Wednesday, May 10, 2017

10 Years at OC Weekly!

Today marks my 10th year writing restaurant reviews for OC Weekly, Orange County's greatest paper!

Since that first review (published on May 10, 2007), I've eaten at and reviewed more than 500 restaurants. In the process I gained at least 15 more pounds than when I started, but also wrote what I estimate to be more than 500,000 words.

As a point of reference, Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace ticks at 587,287 words. So if my math is right and I keep at it, it'll only take me two more years to catch up to him.

In any case, I hope my reviews have been informative, fair, and, most importantly, fun to read. It has been fun doing them.

When I reached the five year milestone, I commemorated it by going back to eat Thai Nakorn--the first OC Weekly review I did.

This time, in light of the weight gain I've already mentioned, I'm going to refrain from celebrating with more food.

Instead I will take the opportunity to just thank all the great people at OC Weekly who made it possible for me to turn a hobby into a fun, rewarding, and enviable job.

So, thank you, Gustavo Arellano for your enduring support and mentorship; Lisa Black for happily handling all my late invoices; Dustin Ames for being the best art editor on Earth; Brian Feinzimer for all the beautiful food photos; Anne Marie Panorigan for being a great friend and tipster; Ted Kissell for hiring me; and Leo Tolstoy for setting a goal for me to aspire to.

Last but not least, I'd like to thank you all who are still reading this blog for sticking with me all these years!

*On a more personal note, I'd like to publicly thank my lovely dining and life companion (a.k.a. cookiemonster) and for convincing me to try out for this job in the first place. I still remember your words of encouragement: "The worst they can do is say 'no'!"

So thank you, cookiemonster for always being there for me; for enduring the bad restaurants even though all you wanted to do was stay home for the night; allowing me to order food I know you don't like; and for being my in-house editor-in-chief! Love you, abey!

Sawleaf Vietnamese Cuisine - Tustin

Sunday, May 07, 2017

Are You A Cake-Person or A Pie-Person?

There are two kinds of people: those who love cake and those who love pie.

If you're a cake person, you not only relish the ethereal fluff of a properly made angel food and the coffee-moistened layers of a tiramisu, but also brownies, which, let's face it, is basically a failed chocolate cake cut into bricks.

Pie people, on the other hand, prefer desserts where the flour component and the filling are separate and distinct from each other. Apart from actual pies like apple and banana cream, think peach cobbler and fruit tarts. If you like those, you're a pie person.

You're also a pie-lover if you prefer empanadas over churros or would rather have a turnover instead of a donut for breakfast.

I'm a proud pie-lover. And as one I rejoiced when I saw that Marie Callender's (one of my favorite pie purveyors) was currently offering their Double Cream Strawberry Pie for $8.99, which isn't just cheaper from their regular price by about $7, but also a strong rebuke of those hipster pie shops who dare charge upwards to $8 for a single slice.

And in this pie I found my muse--a dessert with layers of tangy-juicy-sweet fruit, cool pudding, and cloud wisps of whipped cream that's cradled by the crumbly crunch of its crust.

As I ate, I realized no strawberry shortcake could ever match the contrast of flavors and textures I experienced here, in this messy, wonderful slice. And it's for these reasons that I find myself squarely in the pie camp.

There is, by the way, a third kind of people I've not yet mentioned. These are those who like neither pie nor cake. But let's call them by their real names: joyless muggles.

Marie Callender's
31791 Del Obispo St
San Juan Capistrano, CA 92675

Burritos La Palma - Santa Ana

Friday, April 28, 2017

Porto's - Buena Park

Can we all agree that Porto's is the greatest bakery of our generation? The cheese rolls are ethereal and crisp; the potato balls, soft and fragrant of cumin. But let's admit it: The real reason everyone waits in that line at the new Buena Park branch (or heck, every branch) is because of how low its prices are.

Where else can you get a whole 9-inch birthday cake that serves a dozen people for less than $25? And that actually tastes good? I mean, have you seen the tiramisu cake here? The top is so packed tall of shaved chocolate, it doesn't even fit in the box!

And when I tasted it, it was like I was tasting tiramisu for the first time--light but rich, fluffy but decadent, a masterful balance of marscapone, coffee, moist cake, and chocolate. It's a benchmark for other things that might call itself tiramisu just as Porto's is a benchmark for anything that might call itself a bakery.

