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

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Pineapple Float at Jollibee - Irvine

The Irvine branch of Jollibee can be uneven. There are times when my order comes out lickety-split, but there are other times when the employees can be as comically disorganized as Keystone Cops fighting a fire. And then there's the food: while Jollibee's version of pancit palabok remains a favorite of mine, when I'm looking to eat a traditional Filipino breakfast, I'm much better off at the Grill City counter across the way, where I'll pay nearly half the cost for twice as much garlic fried rice and tocino.

Despite the unevenness, I've been to Jollibee twice in one week now. It's for our current obsession--a special drink that's not only cheap ($2.79) but surprisingly good despite that most of it comes out of one of those recirculating beverage dispensers that I always equate with artificial flavors and colors.

The drink is their Pineapple Float, and to make it, an employee scoops ice cubes into a cup, pulls a lever on that dispenser to fill it near to the brim with the chain's pineapple punch, then on another lever to plop a squiggle of vanilla soft serve on top of that. Finally, to finish, he adds a few spoonfuls of chopped up canned pineapple.

If you think it sounds like it would be a wretched combination, you'd be as wrong as I was. It is, in fact, refreshing, but also ice-creamy, and not as sickly sweet as I initially imagined. And unlike Dole Whip, which I've always thought had an artificial aftertaste, Jollibee's pineapple float finishes clean--a summertime icy drink/dessert that, in the two times I've had it, was consistent, not only in the way Jollibee's employees have made it, but also in my enjoyment.

2180 Barranca Pkwy #120
Irvine, CA 92606

Irenia - Santa Ana

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Yonaka Modern Japanese - Las Vegas, NV

If you're planning to go to Vegas any time soon, avoid the craps table, skip the buffets, forget about that Cirque Du Soleil show which will only put you to sleep.

Save your money for this: Yonaka Modern Japanese--a restaurant that, so far, only locals seem to know about, and is so off The Strip, it's actually in a strip mall.

This is a dinner I would drive 4-hours across the Mojave Desert to eat; a dinner that proves that Las Vegas is truly one of the greatest food cities in America and great sashimi with impeccably fresh fish in landlocked Nevada is possible.

What follows are pictures of the eight-course omakase we ordered and the menu's descriptions. This meal, as of this writing, is $146 for two people (note: ordering each dish a la carte would also sum up to that exact amount).

"Hongmaguro Yaki"

Grilled soy-glazed Bluefin tuna, lemongrass mocha, Asian slaw, white balsamic

"Sake Orenji"

Scottish salmon, orange supreme, yuzu tobiko, orange oil


Bluefin tuna belly, walnut, cranberry, negi, piment d'espelette

"Machi Ringo"

Yellowtail, apple, fennel, sweet chili zu, negi oil

"Meat Candy"

Twice-cooked caramel-glazed Kurobota pork belly, kimchee apple, smoked tofu peanut butter

"Kobe Parsnip"

Grilled Japanese 2.5 ounce Kobe Beef, poached quail egg, parnsip puree, pickled radish

"Gyu Kaki"

Shigoku oysters, A5 Kobe beef, ceviche topping, ikura

"Mango Cotta"

Mango, pistachio, coconut

Yonaka Modern Japanese
4983 W Flamingo Rd.
Las Vegas, NV 89103
(702) 685-8358

Quan Mii - Westminster

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Nutella Crunch Milkshake at Holsteins - Costa Mesa

If you haven't read my review of Holsteins, please do. Then go go go, if not for the burgers, then just for a particular "Bam-Boozled" shake they call the Nutella Crunch. And no, do not forgo the booze. You're only saving a couple of bucks if you do and the virgin version is cloying without it.

As I said in my review, the alcohol is essential in cutting through the richness of the milk, sugar and cream.

All the flavors are great, but the Nutella Crunch is particularly scrumptious, with bits of caramelized hazelnut pieces suspended in the concoction and the Frangelico smoothing out the dairy. Before I knew it, I sucked up the last remaining dregs of whipped cream from the bottom of my soda-fountain glass and ate the crunchy brittle they put on top.

It was then that I realized how dangerous Holsteins' shakes were. It wasn't because of the alcohol (which can hardly be tasted or felt), but because at $13, these are nearly 3 times more expensive than the $5 milkshake referenced in the classic film scene below.

