Saturday, March 21, 2020

La Farola Empanadas - Costa Mesa



My latest review for Times OC is about La Farola Empanadas. Read it online at the LA Times link below.

Though I filed this review before the events of this week, you might be interested to know that La Farola’s signature item is serendipitously designed for these times of “social distancing”.

They can and will sell their empanadas parbaked so that you can finish browning them yourselves in your own oven at home.

Not only did they taste just as good as when I had them in store, it inspired me to write this:

“And as the wonderful smells wafting out of the oven filled my kitchen, I realized it was the closest I’d ever come to being in an Argentinian household with a maternal figure like Galvan baking empanadas for her family.”

So support this restaurant and others like it in any way you can.

Eat well, stay safe, and be kind to each other!

Click on the link below to read my story:
La Farola Empanadas - Costa Mesa

Monday, March 09, 2020

Brown Sugar Boba Ice Cream Bars


It may not be as coveted as Costco toilet paper or bottled water right now, but these brown sugar boba ice cream bars have been flying off the shelves since November. Stores who are rumored to carry them can’t keep them in stock for longer than a few hours. Some markets have even instituted a per person limit.

A few weeks ago we encountered them for the first time at a bakery in Rowland Heights. They cost me a little under $12 for a box containing 4 bars, which I’ve since learned is nearly two times what the supermarkets charge.


Overpriced as they were, they were incredible! The Taiwanese makers of these treats have managed to completely capture the experience of having a brown sugar boba milk drink in an ice cream bar. The “boba”, despite being suspended in the icy confection, are still chewy, stretchy, and taste exactly like they were freshly made.

The secret? They aren’t boba; they’re tiny pellets of mochi, which doesn't seize up like rocks when frozen. It’s a genius substitution that perhaps we can all learn from. Like instead of buying pallets of bottled water as if Covid-19 is affecting what comes out of the faucet, maybe invest in a Brita?

Monday, March 02, 2020

Gus's World Famous Fried Chicken - Santa Ana


This article about the recently opened Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken in Santa Ana represents a first. It’s the first time this legendary Memphis-based joint has landed in Orange County, but it’s also the first time my byline has appeared in the Los Angeles Times!


With it I’m happy to announce that the chicken is fantastic and that I will now file my restaurant reviews for TimesOC, LA Times’ Community News publication serving Orange County that appears in the Sunday paper for all OC subscribers!

So join me as my exploration of OC’s best new restaurants continues! And try this chicken!


My sincere gratitude to Ada Tseng, TimesOC editor, for bringing me on board and editing my story! A big thanks to Don Leach for the beautiful pictures! And thank you to those of you reading for all your support all these years!


Now go out there and subscribe to LA Times or pick up a copy of the Sunday paper (Ralphs sells ‘em by the door)!


Click on the link below to read my story:
Gus's World Famous Fried Chicken - Santa Ana

Sunday, February 23, 2020

Colombia's Arepa de Huevo


France has the baguette. Italy has the pizza. This past weekend, on a trip to Cartagena, I learned Colombia has the arepa de huevo. The street food is so ingrained in the country’s culinary DNA that at my Hilton hotel breakfast buffet, it literally stood apart from the other items--the arepa de huevo was featured on its own table in the center of the dining room. It even came with a sign indicating its significance to Colombia.

But first, to understand what an arepa de huevo is, I must tell you what an arepa is. An arepa is essentially a pancake made of corn or maize flour. I became familiar with this indigenous delicacy from pre-Columbian times at Mil Jugos, a Venezuelan restaurant in Santa Ana. But as it turns out, Colombians also count arepas as a staple food. An arepa in its basic form is usually griddled and then sometimes split like an English muffin to be used to sandwich a variety of fillings.

An arepa de huevo, however, is an entirely different subspecies. It is distinctly Colombian. And the preparation involves a double fry.


The cornmeal dough is first flattened to a disc in a tortilla press. Then the disc is deep-fried in oil so that it puffs up like a Whoopee cushion. After it’s lifted out of the oil and drained, a small slit is cut into the side. A raw egg is then poured into the cavity and the arepa immediately goes back in the oil to fry again. The second dunk cooks the egg inside its cornmeal cocoon while the arepa’s outer crust gets even crispier. What results is the South American hybrid of a Hot Pocket and a McMuffin crossed with a beignet. It’s best eaten when it’s piping hot

As I sunk my teeth into my first arepa de huevo, dabbing lots of salsa and sour cream, I realized that although it resembled all the things I mentioned in the previous paragraph, it was unlike anything I’ve had before--it was a totally new sensation and experience. It’s as if someone managed to isolate just the crunchy outer corners of a freshly baked cornbread muffin and impregnate it with a hard boiled egg.