Porto's Bakery & Cafe
7640 Beach Blvd.
Buena Park, CA 90620
(714) 367-2030

Meizhou Dongpo - Irvine

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

LaCroix Now Sold at Costco - Tustin

As always I'm late to the party when it comes to hip food trends. It wasn't until late last year that I got wind that all the cool kids were drinking this flavored fizzy water called LaCroix, which has since gotten so popular, analysts point to it as one of the reasons soda sales are plummeting all over the country.

Like everyone else, I love the lime, which tastes like 7-Up after it's been diluted with lots of melting ice--the only way I tolerate sodas.

Purely for irony, here's a picture of the can I drank with a slice of Marie Callender's banana cream pie--something hip paired with something tragically unhip. A great combo, by the way.

But the reason I'm devoting a whole post to LaCroix is because Costco in Tustin now carries it by the 24-pack, just as I'm getting addicted. Not only is it cheaper by the double dozen, it's quite nice not having to compete with Millennials and hipsters at Target and Sprouts for sixpacks of the lime! Now what do I do with the excess lemon and pamplemousse?

Costco Tustin
2700 Park Ave.
Tustin, CA 92782-2708

Plumeria Cafe by Stacks - Laguna Niguel

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Taco Tuesday at Holé Molé - Tustin

Ah, Taco Tuesday. If it's not the best alliterative excuse to eat food on a particular day of the week, it's the only one that means anything to anyone. Meatless Mondays? Is that even a thing?

Of course, the reason Taco Tuesday is so great is that taco joints have taken it upon themselves to offer discounts on the day, even if it's the measly 20-cents that Holé Molé takes off its normally $1.39 asada, carnitas, chicken, and al pastor tacos, which is, when you think about it, like a "Buy 7, Get 1 Free" deal.

You could take them up on it--which I did--but I've discovered that it's the fish tacos that you actually want here. Not only are they individually hand-dipped in batter and then freshly fried into the crispiest and most delectable fish tacos in OC, they're actually discounted 50-cents from their usual price.

But you know what's even better than that? The crunchy-shelled bean-filled tacos, which are sold for 59-cents, and not just on Taco Tuesday, mind you, but every day of the week. And to complement them, they have a self-serve trough filled with hot-from-the-fryer, spice-dusted, deep-fried yellow chiles that's free for the taking, any time of day.

Who needs alliteration when you got tacos for fifty-nine and fried chiles for free. "Fifty-nine and free for the foreseeable future" just doesn't have the same ring to it anyway.

Holé Molé
14430 Newport Ave.
Tustin, CA 92780
(714) 505-2502

MFK by Aysee - Anaheim

Sunday, April 09, 2017

The Service At Kang Hodong Baekjeong Is As Cold As Its Grilled Meats Are Hot.

Last night at Kang Hodong Baekjeong, I discovered that the pork is better than the beef, but the food is better than the service.

Don't get me wrong, the servers did everything we asked of them. They brought as many refills of the panchan as we wanted, especially the corn cheese, of which we requested three additional helpings. They also obliged our request to take a picture of our group. And most importantly, they cooked all the meat.

But I got the feeling that, to them, we were just another problem to be dealt with--an obstacle to getting the next set of customers in and out.

One server got visibly annoyed when I asked him to repeat how many guests the combos fed. Another reprimanded us sternly when she saw a kid in our party was standing in the aisle briefly. And when I asked a third server to bring out the birthday cake we asked them to store, he just handed me the box without offering to help us clear the empty plates to make room for it.

I suppose I shouldn't have expected more than the bare minimum here. Generally speaking, no group of people I've ever met who wear ear pieces like Secret Service agents have an incentive of being friendly or accommodating. Kang Hodong Baekjeong's servers were as cold as its grilled meats were hot.

What makes all of this so ironic is that Kang Hodong himself, the restaurant chain's owner and namesake, is supposed to be a famous comedian, host, and entertainer back in South Korea. Life-sized pictures show him laughing and in good cheer.

So is it due time for the host-in-chief to record a new training video? Perhaps, especially as the chain gets ready to open a new branch in Irvine.

