Friday, May 22, 2015

Napa Rose's Chef's Counter - Disney's Grand Californian Hotel

Here are 9 essential tips you need to know about dining at Napa Rose's Chef's Counter.

1. There are three Chef's Counter seating areas.

The two that fill up the quickest are the group of seats in front of the main kitchen. The last is in front of the dessert station, where we sat with front row seats as two pastry chefs assembled strawberry tarts and torched creme brûlées.

2. There are two seating times: 5:30 p.m. and 8:30 p.m.

You need to reserve at least a week or two in advance. The 8:30 slots go quickest, so plan ahead. You probably want the 8:30 time slot. It's the most relaxed since no one comes after you, so you can pace yourself. This brings me to my next tip.

3. Plan for a 3-hour dinner.

Course by course, one by one, 'til you shout, "Enough! I'm done!"--a meal at the Chef's Counter is a slow, pleasureable affair. When you think you've reached the last course, you haven't. It's like one of those but-wait-there's-more informercials.

When the chef noticed a person in our party had hardly touched a steak dish, she asks if anything's wrong.

"No, it's great," my lovely companion replies. "I'm just so full!".

"But we've got another dish lined up for you guys!" said the chef.

4. Expect a five-course meal, not counting the small tastes of other things in between.

If I counted everything that came at us, there were actually about seven courses. The amuse bouche. A salad or appetizer course. The fish course. A savory mushroom cappuccino in an espresso cup. A meat course. Another course after that where anything can happen. A dessert course. And finally, a tiny box of chocolates we took home and ate two days later because it took us that long to digest this meal.

So budget your stomach space wisely. No matter how divine those cheese-crisped triangles of lavash in the basket of bread are, save them for the doggie bag. You've got courses to finish.

5. The cost per person as of this writing is $100. Wine pairings, $45.

The a la carte menu and the $100 Vitner's Table prix fixe are also available at Chef's Counter. But it would be a waste of your reservation not to surrender your evening to the whims and talents of Napa Rose's chefs and sommeliers.

Besides, if you're a fussy eater, the Chef's Counter is made for you. You don't like a certain kind of meat? Allergic to shellfish or peanuts? Have an irrational fear of vegetables? This is the time you get to tell them all your weird food aversions and fetishes. They will customize every course to you as much as they can.

Here's an example: my lovely companion told them early on she doesn't eat anything rare and doesn't like duck; so on one course, she got a lovely risotto while another friend got a still-bloody slice of duck breast.

On that same course, I (who told them "I eat everything") got the most advanced dish of all: pan-seared sweetbreads.

6. Contrary to other reports, the person who will be taking down your likes and dislikes might be your sommelier, not the executive chef or chef du cuisine.

Be sure to tell who ever asks exactly what's on your mind, or else you might get something you won't particularly enjoy.

7. For every single course, each person in your party will get a completely unique dish.

This is the mind boggling part of Napa Rose's Chef's Counter: they cook individual meals for every member of the party for each course. If you go with 3 other people, you will potentially get to sample at least 20 distinctly different dishes. You won't ever see the same dish twice. No other restaurant I know of that offers prix fixe meals would do this willingly. Napa Rose thrives on it.

8. If you do the wine pairing, you will also get a unique set of wines different than anyone else in your party.

I tasted 5 different wines that went with 5 different courses, each one completely different than what another friend was served. And be prepared to drink a lot of wine--the sommelier is not stingy with his pours. This brings me to my final point.

9. You will gain weight from this meal.

After going home fuller than I've ever been in years, when I got on the weighing scale the morning after this feast, I weighed three pounds heavier than the day before.

Napa Rose
Disneyland Resort
1313 Disneyland Dr.
Disney's Grand Californian Hotel & Spa
Anaheim, CA 92802
(714) 635-2300

Crispy House - Artesia

Friday, May 15, 2015

Wei-Chuan's Microwavable Stewed Beef Noodle Soup

Ah, noodle soups. What better dish is there when it's cold and rainy? It's the kind of meal I crave all the time, but especially during downpours, which is exactly the kind of weather that's not conducive to going out to get it. But what are you options? Well, short of calling delivery, there used to be just two: make it from scratch or phone it in with instant.

Now there's a third option: nuke it from frozen. Wei-Chuan, the Taiwan-based manufacturer of oyster sauces, pickles, and frozen dumplings has started selling these babies: frozen beef noodle soup, a.k.a. niu rou man, the dish served in more restaurants in Irvine than burgers, tacos, or pho.

