Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Lobster Roll at Governor's - Ellsworth, Maine

Did you know that the McDonalds' in Maine sell lobster rolls? It's true. But unfortunately, it does so only up to Labor Day. We found this out after stopping into McDonald's that had neglected to take down the special from its marquee.

Though disappointed we missed it by a week, it did get us thinking: If McDonald's offered lobster rolls, then every run-of-the-mill place must also.

One night, after a tiring but fulfilling day exploring Acadia National Park, we decided to test our theory. We found a restaurant called Governor's that was directly across from our hotel. It looked like the New England version of Spires or Norms--a diner chain that catered to retirees and other regulars whom the wait staff knew by name.

We sat down into one of their cushy booths, and there it was on the menu: lobster roll. And it turned out to be as good a lobster roll as we had the entire trip. The traditional split-top bun was lightly toasted, and aside from a tiny piece of lettuce, it was stuffed with an abundance of chilled lobster meat.

Eating it, I realized what I should've realized when I saw that McDonald's offered them: to us, lobster rolls were a rarity, a special treat; but to the locals, they might as well be tuna sandwiches.

So if you're in Maine and searching for a lobster roll, don't go where a tourist would go; go where the locals would normally get their tuna sandwiches, because it won't cost that much more. Either that or just time your visit when McDonald's has it.

253 High St.
Ellsworth, ME 04605

Huntington Ramen - Huntington Beach

Wednesday, October 04, 2017

Crispy House - Artesia

I'm not going to repeat myself by saying that Crispy House (formerly called Magic Wok) in Artesia is the best Filipino restaurant in California.

But I am going to link every article where I said it before.

So if you're still not convinced, read them all from the links below, and GO GO GO!

- Crispy House Remains the Best Filipino Restaurant in SoCal
- Monster Munching: The Magic Wok - Artesia - A Photo Superpost
- Monster Munching: Magic Wok's "Special Combo" Breakfast - Artesia
- Monster Munching: Magic Wok - Grand Re-Opening - Artesia
- Monster Munching: Magic Wok's Halo Halo - Artesia
- Monster Munching: Magic Wok's Crispy Chicken - Artesia
- Monster Munching: The Greatest Pork Dish In The World

The Magic Wok
(562) 865-7340
11869 Artesia Blvd
Artesia, CA 90701

Trevor at The Tracks - San Juan Capistrano

Monday, October 02, 2017

Chef's Counter at Napa Rose - Anaheim

It was a birthday dinner to top all birthday dinners--something my lovely partner (a.k.a. Cookiemonster) gave me as part of her gift--a 4-course meal at Napa Rose Chef's Counter.

But it was also our lucky night. Though we'd booked the last available counter seats of the evening, which was at the dessert station, someone had cancelled at the main area.

So, when the Napa Rose representative called to confirm our reservation that afternoon, she offered the newly available seats, effectively bumping up us to first class.

And my friends, it was!

Unlike our first Chef's Counter dinner (which was in front of the dessert chefs), this was a whole new show, an entirely different experience with a front row view of the action.

The chef at the blazing sauté station was practically acrobatic. I watched in amazement at how he fluidly moved his arms, legs, feet as he juggled multiple burners and ovens. It was worthy of Cirque du Soleil.

And you should've seen how meticulously the garde manger sculpted his lettuce into perfect little pyramids on his plates.

But the star was the commander-in-chief, chef de cuisine Gloria Tae, who directed her army of cooks like a culinary George Patton.

Her commands of "Fire scallops!" or "Fire tiger!" would be answered and repeated in the affirmative by the kitchen soldier responsible for the dish, no matter where they were.

Amid the controlled chaos and non-stop whirlwind of activity, there was the constant aroma of brown butter and searing steaks.

And of course, we ate well--one of the best meals I've had in OC, and certainly at the Disney resort.

There was an amuse of sweet corn fritter with wasabi aioli; grilled opah; seared ahi tuna; a sautéed apple salad with cheddar; a so-called "Tiger" salad with lobster fritters; perfectly cooked duck breast; milky sweetbreads with mushrooms and pasta; a pot roast with seasonal vegetables; an enormous porterhouse of lamb; a dessert of apple confit with ginger ice cream; and a chocolate torte plate on which they stuck a candle and wrote Happy Birthday in chocolate.

I blew out that candle, but I think my wish was already fulfilled.

