Thursday, December 08, 2016

Naugles - Fountain Valley

Have you met Christian Ziebarth? His story is kind of amazing. And it goes like this:

- Boy loves eating at Naugles, a Mexican-American restaurant chain founded by a former Del Taco partner.
- Chain disappears after getting bought by Del Taco; but only after leaving an indelible mark on boy.
- Boy grows up into a man who loves Mexican food.
- Man blogs about Mexican restaurants, including Naugles.
- Man realizes that others love and miss Naugles as much as he does.
- Man hosts Naugles pop-ups and gets rave reviews.
- Man goes to court for the right to use the Naugles trademark.
- Man wins case!
- Man opens Naugles and serves the same food he loved as a boy.
- Now man is the owner of what's about to be a national franchise!

If a Hollywood producer ever gets wind of this underdog story, the elevator pitch might be "David versus Goliath" meets "Mr. Smith Goes To Washington" meets "Like Water For Chocolate".

On a personal note, I've known Christian for at least a decade. Christian and I started our food blogs about the same time (back when food blogs were still relevant), and he was *THE* first real human being to reach out beyond the virtual world of comment pages to ask me if we could meet in person.

If I remember correctly, we met at a restaurant in Tustin that doesn't even exist anymore. In the intervening years, Christian and I ate at many other restaurants together and with other bloggers.

Christian, you see--apart from being the entrepreneur, blogger, and all around Renaissance Man--brings people together.

And that's what he did again last night when he invited me and my guest to his restaurant in Fountain Valley along with other food bloggers for a Naugles feast.

We ate burritos filled with ooey-gooey cheese and taco salad in a cup wearing taco shell bunny ears. This is all the Mexican-American fast food classics you're familiar with, but way way better--sourced with quality ingredients and cooked earnestly.

If Del Taco is George Lucas making "The Phantom Menace"; the new Naugles is J.J. Abrams making "The Force Awakens".

Last night, I congratulated Christian on his triumph, but also reminisced about our food blogging days. But here's how much of a dedicated fan of Naugles Christian still is. When I told him I remembered going to Naugles during my own youth in La Habra before it turned into a Del Taco, I was struggling to recount the street corner it was located in. Without hesitation, Christian finished my sentence: "At Beach and Lambert!"

As I was leaving, I shook his hand and told him when I took the above picture: "I don't usually put pictures of people on my blog, but you, Christian, are a star!"

Naugles Corporate Kitchen
18471 Mt. Langley
Fountain Valley, CA 92708
(657) 845-7346

Royal Hen - Newport Beach

Sunday, December 04, 2016

Wayback Burgers - Tustin

Wayback Burgers in Tustin wasn't anything I thought it would be. At first, when it opened a few months ago, I pegged it as a mom-n-pop. But further research revealed it to be a franchise--part of a chain that originated in Delaware but now headquartered in Connecticut.

When I went to eat lunch there, it looked to have the hallmarks of a chain. It had the glossy posters of a corporate outfit and even a movie tie-in with a special Ghostbusters burger and shake called a "Stay Puft Slime Milkshake" that comes complete with a green slime drizzle and marshmallow topping.

But other than that, it was decidedly very unchain-like. There was one employee there doing, well, everything. He took the orders, made the burgers, fried the fries, and wiped down tables.

To cook our burger, he started with a ball of raw ground beef and smashed it flat against the sizzling griddle with a spatula. The buns he toasted with a strange vertical contraption that looked like no other toaster I've seen. And when it was all hot and ready, he walked it out the dining room and served it to us on a tray.

This guy needs to be paid at least triple what he gets, because on top of being more chipper and friendly than I would be if I had his job, he made a pretty good burger.

Though it wasn't like anything I've ever had in California, something about it triggered a memory. Have I tasted a similar burger before? Like in New York? Yes! Yes, I have!

This burger reminded me of Shake Shack's burger.

It's of a uniformly soft texture. The bun, the meat, even the tomatoes and sauce melded into a singular burger-flavored pillow, which isn't a bad thing if you're in love with Shake Shack and would rather not schlep it out to LA to have one.

Wayback Burgers
1631 Edinger Ave.
Tustin, CA 92780
(714) 258-8414

The Recess Room - Fountain Valley

Friday, November 25, 2016

$19.99 Thanksgiving Meal at Marie Callender's - Fountain Valley

If you didn't go to go to someone's house for Thanksgiving dinner, it's likely that you headed for Marie Callender's.

