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

Yet Another Apology for Unposted Comments

Well, it's happened again. An overzealous SPAM filter and my own ineptitude at this blogging software has resulted in lots of comments being stuck in Comment Moderation purgatory. I just published them and will reply to them all soon.

But I would like to apologize and say thank you to everyone starting with KirkK, NP, dumplings, Greg Hao, Gilbert M., joanh, Ernie Y., OC Paul, Oblio, Mike H., Karrie, Greg, and all those who wish to remain Anonymous for posting those comments in the first place.

Thank you for reading!

Now, back our regularly scheduled program!

Monday, December 30, 2019

Edwin Goei's Top 10 New Restaurants of 2019


Around this time of year, I usually produce a Top 5 list for OC Weekly, the paper where I filed my weekly reviews for the past twelve and a half years. In fact, my editor Cynthia Rebolledo and I were starting our plans for it in November. But then, as you know, OC Weekly was shuttered by its owner the day before Thanksgiving.

So this year, I’m not going to do a Top 5. Instead, I’m doing a Top 10. Herewith is the list of 2019’s best new restaurants, according to me.

10. Woodfire Kabob Restaurant



Woodfire Kabob’s koobidehs are the girthiest in the county. A typical serving comes in two foot-long lengths. If you dangled both upright and end-to-end, it would stand as tall as Verne Troyer. Only the lightest pressure of your fork is required; it’s so soft it melts. The chicken version—tinted orange from turmeric and saffron—weeps juice when you bite into it. But it’s when you smoosh the molten roasted tomatoes to make an impromptu rice-moistening sauce and squeeze lime over the char-kissed meat, singed onion and blackened green pepper that you begin to grasp how these basic ingredients has resulted in something miraculous.

24155 Laguna Hills Mall, Ste. 1055, Laguna Hills, (949) 220-0000; woodfirekabob.com


9. F & H Shack 


The man who single-handedly takes your order, makes everything on the menu, and then serves your food, does it alone. If he wasn’t doing it at F&H Shack, he’d be doing so from a street cart in Manhattan. And there would be lines down the block for his falafels, hummus and foul, the only three dishes he sells. Each is available as a plate or a sandwich, and all are vegan without even trying. Everything is so well-made it wouldn’t occur to you that just one guy is responsible--this guy.

512 S. Brookhurst St., Ste 8, Anaheim, (714) 860-4266; https://f-h-shack.business.site


8. Kyung Bok Kung


Kyung Bok Kung is one of the few places (if not the only one) in the county to offer han-jeongsik, a blowout feast originally designed for royalty in imperial Korea. The defining characteristic of the meal is an overwhelming spread served all at once. At Kyung Bok Kung, your table will be blanketed with about 15 different dishes, with no expense spared on presentation. Expect rock sculptures and sizzling plates. There will be rich porridge, gurgling soups, bright salads, savory pancakes, perfectly sliced sashimi, rippling barbecue meats, and whole fish. And that’s not counting the sides and sauces. By the end, you’ll think to yourself, “How am I going to finish all this?” Also: “My Instagram followers are going to be so jealous!”

7801 Beach Blvd., Buena Park, (714) 888-4948, kyungbokkungusa.com


7. Délice Breton


When you encounter the cloudlike structure of the omelet at Délice Breton, you will taste the effort taken into its making. Done in the same way it’s been done for ages in Saint-Malo, creating this omelet requires decades of know-how and tons of elbow grease. The result is an omelet so fluffy, it’s hard to overstate. As you cut in, the fork will pass through it as though it’s shampoo foam. It isn’t just light and airy, but creamy too, especially in the middle, where it takes on the texture of cheese fondue. It’s also huge—a bloated crescent that could double as a travel pillow. And since it’s served with a salad, it’s more lunch than breakfast. After having the omelet, order what’s possibly the best crepes in the county. You won’t find one that’s more delicate, eggy, and buttery. And in the banana-and-chocolate version, Délice Breton's resident crepe chef shows how an OG master does it. Instead of just slicing the banana, she mashes it into a paste that’s spread underneath the crepe so that every bite has equal portions of pancake, fruit and chocolate sauce.