Napa Rose
Disneyland Resort
1313 Disneyland Dr.
Disney's Grand Californian Hotel & Spa
Anaheim, CA 92802
(714) 635-2300

Fatty Tuna - Irvine

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Union River Lobster Pot - Ellsworth, Maine

We went to Maine to visit Acadia National Park, but mainly, it was to eat lobster, lots of lobster. Boiled lobster. Lobster rolls. Lobster everything.

Ellsworth, a sleepy town near the coast, was just a stopover--a cheaper place to stay than Bar Harbor, which is the more touristy city closest to Acadia.

That first night, settling into our hotel room, tired from the long drive from Boston Logan, we decided to find something to eat not too far away. We still wanted our first meal in Maine to be lobster, but we weren't going to be picky on the place. If it was around the corner, even better.

We saw Union River Lobster Pot on Yelp. The pictures looked good enough. Most important, it was just a few blocks away--a local place. But what it ended up being was one of the best restaurant experiences of our entire trip.

First, that name isn't just a name. This seafood shack, with its outdoor cooking pots billowing steam, is located on the banks of the Union River. And the table we got, next to a window that's actually just a mesh screen, gave us a view of not just the garden but the river itself, a meandering creek shaded by trees--a scene idyllic enough for a Thomas Kinkade painting.

And our meal, called "The Downeast Shore Dinner"--consisting of a 1 1/4 boiled lobster with clam chowder, steamers, mussels, hot drawn butter, clam jus, French fries, coleslaw, and a loaf of homemade bread--cost us a little less than $30. This was an incredible price for a lot of food that we wouldn't see repeated again in any of the more tourist-trappy seafood restaurants in Bar Harbor.

We also discovered that the Union River Lobster Pot featured a lobster stew that tasted like nothing we've eaten before. The soup was thin rather than thick. And because it was, we could appreciate the flavor of the lobster meat itself, of which the soup had in abundance.

I still dream about that stew. Since returning home, I've been searching the Internet in vain for a recipe. If you know how to make this nectar of the shellfish gods, please drop me a comment.

But if you are, yourself, considering a trip to Maine to see Acadia and eat lobster, you need to go to Union River Lobster Pot. Do it before the likes of Andrew Zimmern and Anthony Bourdain discovers it and tells the whole damn world.

Union River Lobster Pot
8 South St
Ellsworth, ME 04605
(844) 247-2407

Mint Restaurant - Laguna Hills

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Nishi Poke & Ramen Bistro - Los Angeles

Nishi Poke & Ramen Bistro is not anywhere close to where I roam. It's in LA; and not just LA, but Rancho Park, a place that I can honestly say I've never heard of. But the place came highly recommended by a friend and mentor of mine, who I not only respect professionally but also on matters of food. He insisted I try it, even offering to pay for my lunch.

I told him that wasn't necessary. I was already curious because while Southern California is crawling with build-your-own poke joints and ramen shops, this restaurant is the first I've seen that attempts to do both.

Ramen and DIY poke are two separate and vastly different operating models. So this was a completely new concept--a two-in-one. It was as though Chipotle started offering burgers.

The restaurant was set-up exactly as I thought it would. The poke bar was on one side. The ramen counter with its own blackboard was on the other. But the dining room was a lot better-looking than the tiny strip mall plaza and its atrocious parking lot would have led me to believe. It is, in fact, a very charming bistro.

Each table had compartments stocked with ornate chopsticks and designer ceramic soup spoons. Fanciful sketches of commissioned art decorate walls made of blackboard. I could tell that the owner invested a not insignificant amount money remodeling the place, making it sunny, chic, and fashionable for sunny, chic, and fashionable Westsiders.

Even the poke assembly line got upgrades. It offered not only the usuals of ahi, salmon, and shrimp, but also crawfish, which, in my opinion, is as good as lobster. In addition, there were complimentary toppings I'd never seen before, such as tamagoyaki (Japanese omelette) and watermelon radish.

While the poke is great, the reason to go is the ramen. The noodles hit the chewy sweet spot: not too firm, not too soft. And they're substantial too--thick, almost udon-like--with the consistency of Chinese hand-pulled.

For now, there are only three broth options, with the spicy miso being the best. I knew I was in for a treat when I saw the shifting pools of red floating above the creamy 24-hour-simmered tonkotsu broth. And it's a good, steady heat, not overpowering but hot enough to keep me sipping to maintain the hurt. By the end of the bowl, I was sweating so much I'd depleted the table's napkin dispenser.

