Thursday, April 23, 2015

Nello Cucina - Costa Mesa

Sometimes, great service goes a long way at a restaurant, even if the food is just okay. Nello Cucina at South Coast Plaza made this kind of impression.

The grilled seafood platter I had was kind of meh. But as I ate the scallops, shrimp, salmon and swordfish, thinking the lemon butter sauce that sluiced everything was just a tad too tart, the team of servers who hovered over our party of ten made me feel like we were VIPs and had the restaurant to ourselves.

They anticipated our needs before we asked; they remembered what everyone ordered; and most importantly, they seemed genuinely happy to have us as guests on that Sunday afternoon--not one person had less than a smile.

Since ours was a birthday celebration, they not only offered to store the birthday cake we brought in their fridge until it was time, but also took it back to the kitchen, cut it into equal pieces, and served it on their own restaurant plates after the birthday girl blew out the candles.

But just look at how they did it: they actually took the time to decorate every single plate with their own strawberry sauce, which, in terms of what I already thought of their service, was the real icing on the cake.

Nello Cucina
South Coast Plaza
3333 Bear St.
Costa Mesa, CA 92626
(714) 540-3365

Burntzilla - Irvine

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Gibson Girl Ice Cream Parlor - Disneyland

Would a visit to Disneyland really be complete without at least one churro or one ice cream cone? I don't think so.

When you want the latter, Gibson Girl Ice Cream Parlor is THE ice cream shop. It's right there on Main Street so that you can get a scoop as soon as you begin your day in the park, and maybe another one on the way out.

Their flavor selection is basic, with nothing more complicated than Cookies-n-Cream.

Whatever you choose, you're better off getting it in a cone than in a cup. The cost is the same and the cone is made right there, in-house. You’ll know this because it's the smell that wafts everywhere and triggers a Pavlovian response that you want ice cream and you want it now.

Gibson Girl Ice Cream Parlor
1313 Disneyland Dr
Anaheim, CA 92802
(714) 781-3463

S.T. Noodle Bar - Long Beach

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Ariel's Grotto - Disney's California Adventure

Be aware that Ariel's Grotto is a prix fixe restaurant. As such, the price tag for eating here will be steep, no matter what you order. You pay the same whether you choose the lobster or the chicken. The cost of entry will be nearly half of what you shelled out to get into the theme park in the first place.

Also be aware that this restaurant exists not because of its food, but because of its princesses. Yes, princesses. Ariel's Grotto is what Disney calls a "Character Dining" restaurant--a more humane version of "Dinner with Shamu".

There will be at least up to five princesses in all. Cinderella. Snow White. Aurora. Belle. And of course, Ariel herself. They're introduced via blaring intercom, upon which they'll curtsy and then float about the restaurant, posing for pictures and engaging in one-on-one conversations with all the star-struck pre-pubescent girls who themselves are dressed like princesses.

At some point during the spectacle, you forget how much money you're shelling out and just go with it. You'll know exactly the moment when this happens: it's when you see your daughter's ear-to-ear grin.

Ariel's Grotto
Disney California Adventure Park
1313 S Disneyland Dr.
Anaheim, CA 92802
(714) 781-3463

Paninoteca Maggio - Santa Ana

Friday, April 03, 2015

Big Thunder Ranch BBQ - Disneyland

At Disneyland's Big Thunder Ranch BBQ, they ring a big old dinner bell when it's eatin' time. The tables are long and picnic-y. The waiters are dressed like they're getting ready for a hoe-down and in the whole entire courtyard, what's not shaded by leafy trees, is sheltered by huge tarps.

When they serve your meal, it'll be in metal pails. Drinks? Well, of course they're poured into mason jars. And when you get down to eating your all-you-can-eat feast of ribs, chicken, cornbread and coleslaw, it's with your hands. This is, without a doubt, one of the hardest tables to get in Disneyland. You need to reserve well in advance.

Is it the best barbecue? No. Not even close. The ribs seem to taste like they've been parboiled, baked en masse in an oven, then slathered in sauce, in that order. The chicken is just chicken. But you end up eating a lot anyway because: you are an American, this is Disneyland, and it's all-you-can-eat. It feels downright unpatriotic not to overstuff yourself until it hurts.

And after you waddle out, full of beans and meat, you walk by the petting zoo. You pet a goat.

Big Thunder Ranch BBQ
Disneyland Park
1313 S. Harbor Blvd.
Anaheim, CA 92802
(714) 781-3463

Kingchops - Irvine

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Miyako - Irvine

I don't remember how much I paid for this to-go box of sushi at Irvine's Miyako, but at the time I was ordering it, I thought it was too much. It might have something to do with the fact that the cashier and I had a miscommunication on whether it included a miso soup like the other lunch specials. I thought she said yes, but she still charged me for the soup. By the time she rang me up, I was too hungry to protest.

