Saturday, February 21, 2015

Popcorn Chicken Noodle Soup at Guppy House - Irvine


It was 1 a.m. when we'd ambled in through our front door with our luggage. It had been a long day of traveling that included a harrowing ordeal with near-missed flights and a shuttle van that made us wait on the curb for over an hour after our flight arrived at LAX.

Not having consumed more than Pop Chips and Coke the whole day, we were starving. She was craving Tapioca Express' Crispy Chicken while I wanted noodles in soup. But earlier that night, as we waited on that arrivals terminal sidewalk cold and with stomachs growling, we realized our options for food were dwindling fast. It was close to midnight and the Tapioca Express we usually go to has long since closed. Honda-Ya for ramen would've been a possibility. They close at 1 a.m. But our negligent airport van company took that off the table since we were still on the road at 12:30 a.m. after finally picking us up fifteen minutes earlier.

There was hope. There was Guppy House. It was still open when we got home at last and managed to drive over without passing out. Yet it wasn't just open; it was still hopping with thump-thumpy music and customers in their twenties who would presumably go off doing something else after they ate their meal and the restaurant closed at 2.

We ordered the dish which seemed to be there just for us: the popcorn chicken noodle. An enormous bowl of fried chicken chunks dusted with spice for her; a big steaming bowl of noodles in soup for me. It was the kind of food I probably wouldn't think twice about under normal circumstances, but it was exactly what we needed at the moment we needed it. We Hoovered the noodles and gulped the salty broth as though it were the manna from heaven. In between sips, I marveled how good it was. How the al dente, snow-white strands danced in the green-onion and fat globule-flecked soup. How its steamy vapors warmed my face as I hunched over the bowl and slurped, slurped, slurped.

While we shoved those chicken pieces into our mouths as if they were actual movie theater popcorn, we said to ourselves: "Home sweet home...and let's not use that shuttle company again."

Guppy House
2730 Alton Pkwy #101
Irvine, CA 92606
(949) 851-9788

THIS WEEK ON OC WEEKLY:
Rockfire Grill - Mission Viejo

Friday, February 13, 2015

Sprinkles - Newport Beach


There was a time when we'd scoff at the kind of people who'd post nothing but pet pictures on their Facebook page. Or buy special pet treats that cost more than it costs to buy real food.

Pets aren't people, we'd huff. Where we come from, we fed our dogs and cats dinner-table scraps. It was unfathomable to go to the supermarket and pay hard-earned money for kibble, let alone a specialty dog bakery, which could only exist in the one-percent part of the first-world.

But that was before we puppy sat my sister's yorkie, a loveable furball who won over our hearts and then, our wallets.

Now we've been to Sprinkles, an expensive cupcake place we wouldn't normally go for even ourselves. We went to buy the pooch a pupcake (yes, a cupcake for dogs) that's made with no sugar and yogurt icing for her 7th birthday. It even has a bone stenciled on the top.

And, yes, our Facebook page is now also plastered with dog pictures. One of the latest is her devouring the cupcake while wearing a festive party hat and a pink princess tutu.

Sprinkles Cupcakes
952 Avocado Ave.
Newport Beach, CA 92660
(949) 718-9400

THIS WEEK ON OC WEEKLY:
Temakira - Costa Mesa

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Bulgogi Bowl at Bulgogi House - La Palma


If you keep up with my reviews on OC Weekly, you'll know that the last restaurant I wrote about was Bulgogi House, an AYCE Korean BBQ palace in La Palma. In summary, I said that Bulgogi House is, without question, one of the grandest restaurants of its kind. You don't walk out; you crawl out, with your arms clutched around your sides and the feeling that your stomach is about to explode.

But as you curse the heavens for your lack of self-control, you also pat yourself on the back on how you managed to eat more meat in one sitting than most people see in a month.

"Good job, you!" you'll say to yourself, "You got your money's worth!"

"Now where are my Tums?!"



But in the last paragraph of my review, I mentioned that the bar offers a bulgogi bowl for $8. Yes, it's massive, with a fried egg, mushrooms, onions, and the pile of the sweet, sugary strips of lean marinated bulgogi weighing in at about a pound and a half; but it's an even better deal for another reason. After I ordered it, I was invited by the server to go and help myself to as many side dishes from the buffet as I wanted.