Marie Callender's is already a producer of pre-ordered holiday feasts and pies, which they sell and distribute en masse on Turkey day for those who want to host Thanksgiving but don't want to bother with all the cooking.

But for some of us who also don't want to clean up dirty dishes (or wish to limit the family togetherness to business hours), there's the restaurant itself, which is open until about 7 to 8 p.m. to serve a Thanksgiving prix-fixe with all the bells and whistles.

Though not all Marie Callender's restaurants are actually open for dinner service, this year, those that did priced it for $19.99 per person.

It starts with a humongous hunk of warm cornbread with clouds of whipped honey butter. After that comes a cup of soup or salad.

The soup can be either a potato cheese soup that tastes like a potato gratin put through a blender, or a vegetable soup akin to minestrone with peas, beans, and corn.

The salad is a standard green house salad, but Thanksgiving is no time for salads.

For the main attraction, Marie Callender's offers baseline stuff: either ham or turkey breast which are thick-sliced and covered in a salty gravy. If you get the turkey, every plate gets enough meat for about two servings--all of it white meat that's uniformly tender and unnaturally moist.

The herb stuffing hidden beneath the slabs tastes a lot like Stove Top (as it should), and the mashed potatoes gave me flashbacks to my high school cafeteria (which isn't a bad thing).

The steamed carrots and green beans are just that: steamed. The carrots to a tender crisp and the green beans, limp but still squeaky. There's also heaps of candied yams topped with streusel, and a thimble of cranberry sauce that's equal parts jelly and actual berry.

And of course, a slice of pie comes as dessert: either the pumpkin, which is always dependable, or the apple, which needs ice cream.

As far as consistently predictable turkey dinners go, Marie Callender's offers the kind you can set your watch to. For the one in Fountain Valley, it's up to 7 p.m.

Hope your Thanksgiving was a good one!

Marie Callender's
18889 Brookhurst St
Fountain Valley, CA 92708
(714) 963-6791

Texas de Brazil - Irvine

Monday, November 21, 2016

Coke and Chicken: Our Layover in Atlanta

We had a layover in Atlanta--a few hours to spend in the city before catching an early-morning flight to our final destination.

So what did we do? The two things any time-crunched Atlanta tourist would do when allotted such a short period of time: we went to The World of Coca Cola and then we ate fried chicken.

The World of Coca Cola was a pleasant two-hour diversion. At the start of the self-guided tour, we watched an obligatory introductory film. But instead of a history of the world's most famous drink, it was a fifteen minute-long commercial designed to give us the feels. Among the "stories" told: a mom being reunited with her soldier son and a young couple surprising their parents with news of a baby. By the time the lights went up and the screen retracted to reveal a door to the rest of the attractions, there wasn't a dry eye in the house.

We then took in everything this uniquely Atlantan site had to offer. We took a selfie with the Coca Cola polar bear. We walked through the bottling exhibit and the "secret recipe vault". And, of course, we drank lots and lots of free soda. And my God was there a lot of soda. There was the bottle of Coke they give you as you enter; the free souvenir bottles of Coke you can take as you leave; but the culmination of it all was the soda sampling room where we tasted different flavors of soda from all over the world, all of it chilled and some of it more delicious than Coca Cola itself.

On a sugar high and hungry for solid food, we found Busy Bee Cafe, an institution for fried chicken and all other forms of soul food since 1947. It's the kind of place that has never looked to be lauded by TV shows, newspapers and foodie magazines, but has been anyway because what it does it does well and in earnest for as long as anyone could remember. The walls are plastered with framed articles and autographed photos from celebrity fans.

And when I sunk my teeth into that drumstick, I realized that this was the best Southern fried chicken I've ever had--better than Gus's in Memphis and certainly better than any fried chicken I've had in California (*cough* Roscoe's *cough*).

It was greaseless, hot, and perfectly cooked--not overfried, not underdone--just right, and juicy, even the white meat. It's brined properly so that every molecule of the meat was succulent. Also, floured just enough so that the skin had a chance to fully render in the oil and form a crunchy crust so addictive, I was picking at bones to extract every single bit I could find.

The sides were just as wonderful: collard greens that I could've eaten by the bucketful and fried okra, which, I admit, are never not good. Can I get an "Amen"?

The World of Coca Cola
121 Baker St NW
Atlanta, GA 30313
(404) 676-5151

The Busy Bee Cafe
810 Martin Luther King Jr Dr
Atlanta, GA 30314
(404) 525-9212

Farmhouse at Roger's Garden - Newport Beach

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Downtown Donuts - Santa Ana

I don't dislike donuts, but if there were a dozen donuts and a dozen bagels placed in front of me, I'm going for the bagels.

