Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Photasia - Irvine


If you live in Irvine and eat Vietnamese food, there’s a 23% chance that you’ve been at a restaurant owned by the family that owns Pho Ba Co. Out of the thirteen Vietnamese restaurants in Irvine (yes, I counted them), three--Pho Ba Co, Ha Long and PhoTasia--belong to the same owner.

While it’s not a monopoly nor hardly a chain, when you want consistently well prepared bowls of pho or a plate of Vietnamese BBQ and rice, Pho Ba Co and PhoTasia can be depended upon like a Swiss watch. (Ha Long, known for their spaghetti basil dish, is more of a take-out joint).

They are my standbys when I get the craving and I am not interested in schlepping it out to Little Saigon. And in their bowls and plates I find comfort food, simple food, food that always hits the spot.

The pho broth never feels overloaded with salt or MSG. The combo rice plate with shredded pork skin, Vietnamese egg quiche, and grilled pork chop is the perfect sampler platter of textures, culminating in a chop that’s sweet and tender down to the bone.

And even though I know I can get the same kind of food for a lot cheaper outside the city limits, especially for cha gio that comes with lettuce and herbs to roll them in, sometimes you have to take stock of where you are as much as what you’re eating.

In Irvine, where Donald Bren has monopolized real estate and commands sky-high rents, Pho Ba Co and PhoTasia still manages to offer prices that are reasonable for the area. On top of that, their service is, by far, the best for a Vietnamese restaurant in the City.

PhoTasia
5329 University Dr.
Irvine, CA 92612
(949) 857-0856

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Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Tater Tots Make The Best Breakfast Hash Browns


Why did it take me this long to realize that tater tots make the best breakfast hash browns? What are they if not just bite-sized versions of what McDonald's sells in those paper sleeves?

This past Sunday morning, I remembered I had some leftover tots in the freezer. I threw a few handfuls in the toaster oven, and in 20 minutes they turned beautifully golden and crunchy on the outside; moist and steamy on the inside--all without actually frying them.

I paired them with bacon I baked and omelettes I made that oozed so much melted cheese, it was almost a quesadilla.

Breakfast was served!

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Sunday, February 04, 2018

TGI Friday's Potato Skins from Dollar Tree - Santa Ana

Here’s a guilty pleasure of mine: TGI Friday’s Potato Skins. No, not the dish from the actual restaurant. I’m talking about the bag of ultra-processed chips that, so far, I’ve only been able to find at Dollar Tree discount stores.

Some of you might remember them as Keebler’s Tato Skins, which were available at all the major grocery stores in the late 80s and early 90s. Then something happened and they disappeared. I had previously assumed they were spending eternity with Sizzlean and Crystal Pepsi in Discontinued Products Valhalla. But over the past couple of years, I started noticing they'd been reincarnated under the TGI Friday’s label and available at all my local Dollar Trees. I've been buying them ever since.

They’re everything I remembered them to be. Looking like miniature shoe horns--with a white side that’s supposed to be the potato side, and a dark side that’s supposed to represent the skin--they're thicker and much more substantial than Pringles, with pronounced potato flavor when you get past all the caked on seasoning. If Kate Moss were Pringles, these were Anna Nicole Smith.

I should note that TGI Friday's Potato Skins are produced with genetic engineering. It says so right on the bag, right underneath the certifications that they're gluten free and Kosher. But let's be honest, if you're shopping at Dollar Tree, the last thing you should be doing is reading nutrition labels.

Dollar Tree
3309 S Bristol St.
Santa Ana, CA 92704

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Monday, January 29, 2018

Poke at Pier 76 Fish Grill - Tustin


When I first tried Pier 76 in Long Beach at its original location, I couldn’t get enough of the moule frites. Here, finally, was a reasonably-priced, fast-casual seafood restaurant of the same bent as California Fish Grill that does it with the variety and execution of the higher priced joints where lobster bibs are employed. You could get the usual grilled fish plates and fish-n-chips, but there was also a raw bar that offered lobster, and oysters, and shrimp cocktail--the very same kind Walt’s Wharf in Seal Beach would serve. Walt's Wharf was, by the way, where owner and founder Chris Krajacic cut his teeth as executive chef before he started this place.

