Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Alan Wong's Honolulu - Oahu, Hawaii

$95 would seem a lot to pay for a meal, but when you shell out this amount at Alan Wong’s in Honolulu for its signature 5-course prix fixe, you are getting a downright bargain.

This Oahu institution, which has been in business for more than two decades, has rightfully been praised by every food magazine as one of the best restaurants in the country. Wong has also been recognized by the James Beard Foundation as one of the Best Chefs of 1996. But after visiting it for the first time, I’d argue that even to this day, Wong and his eponymous restaurant still deserves the distinction.

First a warning for those who have not dined here but plan to: Alan Wong’s is not located in the safe confines of a resort, nor does it have a beach or ocean view. It’s found on the third floor of squat office building amidst an inner-city neighborhood that will make you think you’re deep in the heart of LA’s San Fernando Valley. If you were teleported here and looked out the window, you would not guess you were in Hawaii.

But as soon as you walk in, the effortless island charm you’d expect from a people whose state thrives on tourism is very much in tact. The staff is impeccably warm, friendly, even chummy. Every person I interacted with, down to the valet, was as happy to be here as I was. This, in turn, made me even more happy. They do everything to make you feel like a V.I.P., especially if you’re celebrating a special occasion. They will print out a special menu with the celebrant’s name on top. The menu is also signed by the entire staff, and at the end of the meal, if you’re commemorating a birthday, they will bring out a complimentary slice of chocolate cake on a personalized plate complete with a lit candle.

It’s not as if you’ll need the cake. If you order the prix fixe, it already comes with a dessert course, one that we couldn’t finish. After eating all the free bread slathered with spicy aioli, and then the four nearly full-sized portions of Wong’s most popular dishes, we were stuffed.

It started with a “Soup and Sandwich”—a martini glass filled with chilled tomato soup, and a triangle of a foie-gras-kalua-pig-mozzarella grilled cheese sandwich. The sandwich sat on a plank of Parmesan crisp set like a bridge on the rim of the glass.

As I alternated between bites of the sandwich and sips of the gazpacho-like soup, I realized the genius behind this dish. The spicy, cleansing, and refreshing soup balanced the warm and decadent richness of the pork and foie. It’s hard for me to think of a more thrilling dish that I thought looked ordinary and unimpressive at first glance.

Next was a Keahole lobster and shrimp lasagna with garlic tomato sauce, which the waiter advised should be savored slowly and not inhaled. Heeding his advice, I ate each component in as small a bite as I could muster, letting each morsel linger in my mouth before I swallowed.

The fish course was a ginger-crusted Onaga (Long-tailed Red Snapper) with miso sesame vinaigrette, mushroom, Nozawa corn, and baby corn sprouts. The dish was by itself a revelation: a ginger-scented and perfectly cooked fillet served over a tangy, umami-packed sauce that was dotted by crisp corn kernels as sweet-as-candy.

But then came the piece de resistance: a garnish of baby corn sprouts. For me, it pushed this dish from “great” to a bonafide “revelation”. If you’ve ever wondered what a corn husk would taste like if it were edible, this is it. And it’s incredibly sugary, grassy, and tastes of summer.

For the meat course, the kitchen put out a “surf and turf” plate that’s basically Hawaiian food culture distilled onto a few square inches.

The “turf” was a twice-cooked short rib (soy-braised and grilled kalbi-style) moist and tender enough to be pulled apart with a gentle tug of the fork. The braised beef, above all, should be used as a lesson for all chefs on how it should always be prepared. The “surf” was a single shrimp gilded in wilted green onion, two simple ingredients that, when put together, becomes greater than the sum of its parts. And for the vegetable, there was luscious eggplant spears cooked in miso while splotches of a sriracha gochujang sauce decorated the plate.

As Wong is not just a great chef, but also a practical one, he knows no dish like this would be complete without a bowl of rice. And as if on cue, it arrived right after the server explained all of the components.