Just give me whatever, I thought. Here. Money.

But then as I stood there waiting for my order to be made, the lady who actually assembled my sushi lunch winked at me and then started to pile on more fish than I thought I was paying for. There was an extra slice of salmon sashimi here, more tuna there, even an extra piece or two of California roll. By the time she closed the foam box and packed it up, I had what I gathered was 20% extra food than what I was entitled to.

I thanked her, took it home, and realized not only was it actually a bargain, it tasted great, too--more fresh, more flavorful, and more carefully made than an office park lunch sushi joint like this usually produces.

But then Miyako has changed in the past year or so. It used to be the kind of quick-service joint heavy on the teriyaki. Now, they've remodeled it and put more of a focus on the sushi. Next time, I think I might even try saying "Omakase!" at the sushi bar, which is kind of like telling them:

Here! Money! Just me give me whatever!

92 Corporate Park # H
Irvine, CA 92606
(949) 756-8875

Pub Thirty-Two - Mission Viejo

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

The Original Sriracha Hot Chili Sauce Popcorn

Have you just about had it with all these Sriracha sauce-inspired products? Most of it is ridiculous. Sriracha beer? I bet it tastes like what it is: a gimmick.

Besides that, most of these products don't have much of in the flavor of the Huy Fong brand hot sauce that started it all. For the record: that Lay's potato chip flavor was let down, and even though I adore Jack In The Box, I'm avoiding their Sriracha burger at all costs. I figure it can't be better than what I do with their already heavenly two-for-99-cents tacos, which is cover it in Huy Fong's sauce when I get them home.

But then I found this at the market formerly known as Marukai. Notice that it has all the markings of an actual Huy Fong branded product. And when I looked at the ingredients, actual Huy Fong Foods Sriracha is listed after the popcorn and the sunflower oil used to pop it.

And after tasting it, let me tell you: this is only the Sriracha derivative product the world needs. It's really spicy. I mean, scorching. And it has the same zing, that garlicky tang, that secret-recipe signature flavor that only Huy Fong has and other imitators just can't copy...and man, there a lot of imitators out there!

La Pollada - Anaheim

Friday, March 13, 2015

Fatburger - Victorville

Fatburger, the burger chain I prefer over In-N-Out, is an endangered species in Orange County. A few months ago, the Aliso Viejo branch shuttered. Before that the one in Fashion Island's food court became a Five Guys. The two that were in Irvine closed a long time before, as did the one in Brea. Only one Fatburger remains in OC: Buena Park, near Knott's.

I can't tell you what happened with this once-thriving chain--why it dwindled down to nothing here. What I can tell you is that whenever I pass one, I stop in. And this is exactly what I did when we saw the sign as we drove through Victorville on our way back from Vegas.

What I discovered is that the Victorville Fatburger isn't just a Fatburger, but a Fatburger with a full bar attached to it. Added to that, it's probably one of the best-looking, cleanest, and best-managed Fatburgers I've encountered yet.

Just look at the way they arranged the homemade onion rings in a neat horizontal stack. Most important of all: The burger was just as good as it always is. I added a fried egg, of course, as I always do, but the patty had real girth, so that you could taste the beef, the charred crusty edges, and how it all stood up against the pickles, relish, onions, mustard--you know--the works.

As I ate the burger I was reminded of its now too prophetic motto: "The Last Great Hamburger Stand."

12748 Amargosa Road Ste #7
Victorville, CA 92391

Panxa Cocina - Long Beach

Monday, March 09, 2015

The Magic Castle - Los Angeles

Oh how I wish I could show you all the wonders that I saw inside the building you see above: the lavish champagne brunch buffet, Irma the Ghost playing the piano, and of course, all the dazzling magicians performing illusions that boggle the mind.

At one time, The Magic Castle was one of those experiences that was, to me, as elusive as Disneyland's Club 33: you had to know somebody. But luckily, unlike Club 33, I had an in. I knew a guy who knew a guy. Well, sort of. I knew a guy who knew another guy who had this website where you can buy a whole bunch of magic crap, and when a certain threshold is reached, the site sends you an invite good for 8 guests as a sort of thank you gift.

I wish I could tell you that that website still does it, or that it even exists anymore. Like an elephant in a David Copperfield special, that business went poof a few months ago. This means that the last invite I was able to secure would be my last.

So when we went last Saturday (my third time, but my first brunch there), I relished every minute of the experience. Until I find a new way to get another invite, this would be the last time I'd be able to roam the halls of this old house, or marvel at the miniature prototype of the Haunted Mansion's ghost ballroom (yes, Walt Disney bought the idea from a Magic Castle member). And it would be the last time I eat in that Victorian dining room.