My attitude changes, however, if the donuts are fried fresh and doled out from a street stall during a festive night market.

Such was the reason I finally took the opportunity to try Downtown Donuts last Saturday night. It was while we were strolling the small crafts fair outside the Yost Theater in Santa Ana that I saw Downtown Donuts had also set up a tent. They were serving hot, freshly-made donuts straight from a small portable deep fryer and charging $4 for a half dozen (covered in either powdered or cinnamon sugar).

It immediately reminded me of my childhood in Indonesia when our family would set out into the night after dinner in search of bolang-baling. Bolang-baling is Indonesia's donut/beignet--sweetened dough fried to brown-crisp pillows--and the good ones were made by itinerant street hawkers who would fry them in woks heated by a whoosing propane fire.

And though Downtown Donuts' donuts aren't anything like bolang-baling, or even a typical American donut--they're cotton soft, kind of floppy, and bite-sized--they are wonderful when hot and eaten outside in the dark of night--the exact right environment in which sugar-covered confections made of fried dough taste the best.

You could conceivably have the same experience by going to the brick-and-mortar of this mom-n-pop, which is also in Santa Ana and open late on weekends. But for some reason, I prefer these donuts when I find them by chance, served from the fleeting impermanence of their temporary stall. Why is that?

Downtown Donuts
307 W 3rd St.
Santa Ana, CA 92701
(714) 450-0139

Restaurant Marin - Costa Mesa

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Better-Than-Häagen-Dazs® Homemade Vanilla Ice Cream

I have a tiny problem with dairy. No, not that kind of problem. It's that I can never use all of it up before it expires.

I eat cereal with milk, but not everyday.

I make soups with cream, but not all the time.

So what do I do with the leftover milk or cream? Usually, I turn the milk into panna cotta and the cream into creme brulee.

But last week, I did something I should've been doing all along with my surplus: ice cream!

And it turns out that the recipe I used, which I modified slightly from the one that came with my ice cream maker, made an ice cream that I can finally say is better than Häagen Dazs. It's dense, smooth, just rich enough to titilate, but not enough to sicken.

I served it with macerated strawberries and it was so good, I think I now have a new problem with dairy--the kind that will make me fat.

So here's my recipe for the ice cream, which I'm naming with the clickbait-y title: "Better-Than-Häagen-Dazs® Homemade Vanilla Ice Cream".

Feel free to use milk and cream that's not about to expire.

2 cups 2% milk
1 cup cream
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon real vanilla extract
Pinch of salt
4 egg yolks

1. Dump the milk, cream, sugar, vanilla, and salt into large saucepan.

2. Stir to combine.

3. Set the heat to medium, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon.

4. When the mixture is just about to boil, turn off the heat.

5. In a big bowl, whisk the egg yolks vigorously until it turns slightly pale or your arm starts to hurt.

6. While continuously whisking, pour a few spoonfuls of the hot cream mixture into the bowl a little at a time. This, of course, is called tempering. If you don't do this, you'll be making scrambled eggs instead of ice cream.

7. After half of the cream mixture has tempered the egg yolks, pour the rest into the bowl and keep whisking to combine.

8. Return the mixture to the saucepan.

9. Set the heat on low, stirring constantly until the mixture thickens and can coat the spoon.

10. Once you attain the desired consistency (which should be almost as thick as egg nog), turn off the heat and cover the saucepan and let cool.

11. When the custard (yes, you just made custard) is at room temperature, take off the lid, give it a quick stir, then lay plastic wrap directly against the surface. This will prevent a skin from forming.

12. Put the saucepan in the fridge and chill overnight.

13. After it's completely chilled, pour it into your ice cream maker and follow the manufacturer's instructions to make your ice cream.

14. When the consistency is like that of stiff soft serve, take a rubber spatula and use it transfer the ice cream into a lidded plastic container.

15. Store in the freezer to harden, at least overnight.

16. Lick the spatula.


A dozen strawberries
3 tablespoons of sugar

1. Hull strawberries.

2. Roughly chop the berries and transfer to a bowl or tupperware.

3. Sprinkle the sugar over the berries.

4. Use a spoon to toss the strawberries and distribute the sugar.

5. Stop mixing when you can't see the sugar anymore.

6. Cover and chill in the fridge for a few hours or until the ice cream is ready to serve.

Cross Roast - Anaheim
Best of OC 2016

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Kaminariya Yakitori Dining - Tustin

If you asked me what kind of cuisine I could eat every day and never grow tired of, it would be Japanese.