It was delicious.

After my first piece, I ate a second and a third, knowing that no such thing exists back home, even in OC’s two Colombian restaurants.

Monday, February 10, 2020

A Comparison of Two BCD Tofu Houses



I would argue that no other cuisine on Earth has as many hearty, spicy, full-bodied soups and stews at its core than Korean. Galbitang. Samgyetang. Kimchi-jjigae. There are more soups and stews in the Korean cook's repertoire than the movie Parasite has Oscars.

And soondubu-jjigae, soft tofu soup, is perhaps the most popular one of all. It's the best cold-weather antidote I know: a hot metal cauldron of silken tofu pudding simmering in a spicy broth with meats and seafood.

Whole restaurant chains are built to serve it. BCD, the biggest of them all, does it at nearly all hours of the day. But like Denny's, there can be variability between the branches. I noticed this after I tried the same soondubu combo at two BCDs a week apart.

The BCD in Artesia, which also happens to have relocated to a newer building on South Street, stacked the bulgogi that came with my soondubu combo order so high on its sizzling platter that it was twice as much meat as what I got at Irvine's BCD a week later. Irvine's rendition was also soggier, tasting more as if it were boiled rather than griddled. And the sliced onions that formed the base had practically turned to mush.



The Artesia branch also boasted one more banchan than Irvine, putting its spread of side dishes at seven while Irvine only offered six. Six infinitely refillable sides may already sound like a lot, but when you had Artesia's offering of vibrant broccoli florets just a week before, the omission at the Irvine becomes glaring. The broccoli not only added color but a refreshing textural contrast to the meal.

But the biggest difference was in the tofu soup itself. BCD Irvine's was a little less savory, a bit more flat than the soup served at the Artesia location. And as they say: the proof is in the pudding.

BCD Tofu House
2700 Alton Pkwy #135
Irvine, CA 92606

BCD Tofu HOuse
11710 South St #101
Artesia, CA 90701

Monday, February 03, 2020

My Top 5 Favorite Restaurants: Sushi Noguchi - Yorba Linda


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 last on the alphabetical list:

Sushi Noguchi


The Japanese word omakase means “chef’s choice,” giving sushi masters a free license to serve you whatever they think best. But lately, the word has come to mean something more: an ultra-expensive, multicourse meal that can tick up to the triple digits. This is certainly the case at a certain Costa Mesa sushi restaurant that recently earned a Michelin star. But at Sushi Noguchi, the prix-fixe meal called “Jun’s Omakase” has always retailed for under $60.

There’s a seared albacore salad to start, then a carpaccio of the day. Next is a sampler plate with a trio of cooked items; among them may be a fish-stuffed shishito tempura, a braised pork belly with hot mustard, or a crispy-fried shrimp katsu on a stick. After that, expect another raw fish dish to precede a four-piece nigiri. This might then be followed by a baked blue-crab hand roll so sweet it could double as dessert.

Since what’s served varies according to the season, you're almost guaranteed not to get the meal I described above when you visit. But one thing remains constant: Jun’s Omakase proves not only that you don’t have to pay a premium for a quality experience, but also that omakase can mean “bargain.”

Sushi Noguchi
18507 Yorba Linda Blvd.
Yorba Linda, CA 92886
(714) 777-6789
http://www.sushinoguchi.com

Monday, January 27, 2020

My Top 5 Favorite Restaurants: Crispy House - Artesia


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:

Crispy House


If you're keeping up with my Top 5, you might be thinking, "Wait, if this is an alphabetical list, shouldn't Crispy House come before Din Tai Fung?"

Well, yes, it should. But apart from my own incompetence at keeping track of my own list, I will always and still refer to this place as Magic Wok. The truth is, despite the new name--which is more aligned to its signature dish of crispy pata--this Filipino restaurant is still the same restaurant it always was and has been: a restaurant formerly known as Magic Wok.

It was Magic Wok when it suffered a devastating fire that closed it for nearly a year. And when it suddenly closed again and reemerged as Crispy House after a few staff changes, to me, it's still Magic Wok.

The food remains consistently the best and most authentic rendition of Filipino cuisine I've had in Southern California. This isn't the type of restaurant that gets featured on BuzzFeed. It's not designed to mainstream Pinoy food to the masses. It's not meant for social media influencers who want to hail it as the next big thing, because, well, it's been around before they were born.

Look around the room and you see whole Filipino families with Titas, Titos, Ates and Kuyas passing around steaming pots of sinigang, plates of pinakbet, and crispy platters of sisig. This is not Filipino food for the fashionable. This is Filipino food for actual Filipinos.

Crispy House
11869 Artesia Blvd
Artesia, CA 90701
(562) 865-7340

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