I was kind of dumbfounded at the offer. Did he mean just the panchan? Or did I have carte blanche on everything the buffet offered, including the deep fried mandoos and the chicken wings? To be sure, I got a little of everything.

That afternoon, I made out like a bandit and ate like fiend. I consumed way too much food for what I paid (even with an extra generous tip) and waddled out there in the same state as I did when I went to do the AYCE a week earlier.

"Good job, me!"

"Now where are my cholesterol meds?"

Bulgogi House
6901 Walker St
La Palma, CA 90623
(714) 522-2996
bulgogihousebbq.com

THIS WEEK ON OC WEEKLY:
Bulgogi House - La Palma

Thursday, January 29, 2015

The Asian Person's Hamburger Helper


I don't mean to generalize, but if you are Asian of any persuasion, you probably have a box of what you see above in your pantry. It is, as the title of this post suggests, the Asian person's Hamburger Helper--it turns stuff you already have in your fridge or freezer (ground pork, a bunch of scallions, and soft tofu) into a hot meal.

It's also the shortest distance from hungry to happy in 15 minutes or less. You brown the meat, add the chopped scallions, add the sauce, let it simmer a bit, then fold in the tofu cubes. You don't even need to read the directions on the box.



And of course, you should have it with some steamed rice. Actually, probably a lot of it. What you see is below is one box of tofu with about a half pound of meat, but I could polish off the entire thing all by lonesome self.

I've tried many other brands of Mabo Tofu sauce, but the House Foods version trumps them all. Heck, in my opinion, it produces a better product than most restaurant mabo tofus. You might say the same about the good ol' blue box of Kraft Mac-N-Cheese. Yes, I have that in my pantry, too, but it's like, five years old and untouched.

THIS WEEK ON OC WEEKLY:
Pueblo - Costa Mesa

Thursday, January 22, 2015

MaDee Thai Kitchen - Costa Mesa



MaDee's cashier, who is probably also one of its owners, was frazzled. It was Sunday, 30-minutes before her restaurant was set to close up, but people were still streaming in as steady as a drumbeat. I was one of those people. I wanted to order something for take-out.

She says to me: "It's going to take at least thirty minutes. Is that okay? I've been telling people on the phone forty-five."

"Yes, it's fine!" I responded. "I'll wait."



Mine was a simple order: just the soft shell crab and sticky rice with mango for dessert. And so I waited. And observed. It's a tiny restaurant. Barely anything on the walls. Chairs in disarray. Two couples were there slurping on what I presume is the kha soi, their most popular dish. But like me, the rest of the customers who ambled in from the cold wanted take-out.

Half quietly left after they found out it would take upwards of a half an hour. The other half were smart enough to phone ahead.

There were three other people behind the register, working furiously in the cramped open kitchen, tossing things airward in a blazing wok, dropping battered pieces of something into a gurgling deep fryer.



At about minute 25 I see my crabs being prepared. Then all of a sudden she has my order ready. I take it home, the scent of the deep fried crustaceans causing me to drool all through the drive.

It's a simple dish: bite-sized pieces of lightly-battered and crisply-fried soft shells that I dunked in a tartly-seasoned soy sauce that's like a Thai spin on ponzu, all of eaten with the side salad.

The real revelation was the sticky rice with mango. The rice has its requisite sweetness, but also saltiness and a coconut-cream richness. I made little sushi rice balls using chopsticks, then laid a piece of mango on top as though it were nigiri and wondered as I was eating slice after slice of that not-too-tart, not-too-ripe fruit: how is it that Thai restaurants always have perfect mangos no matter what time of year it is?

MaDee Thai Kitchen
401 East 17th Street Unit C
Costa Mesa, CA 92627
(949) 631-2731

THIS WEEK ON OC WEEKLY:
Poke Etc. - Long Beach

Monday, January 12, 2015

I-Tea Cafe - Irvine


I-Tea Cafe in Irvine serves stinky tofu, that maldorous deep-fried treat that smells as though someone purposely dipped a sweaty gym sock in the sewer, stuck it under your nose, and then farted in your face. That's how bad stinky tofu stinks.

