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

Friday, September 23, 2016

Ike's Love & Sandwiches - Newport Beach

I don't think I'm alone when I say that the prices at Banh Mi Che Cali have spoiled me for life. Now, if I see a sandwich that costs more than $5, I'm immediately skeptical. Will it be worth it? Will it be better than one of BMCC's banh mis that costs half that much?

Usually, the answer is no.

Walking into the new Ike's Love & Sandwiches in Newport Beach, my skepticism was again tested.

The cost of an average sandwich here, at this San Francisco-based sandwich chain that's currently taking over spots that a retreating Capriotti's has abandoned, is $10.

Also, the Ike's in Newport Beach (and presumably all the other OC locations of Ike's current and forthcoming) will automatically tack on a 50-cent "healthcare surcharge" onto your bill.

But not only that: If you ask for the secret menu, you'll discover that there's a sandwich that tops out at $26.

Yes. You read that right. Twenty. Six. Dollars.

Do you know how many sandwiches $26 buys at Banh Mi Che Cali? A DOZEN (as of this writing), which means you could feed an entire football team and still be left with an extra one for the water boy.

But all of this seemed moot when I bit into my enormous $10 "Paul Reubens" Sandwich at Ike's. For the half hour I spent eating it, I kind of forgot about the price or the fact that--if I'm correct on my sandwich taxonomy--it should've been called a "Rachel McAdams" as it contained pastrami instead of corned beef, and coleslaw instead of sauerkraut.

What mattered at the time was that it weighed as heavy as a shotput despite being named after the actor who played Pee Wee, and it used Dutch Crunch bread--loaves that have crusts with the cracked pattern of a parched desert floor.

And when I ate the thing, it dripped, crunched, and satisfied me as a sandwich like this should.

Yes, I could've netted three banh mis and three che's (those Vietnamese desserts BMCC sells at $3.50 for 3) for the price I paid here, but what's this? Ike's has included a free apple-caramel sucker with my order...wait, are they telling me something?

Ike's Love & Sandwiches
4221 MacArthur Blvd.
Newport Beach, CA 92660
(949) 783-3390

Ironwood - Laguna Hills

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Jun's Omakase at Sushi Noguchi - Yorba Linda

If you are still unacquainted with the wonderful, mind-bogglingly great restaurant called Sushi Noguchi in Yorba Linda, let me point you to the first few stories I've written on it over the past year:

- Sushi Noguchi - Yorba Linda
- The Best Sushi in Orange County
- 10 Essential Sushi Joints to Say "Omakase"

Okay, are you back?


Convinced that this may be the best sushi restaurant in Orange County yet still can't see yourself spending the $100 per person for Hiro's omakase? OK. Then keep reading, because there is an answer.

It is called "Jun's Omakase".

Jun, you see, is Jun Noguchi, wife of Hiro, and the lovely proprietress who handles the front of the house. If you sit at the table, you'll likely be served by her.

Her eponymous omakase set is priced at $50 per person and though it doesn't include some of the more expensive cuts of fish you'll find in Hiro's top-of-the-line omakase, it satisfies just the same.

I recently tried it and here's what was included in our meal:

A salad of dressed greens in a martini glass with chunks of raw and briefly-seared fish, sprinkled with crispy fried shallots.

A large plate with a lightly tempura'd fish resting on shiso, a bowl of chilled soba to slurp, and Japanese pickles.

Sliced hamachi topped with sliced fresh jalapeno in a pool of ponzu.

Seared tuna steaks floating atop puddles of sesame oil and ponzu.

An assortment of nigiri from the sushi bar, each one with a distinct topping, such as yuzu-kosho.

Gobs of fresh chopped spicy tuna wrapped as a hand-roll in crispy nori.

It's the right price for just the right amount of food and decadence.

If you still consider it expensive, think of this: in OC, there's now a sushi restaurant that charges $170 per person for their lowest level of omakase and $250 per person for a kaiseki meal.

At those rates, $50 seems like nothing.

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

PRIME by Shenandoah - Long Beach

Thursday, September 15, 2016

A Pho Poem

The rain clouds above us were ominous; the air, a frigid chill.
It feels like a soup night, we said.
Yes, a big bowl of pho! That would fit the bill!

Somewhere close, not too far.
And it must be cheap!
Not more than seven bucks! And ten minutes by car!

We zoomed out. Got there in eight minutes tops.
It was an old school, local place,
In a room that smelled of old mops.

The service, well, it was absent at best.
Green neon. Placemats with Chinese zodiacs.
But that soup! That made up for the rest!

It was hot; it was good.
Yeah, it tasted like any other bowl of pho,
Yet it warmed us from the inside out, as we knew it would!