But despite it all, I still think Kang Hodong Baekjeong has some of the best Korean BBQ pork around. So what I said about the food in my two-year-old OC Weekly review still stands. The meat is as sweet as meat could be--it's just that it's served by sourest people on Earth.

Kang Hodong Baekjeong
5171 Beach Blvd.
Buena Park, CA 90621

LSXO - Huntington Beach

Sunday, April 02, 2017

Cava - Irvine

Let's face it. Nearly everything these days follows Chipotle's operational model. If it can be dumped into a bowl, wrapped in some form of flatbread, or otherwise assembled from disparate components that make up a whole, chances are that slick new Chinese place around the corner is the Asian Chipotle, the spaghetti place is the Italian Chipotle. And let's not forget the proliferation of the poke bowl shop, which should all be called Poke-potle.

Still, the concept works better on some cuisines than others. Cava's Mediterranean food Chipotle is one of those that works.

At first I didn't think it would. It's the ingredients. There were so damn many of them. To build one of their signature "grain" bowls, I didn't have just a choice of rice, I had two. And there was the black lentils that also counted as a grain. For dips and spreads, I had the option of choosing three out of the six available, which included hummus and harissa. But the kicker was the dressings and toppings. There were 20 in all that could be added to my bowl. And I wouldn't be who I am if I didn't say yes to all of it, especially when there's no additional charge.

As I sat down to eat it, I braced myself for a traffic jam of flavors. Yet, upon my first forkful, a strange thing happened: the two dozen plus ingredients somehow managed not to run over each other. Instead the sauces became lube to the proteins I choose while the various vegetable matter contributed tang, crunch, and freshness. As for the grains, the rice was scrumptious, and I loved those black lentils most of all.

I also have to mention that the meatballs--which did not get lost in the morass--were tender, full-of-flavor, and still slightly pink in the middle. And the falafel was craggly and crisp, with a few garbanzos left whole for texture.

If Chipotle is the pace car in the assembly-line restaurant race, Cava is the supercharged muscle car ready to overtake them.

3972 Barranca Pkwy
Irvine, CA 92606
(949) 200-7998

Three New Spots for Korean Fried Chicken

Thursday, March 30, 2017

3 Reasons West Covina Is The Coolest City in The SGV

In my opinion, there are three reasons that make West Covina the coolest city in San Gabriel Valley.

First, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, my favorite show of the moment, is set there. This musical about a lovestruck New York lawyer who moves to West Covina to pursue her ex-boyfriend doesn't just shoot its exteriors at places in town I actually recognize, but started the series off with a whole Broadway-style number that's a love letter to the city itself.

Second, West Covina is home to Janty Noodle, the only place in LA to get the authentic Jakarta-style noodles we Indonesian expats call mie ayam (literally "noodle with chicken"), which is more delicious than the simple name might lead you to believe.

Last but not least, West Covina, or specifically the shop in the building you see below, is the only place that seems to make the drink I'm holding in the exact way that I like it. It's ice milk slush, boba, egg pudding, and brown sugar syrup, built in layers in a plastic cup. There are other purveyors of this drink, but none have been able to do it quite like the way it's done here.

What makes it odd is that this dessert shop has changed hands at least four times since I reviewed the original place that made it. It's now called Be Bee Tea & Desserts; but originally it was Meow Meow Cafe.

In my opinion, Meow Meow did the drink best. The secret was in that brown sugar syrup, which was concocted behind a curtain, the recipe so closely guarded that the owners allegedly did not include instructions on how to make it when they put the shop up for sale.

But it may have not have mattered since each store that has come after Meow Meow seems to have figured out how to make a facsimile of the drink that's still better than any other place that has attempted it.

In fact, I'd like to think that it's not the recipe that's the secret; it's the location, right here, in (sing it with me) Weeeessstt Covvvviinnnnaaaaaa, Califooooorniaaaa!

Janty Noodle
989 S Glendora Ave #14
West Covina, CA 91790

Be Bee Tea & Desserts
3646 S Nogales St Ste A
West Covina, CA 91792

People Issue 2017: Ryan Garlitos of Irenia

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

13 Things You Should Know About Banh Mi Che Cali's Sandwiches

I've written about Banh Mi Che Cali since this blog began. After all these years, it is still my favorite banh mi purveyor. So rather than rehashing what I think of the sandwich or reemphasizing that it's possibly the greatest food deal in Orange County, here are 13 things you should know about Banh Mi Che Cali's banh mis if you haven't been before.