31451 Rancho Viejo Rd., Ste. 103, San Juan Capistrano, (949) 503-1577; www.delicebreton.com

6. La Super Birria


Even though the owners finally changed the sign outside from Dulceria Caracol to La Super Birria, you still walk in feeling as though you’ve discovered El Dorado in the jungle. The golden treasure you find at La Super Birria is the birria de res itself, a spicy, brick-red stew of beef so tender it verges on collapse. And where it isn’t falling apart, there are just enough bits of fat left behind to make you shudder with delight. The fact that it’s the kind of home-style bowl of food an abuelita would make is confirmed by the actual abuelitas tending to the huge stew pot in the kitchen. These ladies also hand-make the tortillas you eat on the side--which are the thickest, best specimens in a town with a lot of tortillas. Soft but also chewy, light but also hearty, they possess a pure corn flavor and are as perfect an accompaniment to the birria de res as oyster crackers are to clam chowder.

1041 W. First St, Santa Ana, (657) 245-3810


5. Banana Leaf Kitchen


In every part of Banana Leaf Kitchen’s name, there’s truth in advertising. As it’s first and foremost a takeout joint designed for GrubHub orders, the Huntington Beach eatery’s kitchen takes up nearly 80 percent of the floor space. There are no public restrooms, and all the food is packed in to-go containers, so they’re ready for pick up by customers who aren’t staying very long. You could opt to dine-in, but you’d be doing so inside a small waiting area equipped with six chairs. This dining room—if you can call it that—is too cramped to bring even the tiniest nuclear family and too casual for dates unless you’re already past the getting-to-know-you part of the relationship. But if your sweetheart is originally from a Southeast Asian country where banana trees grow like weeds, bring them anyway. They’ll be impressed that Banana Leaf Kitchen serves every dish on top of a strip of banana leaf, just like how it’s done on the streets of Indonesia, Thailand and Laos. To a Southeast Asian expat, this subtle touch makes a huge difference. And when you do decide to dine in, you’re offered a free plate of hot rice mounded over a leaf strip. The heat releases the leaf’s aroma, and as it wafts up to your nostrils, you’ll swear the rice tastes better than any you’ve ever had. But even if the banana leaf weren’t there, rice is essential to everything you consume here. The chicken stir-fried with holy basil, the Lao sausage, heck, everything on the menu just wouldn’t be the same without rice as Huntington Beach’s take-out scene wouldn’t be the same without this place.

19092 Beach Blvd., Ste. V, Huntington Beach, (714) 377-6614; www.bananaleaf.kitchen

4. Hole in the Wall Burger


Hole in the Wall Burger's burger combo, which come with fries and a drink retails for less than $10 before tax. By comparison, you’d already hit that mark by ordering a basic burger at any of the recently overhyped burger vendors located inside any number of food halls. But Hole In the Wall Burger is not competing with those, nor does it seem interested in attracting the same kind of customer. It will remind you instead of Huntington Beach’s TK Burgers and San Clemente’s Riders Club. Like them, it’s old-school--a no-frills burger stand that sells food at a fair price. In fact, Hole In the Wall Burger is currently invisible to Instagram’s so-called “influencers.” It recalls the lessons from that Parks and Recreation episode in which Ron Swanson’s rudimentary beef burger triumphs over Chris Traeger’s froufrou ground-turkey sandwich. This burger, like that episode, proves that when it comes to hamburgers, it’s the basics that count. Ground from chuck and never frozen, Hole In the Wall’s beef patty is formless and has more in common with French steak tartare than a Big Mac. Its texture is as soft as the bun. And when you come face-to-face with it, you don’t eat it; rather, you embark on a torrid love affair. Things quickly get hot, steamy, messy and juicy. Once you finish and bask in the afterglow, you need a few napkins to wipe yourself off.