Eager to repeat the moule frites experience, it was the first thing I ordered at the newly opened Pier 76 branch in Tustin. Unfortunately, it didn't measure up. It just wasn’t as good as the first time I had it. The mussels were chewy and the broth almost non-existent. But where there was disappointment, there was also discovery. Or rather, re-discovery when I tasted its poke. It was a version of the much maligned dish that reminded me again how good poke can be when it’s not served in a DIY assembly line.

The fish was albacore in nice big chunks; the sauce spot on perfect. A blend of shoyu, sesame oil, and possibly sugar, it was balanced between the salty, the savory, and the sweet. Most importantly, the sauce was allowed to marinate the fish so that every cold bite exploded with flavor. There were cucumbers for crunch and onions for spiciness, but that was it--it was all that it needed. Served with either tostada rounds as an appetizer or in a rice bowl for a buck more, it is the poke benchmark that all should strive towards. Now, if only they can just do something about those moule frites.

Pier 76 Fish Grill
15080 Kensington Park Dr Ste 330
Tustin, CA 92782
(657) 231-6612

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Sunday, January 21, 2018

Nachos at Michael Mina's Pub 1842 in the MGM Grand - Las Vegas


I haven't tried all the nachos in Vegas, but I am confident that if I did, I would not find one that will be as good or as generously portioned as Pub 1842's at the MGM Grand.

This, ladies and gents, is a nacho constructed unlike any other nacho. And I do mean "constructed". It's not just a pile of toppings dumped onto a mountain of chips; it's a pavement made of quality tortilla triangles layered carefully and deliberately with toppings so that every chip has its share of green chile verde pork, grated cheese, black bean, salsa and crema. Not a single naked chip is to be found.



If it wasn't perfectly crunchy throughout, you could mistake it for a casserole crossed with a 7-layer dip, every topping ingredient top notch. This includes a nacho cheese sauce that I'm certain started off with a roux.

Because I knew that Michael Mina was responsible, I expected it to be great; but more than elevate what's normally late-night food for the drunkard, what he has done here is a great nacho that's also a great deal.



What you see in the pictures here is the half order for $12, which is enough for two. But for $7 more, there’s the full order, which comes in a half sheet pan and can conceivably feed the entire cast of a Cirque Du Soleil production--at least the ones who eat carbs and cheese.

Michael Mina's Pub 1842
MGM Grand
3799 S Las Vegas Blvd.
Las Vegas, NV 89109

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Monday, January 15, 2018

In-N-Out's Hot Cocoa


When I heard about In-N-Out adding hot cocoa to its menu, I considered it non-event. To be honest, if no one had mentioned it, I would’ve obliviously assumed it had always been there. And I would’ve gone on ignoring it for all the other reasons I go to In-N-Out.

Hot cocoa, after all, is the Jan Brady of hot beverages. Coffee and tea gets all the attention. How often do you see anyone reaching for one of those Swiss Miss hot cocoa packets instead of the coffee and tea at office breakroom? And has any waiter in history ever offered hot cocoa after dinner at a restaurant?

I pondered these questions as I tried In-N-Out’s hot cocoa for the first time. On my first sip, I decided if all hot cocoas were like this, things would be different. First of all, it’s thick, rich, and made with what I assume is whole milk. I didn’t drink it as much as I enjoyed it as dessert. It’s almost like a hot version of their milk shake. And as soon as I experienced the candy-like texture of its tiny floating marshmallows, I realized an hour on the treadmill would be necessary to work off the caloric content of this cup.

But despite its potential of making me look like marshmallow myself, I loved it. And I especially like the price. In-N-Out currently sells its cocoa for $1.60, which, I don't have to tell you, is a fraction of the cost that Starbucks charges. Besides, only two kinds of people drink hot cocoa at Starbucks: children and sociopaths.

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Sunday, December 31, 2017

"How My New Year's Eve Plans Have Changed"


To My Dear Readers,

As you get ready to say farewell to 2017, please enjoy this cartoon I did for OC Weekly's Annual Holiday Cartoon Issue last year.

