Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Beard Papa's - Monterey Park

How many engineers does it take to run the best Beard Papa's franchise in California?

Answer: Two. And they're both friends of mine.

Kenny (who handles the business side of things) and Bonnie (who handles the day-to-day) and I go way back. We went to UCI Engineering together, but after graduation we took different paths.

Kenny went into insurance. Bonnie went to design jets for Northrop and then to culinary school. Now they're working together, here at the Beard Papa's shop underneath Ocean Star in Monterey Park.

But it's Bonnie--previously the sous chef at the much-lauded The Spice Table--who has made this Beard Papa's shop unlike any other I've ever visited. To complement the usual cream puffs with those crackle-crusted shells and cool vanilla cream fillings, she's added meticulously crafted drinks that uses ice cream, custard pudding, and syrup that she makes all herself, from scratch.

Why is she putting all this thought and effort when her competitors are using powders and squirts of high fructose corn syrup? Because that's the Bonnie I've always known.

It's also why you should visit!

Besides, where else can you buy a cream puff and wash it down with a drink made by a Le Cordon Bleu grad who used to work on fighter planes?

Beard Papa's
141 N Atlantic Blvd
Monterey Park, CA 91754

Pacific Hideaway - Huntington Beach

Sunday, July 16, 2017

The Jucy Lucy at Matt's Bar - Minneapolis, MN

I went to Minneapolis and had what may be one of the most iconic foods in the city.

It's called the Jucy Lucy and from what I can gather, it's to Minneapolis as the Red Hot is to Chicago.

Matt's Bar is the place that invented it. There's routinely a line outside, which is largely due to the Travel Channel.

But since it's still very much a dank, local bar, like a real-life Moe's Tavern, its fame seems all the more incongruous.

Heck, President Obama ate here. There's a picture of him, smiling, arms around the family that now owns it.

Of course, he had a Jucy Lucy, which is essentially a burger with cheese embedded in the middle of the patty, served between a dense bun with grilled onions bits and three slices of pickle (yes, exactly three).

When you bite into the burger, a scalding torrent of cheese is supposed to flow out of it like a Hot Pocket made of meat. And mine did.


Honestly, it only spurted out cheese just from one side of the patty. The rest of it was actually cheeseless. But it was still a treat--a great burger made by a great place that was once visited by a great President.

Matt's Bar
3500 Cedar Ave S
Minneapolis, MN 55407

Coq Au Vin - Fountain Valley

Tuesday, July 04, 2017

Half-Order Carne Asada Super Nachos - Alberto's - Tustin

Is it just me or does this half-order of carne asada Super Nachos from Alberto's remind you of a flower? Look at the petals of freshly fried tortilla chips blooming from the meat, cheese, bean and guacamole!

Or maybe it looks like it because it's been a while since I've allowed myself one of these. As they say, absence makes the heart grow fonder. And this is the kind of food that would do just that--not to mention do a lot of other things to your heart.

You're not kidding yourself when you eat it. You know it's junk food. But it's the best junk food. Particularly late at night, in front of the TV, while binging on Netflix.

And if you live in Tustin/Santa Ana/Irvine, there's yet another joint where you can pick one up, scarf it down, and feel guilty for days. I got mine at the brand new Alberto's on Newport near Walnut, in what used to be Omega Burgers.

The price is a little more expensive these days than I remember--around $7 for the half order. And you should always opt the half since the difference between it and the full order is nominal. It's still worth it, though, especially when you consider how little $7 can get you elsewhere.

If you go, you should always ask for the pickled carrots, which are free. Think of it as the card that goes with your nacho bouquet. Just be careful not to make these nachos too much of a habit, or else you might actually get a bouquet with a card that says "Get Well Soon!"

14551 Newport Ave
Tustin, CA 92780

TRADE - Irvine

Sunday, July 02, 2017

Ten Asian Bistro - Newport Beach

Buddhas are fixtures in a lot of Asian restaurants. Go to a traditional Vietnamese joint in Little Saigon, Thai Nakorn in Garden Grove, or Chinese place in San Gabriel Valley and you're likely to see a small Buddha statue set in some quiet corner surrounded by offerings and incense--they're essentially religious shrines used by the business owner for prayer and to bring good luck.

But here at Ten Asian Bistro in Newport Beach, the Buddha is interior design, decorative kitsch, theming, eye-candy...tchotchkes. There are so many Buddhas placed at random spots throughout the restaurant, I lost count.

I saw Chinese Buddhas, Thai Buddhas, Buddhas that might not have even been Buddhas.

The food Ten serves here, of course, is non denominational. It's literally all over the map. I had sashimi, a caterpillar roll, uni sushi, which were all Japanese, but I then chased them with a Chinese banquet-style honey-glazed walnut shrimp. If I wanted, I could've gotten pad Thai or something Vietnamese. And it was all decent to good--Asian food aimed not for the Asian palate, per se, but the palate who generally knows Asian flavors and is willing to pay a Newport Beach premium not to schlep it to four different restaurants to have all of it together, on the same plate.