Pho Hung Vuong
14182 Newport Ave.
Tustin, CA 92780
(714) 731-1933

Stadtgarten - Fullerton

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Mountain Sun Pub & Brewery - Boulder, CO

From the the reviews I read of Mountain Sun Pub & Brewery in Boulder, I knew that it was a "laid back" establishment in a town known for being "laid back". But I had no idea that it was so "laid back", it warrants a redefinition of the phrase.

Here's the conversation we had with our waiter, who, as soon as we were seated, got on his knee so that he could talk to us at our eye level.

First of all, welcome to Mountain Sun! My name is John*. I am not your server. Your server is Mary*. But everyone here carrying a tray or who looks like they work here, can help you with everything you need. Also, we only accept cash. There's an ATM machine in the back that charges $1 per transaction. But if you don't have cash or an ATM card, that's okay too! We'll give you a self-addressed envelope with a stamp already on it. You just can just send us the payment whenever you get home.

(Our mouth open in disbelief)
You're serious?

Oh absolutely! And also if you're thinking of a beer, we don't want you to order a beer that you're not absolutely in love with. So ask for as many samplings as you like, as often as you like! It's free.

*Not their actual names

Mountain Sun Pub & Brewery
1535 Pearl St
Boulder, CO 80302
(303) 546-0886

Tenkatori - Costa Mesa

Wednesday, September 07, 2016

Acorn - Denver, CO

If you're going to be in Denver and have about two or three weeks lead time before you actually arrive, make a reservation at Acorn. Seats for the restaurant--arguably the hottest joint in town at the moment--book up about a month in advance for weekend evenings. Or you could do as we did: go there at exactly 5 p.m. and hope to get lucky with walk-in.

Acorn is located in an industrial area next to warehouses and auto body shops. It is, itself, inside a building that used to be a brick foundry back in the 1880s. The building was recently converted into an "artisan food market" called The Source with cheese mongers and microbreweries among them.

Yes, it's a gentrified food hall like those we've seen in OC, but the charm of the place is that it's out of the way and not even close to downtown--it takes a concerted effort to get here. And when you do, you are rewarded with some of the best food you'll ever find in a room covered in sheet metal.

This is where Mad Max and Furiosa would go on a date.

The restaurant is actually one of two inside the place, but it's the shining jewel of the entire hall. The menu is a hodgepodge of small plates sold for $15 on average. All are good to excellent. The New York Times agrees.

The spaghetti we had was electric with a sauce that's not quite marinara, not quite puttanesca, but somewhere in the middle. The meatballs were fall-apart-soft, served fuming with creamy polenta in an iron skillet. There was crispy pork belly added to a Thai mango and sticky rice dessert; and hamachi was served so beautifully it belongs in an art gallery.

And oh, that reminds me: when you're in town, also visit the Denver Art Museum.

3350 Brighton Blvd.
Denver, CO 80216
(720) 542-3721

Mountain - Buena Park

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

NBC Seafood - Monterey Park

While every other restaurant these days purport to do "small plates" that are "perfect for sharing", I would argue that there isn't a better place for friendly get togethers than a dim sum restaurant.

Think of it. You don't have to fuss with a menu. You just point and BAM, within minutes your table is crowded with plates of bite-sized morsels that are, yes, "perfect for sharing". And then there's the tea, which, in my opinion, is the best beverage for social gatherings. You pour it for each other. It aids digestion. It keeps you awake and alert.

So when a group of old college friends and I decided to reunite recently, it was a no brainer: it had to be dim sum.

We agreed on NBC Seafood, but had a good laugh when one of my friends didn't check the e-mail before leaving home and ended up at ABC Seafood.

"It IS confusing," I told him when he finally made it. "There are dim sum restaurants called CBS, ABC, and NBC. Let's just be glad there isn't one called FOX!"

We ordered all the favorites: tripe in silky ginger gravy, chicken feet, translucent har gow, and meaty shu mai.

NBC's cheongfun, rice noodle rolls filled with minced beef, could've been a little more delicate; but the zongzi, wrapped leafy parcels of glutinous rice and meat, were aromatic and filling.

I could say that the best part of this dim sum lunch was the impeccably fresh and crisp haam sui gau (fried glutinous rice dumplings) and the wu gok (fried taro puffs), but really it was the chance to catch up with friends with whom I spent the better part of my twenties.

We drank cup after cup of the tea, talked about our families, our jobs, that post-graduation cross-country road trip we took to Florida, and the fact that two decades went by in a blink.

NBC Seafood
404 S Atlantic Blvd.
Monterey Park, CA 91754
626) 282-2323

Taste Brazilian Style Gourmet - Huntington Beach