

Before it drops, I thought I'd share my cartoon contribution from last year's issue and wish all of you still reading a Happy Holiday Season!

May your Christmas breakfast not consist of just Fiber One!

Stay tuned to OC Weekly for a new cartoon!

Orange Bap - Anaheim

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Lady M Cake Boutique - Irvine

I paid $8 for the wedge of the Lady M Mille Crêpes cake you see above. It is expensive. There's no doubt about that. But if there were any cake that might justify the cost, it might be this one, because it's labor intensive as all hell.

Someone had to make twenty individual crepes, lay each one out, smear the pastry cream on each crepe, then repeat the process nineteen more times, stacking them on top of the other.

And then there's the crowning touch that brûlées the top to a golden brown.

Since my slice--which was delicate, light, and tasting like a cloud looks--seemed to be a 30 degree section and it was made up 20 layers of crepe, that meant that each wedge contained about 1.67 of a whole crepe. If you're doing the math, that works out to $4.80 per crepe--which, in a way, seems fair. That's about the going rate for a basic crepe out there these days.

But really, if you're worried about cost, this probably isn't the place for you. Lady M is the Louis Vuitton of cake bakers. The space is minimalist and bare, and if you've ever been to those high-end boutiques in the Nordstrom wing at South Coast Plaza, you know that the less you see, the more you pay.

Lady M Cake Boutique
2967 Michelson Dr
Irvine, CA 92612
(323) 825-8888

Rasselbock - Long Beach

Thursday, December 08, 2016

Naugles - Fountain Valley

Have you met Christian Ziebarth? His story is kind of amazing. And it goes like this:

- Boy loves eating at Naugles, a Mexican-American restaurant chain founded by a former Del Taco partner.
- Chain disappears after getting bought by Del Taco; but only after leaving an indelible mark on boy.
- Boy grows up into a man who loves Mexican food.
- Man blogs about Mexican restaurants, including Naugles.
- Man realizes that others love and miss Naugles as much as he does.
- Man hosts Naugles pop-ups and gets rave reviews.
- Man goes to court for the right to use the Naugles trademark.
- Man wins case!
- Man opens Naugles and serves the same food he loved as a boy.
- Now man is the owner of what's about to be a national franchise!

If a Hollywood producer ever gets wind of this underdog story, the elevator pitch might be "David versus Goliath" meets "Mr. Smith Goes To Washington" meets "Like Water For Chocolate".

On a personal note, I've known Christian for at least a decade. Christian and I started our food blogs about the same time (back when food blogs were still relevant), and he was *THE* first real human being to reach out beyond the virtual world of comment pages to ask me if we could meet in person.

If I remember correctly, we met at a restaurant in Tustin that doesn't even exist anymore. In the intervening years, Christian and I ate at many other restaurants together and with other bloggers.

Christian, you see--apart from being the entrepreneur, blogger, and all around Renaissance Man--brings people together.

And that's what he did again last night when he invited me and my guest to his restaurant in Fountain Valley along with other food bloggers for a Naugles feast.

We ate burritos filled with ooey-gooey cheese and taco salad in a cup wearing taco shell bunny ears. This is all the Mexican-American fast food classics you're familiar with, but way way better--sourced with quality ingredients and cooked earnestly.

If Del Taco is George Lucas making "The Phantom Menace"; the new Naugles is J.J. Abrams making "The Force Awakens".

Last night, I congratulated Christian on his triumph, but also reminisced about our food blogging days. But here's how much of a dedicated fan of Naugles Christian still is. When I told him I remembered going to Naugles during my own youth in La Habra before it turned into a Del Taco, I was struggling to recount the street corner it was located in. Without hesitation, Christian finished my sentence: "At Beach and Lambert!"

As I was leaving, I shook his hand and told him when I took the above picture: "I don't usually put pictures of people on my blog, but you, Christian, are a star!"

Naugles Corporate Kitchen
18471 Mt. Langley
Fountain Valley, CA 92708
(657) 845-7346

Royal Hen - Newport Beach

Sunday, December 04, 2016

Wayback Burgers - Tustin

Wayback Burgers in Tustin wasn't anything I thought it would be. At first, when it opened a few months ago, I pegged it as a mom-n-pop. But further research revealed it to be a franchise--part of a chain that originated in Delaware but now headquartered in Connecticut.

When I went to eat lunch there, it looked to have the hallmarks of a chain. It had the glossy posters of a corporate outfit and even a movie tie-in with a special Ghostbusters burger and shake called a "Stay Puft Slime Milkshake" that comes complete with a green slime drizzle and marshmallow topping.

But other than that, it was decidedly very unchain-like. There was one employee there doing, well, everything. He took the orders, made the burgers, fried the fries, and wiped down tables.

To cook our burger, he started with a ball of raw ground beef and smashed it flat against the sizzling griddle with a spatula. The buns he toasted with a strange vertical contraption that looked like no other toaster I've seen. And when it was all hot and ready, he walked it out the dining room and served it to us on a tray.

This guy needs to be paid at least triple what he gets, because on top of being more chipper and friendly than I would be if I had his job, he made a pretty good burger.

Though it wasn't like anything I've ever had in California, something about it triggered a memory. Have I tasted a similar burger before? Like in New York? Yes! Yes, I have!