Finally, as we were already bursting at the seams from the savory dishes, the sweet course arrived. It was an assortment of chocolate desserts that included a house-made “Waialua” milk chocolate macadamia nut crunch bars that could bankrupt the Mars candy empire if it ever went to mass market. Next to it, there was a truffle filled with salted caramel, a crispy tuile, and a perfect cookie that was at once crispy on the outside and chewy on the inside.

And as the check came, they served a final parting bite: two more vanilla cookies as petit fours that we chewed as we waddled out into the Hawaiian night thinking “That was worth every penny and the plane ticket to get here!”

Alan Wong's Honolulu
1857 S King St.
Honolulu, HI 96826

Louie's by the Bay - Newport Beach

Monday, March 04, 2019

Izakaya Takasei - Fullerton

Izakaya Takasei in Fullerton used to be a Honda-Ya. It split off some years ago, but the DNA it shares with the original are still there. You see it with the tatami rooms, the sake-fueled convivial atmosphere, and especially the kushiyaki, which are roasted over the same white hot heat of binchotan coals.

Izakaya Takasei
2980 Yorba Linda Blvd
Fullerton, CA 92831

'Ai Pono Cafe - Costa Mesa

Saturday, March 02, 2019

MFK by Aysee's Sisig Bowl - Anaheim

If you haven't done it, wrangle up a couple of friends and save some money to do the kamayan at MFK by Aysee. You'll need about $40 per person for the eat-with-your-hands communal meal experience where rice is laid out on a table lined with banana leaves and then six different proteins of your choice are piled on top. But if you're cash-strapped and you just want something quick and simple, get MFK's sisig bowl.

It contains rice as the base, sisig, and a sunny-side up egg, all for about $8.

If you're new to sisig, you're in for a treat. Sisig--a classic Filipino street food designed to be eaten with beer--is basically fried pieces of pork and crispy skin all chopped up to bits, then tossed with a little onion, garlic, peppers, and citrus juice.

Mark my words: when Filipino cuisine reaches Chinese take-out food ubiquity in the US, sisig will be as beloved as Orange Chicken. So try it at MFK now so you can say you got in on the ground floor!

MFK By Aysee
2620 W. La Palma Ave.
Anaheim, CA 92801
(657) 337-5288

Munch Bistro - Huntington Beach

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Inka Mama's Aguadito de Pollo - Santa Ana

This is the aguadito de pollo that came with the lunch special at Inka Mama's. It's one of those soups that has everything going for it. Literally everything. Peas. Carrots. Onions. Garlic. Serrano chile. Potato. Rice. And of course, pieces of chicken and the lovely broth that carries its flavor.

I love this soup and soups like this, because no matter what culture you hail from, nothing comforts your soul and satisfies your gullet like a good soup. This one checked all the boxes: simple but well-seasoned, spicy but soothing, thin but hearty.

I'd tell you about the main course of chicharron de pollo (Peruvian crispy fried chicken strips) that came after the soup. It was served with scrumptious rice, a fried potato, and enough salsa criolla to make my breath lethal for the rest of the day, but it's the soup I'm thinking about as I write this. Funny how 40-degree weather does that.

Inka Mama's
3930 Bristol St.
Santa Ana, CA 92704

El Fishawy - Tustin

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Ruth Chris' 3-Course Prix Fixe - Irvine

I have a love/hate relationship with high-end steakhouses like Ruth’s Chris and Mastro’s. While I love the steaks, I bristle at the fact that something as cheap as mashed potatoes are never included with the already exorbitant cost of the meal. It’s always sold “a la carte”, which doesn’t mean “We’re going to overcharge you for fries” in French, but seems like it should.

Enter a Ruth's Chris’ 3-course prix fixe menu, which is a direct response to gripes like mine. With this deal, a $50 investment can actually pay for the ENTIRE meal, not just the meat. For my dinner, the special--which is a permanent part of the menu and changes only slightly with the seasons--included not just a healthy helping of mashed potato I needed to enjoy my steak, but also a big, satisfying bowl of butternut squash soup as the first course.