To test this theory, we set out to do just that. For almost an entire week, we'd make it a point to eat only Japanese food for dinner. Every night we went out to our favorite haunts, of which there are many. But we also took the opportunity to try out some new restaurants in our area we hadn't tried before.

One night, it was Okinawan at Habuya in Tustin, where we feasted on sashimi salad with Okinawan sea grapes and followed it with the bittersweet charms of goya chanpuru. The next night it was Café Hiro in Cypress for our usual: uni spaghetti and sautéed chicken. The next few evenings, it was sushi--lots and lots of sushi--including DelSushi’s (which was good) and Niko Niko’s (which was bad).

But the one standout of our experiment, at least to me, was Kaminariya Yakitori Dining in Tustin--a newish Tustin izakaya with a very good Happy Hour deal: $1.50 per stick on three selected kushiyaki of the day and $2 to $3 on other small dishes meant for sharing.

We ate some brisk, lightly brined, "smashed" cucumbers that had hints of nuttiness from sesame oil. There was calamari, deep-fried until the porous cover of batter and rings of squid beneath crunched like pork rinds. The soba we ate wasn't part of the Happy Hour, but it came chilled and served with a light soy-based dipping sauce in which to submerge and then slurp the noodles.

The best of the lot, of course, were the kushiyaki, particularly the chicken meatball--firm and meaty orbs of what amounts to a BBQ'd burger made of chicken, on a stick. And it didn't occur to me until I had it here that chicken skin, when wrapped around cloves of garlic and then roasted over coals, does a great impression of bacon.

So did we get bored of eating Japanese food all week? Not even a little bit. In fact, if all Japanese restaurants offered Happy Hours like Kaminariya, I'd be there every day without even thinking about...and I might just be able to afford it too.

Kaminariya Yakitori Dining
14071 Newport Ave.
Tustin, CA 92780
(714) 544-1169

Shwack Cantina - San Clemente

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Honda-Ya: Still Crazy After All These Years

Honda-Ya was the first restaurant I ever reviewed. I wrote the review on the old Chowhound message board exactly 13 years ago on this date, October 13.

When I started the blog you are reading now, I archived that first write-up here.

If you read that review, you'd notice that it was just a list of what I had during that first visit to Honda-Ya, with barely any commentary and not even a picture. If you know anything about me (or heard that podcast interview by The Bull and The Badger a few months ago), you'll know that when I wrote it, I had no intention of becoming a food writer. What I was doing was just jotting down what I had and how much I paid for it--it was a journal entry, mostly.

Yelp, at the time, had not been invented.

But that post, and this restaurant, ended up being a seminal one for me--not only fostering my love (nay, obsession) for Japanese food, but also spawning more Chowhound write-ups, which led to Monster Munching, and then the OC Weekly gig.

And it is a testament to Honda-Ya that it's still the same and still popular after all these years--like a stone monument in the middle of a city on fast-forward.

I went again for the first time in years and it felt the same as the first time I stepped in there 13 years ago. The old tatami room still requires that you take your shoes off. The paper lanterns still wobble whenever a breeze is let in from the open door. And the potato salad is still cool and light.

More importantly, the robata-grilled sticks of quail eggs and chicken meatballs are still smoky and sweet; and the deep-fried soft shells--a favorite of mine, even from day one--are still crispy and gnarled, served with a bowl of tart ponzu.

But on this visit, I saw a few new dishes that I've never seen before, like strips of jellyfish laced with uni, served atop a flotilla of sliced cucumbers, lemon and a shiso leaf.

Still, the more things change, the more they stay the same: the sushi was just as I remembered--not very good. Honda-Ya has never been the place to get sushi. On this visit, the buta kakuni was also disappointing. The pork belly pieces were as dry as jerky despite being simmered in soy and mirin for hours.

After that throwback dinner and as I write this, I am again reevaluating what I want to do with this blog in the coming years. I'm reminded that it has outlasted a lot of the restaurants reviewed within it. But as wordless Instagram food pics and other snazzier forms of media supplant food review blogs like this one, am I crazy for keeping it alive?

For now I've decided that yes, I am still crazy. I'll continue this as long as at least one person is reading--even if I'm only counting myself as that person. After all, that's how all this started: I wrote that first post for myself.

I know one thing for sure, though: Whatever happens, Honda-Ya will outlive us all. Long live Honda-Ya!