Wei-Chuan is actually not the only producer of microwavable noodle soups; it just seems to be the only one that's making this specific kind. And it is delicious. The noodles, a shade thinner than udon, are a pleasure to chew. The soup is fragrant of anise, rich, dark, with a meaty richness, sweetness, and tang. And although there isn't as much meat in the bowl as it shows on the box, it's real stewed beef, with, you know, beefy fibers and stuff. And there's actual spinach, you know, with spinach-y fibers and stuff.

In fact, if you served me this noodle soup at a restaurant, I probably wouldn't be able to tell it was microwaved. Honest!

Each box retails for about $4. I found mine at H-Mart. And though the instructions--involving tearing out a perforated circle from the cardboard to make a sort of cradle for the bowl and pouring a measured amount of water in two separate steps--are slightly more complicated than for a Nissin Cup Noodle, the rewards are worth the effort. Besides, what else are you going to do? It's pouring outside.

So buy it now and then save it for a rainy day...literally.

Fins Poke Fusion - Mission Viejo

Thursday, May 07, 2015

Fast 5 Pizza - Santa Ana

The pepperoni pizza you see above is $5.50. Yes. $5.50 for 8 slices: the highest satisfaction-to-price ratio of anything I've ever paid money for.

I don't know how the economics of it works. Fast 5 Pizza--a growing chain that gets its name from the fact that they actually used to sell these puppies for $5 each--must operate on the thinnest of margins. And though Little Caesars offers a similar deal, the difference is that these are pizzas I'd actually want to eat.

They're thick crusted, baked in pans within 8 minutes of your order, and actually all ready to go if you want the pepperoni during the dinner rush. But they're more than I expected them to be for a whole pizza that costs less than foot-long at Subway.

I got a whole bunch of them to feed a gathering of friends for the Mayweather-Pacquiao fight, which, I don't think I have to tell you, had the LOWEST satisfaction-to-price ratio of anything I've ever paid money for.

Fast 5 Pizza
1473 S Main St
Santa Ana, CA 92707
(714) 550-4115

Vegan Nirvana - Huntington Beach

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Rutt's Hut - Clifton, New Jersey

There are hot dogs, and then there are rippers. Rippers, if you haven't seen them before on countless Travel Channel and Food Network shows, are deep fried hot dogs that split open and practically tear themselves apart in the fry oil. And if you have seen those shows, you'd know the only place in the country where you should have them is Rutt's Hut in Clifton, New Jersey.

I happened to be in New Jersey last week and I went through a gauntlet of turnpikes, toll plazas, and pothole-covered streets to find it. Rutt's Hut, let me tell you, is in an odd place--kind of perched in an industrial area, overlooking a highway and nowhere near anything else. It has apparently been on this spot since 1928. But parking was ample (a rarity in Jersey, as I discovered) and the rippers were worth the drive.

There are no chairs. It's cash only and it's a stand-and-eat joint. The countermen look like they came out of a Martin Scorsese flick with East Coast accents thicker than the housemade relish you slather with wooden spoons from the communal metal buckets near the register. And man! That relish! It's a sweet wonder gunk made of mustard, and other ingredients I can't begin to decipher--and it counters the richness of the fried hot dog in a way I didn't think possible.

Not unlike In-N-Out, Rutt's Hut also has a secret menu. If you want your hot dog extra well-done, you can ask for a "Cremator", wherein they leave the wiener to soak in the oil until it practically dries out and mummifies. Though I expected it to taste like jerky, it didn't. It's crisp, nearly bereft of juice, but still tender, as though I was eating a hot-dog-flavored fritter.

And oh the onion rings here! It further proves that, in the right hands, deep fryers are magical instruments.

Rutt's Hut
417 River Rd.
Clifton, NJ 07014
(973) 779-8615

4th Street Market - Santa Ana

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Nello Cucina - Costa Mesa

Sometimes, great service goes a long way at a restaurant, even if the food is just okay. Nello Cucina at South Coast Plaza made this kind of impression.

The grilled seafood platter I had was kind of meh. But as I ate the scallops, shrimp, salmon and swordfish, thinking the lemon butter sauce that sluiced everything was just a tad too tart, the team of servers who hovered over our party of ten made me feel like we were VIPs and had the restaurant to ourselves.

They anticipated our needs before we asked; they remembered what everyone ordered; and most importantly, they seemed genuinely happy to have us as guests on that Sunday afternoon--not one person had less than a smile.

Since ours was a birthday celebration, they not only offered to store the birthday cake we brought in their fridge until it was time, but also took it back to the kitchen, cut it into equal pieces, and served it on their own restaurant plates after the birthday girl blew out the candles.

But just look at how they did it: they actually took the time to decorate every single plate with their own strawberry sauce, which, in terms of what I already thought of their service, was the real icing on the cake.

