Friday, September 23, 2016

Ike's Love & Sandwiches - Newport Beach

I don't think I'm alone when I say that the prices at Banh Mi Che Cali have spoiled me for life. Now, if I see a sandwich that costs more than $5, I'm immediately skeptical. Will it be worth it? Will it be better than one of BMCC's banh mis that costs half that much?

Usually, the answer is no.

Walking into the new Ike's Love & Sandwiches in Newport Beach, my skepticism was again tested.

The cost of an average sandwich here, at this San Francisco-based sandwich chain that's currently taking over spots that a retreating Capriotti's has abandoned, is $10.

Also, the Ike's in Newport Beach (and presumably all the other OC locations of Ike's current and forthcoming) will automatically tack on a 50-cent "healthcare surcharge" onto your bill.

But not only that: If you ask for the secret menu, you'll discover that there's a sandwich that tops out at $26.

Yes. You read that right. Twenty. Six. Dollars.

Do you know how many sandwiches $26 buys at Banh Mi Che Cali? A DOZEN (as of this writing), which means you could feed an entire football team and still be left with an extra one for the water boy.

But all of this seemed moot when I bit into my enormous $10 "Paul Reubens" Sandwich at Ike's. For the half hour I spent eating it, I kind of forgot about the price or the fact that--if I'm correct on my sandwich taxonomy--it should've been called a "Rachel McAdams" as it contained pastrami instead of corned beef, and coleslaw instead of sauerkraut.

What mattered at the time was that it weighed as heavy as a shotput despite being named after the actor who played Pee Wee, and it used Dutch Crunch bread--loaves that have crusts with the cracked pattern of a parched desert floor.

And when I ate the thing, it dripped, crunched, and satisfied me as a sandwich like this should.

Yes, I could've netted three banh mis and three che's (those Vietnamese desserts BMCC sells at $3.50 for 3) for the price I paid here, but what's this? Ike's has included a free apple-caramel sucker with my order...wait, are they telling me something?

Ike's Love & Sandwiches
4221 MacArthur Blvd.
Newport Beach, CA 92660
(949) 783-3390

Ironwood - Laguna Hills

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Jun's Omakase at Sushi Noguchi - Yorba Linda

If you are still unacquainted with the wonderful, mind-bogglingly great restaurant called Sushi Noguchi in Yorba Linda, let me point you to the first few stories I've written on it over the past year:

- Sushi Noguchi - Yorba Linda
- The Best Sushi in Orange County
- 10 Essential Sushi Joints to Say "Omakase"

Okay, are you back?


Convinced that this may be the best sushi restaurant in Orange County yet still can't see yourself spending the $100 per person for Hiro's omakase? OK. Then keep reading, because there is an answer.

It is called "Jun's Omakase".

Jun, you see, is Jun Noguchi, wife of Hiro, and the lovely proprietress who handles the front of the house. If you sit at the table, you'll likely be served by her.

Her eponymous omakase set is priced at $50 per person and though it doesn't include some of the more expensive cuts of fish you'll find in Hiro's top-of-the-line omakase, it satisfies just the same.

I recently tried it and here's what was included in our meal:

A salad of dressed greens in a martini glass with chunks of raw and briefly-seared fish, sprinkled with crispy fried shallots.

A large plate with a lightly tempura'd fish resting on shiso, a bowl of chilled soba to slurp, and Japanese pickles.

Sliced hamachi topped with sliced fresh jalapeno in a pool of ponzu.

Seared tuna steaks floating atop puddles of sesame oil and ponzu.

An assortment of nigiri from the sushi bar, each one with a distinct topping, such as yuzu-kosho.

Gobs of fresh chopped spicy tuna wrapped as a hand-roll in crispy nori.

It's the right price for just the right amount of food and decadence.

If you still consider it expensive, think of this: in OC, there's now a sushi restaurant that charges $170 per person for their lowest level of omakase and $250 per person for a kaiseki meal.

At those rates, $50 seems like nothing.

Sushi Noguchi
18507 Yorba Linda Blvd.
Yorba Linda, CA 92886
(714) 777-6789

PRIME by Shenandoah - Long Beach

Thursday, September 15, 2016

A Pho Poem

The rain clouds above us were ominous; the air, a frigid chill.
It feels like a soup night, we said.
Yes, a big bowl of pho! That would fit the bill!

Somewhere close, not too far.
And it must be cheap!
Not more than seven bucks! And ten minutes by car!

We zoomed out. Got there in eight minutes tops.
It was an old school, local place,
In a room that smelled of old mops.

The service, well, it was absent at best.
Green neon. Placemats with Chinese zodiacs.
But that soup! That made up for the rest!