But there were other things to love about it, including wads of freshly boiled spinach, cooked cabbage contributing an unexpected sweetness, and two pieces of generously thick pork belly that were broiled to gild the edges with char.

A soft boiled egg was an extra add on, but essential--the yolk straddling the tenuous balance between liquid and solid. It's perfect and a fitting symbol of how this restaurant has managed to successfully straddle the tight rope of two genres.

Nishi Poke & Ramen Bistro
2536 Overland Ave
Los Angeles, CA 90064
(424) 361-5001

Luxor Cafe - Garden Grove

Sunday, August 27, 2017

The Worst Restaurant in Orange County

I had lined up this new restaurant to review for The Weekly. The menu looked eclectic. It was one of those modern gastropubs with an Asian spin. But its Yelp page was strange. There were a lot of one-star reviews. But the text that accompanied those reviews were positive. It turns out that the owner was actually encouraging friends to put them up as some sort of a protest against the site. The owner claimed that Yelp was suppressing the good reviews and asking for money.

The refusal to play the Yelp game sounded admirable, but ultimately, I found the strategy foolish. Past a cursory glance, who among us scrolling for a place to eat would dig into a restaurant's Yelp page to find out why it got so few stars?

But it wasn't a concern of mine. I wanted to try it no matter what.

Yet, as the events of the evening unfolded, I came to the realization that hidden in those self-inflicted one-star reviews might have been bad reviews that were actually earned and warranted.

We arrived at 7:30 p.m. on a Saturday night. The place looked hip. The bar looked well-stocked. But no one, not even one customer, was there. The restaurant was empty.

On the menu, we found a pork belly lumpia that sounded interesting. When I asked our waitress how many came to an order, she said two. Since there were three of us, I asked whether it would be possible to have the kitchen fry up one more and just charge us for it. She went to check. When she came back, she informed me they couldn't do it; I'd have to get two orders.

I politely declined.

Shortly thereafter the first order of lumpia arrived. And then came the second.

"But I didn't want the second order," I protested.

"Oh! I thought you said you did," she said.

We excused the mistake and kept the two extra egg rolls but immediately regretted it. The lumpia, covered in a shell that was overfried and burnt, was so salty it made my head hurt. After that came one travesty after another. The noodle salad was strangely stiff, tasting like it was made with uncooked Top Ramen soaked in water.

Then came the clincher.

"Excuse me," I said to the waitress, "This chicken wing is undercooked. It looks burnt on the outside but it's still raw on the inside."

"It's cooked to temperature," she insisted, "Maybe it's just close to an artery. We all ate it before and it should be fine. It's safe."

There was no apology. No offer to take it back nor to take it off the bill.

And that was that: After 15 years of reviewing restaurants for OC Weekly and this blog, I had finally found the worst restaurant in Orange County.

At this point you might be wondering why I've not mentioned the name of the restaurant. I've decided not to reveal it, nor will I rip it apart for the sake of a good read on The Weekly. As my friends wisely said, "It would be like kicking them when they're down."

My friends are absolutely right. Looking around at that empty place, it'd be lucky if it survives the year. And when it does die, it will have done it to itself.

The Water Brewery - Costa Mesa

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

$5.25 Boba Milk Tea vs. $1.50 Boba Milk Tea

The milk tea you see to the left is from Gong Cha, the newest and shiniest boba shop to open in Irvine. When I ordered it, the cashier asked what sweetness level I wanted (either "no sugar", 30%, 50%, 70%, or 100%) and what level of ice I preferred (either "no ice", 25%, 50%, or 100%).

After that came the toppings. I chose boba (which they called "pearls") and pudding (which was still called "pudding"). Each topping cost an additional 50 cents. Two people and at least one cocktail shaker were involved in its preparation.

When I was presented with the final product, the person told me that I should let them know if anything needed to be adjusted.

Since I opted for the large, and it was the "Brown Sugar Fresh Milk Tea" from their more premium "Fresh Milk Series" list, the total cost for the drink was $5.25.

I still am unsure of the difference between this "Brown Sugar Fresh Milk Tea" and the regular "Pearl Milk Tea", which can be found under the regular "Milk Tea Series" list. But if I had opted for that one in the medium-sized cup, it would've been $3.75.

I point this out because the milk tea you see to the right is from Banh Mi Che Cali. It cost me $1.50 (Banh Mi Che Cali offers two milk teas for $3, toppings included).