1. The banh mis at Banh Mi Che Cali are constructed from two kinds of loaves: a hoagie-shaped French bread and a slender baguette.

2. Other than the size and shape, both breads are born from the same mother dough.

3. As of this writing, when bought individually, all sandwiches, regardless of bread type, are $3.25 each, tax included.

4. The best deal is the "Buy-2-Get-1-Free" offer on the "French Bread" banh mis, which effectively means $6.50 for three sandwiches (or $2.16 per sandwich).

5. The offer does not apply to the baguette banh mis, which are $3.25 each no matter how many you buy.

6. Cash is the only form of payment accepted.

7. This particular Banh Mi Che Cali bakes their bread in-house, and smells great because of it.

8. The building, as evidenced by the arched windows, was once an old-school Taco Bell.

9. There are multiple outlets of Banh Mi Che Cali, but this one is the only one that's open 24 hours.

10. There are 12 kinds of filling, as shown below, but also a Teriyaki beef and a Vietnamese ham with egg baguette, both of which cost a little more than the original 12.

11. When you go up to the cashier to order, she (and it's always a she) will ask whether you want your veggies "inside" or "outside". "Inside" means you want the lightly pickled carrot and daikon, jalapeños, and cilantro tucked into the sandwich during assembly. "Outside" means it will be set aside for you in a plastic baggie.

12. If you reheat your sandwich in a toaster oven (even a day-old one), it will bring back the crunch on the crust.

13. Some sandwiches contain a smear of an excellent homemade chicken liver pate and mayo, both which you can choose to leave out. But why would you?!

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

Mr. G's Bistro - Newport Beach

Wednesday, March 08, 2017

Brunos Italian Kitchen - Brea

If you're reading this and it's not yet March 11, you should know that right now--yes, RIGHT NOW--a near majority of our county's fine dining establishments are offering discounts via specially priced prix-fixe meals for OC Restaurant Week.

This review is about one of them: Brunos Italian Kitchen in Brea, which I can say unequivocally, is one of the better deals.

I picked it out of the bunch and, as I do every year, did the math. I took the most expensive items on the prix fixe list, found out what they cost on the regular menu, added up the total and compared it to the OC Restaurant Week price. This year I even made a spreadsheet to compare it to other restaurants' specials.

I found that Brunos' offering not only fulfilled my criteria that the savings must exceed 30%, but also, it didn't just include a wedge salad or a cup of lobster bisque as the first course.

These were quality appetizers.

There was a hot-from-the-fryer fritto misto with delicately battered shrimp, perfectly cooked squid, green beans and deep-fried lemons. It was a full-sized portion, too, served with a perky fresh herb and lemon aioli.

Also offered: an olive-oil poached tuna plated with sugary fire-roasted peppers, crunchy green beans, olives and boiled potatoes dressed in a preserved lemon vinaigrette. Each of these two apps are normally $14 each.

The main course we chose--a seafood linguini and the Duroc pork Porterhouse--would've been $22 each at regular price. And they are certainly already worth that.

The linguini swam in a light tomato-and-herb broth that reminded me of cioppino and contained trawler's worth of shellfish.

The pork Porterhouse was as thick as the last Harry Potter book, good and juicy if a little chewy, but served with a creamy polenta and whole roasted carrots that could not have tasted more comforting.

Dessert would normally retail at $7.50 and included a wedge of lemon-and-olive-oil cake, draped in fresh zabaglione, berries and crumbled amaretti cookies.

Best of all was the budino al caramello, a cocktail glass filled with layers of caramel pudding and rich chocolate ganache that's topped with whipped cream and nuts.

To paraphrase Orwell, not all OC Restaurant Week deals are created equal, but some are more equal than make like an entitled pig and go to Brunos before the deal ends!

Brunos Italian Kitchen
210 W Birch St.
Brea, CA 92821
Phone: (714) 257-1000

Halves Boiling Pot + Grill - Foothill Ranch