It was hot; it was good.
Yeah, it tasted like any other bowl of pho,
Yet it warmed us from the inside out, as we knew it would!

Pho Hung Vuong
14182 Newport Ave.
Tustin, CA 92780
(714) 731-1933

Stadtgarten - Fullerton

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Mountain Sun Pub & Brewery - Boulder, CO

From the the reviews I read of Mountain Sun Pub & Brewery in Boulder, I knew that it was a "laid back" establishment in a town known for being "laid back". But I had no idea that it was so "laid back", it warrants a redefinition of the phrase.

Here's the conversation we had with our waiter, who, as soon as we were seated, got on his knee so that he could talk to us at our eye level.

First of all, welcome to Mountain Sun! My name is John*. I am not your server. Your server is Mary*. But everyone here carrying a tray or who looks like they work here, can help you with everything you need. Also, we only accept cash. There's an ATM machine in the back that charges $1 per transaction. But if you don't have cash or an ATM card, that's okay too! We'll give you a self-addressed envelope with a stamp already on it. You just can just send us the payment whenever you get home.

(Our mouth open in disbelief)
You're serious?

Oh absolutely! And also if you're thinking of a beer, we don't want you to order a beer that you're not absolutely in love with. So ask for as many samplings as you like, as often as you like! It's free.

*Not their actual names

Mountain Sun Pub & Brewery
1535 Pearl St
Boulder, CO 80302
(303) 546-0886

Tenkatori - Costa Mesa

Wednesday, September 07, 2016

Acorn - Denver, CO

If you're going to be in Denver and have about two or three weeks lead time before you actually arrive, make a reservation at Acorn. Seats for the restaurant--arguably the hottest joint in town at the moment--book up about a month in advance for weekend evenings. Or you could do as we did: go there at exactly 5 p.m. and hope to get lucky with walk-in.

Acorn is located in an industrial area next to warehouses and auto body shops. It is, itself, inside a building that used to be a brick foundry back in the 1880s. The building was recently converted into an "artisan food market" called The Source with cheese mongers and microbreweries among them.

Yes, it's a gentrified food hall like those we've seen in OC, but the charm of the place is that it's out of the way and not even close to downtown--it takes a concerted effort to get here. And when you do, you are rewarded with some of the best food you'll ever find in a room covered in sheet metal.

This is where Mad Max and Furiosa would go on a date.

The restaurant is actually one of two inside the place, but it's the shining jewel of the entire hall. The menu is a hodgepodge of small plates sold for $15 on average. All are good to excellent. The New York Times agrees.

The spaghetti we had was electric with a sauce that's not quite marinara, not quite puttanesca, but somewhere in the middle. The meatballs were fall-apart-soft, served fuming with creamy polenta in an iron skillet. There was crispy pork belly added to a Thai mango and sticky rice dessert; and hamachi was served so beautifully it belongs in an art gallery.

And oh, that reminds me: when you're in town, also visit the Denver Art Museum.

3350 Brighton Blvd.
Denver, CO 80216
(720) 542-3721

Mountain - Buena Park

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

NBC Seafood - Monterey Park

While every other restaurant these days purport to do "small plates" that are "perfect for sharing", I would argue that there isn't a better place for friendly get togethers than a dim sum restaurant.

Think of it. You don't have to fuss with a menu. You just point and BAM, within minutes your table is crowded with plates of bite-sized morsels that are, yes, "perfect for sharing". And then there's the tea, which, in my opinion, is the best beverage for social gatherings. You pour it for each other. It aids digestion. It keeps you awake and alert.

So when a group of old college friends and I decided to reunite recently, it was a no brainer: it had to be dim sum.

We agreed on NBC Seafood, but had a good laugh when one of my friends didn't check the e-mail before leaving home and ended up at ABC Seafood.

"It IS confusing," I told him when he finally made it. "There are dim sum restaurants called CBS, ABC, and NBC. Let's just be glad there isn't one called FOX!"

We ordered all the favorites: tripe in silky ginger gravy, chicken feet, translucent har gow, and meaty shu mai.

NBC's cheongfun, rice noodle rolls filled with minced beef, could've been a little more delicate; but the zongzi, wrapped leafy parcels of glutinous rice and meat, were aromatic and filling.

I could say that the best part of this dim sum lunch was the impeccably fresh and crisp haam sui gau (fried glutinous rice dumplings) and the wu gok (fried taro puffs), but really it was the chance to catch up with friends with whom I spent the better part of my twenties.

We drank cup after cup of the tea, talked about our families, our jobs, that post-graduation cross-country road trip we took to Florida, and the fact that two decades went by in a blink.

NBC Seafood
404 S Atlantic Blvd.
Monterey Park, CA 91754
626) 282-2323

Taste Brazilian Style Gourmet - Huntington Beach

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