Brunch at The Magic Castle was a fabulous spread. There was endless Hawaiian poke served with wonton chips, perfectly cooked prime rib carved hot with all the trimmings, shrimp cocktail, omelets, fresh lox and bagel, and flutes of endless mimosas.

You should've seen our table.

At the end of our meal, we built up a tall pile of spent crab legs shells. We demolished an Alaskan crab troller's worth of those spindly crustacean limbs, which were especially easy to eat as they were already split in half lengthwise as all crab legs should. I wish I could show you a picture of how much of it we ate, or the other culinary delights they took the care to prepare, or even a hint of the magic we saw. There was the floating table, the stuff in the close-up parlor, Irma the ghost pianist playing Snoop Dogg's "Gin and Juice" and then Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" by request. I can't show any of it on this blog because no photos, not even selfies, are allowed inside.

It's just as well though. The Magic Castle is like magic itself; the more mysterious, the better.

And if anyone knows a guy who knows a guy who can get me another invite there or to Club 33 in the future, let me know!

The Magic Castle
7001 Franklin Ave
Los Angeles, CA 90028
(323) 851-3313

Fuoco Pizzeria Napoletana - Fullerton

Sunday, March 01, 2015

Cookie Connection - Irvine

This is not a story so much about these cookies, but about who I got it from: my dental hygienist.

Yes, the medical professional whose job it is to clean my teeth and remind me to floss and brush regularly, gave me cookies--a whole box of sweet, sticky, chocolate-containing cookies from Cookie Connection.

But before you make any wise cracks about how she did it to ensure her dental office continues to get my business--you are right: they will. But not in the way that you think. Her thoughtful gesture not only guarantees my loyalty to this dental office, but warms my heart.

It also has shown me that good karma pays back with dividends, because, you see, this hygienist is also my better half's dental hygienist; and as I mentioned before in a previous post, during the holidays my better half buys boxes upon boxes of Xa's Sweet & Savory Cafe's cookies to give them away to people.

Our dental hygienist was one of those recipients and now she was returning the favor!

And because I happened to be the first out of the two of us to have a dental appointment after the holidays, she gave me the cookies to bring home...which goes back to my earlier point: good karma pays back with dividends. In this case, it was in the form of delicious chewy cookies.

There were many in the box, including a dense, powdered sugar-dusted brownie that tasted like, well, a really good brownie. But my favorite has to be the s'mores cookie wherein not only the marshmallows and chocolate chunks have been embedded into the cookie dough as though jewels on a crown, but also, a whole graham cracker. It was fused into the bottom like Quato from Total Recall.

I shared the cookies with my better half, who was also grateful for the gift. And just in case my hygienist is reading this, I promptly brushed my teeth and flossed afterward.

Cookie Connection
3720-3992 Barranca Pkwy
Irvine, CA 92606
(949) 554-5551

Garlic & Chives - Garden Grove

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Popcorn Chicken Noodle Soup at Guppy House - Irvine

It was 1 a.m. when we'd ambled in through our front door with our luggage. It had been a long day of traveling that included a harrowing ordeal with near-missed flights and a shuttle van that made us wait on the curb for over an hour after our flight arrived at LAX.

Not having consumed more than Pop Chips and Coke the whole day, we were starving. She was craving Tapioca Express' Crispy Chicken while I wanted noodles in soup. But earlier that night, as we waited on that arrivals terminal sidewalk cold and with stomachs growling, we realized our options for food were dwindling fast. It was close to midnight and the Tapioca Express we usually go to has long since closed. Honda-Ya for ramen would've been a possibility. They close at 1 a.m. But our negligent airport van company took that off the table since we were still on the road at 12:30 a.m. after finally picking us up fifteen minutes earlier.

There was hope. There was Guppy House. It was still open when we got home at last and managed to drive over without passing out. Yet it wasn't just open; it was still hopping with thump-thumpy music and customers in their twenties who would presumably go off doing something else after they ate their meal and the restaurant closed at 2.

We ordered the dish which seemed to be there just for us: the popcorn chicken noodle. An enormous bowl of fried chicken chunks dusted with spice for her; a big steaming bowl of noodles in soup for me. It was the kind of food I probably wouldn't think twice about under normal circumstances, but it was exactly what we needed at the moment we needed it. We Hoovered the noodles and gulped the salty broth as though it were the manna from heaven. In between sips, I marveled how good it was. How the al dente, snow-white strands danced in the green-onion and fat globule-flecked soup. How its steamy vapors warmed my face as I hunched over the bowl and slurped, slurped, slurped.

While we shoved those chicken pieces into our mouths as if they were actual movie theater popcorn, we said to ourselves: "Home sweet home...and let's not use that shuttle company again."

Guppy House
2730 Alton Pkwy #101
Irvine, CA 92606
(949) 851-9788

Rockfire Grill - Mission Viejo