This burger reminded me of Shake Shack's burger.

It's of a uniformly soft texture. The bun, the meat, even the tomatoes and sauce melded into a singular burger-flavored pillow, which isn't a bad thing if you're in love with Shake Shack and would rather not schlep it out to LA to have one.

Wayback Burgers
1631 Edinger Ave.
Tustin, CA 92780
(714) 258-8414

The Recess Room - Fountain Valley

Friday, November 25, 2016

$19.99 Thanksgiving Meal at Marie Callender's - Fountain Valley

If you didn't go to go to someone's house for Thanksgiving dinner, it's likely that you headed for Marie Callender's.

Marie Callender's is already a producer of pre-ordered holiday feasts and pies, which they sell and distribute en masse on Turkey day for those who want to host Thanksgiving but don't want to bother with all the cooking.

But for some of us who also don't want to clean up dirty dishes (or wish to limit the family togetherness to business hours), there's the restaurant itself, which is open until about 7 to 8 p.m. to serve a Thanksgiving prix-fixe with all the bells and whistles.

Though not all Marie Callender's restaurants are actually open for dinner service, this year, those that did priced it for $19.99 per person.

It starts with a humongous hunk of warm cornbread with clouds of whipped honey butter. After that comes a cup of soup or salad.

The soup can be either a potato cheese soup that tastes like a potato gratin put through a blender, or a vegetable soup akin to minestrone with peas, beans, and corn.

The salad is a standard green house salad, but Thanksgiving is no time for salads.

For the main attraction, Marie Callender's offers baseline stuff: either ham or turkey breast which are thick-sliced and covered in a salty gravy. If you get the turkey, every plate gets enough meat for about two servings--all of it white meat that's uniformly tender and unnaturally moist.

The herb stuffing hidden beneath the slabs tastes a lot like Stove Top (as it should), and the mashed potatoes gave me flashbacks to my high school cafeteria (which isn't a bad thing).

The steamed carrots and green beans are just that: steamed. The carrots to a tender crisp and the green beans, limp but still squeaky. There's also heaps of candied yams topped with streusel, and a thimble of cranberry sauce that's equal parts jelly and actual berry.

And of course, a slice of pie comes as dessert: either the pumpkin, which is always dependable, or the apple, which needs ice cream.

As far as consistently predictable turkey dinners go, Marie Callender's offers the kind you can set your watch to. For the one in Fountain Valley, it's up to 7 p.m.

Hope your Thanksgiving was a good one!

Marie Callender's
18889 Brookhurst St
Fountain Valley, CA 92708
(714) 963-6791

Texas de Brazil - Irvine

Monday, November 21, 2016

Coke and Chicken: Our Layover in Atlanta

We had a layover in Atlanta--a few hours to spend in the city before catching an early-morning flight to our final destination.

So what did we do? The two things any time-crunched Atlanta tourist would do when allotted such a short period of time: we went to The World of Coca Cola and then we ate fried chicken.

The World of Coca Cola was a pleasant two-hour diversion. At the start of the self-guided tour, we watched an obligatory introductory film. But instead of a history of the world's most famous drink, it was a fifteen minute-long commercial designed to give us the feels. Among the "stories" told: a mom being reunited with her soldier son and a young couple surprising their parents with news of a baby. By the time the lights went up and the screen retracted to reveal a door to the rest of the attractions, there wasn't a dry eye in the house.

We then took in everything this uniquely Atlantan site had to offer. We took a selfie with the Coca Cola polar bear. We walked through the bottling exhibit and the "secret recipe vault". And, of course, we drank lots and lots of free soda. And my God was there a lot of soda. There was the bottle of Coke they give you as you enter; the free souvenir bottles of Coke you can take as you leave; but the culmination of it all was the soda sampling room where we tasted different flavors of soda from all over the world, all of it chilled and some of it more delicious than Coca Cola itself.

On a sugar high and hungry for solid food, we found Busy Bee Cafe, an institution for fried chicken and all other forms of soul food since 1947. It's the kind of place that has never looked to be lauded by TV shows, newspapers and foodie magazines, but has been anyway because what it does it does well and in earnest for as long as anyone could remember. The walls are plastered with framed articles and autographed photos from celebrity fans.

And when I sunk my teeth into that drumstick, I realized that this was the best Southern fried chicken I've ever had--better than Gus's in Memphis and certainly better than any fried chicken I've had in California (*cough* Roscoe's *cough*).

It was greaseless, hot, and perfectly cooked--not overfried, not underdone--just right, and juicy, even the white meat. It's brined properly so that every molecule of the meat was succulent. Also, floured just enough so that the skin had a chance to fully render in the oil and form a crunchy crust so addictive, I was picking at bones to extract every single bit I could find.

The sides were just as wonderful: collard greens that I could've eaten by the bucketful and fried okra, which, I admit, are never not good. Can I get an "Amen"?

The World of Coca Cola
121 Baker St NW
Atlanta, GA 30313
(404) 676-5151

The Busy Bee Cafe
810 Martin Luther King Jr Dr
Atlanta, GA 30314
(404) 525-9212

Farmhouse at Roger's Garden - Newport Beach