Holsteins Shakes & Buns
3333 Bristol St.
Costa Mesa, CA 92626
(714) 352-2525

Summer Issue: America Asia Bus Tour
SeaSalt Woodfire Grill - Huntington Beach

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Longboards Ice Cream Truck - Orange County

No matter what you think about food trucks, you can't not like those that peddle ice cream. Ice cream trucks, after all, predate the recent craze. Whose childhood doesn't have memories of chasing a slow-crawling, sticker-covered van offering prepackaged treats such as fudgesickles, ice cream sandwiches, and half-and-half bars through their neighborhood?

They were a staple on my block during the summer and they left chime-y music box renditions of "The Entertainer" and sugar-fueled kids in their wake.

These days, they're joined by the gourmet kind of truck, which doesn't so much prowl the suburbs as they Tweet, Instagram, and blog where they'll be next.

One of the better ones is Longboards since it not only sells ice cream bars it makes in-house, but lets you customize them whatever way you like. You might say it's the Chipotle of ice cream trucks.

You pick your flavor of pre-frozen bar from chocolate to coconut. Then, you choose what melted Ghirardelli chocolate you want it to be dipped in: milk or dark. And finally, you pick a topping from peanuts to Oreo to potato chips in which it will be covered.

The best combo I've discovered so far is a strawberry bar, dipped in milk chocolate, rolled in graham crackers. Unlike some of their signature combinations, this one has no official name. But if they asked me, I'd call it "chocolate-covered strawberry shortcake".

Longboards Ice Cream

Local. Healthy Tapas & Sake - Costa Mesa

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Harbor Seafood in Kenner, Louisiana (a.k.a. The Best Place To Eat in New Orleans)

So far, I've talked about Cafe Du Monde and Cochon Butcher, the most iconic and the hippest places we ate in New Orleans; now let me talk about Harbor Seafood & Oyster Bar, the best place we ate in New Orleans.

Actually, that's inaccurate. Harbor Seafood isn't in New Orleans. It's in Kenner, which is actually the city you land on when you arrive to Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport.

That is to say: Kenner is to New Orleans what Inglewood is to L.A. You're still technically in Inglewood when you're in LAX, and you're in Kenner when you land at MSY.

This fact makes the place even more elusive to non-locals. It's not listed in any guidebooks. It's never been featured in any travel shows. Bourdain and Zimmern haven't been here.

For these reasons, most tourists are clueless about its existence and pass right by it when they beeline it to the French Quarter. We did too, until one of our Uber drivers casually mentioned it out of the blue.

"Hey, do you guys like seafood?" he said in a hushed voice as he was making a turn.

"Yeah! We love seafood!" we said.

And it was then that he told us.

"Harbor Seafood," he said. "It's amazing. Crawfish. Oysters. Been there forever. Lines out the door. Gotta get there early. Have you had lunch? Go there now! It's just about to open. It's around the corner from your hotel. Down that way three blocks!"

We didn't go right then. We waited until dinner. It was our last meal before we flew out the next morning. And rather than walking, we took a Lyft. And when the Lyft driver asked us where we were headed, she corroborated the Uber driver's story.

"Oh, that is a VERY good place. My family and I go there all the time. Get the gumbo. It's been there forever. See, there's already a line. But it's a small place. It'll move quickly. I'll drive you up right to the front. Enjoy your dinner!"

And thus began an amazing night. A mind-blowing night. It was the New Orleans feast we'd been waiting for.

We ate until we nearly burst. We drank sweet tea and sweaty mugs of cheap $2 beer. We sucked the spicy juice out of crawfish heads, sunk our teeth into a snappy-spicy Cajun sausage, and gulped creamy, sweet, ultra fresh gulf oysters the size of paddles.

We ate and ate.

There was an amazing potato salad with bits of egg in it. And the gumbo was like New Orleans history in a cup.

We even devoured a fried-oyster-and-shrimp po boy and gumbo on special even though we were already stuffed by then.

"My God," we said to each other with wide-eyed disbelief as we bit into those sandwiches. "How spectacular is this po boy!?"

The bread's so light, airy, fluffy, with just the barest hint of a crackly crust.

How is it possible that the fried seafood, and the mustard, mayo, lettuce and tomato--something locals refer to as having your po boy "dressed"--end up tasting so much more than the sum of its parts?

And how is it possible this gigantic plate of food is $10.50, and the crawfish is $2.99 a pound, and the oysters $4.50 for a half dozen?

"Did you notice the crawfish isn't drenched in butter like it is at those crawfish joints in California?"

"Yes! Yet still it tastes better, spicier, sweeter!"

"We should've been eating here all along! Can we move here?"