But what's curious about the I-Tea is that despite the fact it serves stinky tofu, the rooms actually smells like pizza. Anywhere you sit inside the brightly lit restaurant, but especially underneath one of the main air vents, you get whiffs of doughy bread baking with marinara and cheese.



After a few visits, I realized it wasn't my imagination--it was pizza I was smelling. A Papa John's is right next door and apparently the ventilation systems are connected. And so when I actually ordered the stinky tofu, my nose was fooled into thinking I was eating pepperoni pizza while my mouth enjoyed the slightly bitter, slightly tangy, slighty spongy tofu cubes in a sweet-and-sour soy sauce slurry and topped with pickled veggies.

Don't get me wrong: it still reeks if you encounter a particularly ripe one, as though something died on your plate and started decomposing. But if you can stand Gruyere, you shouldn't be afraid of stinky tofu--it's just another wonderful product of fermentation. Besides that, it's the most Taiwanese thing you can order in a restaurant that, in my opinion, is one of the best Taiwanese joints in a town full of Taiwanese joints.



Yes, you can conceivably just drop in to have a milky slush (which is a boba drink that forgets the pretense that you need anything having to do with tea in a boba drink). You can even have the pork chop rice (which is as fine an example as any, and served in portions enough for two people). But what you should do is order from the snack menu, which has the stinky tofu and the gigantic plate of popcorn chicken, morsels of lightly battered chunks of dark meat sprinkled with a flurry of spicy-salt and crispy fried basil leaves.

As a palate cleanser, I always order some of the really great brined cucumbers with bits of raw garlic. And I never go to I-Tea without asking for the pidan tofu--blocks of chilled silken tofu doused with a sugary sauce and topped with a thousand-year-old egg, pork rousong and scallions--one of my all-time favorite things.

I ate it all together and wondered: if it smells like pizza in here, does it smell like stinky tofu at the Papa John's?

I-Tea Cafe
15435 Jeffrey Road
Irvine, CA 92618
(949) 551-4832

THIS WEEK ON OC WEEKLY:
Twenty Eight- Irvine

Friday, January 09, 2015

Houston's - Irvine



Did I ever mention I like Houston's a whole lot? This is a chain that has all the corporate polish, and puts out food that's consistently good--the high bar when it comes to classic American meat-and-potatoes cooking.

There was a smoked salmon appetizer, a slab of it pink and flaky, served with toasted bread and a tarragon aioli that's simplicity and elegance defined. There was the French dip, a fist-sized wad of rosy-hued carved beef hugged between two shiny planks of a toasted roll with a mound of house-made shoestring fries.

And then there's the thing I always get: the ribs. It's not BBQ; it's just really, really good ribs. Kissed with bits of char, sugary glaze turned to caramel, and meat that tears off with a tug.

After I was done, they came around with steaming hot towels to wipe my gunked up fingers and sauce-covered lips.

Houston's
2991 Michelson Drive
Irvine, CA 92612
(949) 833-0977

THIS WEEK ON OC WEEKLY:
Kitakata Ramen Ban Nai - Costa Mesa

Saturday, December 27, 2014

MasalaCraft - Santa Ana

As far as I'm concerned, there's no such thing as a bad Indian take-out joint in OC. Yes, some are better than others. Heck, my Indian friends and even some of my white friends have dismissed Natraj Tandoori in Irvine as the lowest common denominator--the Indian take-out equivalent of Panda Express. But I still like it because I happen to like Panda Express, and Natraj was the place that introduced me to Indian food back in college--it was cheap enough for a student and there was always chicken tikka masala, a dish that I didn't know at the time was actually British.

But when I graduated from college I also graduated from Natraj, eventually moving on to the wonderful lunch buffets at Vishnu, India Kitchen, and Haveli for spice-ladened meals eaten in gut-busting portions. And then I eventually made the pilgrimage to Artesia's Little India, where the Gujarati thalis of Rajdhani opened my eyes (and also my palate) to the complexities of a cuisine I was only beginning to appreciate. If you haven't tried Rajdhani, you must do so, post haste! And no, there won't be a trace of tikka masala near the place.