Don't get me wrong: there were Asians there enjoying it. Some of them might also be Buddhist. And as far as I can tell, none were offended that the symbol of their religion has the same function here as an Elvis jacket at a Hard Rock Cafe. Neither was I. In fact, it tickled me so much that I tried to take pictures of all the Buddhas as though I were on a scavenger hunt.

But it did make me think of how a restaurant with Christian symbols and Jesus statues all over the place might make people feel.

And what kind of food would it serve?

Ten Asian Bistro
4647 MacArthur Blvd.
Newport Beach, CA 92660

OC Weekly Summer Issue - Jewish Food in Montreal

Sunday, June 25, 2017

I Had Better Food at Aria's Lemongrass than at Lotus of Siam

I thought I knew what to expect at Lemongrass.

It is, after all, an Asian restaurant inside a casino. Past experiences with other Asian restaurants inside other casinos told me I was in for yet another ham-fisted attempt at Thai, Chinese, or a combination of the two. And it was going to cost me twice as much as what I'd usually pay at an actual Thai or Chinese joint.

But when you're given hotel credit to be spent on food and your choice of where to spend it includes restaurants from Michelin and James Beard-award winning chefs, you have to settle on what will stretch your money the farthest.

So Lemongrass it was, because even in a high-priced Vegas casino like Aria, Asian food is always cheaper than the next alternative.

However, I'm glad to report that Lemongrass did not suck. In fact, it was spectacular.

The pineapple fried rice we ordered was light enough on the curry powder that it left a good impression rather an overpowering one. The pad see ew was textbook, with the gailan crisp, the meat velvety, and the noodles absorbing not only the sweet soy seasonings but the "breath" of the wok.

And there was a crab omelette that had so much crab meat, every bite was like discovering a trove of buried treasure.

Best of all was the chicken larb, which was so spicy, so funky, so well-constructed of fish sauce, rice powder, lime, and tons of chilies, that it made me question my entire way of thinking: Asian restaurants inside casinos CAN BE good!

I would even say this particular experience was BETTER than the last time I ate all the usual Issan favorites at Lotus of Siam, Vegas's highly lauded Thai restaurant. And it had nothing to do with the fact that this meal was essentially free!

ARIA Resort & Casino Las Vegas
3730 S Las Vegas Blvd
Las Vegas, NV 89109

2145 Pizza - Costa Mesa

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Hong Kong Fishball House - Rowland Heights

Pictured above is some snacks we ate today from Hong Kong Fishball House in Rowland Heights. Fried tofu. Fried fish balls. Fried squid. The kind of food that we'd probably get if we saw it at OC Night Market (which is, by the way, going on this weekend at the OC Fairgrounds).

But unlike OC Night Market, there was no parking fee, no admission cost, and no lines.

Plus it's cheaper. The total for all this was $14.65, which includes the boba drinks we got from a stall inside Hong Kong Market's mall.

So since we paid less, it wasn't in OC, and it was daytime, I guess I should say that our experience wasn't at all like being at the OC Night Market--it was better.*

Hong Kong Fishball House  
18414 Colima Rd
Rowland Heights, CA 91748

*Thanks to cookiemonster for co-writing this post.

Mhat Korean Restaurant - La Palma

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Fullerton's Kim Loan Is Still Going Strong!

Thirty or some odd years ago, my parents introduced me to Vietnamese food for the first time at Kim Loan Restaurant in Fullerton. Soon, dinners at Kim Loan became a monthly ritual for our family. Then we moved away. I grew up and went on with the rest of my life.

Tonight, I went back for the first time in a decade. But when the owner saw me, he remembered who I was!

He immediately asked how my parents were doing.

"They're fine, and enjoying retirement," I replied, realizing that when I, myself, retire someday, the owner might still be here to serve the same great food as he did tonight.

Kim Loan Restaurant
(714) 773-0374
1651 W Orangethorpe Ave
Fullerton, CA 92833

Centro Collective - Lake Forest

Saturday, June 03, 2017

Au Revoir, Cirque Magique

It was a few days after we went to Pirate's Dinner Adventure in Buena Park that we got a call from the venue.

"Would you like four free tickets to our new Cirque Magique show?" said the female voice on the other line.

"Free? Why? What's the catch?" we asked.

"No catch," the caller replied, "we just wanted to invite our previous guests to see our new show. Lunch is included, by the way."

And so we said yes, and returned to Buena Park a week after Pirate's, which was, in retrospect, just a corny pirate-themed stunt show that's only a hair better than the free one Treasure Island used to do on Las Vegas Blvd. It wasn't worth the money and the dinner was barely edible. On my plate was soggy roasted chicken, mushy vegetables, gloppy mashed potatoes--the kind of food I remember eating at my college dorm cafeteria.

We expected more of the same with Cirque Magique.

"But hey", we thought, "at least this time, it's free."

What Cirque Magique turned out to be everything Pirate's wasn't. Where Pirate's was plodding and mired in plot, Cirque Magique was fun and breezy.

It's set in Pirate's pre-show bar area and it had a singular purpose: to showcase the talents of its perfomers. There were showgirls, a juggling act, an aerial contortionist, fourth-wall-breaking clowns, and an Asian magician that did a floating table trick using Pixar's Up as theme.