The soup hit all the notes a good butternut squash soup needs to hit: savory, sweet, silken, rich but not too rich--potage that can actually function as its own meal, especially when eaten with the entire basket of free bread.

Of course, there’s the steak itself, which, at the lowest tier, was a 6-ounce filet topped with a crown of butter-basted shrimp. Like the full-priced version of the same steak, it’s served on a super-heated plate with a sputtering puddle of butter that is Ruth’s Chris’ signature.

And finally, there’s the dessert of a salted caramel cheesecake served with ice cream, which I could only nibble on because I was already full. It was then I realized why I liked this prix fixe so much: being satiated from a steakhouse meal and not feeling ripped off shouldn’t be mutually exclusive.

Ruth's Chris
2961 Michelson Dr Suite A, Building 10
Irvine, CA 92612

Hai Ky Mi Gia - Santa Ana

Monday, February 04, 2019

Jun's Omakase at Sushi Noguchi is Even Better Now!

It’s common knowledge now that the Japanese word “omakase” means “chef’s choice”, a sort of free license you give your sushi master to serve you whatever he/she thinks is best. But lately, the word has come to mean something else: an ultra-expensive multi-course sushi meal that can tick up to the triple digits.

Sushi Noguchi, the Yorba Linda institution, has always been a pioneer of omakase in Orange County. And to me, if you’re going to spend upwards to a hundred bucks per person for omakase in OC, you can’t do better than trust your investment with Hiro Noguchi, an old-school sushi artisan whom I regard in the same league as Jiro Ono from Jiro Dreams of Sushi.

But the best thing about Sushi Noguchi is that the $100 “Hiro’s Omakase” isn’t your only omakase option. As I’ve written before, Noguchi’s “Jun’s Omakase”—named after Hiro’s lovely wife Jun—costs $50, and it’s just as enjoyable as Hiro’s top-tier meal.

And these days, when other omakases in Orange County are quickly climbing past the $100 mark, Hiro and Jun have done something quite remarkable: not only have they kept “Jun’s Omakase” the same price it has been for years, but they’ve actually upgraded and upped the quantity of the dishes you get with it.

Our recent “Jun’s Omakase” meal consisted of the following six-courses:

- Seared albacore salad with mixed greens, baby corn, cherry tomatoes, peppers, and crispy onions.

- Olive-oil slicked Scottish salmon carpaccio with thinly-slivered red onions and red peppercorns.

- A cooked foods sampler plate of fish-stuffed shishito tempura, a buta kakuni (braised pork belly) with hot mustard, and a crispy-fried shrimp katsu on a stick.

- Two crispy wontons dolloped with spicy tuna.

- A platter of four sublimely-made nigiri pieces with Bluefin tuna, Yellowtail, salmon, and sea bream.

- And finally a baked blue crab hand roll in soy paper that was so sweet, it could double as a dessert confection.

After I ate this meal, I came to the conclusion that “Jun’s Omakase” doesn’t just prove that you don’t have to pay a premium for a quality omakase experience, it also shows that “omakase” can actually mean “bargain”.

Sushi Noguchi
18507 Yorba Linda Blvd.
Yorba Linda, CA 92886
(714) 777-6789

Descanso - Costa Mesa

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Summer House - Corona del Mar

This weekend is the last weekend for Newport Beach Restaurant Week until it happens again next year. And for me, it meant there was now a very good reason to revisit Summer House, a Corona del Mar sleeper of a neighborhood restaurant/diner that has so far escaped notice from everyone except the locals.

But with every subsequent Newport Beach Restaurant Week, this may start changing. At $20, Summer House has one of the cheapest prices for a three-course dinner at a full-service restaurant. So it’s only a matter of time before the rest of OC discovers it.