"No, it's too humid. You'd die of heat stroke."

"But the next time we visit, we're eating here, like every night, okay?"

"Oh yeah, absolutely!"

Harbor Seafood
3203 Williams Blvd.
Kenner, LA 70065
(504) 443-6454

Angelina's Pizzeria Napoletana - Irvine

Tuesday, June 07, 2016

Cochon Butcher - New Orleans

If you read The Lonely Planet guidebook for New Orleans, it will suggest that you add Cochon Butcher to your itinerary. It is not wrong.

This deli counter and sandwich shop in the middle of an industrial district is attached to Cochon, one of Donald Link's places. If you don't know who Donald Link is, perhaps you've heard of his restaurants Herbsaint and Peche, both of which won several prestigious awards I won't begin to list here. Or maybe you've seen the guy eating crawfish with Anthony Bourdain in New Orleans on his CNN show.

But the real reason I would second Lonely Planet's recommendation to visit Cochon Butcher is the fact that this deli is a bonafide charcuterie. It makes all the meats it sticks into the sandwiches.

As the name would suggest, most everything is pig-based. The kitchen even makes a sandwich called Le Pig Mac, which looks exactly like a Big Mac--two patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese on a sesame seed bun--except made with pork, and supposedly way better.

I didn't try the Le Pig Mac, but I mention it because it shows Link's sense of humor. There's also this: he's got a big Star Wars fetish. As soon as you walk in, there's a life-sized Chewbacca wearing sunglasses. A 3D model of The Death Star appears to have crashed into one of the walls. And in the men's restroom, there's Chewbacca again on the wallpaper, watching you pee.

The most popular thing to order here is probably the muffaletta--the quintessential sandwich of this area after the po' boy.

And it was a behemoth--packed with layers upon layers of salame, ham, bacon and a few other porcine-based products I could not begin to identify. All of this was tucked between a gigantic dome of a sesame-seeded crusty loaf of a bun that crackled just slightly when I bit into it. And slathered between it and the melted cheese was just enough olive spread to counteract the pork. One order was big enough for the two of us. The kitchen knew it since it's cut into quarters.

Apart from being the first muffaleta I've eaten in New Orleans, it was the best pork sandwich I've ever had. And if it could speak, I imagine it would say "May the Pork be with you!"

Cochon Butcher
930 Tchoupitoulas St.
New Orleans, LA 70130
(504) 588-7675

P.S. This post is the second of three that chronicles the best food we had during a recent trip to New Orleans. Stay tuned for a post on the best meal we had in The Big Easy!

Irrawaddy Taste of Burma - Stanton

Wednesday, June 01, 2016

Cafe Du Monde - New Orleans

It can easily be argued that New Orleans has more iconic foods than any region in America. For starters there's muffaletta, po boys, gumbo, red beans and rice, and etouffee, just to name a few. But on top of that list has to be the beignet. And when you're in New Orleans, not going to Cafe Du Monde to get your beignets is tantamount to refusing to take a picture of yourself in front of the Eiffel Tower. You just have to.

Yes, the original Cafe Du Monde in the French Quarter is touristy. It's a mess, actually. The floor is sticky, covered with powdered sugar where there's not puddles of spilled coffee. Trying to find a table is chaotic. There's no attempt at any sort of order. And if you go when it's busy, which is all the time, you're going to have to troll the open-air dining area until something opens up. And when you find a table, you will most likely have to wave down one of the many busboys/waiters to clean up the refuse from the previous occupants.

But as soon as you order your own plate of beignets and coffee, you realize you're just as messy as everyone else is. You use up more napkins than you've ever used before. You spill your coffee. And the powdered sugar? You get it everywhere.

Cafe Du Monde piles their beignets with so much powdered sugar your fried dough mountain looks like the summit of Everest after a blizzard. And if you lift one up to your mouth, and you breathe on it wrong, the sugar goes airborne. No matter what, some will get on the table, on your hands, all over your face.

We read from a guidebook not to wear black at Cafe Du Monde. That was one of the best pieces of travel advice we ever took.

But oh how lovely these beignets were. Despite all the trouble and messiness, they were delicate objects. Fluffy and moist on the inside, just crisp on the outside--the whole thing eaten hot out of the fryer. Of course, we took a selfie of ourselves eating it. You just have to.

Cafe Du Monde
800 Decatur St.
New Orleans, LA 70116

P.S. This post is the first of three that chronicles the best food we had during a recent trip to New Orleans. Stay tuned for more!