And the food we ate was better than expected. The cheeseburgers were thick and meaty; the fries, crispy and hot.

But what most impressed was how hard everyone worked to show us a good time. The backup dancers, in particular, did double duty as our servers. They refilled our water glasses in between numbers that required them to do multiple leg kicks.

I enjoyed myself so much that if we didn't get in for free, I would have gladly paid the regular admission price of $25 per person.

Now, after I've told you how great it is, here's the bad news: for some reason, Pirate's has now closed Cirque Magique for good. It's never coming back. So I guess there was a catch to that offer after all.

Cirque Magique
7600 Beach Blvd
Buena Park, CA 90620

Nobu - Newport Beach

Friday, June 02, 2017

The Not-So-"Secret" Pizza Place at The Cosmopolitan - Las Vegas

How popular does the secret pizzeria at The Cosmopolitan in Vegas have to be before people stop calling it "secret"? I think it's reached that point. As of this writing, it's got 3,439 Yelp reviews, the most of any pizza joint in this town.

To put that in perspective, "Secret Pizza" has more than double the reviews as the next most popular place (Pizza Rock Downtown with 1,553) and four times as many reviews as Wolfgang Puck's Spago at Ceasar's Palace (with 985).

In fact, if you measure it strictly by Yelp reviews, "Secret Pizza" is now the 6th most popular restaurant in all of Vegas. Number five, by the way, is Lotus of Siam.

So I think a more apt nickname for it now should be "Hidden Pizza", because if it's your first time, you do actually need instructions to find it. It's not listed in any casino directories or maps, nor is there any signage that says "Secret Pizza".

Also, the place is not really called "Secret Pizza". The official name printed on the receipts is "Pizzeria at The Cosmopolitan".

Here's how to find it:

Ride the elevator all the way up to the third floor where Jaleo is. Directly to the left of it, there's a hallway lined with album covers. The pizzeria is at the end of this hallway.

Or here's another way to find it: just look for the ridiculously long line, especially if you're here on a busy weekend.

Slices (which are about two thirds the size of Costco's) start at $5 for a plain cheese, and $5.50 for a single topping. I found the crust to be slightly overworked, so it's chewier than I expected. But it's crisp, thin, a good if not an exemplary facsimile of a New York slice.

Out of my all-time favorite pizzas, I'd place it after other great pies I've been fortunate to try over the years. It's almost as good as Landini's in San Diego, Apizza Scholls in Portland, and Home Slice in Austin, which is, by the way, the only pizza I've ever eaten that made me dream about it for days.

Still, when you're in Vegas, I'd recommend seeking out The Cosmo's "Secret Pizza". It's one of those things you have to try just so you can say you did.

Besides, it's not its fault that it has become so hyped and the furthest thing from a "secret". When you see it, you can certainly see it started out humbly. There's a counter where you consume your pizza on a flimsy paper plate while standing up, just like in Manhattan.

So go! Get in on the worst kept "secret" in Vegas since Bugsy Malone!

Secret Pizza a.k.a. The Pizzeria at The Cosmopolitan
3708 S Las Vegas Blvd
Las Vegas, NV 89109

Hendrix - Laguna Niguel

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

10 Years at OC Weekly!

Today marks my 10th year writing restaurant reviews for OC Weekly, Orange County's greatest paper!

Since that first review (published on May 10, 2007), I've eaten at and reviewed more than 500 restaurants. In the process I gained at least 15 more pounds than when I started, but also wrote what I estimate to be more than 500,000 words.

As a point of reference, Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace ticks at 587,287 words. So if my math is right and I keep at it, it'll only take me two more years to catch up to him.

In any case, I hope my reviews have been informative, fair, and, most importantly, fun to read. It has been fun doing them.

When I reached the five year milestone, I commemorated it by going back to eat Thai Nakorn--the first OC Weekly review I did.

This time, in light of the weight gain I've already mentioned, I'm going to refrain from celebrating with more food.

Instead I will take the opportunity to just thank all the great people at OC Weekly who made it possible for me to turn a hobby into a fun, rewarding, and enviable job.

So, thank you, Gustavo Arellano for your enduring support and mentorship; Lisa Black for happily handling all my late invoices; Dustin Ames for being the best art editor on Earth; Brian Feinzimer for all the beautiful food photos; Anne Marie Panorigan for being a great friend and tipster; Ted Kissell for hiring me; and Leo Tolstoy for setting a goal for me to aspire to.

Last but not least, I'd like to thank you all who are still reading this blog for sticking with me all these years!

*On a more personal note, I'd like to publicly thank my lovely dining and life companion (a.k.a. cookiemonster) and for convincing me to try out for this job in the first place. I still remember your words of encouragement: "The worst they can do is say 'no'!"

So thank you, cookiemonster for always being there for me; for enduring the bad restaurants even though all you wanted to do was stay home for the night; allowing me to order food I know you don't like; and for being my in-house editor-in-chief! Love you, abey!

Sawleaf Vietnamese Cuisine - Tustin