When I don't want to overstuff myself or can't go to Artesia, there's Santa Ana's MasalaCraft--an Indian take-out joint to rule them all. The parking is atrocious at lunchtime, but the combo plates ($7 for a 2-item) is one of the best and freshest I've had in a long time. And there's the part that it's served in portions that might as well as be two trips to the buffet line.

One distinguishing trademark of MasalaCraft is actually the naan, the Indian flatbread that's made so tender here it tears like wetted tissue. Across the brown mottled surface, you also see a sprinkling of spices including sauf (which is what Indians call fennel seeds) for more flavor per square inch than some pizzas have in a square foot. The bread is, of course, perfect for dipping and sopping up all of the chicken tikka masala, because, let's face it, authentic or not, your ordering the chicken tikka masala.

MasalaCraft
2 Hutton Centre Drive
Santa Ana, CA 92707
(714) 696-6272

THIS WEEK ON OC WEEKLY:
"What Happens To Me During The Holidays" Cartoon

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Cafe Hiro's 2014 Christmas Eve Prix-Fixe - Cypress



Christmas Eve is one of the best nights of the year to visit Cafe Hiro. Six years ago on this blog, I literally waxed poetic on the wonderful Prix-Fixe meals it offers there the night before Christmas.

This year, I'll let the iPhone pictures and the menu descriptions speak for themselves.

Herewith is what Chef Hiro Ohiwa and crew served this evening--a 4-course dinner for $45 per person.

FIRST COURSE

Diced ahi tuna and fresh mozzarella cheese with daikon radish, cucumber salad and mentaiko sauce.


Sauteed oyster on seasoned daikon radish and sweet miso sauce.

SECOND COURSE

Seabass spring roll with sautéed mushroom salad, white truffle oil, and yuzu vinaigrette.


Seared beef tataki and poached cabbage with Italian parsley, parmigiano-reggiano and anchovy vinaigrette.

THIRD COURSE

Roast beef served with mashed potato and garlic soy sauce.


Sautéed salmon with sea urchin "uni" sauce and served with seasonal vegetables.

FOURTH COURSE

Croissant bread pudding.


Panna cotta.

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

THIS WEEK ON OC WEEKLY:
Settebello - Newport Beach

Friday, December 19, 2014

Grill City & Crispy Town - Irvine


The name Crispy Town may sound like it's inspired by the catchphrase of a certain Food Network host with spiky hair. It's not. It's Pinoy through-and-through--a turo-turo joint that caters to the best kind of food there is: the kind that's deep fried golden brown and delicious.

Everything--I mean EVERYTHING--at this food stall at the back corner of the new Seafood City in Irvine is either made of pork, deep-fried, or both. They have crispy pata here, bone-in pork hocks, that are to-go-boxes of heart-disease. They have Filipino-style fried chickens with nary a batter--which is to say they're more authentic than those sold by the bucket at the more popular Jollibee at the front of the market.

And boy, are there are egg rolls--four kinds. Chicken. Pork. A veggie that's thicker than the previous two combined. And the cigar-sized lumpia Shanghai, which are great to take to potluck parties at $20 for a 60-piece tray.

But if you can't live on fried food alone (a truer statement than you realize), you also must make a stop at Grill City where foot-long skewers of pork and chicken "barbecue" are roasted over hot grates behind a glass window. They sell 'em 4 sticks for $10, which is easily a meal for two if you have a pot of rice waiting at home.

If you must, Grill City also has chafing tables (let's call them "neighborhoods") of veggie dishes such as the lumpia sariwa, which is the anthesis of the deep fried egg rolls found at Crispy Town. Lumpia sariwa translates to "fresh egg rolls", which in this case is just the filling of cooked cabbage, carrots, tofu and other veggie matter served with a garlicky sauce.

Other "veggie" dishes like kare-kare aren't technically vegetarian as there's often always some sort of meat or pork in it. This is probably a good time to point out that in no Filipino supermarket, Seafood City included, is there ever gonna be a stall called Vegan Ville.

Grill City & Crispy Town
2180 Barranca Pkwy
Irvine, CA 92606
(310) 834-9700
seafoodcity.com

THIS WEEK ON OC WEEKLY:
Eqeko Peruvian Tapas - Santa Ana