Holsteins Shakes and Buns - Costa Mesa

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Skewers by Morimoto - LAX

Get ready for a post about a First World Problem: flight delay. Our Delta flight from LAX to New Orleans didn't start out well, but a comedy of errors made it worse and worse. First, the gate kept being changed. We felt like cats chasing a laser.

Then they said the airplane was "broken." When they finally got a new plane flown in 4 hours later, no one was available to fly it--the original pilots had "timed out". So we had to wait a few more hours for new ones to be flown in. Yes, the new pilots had to be flown in. Like from another airport.

In the meantime, the ground crew kept trying to give us updates. But each update was a report of a new setback. By the twelfth announcement, all they did was make everyone even angrier.

Long story short: instead of taking-off at the time it said on our ticket (5:20 p.m.), it was 11:40 p.m.

If you're counting, that's more than a 6 hour delay. And it put our arrival to The Big Easy at 5 a.m. Saturday instead of 11 p.m. Friday.

Delta did try to make amends by giving us snacks and soda at first, but when they saw that some of us in the terminal were getting "hangry" along with getting angry, they brought the big guns: free Subway sandwiches and chips.

By that time, we had already eaten. It turns out that there's no better Concourse in LAX to be delayed than the one we were in.

There was bevy of new eateries here, not a single one of them McDonald's or Cinnabon. There was a Lemonade, Rock & Brews, a food court with the Fairfax Farmers Market greatest hits, and Ben Ford's (yes, Han Solo's real son--no, not the one that killed him) Filling Station.

We ended up at a restaurant called Skewers because my lovely travel companion saw a picture of a beef bowl that she thought looked particularly scrumptious. But it wasn't until I went up to order it that I realized Skewers was conceived by none other than Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto.

Then it all started to make sense. I saw kushiyaki being grilled on an actual robata. I witnessed ramen noodles boiled to order and shaken vigorously to get rid of excess water. And when I tasted the thin strips of meat in my $14 beef bowl, it was tender and melting despite having very little fat. This was one of the bests Japanese gyudons I've ever had. The flavor was the exact right balance of shoyu-mirin-and-dashi. The freshly toasted sesame seeds sprinkled on top were aromatic. Even the rice was excellent.

It was everything Yoshinoya beef bowls (which I love) could ever hope to be but never are.

Still, it was a $14 beef bowl. But that's fine because it reminded me of a Jerry Seinfeld joke when he said: "Do you think that the people at the airport that run the stores have any idea what the prices are every place else in the world?"

Ah, Jerry Seinfeld, what kind of comedy gold could you have mined from that 6-hour flight delay?

Skewers by Morimoto
Los Angeles International Airport
380 World Way, Terminal 5, Gate 54A
Los Angeles, CA 90045

Taverna - Laguna Beach

Monday, May 09, 2016

I Took An Australian To Outback Steakhouse

A couple of years ago my aunt and uncle came to visit from Australia. We thought it would be funny to take them to Outback Steakhouse. But crikey! The joke was on us.

My uncle--a retired sheep rancher who can still shear a ewe in the time it would take me to take off a turtleneck sweater--actually loved it.

He was tickled at the mishmash of Australian jargon used on the menu, the boomerangs on the wall, and the kangaroos in the logo. We even took a picture of him in front of the Outback sign so that he could show his friends back home.

Even more surprising, he actually enjoyed the food. And, you know what? So did we.

Outback Steakhouse, which is more Florida Gator than Crocodile Dundee (it started in Tampa), is, to put it plainly, a well-managed restaurant. And since that day we took him, we've actually gone back many times. We've now grown a soft spot for it ourselves.

The complimentary brown loaf of bread is always hot and good. The steaks are decent, the crab stack appetizer is immaculate, and the soups are hearty (if a little oversalted). And yes, I can even occasionally tolerate the Bloomin' Onion, or at least I can until I realize I'm slowly killing myself by eating it.

But more than anything, what we like most about Outback is that its servers, especially those at the Irvine branch, are not just attentive, but also remarkably chummy and cheerful. They are friendlier and more welcoming than most of the servers I encounter at a lot of the independent, non-chain eateries I frequent as a food critic.

And every time we go to Outback, it always reminds me of that time we took Uncle Robert, a man I consider more Australian than Paul Hogan and Steve Irwin combined. I still remember what he said when we asked him what he thought about the place. He said, "It's noice!"

Outback Steakhouse
15433 Culver Dr.
Irvine, CA 92604
(949) 651-8760

Oceans & Earth - Yorba Linda