25262 Jeronimo Rd., Lake Forest, (949) 328-9049


3. Il Palco


This Italian restaurant set atop the highest floor at the Source in Buena Park is very service-oriented--the kind of establishment where your water glass is a chalice and the servers offer to refill your soda before you think to ask. But even if you subtract the attentive waiters, Il Palco would still be the classiest restaurant in this M.C. Escher-eque mall. A jazz-piano soundtrack echoes in the white-marbled space. String lights dangle above the smaller of the two outdoor patios, and the larger one has a railing that separates you from a four-story drop. You will also notice that Il Palco is Korean-owned. You'll see mostly Korean customers here. But aside from the very subtle Korean touches, the restaurant can compete against any trattoria this side of the Atlantic. The Bolognese is flawless and the pizzas are incredible. Made with the same dough as the pita-like bread that’s offered as soon as you sit down, the crust is unimaginably tender. It’s as though it was made of down feathers and clouds rather than flour and water. For appetizers, start with the deep-fried octopus. If there’s more than four in your party, order two. It’s that good. The skin is blistered and crispy while the meat is soft like a moist piece of turkey breast. Is it Italian? Korean? A hybrid? Who cares? A great dish such as this transcends any and all nationalities.

6980 Beach Blvd., Ste. H-304, Buena Park, (714) 690-1430; www.il-palco.com


2. Gram’s Kitchen


You wouldn’t think of finding much of a nightlife in La Palma, let alone in a mini-mall where a printing shop, a dry cleaner and a State Farm agent close up before sundown. But as you approach Gram’s Kitchen after dark, you hear not only signs of life, but also boisterous live music pouring from the open doors. The place feels as if it were teleported from New Orleans’ Bourbon Street itself. A jazz-and-blues band rocks the house on the weekends, and the food rivals anything produced by Emeril Lagasse and the late Paul Prudhomme. The red beans and rice, a soul-food dish that’s a meal unto itself, gets topped with an oar-sized slab of succulent fried catfish cocooned in cornmeal. In the shrimp and grits, the heat of the cayenne travels from your face toward your legs, which, because of the music, will be eager to get out on the dance floor. Reservations are recommended on the weekends, especially if “The Art of Sax” is playing.

12 Centerpointe Dr., Ste. 106, La Palma, (657) 255-4036; gramskitchenlapalma.com


1. Gem Dining


Gem Dining is already a game-changer in Little Saigon. As word spreads that it’s the new restaurant by the Vox geniuses, prime-time reservations are impossible to snag if you don’t plan weeks in advance. The head chef is a chiseled Asian dude with a shaved head who looks as if he could go toe-to-toe with John Wick. No one in his entire kitchen crew is older than 30. They all talk and operate like second- and third-generation Asians who revere the cooking traditions of their parents but also worship at the altar of David Chang and Roy Choi. Although most of its customers are Vietnamese, Gem Dining isn’t interested in rehashing things you can get on Bolsa Street. Instead the menu catapults you to the rest of Asia, covering the uncovered, taking risks and betting that you're up for a little adventure. There’s even a roving cart that offers oysters, dim sum-style. This is a modern take on Asian food the chefs themselves want to eat. And if you happen to be from one of the countries to which they pay special homage, like Indonesia and Malaysia, you’re in for a treat. The nasi goreng and laksa is so spot on, someone on the team must have gotten a hold of their grandma's recipe book and followed it word-for-word.

10836 Warner Ave., Fountain Valley, (714) 516-8121; www.gemdining.com

Monday, December 23, 2019

Longo Seafood - Chino Hills


The crispy dough baton we Westerners call a Chinese cruller is also known as a Chinese oil stick. But when I bit into the one I had at the new Longo Seafood in Chino Hills, I thought the kitchen staff took the latter definition literally. It was so drenched in grease, if I had wrung it out like a sponge, I would've squeezed out enough oil to shallow fry a chicken.

It wasn't the only disappointing dim sum dish I had there that Sunday morning. The shrimp rice roll we were served was unrecognizable. It was more of a shrimp rice clump, made by someone who must have never seen a cheung fun in his life.

That the dish was allowed to come out of the kitchen like this would not have been surprising if this was the Chino Hills of forty years ago. Back then there more cows in this town than Chinese people. But the Chino Hills of today has a vibrant Chinese community. Home to a few crazy rich Asians, a 99 Ranch does brisk business around the corner and authentic regional Chinese restaurants dot the parkways.

Apart from the unimpressive food, the service at Longo Seafood is impeccable. And you won't have to wait for a table if you come before 11 a.m., which is rare for a dim sum restaurant. But maybe it's not crowded for a reason.

Longo Seafood
13161 Peyton Dr Ste B
Chino Hills, CA 91709