Honda Ya Japanese Restaurant
(714) 832-0081
556 El Camino Real
Tustin, CA 92780

Wursthaus - Santa Ana

Saturday, October 01, 2016

St-Viateur Bagel - Montreal, Canada

It's generally accepted that New York is to bagels as San Francisco is to sourdough bread. But have you heard about Montreal's bagels?

This week, I had the bagels at the venerable St-Viateur in Montreal's Little Italy neighborhood and they were so much crustier, denser, softer, and sweeter than those from, say, NYC's H&H on the Upper East Side.

In fact, I didn't need to add anything to enjoy them--not butter, not cream cheese, not lox--they were good as is, even cold, two hours after they were baked. Since honey is used in the dough as well as the boiling water, they have a noticeable yet subtle sweetness to them. They actually reminded me of the sweet fried bread the Indonesians call bolang-baling and the Vietnamese call banh tieu, with a crumb that's somewhere between cake donut and your usual bagel.

And when I saw the shop in which they were produced, I realized I was witnessing history. This was the way the place looked when it opened in 1957. Sacks of flour are stacked behind the window. In one corner, a worker wrestled with a raw mountain of dough, tearing some off by the fistful, rolling them into cylinders, and then forming them into the classic hoop shapes in one fluid motion.

Another worker was tending to a deep, glowing oven, pulling out long paddles lined with bagels. He checked them with his fingers, then when he determined they were done, he chucked the whole thing over the side into a wooden trough where the hot bagels slid down in an avalanche to the cashier's counter.

I ate one. And another. Then I came to the sad realization that even if these bagels ever came to my neck of the woods, it would never displace the New York-style. As Americans, we are predisposed to thinking that bagels are a New York thing--an American thing.

Anthony Bourdain was very careful in the way he broached the subject:

"So the great debate: who has the better bagel, New York or Montreal? It's a completely ridiculous apple and oranges discussion.... I'm a New Yorker so you know where my allegiance lies. But I think it's unfair to both quite magnificent products to try to compare them."

But if you asked me: Montreal-style bagels are far superior in every way.

St-Viateur Bagel
263 Rue Saint Viateur O
Montréal, QC H2V 1Y1, Canada
+1 514-276-8044

Tomato Cafe and Grill - Fullerton

Schwartz's Deli - Montreal, Canada

Schwartz's Deli is to Montreal as Philippe's is to LA--institutions whose histories are wrapped around the story of the cities themselves.

And when you're in Montreal, it's perhaps just as important to pay a visit to Schwartz's to eat a towering smoked meat sandwich as it is to come to the Notre-Dame Basilica to marvel at the soaring architecture. They're both religious experiences.

Though, I must admit, you are more likely to moan "Oh my God!" involuntarily as you bite into your sandwich at Schwartz's than you will taking selfies at Notre-Dame.

Before your pilgrimage, I suggest being prepared with clothing appropriate for the weather forecast. It's probably wise to dress in layers, as you will be outside on the sidewalk, either blinded by an intense sun, buffeted by a frigid wind, or worse. As I waited in a queue with equal numbers of regulars and tourists, I felt the tips of my fingers freezing but also got sunburned on my neck. I've heard there's always a line to get in, even during the bleakest of Quebec winters.

When we were finally seated, it was inside a cramped room with walls covered by framed newspaper articles and old autographed photos. I sat shoulder-to-shoulder with the same people who waited in the line with us outside. The tables are six-seaters and the goal of the wait staff is to pack every available spot as though they're packing eggs in a carton.

But the service was warm as it was efficient. Our server put his palm on my shoulder when he asked if I wanted anything else after delivering our cans of soda, vinegary coleslaw, hot fries, and teetering sandwiches mere minutes after we ordered them.

Though comparisons to the corned beef sandwiches of New York's Katz's Deli and its kin are inevitable, I saw a sign at Schwartz's that said "It's not corned; it's smoked." I haven't done the research to really understand the differences, but I can tell you that the smoked meat sandwich I ate was ethereal.

It was flavorful, just salty enough, and with just slightest hint smoke and pastrami-like spicing. But it was the tenderness that amazed me. The hand-carved slices of rust-colored meat didn't just melt in the mouth, it seemed to evaporate. I felt as though I was breathing in beefy brisket air more than I was chewing it.

And as I did, I moaned, "Oh. My. God!"

Schwartz's Deli
3895 Saint-Laurent Boulevard
Montréal, QC H2W 1X9, Canada
+1 514-842-4813

Mai's Kitchen - Westminster