May your 2018 be a good year filled with good food and good times!

And thank you for reading!

Edwin Goei a.k.a. elmomonster

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Saturday, December 30, 2017

Cafe Hiro's 2017 Christmas Eve Prix Fixe Dinner


This year, like all years, we celebrated Christmas at Cafe Hiro with its Christmas Eve prix fixe. And this year, like all years, it did not disappoint.

The cost was $49 per person and to us Cafe Hiro regulars, the meal felt like a culmination and retrospective of all the great dishes we've been eating all year.

A lot of lillies were gilded that night. Chef Ohiwa upgraded some of his greatest hits with special add-ons and extra touches. For his usual scallop carpaccio, he tucked uni under the daikon fold. For the uni pasta, he added three sautéed scallops (and as an extra treat for us, shaved black truffles).

And Christmas Eve is one of the few times when he does a roast beef that puts to shame all prime ribs I've ever had before. Succulent, juicy, it was red meat at its most pleasurable.

We swooned at every bite, moaned at every morsel. This year, like all years, Ohiwa had outdone himself.

Cafe Hiro
(714) 527-6090
10509 Valley View St
Cypress, CA 90630

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Sunday, December 17, 2017

Celebrating 25 Years of Honda-Ya in Tustin


Last year, when I wrote about a long overdue revisit to Honda-Ya, it was to praise its longevity.

Next year, Honda Ya will commemorate its 25th anniversary. In a business where most new restaurants are lucky if they survive a year, a quarter century is a significant milestone. But for Honda-Ya, it almost seems inevitable.

As I wrote before, it is a testament to its rock-solid stature as OC's preeminent izakaya that Honda-Ya is still unchanged yet still popular after all these years--like a stone monument in the middle of a city on fast-forward. Every time I step in there, it feels like a victory--not because I've usually just endured upwards to an hour's wait, but because coming into that room feels like I'm being welcomed back into the warm embrace of a loved one. Honda-Ya, more than anything, has one of the coziest and most welcoming restaurant spaces in all of Orange County.

If you sit next to a window, you don't look out to a parking lot; rather, you're lulled by a brightly lit Zen garden, even if it's late at night. And if you sit in the robota bar, you are mesmerized by the curls of smoke that enshrouds the grill master as he squints and flips dozens of sticks of yakitori over coals.

On a recent visit, we ate our usual assortment of Honda-ya favorites, balancing the grilled with the fried, the fried with the steamed, and our small appetites with the enormous feast we ordered. And as we took stock in how long we've been enjoying this food (since 2003), we can't help but wonder where we'll be in the next 25 years. The only thing that's certain is that we know where Honda-Ya will be: right here, in Tustin.

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

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Saturday, December 16, 2017

What We Order at Din Tai Fung - Costa Mesa


Last night a miracle happened: The wait at Din Tai Fung South Coast Plaza at 6 p.m. on a Friday was less than 30 minutes.

If you're familiar with this restaurant, you know that its famous for two things: its juicy pork dumplings (a.k.a. xiaolongbao) and the long wait times. It's been especially bad at this location of the franchise. At one point during the month of its opening, it was a 7 hour wait to get a seat, which meant that if you wanted to have dinner, you'd have to check-in before lunch.

But last night, the stars somehow aligned. I was shocked when the hostess said it would be 15 to 30 minutes before we were seated.

We ate all the dishes we always order. Brined cucumber. Wood ear mushrooms in vinegar. Two orders of xiaolongbao. Pork chop fried rice. Braised beef soup. Green beans. Red bean dumplings for dessert.

And as always, we ordered way too much and stuffed ourselves silly. But this time, because we were able to eat at a reasonable hour, we were delighted to able to do some Christmas shopping in the mall afterwards. And for some reason, The Disney Store was offering discounts that made its toys actually affordable, which was an even bigger miracle!

Din Tai Fung
3333 Bristol St. Ste. 2071
Costa Mesa, CA 92626
(714) 549-3388

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