This year, I opted to try a mahi mahi smothered in a tomato wine sauce, served with horseradish mashed potatoes and sautéed spinach. It was glorious: the fish was perfectly cooked, the spinach silky, the potatoes blubbery and sharp—a dish that’s worth $20 in and of itself.

My lovely dinner companion took the restaurant’s signature dish of ginger-crusted baked fresh Hawaiian ono with orange beurre blanc and jasmine rice, which was as good as the first time we had it two years ago. It was then that I, myself, discovered Summer House from their old Newport Beach Restaurant Week deal, which, by the way, hasn’t changed in price. The fact that it hasn’t makes it an even better value today.

Summer House
2744 East Coast Hwy
Corona Del Mar, CA 92625

Bwon Shabu & BBQ - Fullerton

Monday, January 14, 2019

Crispy Pork & Char Siu Rice from Seasons Kitchen USA

On most weekdays, my lunch would not consist of flavors from my Southeast Asian childhood. But today was not a typical day. Today, Seasons Kitchen USA--which has been travelling from office park to office park serving Malaysian dishes for food-barren corporate complexes--was in my neck of the woods.

So my lunch had a lot of the ingredients I grew up with: sambal with whiffs of belacan, the crispy head-on fried anchovies called ikan bilis, and the sumptuous aroma of rice cooked with coconut milk.

The protein was char siu and hunks of fatty pork belly still attached to its crispy skin, which, when I think about it, I probably would’ve been better off consuming when I was 30 years younger and 50 pounds lighter!

Seasons Kitchen USA
641 N Euclid St
Anaheim, CA 92801

Edwin Goei's Top Drinks and Restaurants of 2018

Tuesday, January 08, 2019

The Dim Sum Co. - Westminster

Whenever I want instant dim sum gratification, The Dim Sum Co. does the job. Since it’s a walk-up quick-service counter located inside My Thuan Market in Westminster, you point, pay, and eat. There’s no hour long waits, no tipping, no splitting up the bill at the end. There’s usually a queue, but it last minutes compared to the hours you might spend waiting at a real dim sum restaurant on a weekend. It’s been this way since it was called Yum Cha Cafe back in the day.

But there are differences in quality to a proper dim sum palace, mostly due to the travel time. By the time I got it home, a lot of the dim sum cooled and hardened. Also the delicate skin of the har gow got torn up when they packed into its togo Styrofoam container. But the taro balls were greaseless and crisp, shedding its shredded-wheat-like fur in crumbles when I bit into it. And the egg custard tart was, as always, luscious and perfectly sweet.

As I took my last morsel and sipped my home-brewed tea, I looked at my watch. In the time I took to drive, pick up, and eat this food, I would still be standing in line, waiting to get a seat elsewhere.

The Dim Sum Co.
8900 Westminster Blvd.
Westminster, CA 92683

Davios - Irvine

Monday, January 07, 2019

Farewell to Stricklands

Stricklands Ice Cream served its final cone last week, one day before New Year's Eve. It was forced to close after 15 years in business. Its landlord, The Irvine Company, chose not to renew its lease earlier this year.

I went on that last day and although all the ice cream was sold out by the time I got there, I was able to get one last treat: handspun milkshakes, which were being offered at half-off.

A rush of competing emotions came over me as I took a drag of the thick strawberry milkshake from my straw. I was happy and grateful that I got to be there on the last and final night of service. But then, as soon as the sugary surge melted away, the feelings of profound sadness and loss set in.

Stricklands represented a physical, brick-and-mortar connection to countless fond memories of my past. And it seemed like an injustice that it was being taken away. I would’ve had different emotions had the owners, Randy and Donna Nettles, decided to close up on their own terms.

But then, my feelings turned to hopefulness. The fact that they aren’t closing voluntarily actually provides a real possibility that they will reopen elsewhere–somewhere where Stricklands Ice Cream can make new fond memories in perpetuity.

Farewell Stricklands...for now.

Kashiwa Ramen - Costa Mesa