It came out of a circulating beverage dispenser. And it tasted no different than the one on the left.

Gong Cha
14130 Culver Dr. Ste H-2
Irvine, CA 92604
(949) 656-8276

Banh Mi & Che Cali
15551 Brookhurst St
Westminster, CA 92683
(714) 839-8185

Lido Bottle Works - Newport Beach

Sunday, August 06, 2017

Why I Don't Like 626 Night Market

This weekend, the crowds will swell again at 626 Night Market in Santa Anita Park. It's the second to last one of the summer. And I get its appeal. For some it may be nostalgia for the night markets of the old country. For others, it's something different to do on a summer's night that's festive and outdoors.

But for me, the more I go, the more I realize how utterly pointless the whole exercise is. First, there's the traffic nightmare in and around it. Then comes the inevitable search for an open parking spot that's not a mile away from the venue. And when I get inside the gate, I have to navigate against herds of people going in different directions. There are lines everywhere. And for what? To eat the same foods I've had elsewhere? To drink a boba milk tea that tastes like all the others?

And then there's the thing that makes it all for naught: the prices.

To be clear, I'm not complaining about the $3 admission fee that the 626 Night Market organizers charge to cover the security guards, fence rentals, and whatever else. That's a sunk cost I can understand. Besides, it's still far less than what they charge for OC Night Market, where they also levy a parking fee.

It's just that when I realize how exorbitantly more expensive everything is, I can't help but think that a lot of the vendors regard the whole endeavor as an opportunistic money grab. To them it must be like shooting fish in a barrel if the fish had pockets full of disposable income. How else to explain how one stall was selling six or seven measly fried quail eggs for $9?

Of course, there are exceptions like the $15 uni rice bowl you see above. A vendor called "Beach Live" served it in an actual sea urchin shell for $15, which is not only reasonable, but a bargain when you consider what a sushi bar would charge for the five lobes of fresh sweet uni we found still stuck to the sides.

Other than that, 626 Night Market is not where you are going to find bargains for food. 626 Night Market is a perversion of what the original night markets in Asia are supposed to be, where the non-wealthy can get a great meal for not much money. In fact, it's my opinion that when you go to 626 Night Market, what you're paying for is the privilege of having a Third World eating experience in a First World country.

One might argue that it's like camping. Although the invention of hotels has made it unnecessary for anyone to sleep outside when they travel, people still camp because it reminds them of the essentials, something that brings them back to basics.

So if you haven't gone or you're a person who might enjoy 626 Night Market for what it is, then you should go. But personally, when sleeping in a tent costs as much as a night at Waldorf Astoria, I'd rather go for the room service.

626 Night Market
285 W Huntington Dr.
Arcadia, CA 91007
(626) 765-5166

Free Range Cafe - Newport Beach

Wednesday, August 02, 2017

Another Rhyming Review of Cafe Hiro - Cypress

Cafe Hiro is a monthly ritual,
Our usual Cypress spot.
That's no secret on this blog.
We go there and go there a lot.

We order as we always do,
The same dishes, the same iced tea.
Uni spaghetti. Osso bucco.
That fabulous katsu curry.

But sometimes, there are specials.
Special plates, special deals.
One night, t'was a shrimp tempura salad,
which ate like two meals.

Then karaage made of yellowtail,
Firm and cold its flesh.
Not unlike Filipino escabeche it was,
Sour, and sweet, the red peppers fresh.

Dessert is almost always the bread pudding,
A croissant, egg, and chocolate composite.
After all the years and all the meals,
Maybe Cafe Hiro should just take my direct deposit.

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

Goodies in the Pantry - Orange

Sunday, July 30, 2017

OC Fair 2017 - Our Visit in Haiku

OC Fair Express.
Irvine to Costa Mesa.
Seven dollars saved.

Giant wheel of lights.
Smoke billows to the night sky.
Bodies back-to-back.

Cute racing pigs race.
Acrobats defy physics.
Corn roasted in husks.

Chicken Charlie line.
"Two drumsticks please, and a breast."
"Can I have some Ranch?"

Something sweet perhaps?
Every year: Lazy Toucan,
For funnel cake fix.

Full of fried foods now.
Another OC Fair: done.
Now summer's complete.
OC Fair
88 Fair Dr.
Costa Mesa, CA 92626
(714) 708-1500

Legado Bar + Kitchen - Laguna Niguel