Nello Cucina
South Coast Plaza
3333 Bear St.
Costa Mesa, CA 92626
(714) 540-3365

Burntzilla - Irvine

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Gibson Girl Ice Cream Parlor - Disneyland

Would a visit to Disneyland really be complete without at least one churro or one ice cream cone? I don't think so.

When you want the latter, Gibson Girl Ice Cream Parlor is THE ice cream shop. It's right there on Main Street so that you can get a scoop as soon as you begin your day in the park, and maybe another one on the way out.

Their flavor selection is basic, with nothing more complicated than Cookies-n-Cream.

Whatever you choose, you're better off getting it in a cone than in a cup. The cost is the same and the cone is made right there, in-house. You’ll know this because it's the smell that wafts everywhere and triggers a Pavlovian response that you want ice cream and you want it now.

Gibson Girl Ice Cream Parlor
1313 Disneyland Dr
Anaheim, CA 92802
(714) 781-3463

S.T. Noodle Bar - Long Beach

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Ariel's Grotto - Disney's California Adventure

Be aware that Ariel's Grotto is a prix fixe restaurant. As such, the price tag for eating here will be steep, no matter what you order. You pay the same whether you choose the lobster or the chicken. The cost of entry will be nearly half of what you shelled out to get into the theme park in the first place.

Also be aware that this restaurant exists not because of its food, but because of its princesses. Yes, princesses. Ariel's Grotto is what Disney calls a "Character Dining" restaurant--a more humane version of "Dinner with Shamu".

There will be at least up to five princesses in all. Cinderella. Snow White. Aurora. Belle. And of course, Ariel herself. They're introduced via blaring intercom, upon which they'll curtsy and then float about the restaurant, posing for pictures and engaging in one-on-one conversations with all the star-struck pre-pubescent girls who themselves are dressed like princesses.

At some point during the spectacle, you forget how much money you're shelling out and just go with it. You'll know exactly the moment when this happens: it's when you see your daughter's ear-to-ear grin.

Ariel's Grotto
Disney California Adventure Park
1313 S Disneyland Dr.
Anaheim, CA 92802
(714) 781-3463

Paninoteca Maggio - Santa Ana

Friday, April 03, 2015

Big Thunder Ranch BBQ - Disneyland

At Disneyland's Big Thunder Ranch BBQ, they ring a big old dinner bell when it's eatin' time. The tables are long and picnic-y. The waiters are dressed like they're getting ready for a hoe-down and in the whole entire courtyard, what's not shaded by leafy trees, is sheltered by huge tarps.

When they serve your meal, it'll be in metal pails. Drinks? Well, of course they're poured into mason jars. And when you get down to eating your all-you-can-eat feast of ribs, chicken, cornbread and coleslaw, it's with your hands. This is, without a doubt, one of the hardest tables to get in Disneyland. You need to reserve well in advance.

Is it the best barbecue? No. Not even close. The ribs seem to taste like they've been parboiled, baked en masse in an oven, then slathered in sauce, in that order. The chicken is just chicken. But you end up eating a lot anyway because: you are an American, this is Disneyland, and it's all-you-can-eat. It feels downright unpatriotic not to overstuff yourself until it hurts.

And after you waddle out, full of beans and meat, you walk by the petting zoo. You pet a goat.

Big Thunder Ranch BBQ
Disneyland Park
1313 S. Harbor Blvd.
Anaheim, CA 92802
(714) 781-3463

Kingchops - Irvine

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Miyako - Irvine

I don't remember how much I paid for this to-go box of sushi at Irvine's Miyako, but at the time I was ordering it, I thought it was too much. It might have something to do with the fact that the cashier and I had a miscommunication on whether it included a miso soup like the other lunch specials. I thought she said yes, but she still charged me for the soup. By the time she rang me up, I was too hungry to protest.

Just give me whatever, I thought. Here. Money.

But then as I stood there waiting for my order to be made, the lady who actually assembled my sushi lunch winked at me and then started to pile on more fish than I thought I was paying for. There was an extra slice of salmon sashimi here, more tuna there, even an extra piece or two of California roll. By the time she closed the foam box and packed it up, I had what I gathered was 20% extra food than what I was entitled to.

I thanked her, took it home, and realized not only was it actually a bargain, it tasted great, too--more fresh, more flavorful, and more carefully made than an office park lunch sushi joint like this usually produces.

But then Miyako has changed in the past year or so. It used to be the kind of quick-service joint heavy on the teriyaki. Now, they've remodeled it and put more of a focus on the sushi. Next time, I think I might even try saying "Omakase!" at the sushi bar, which is kind of like telling them:

Here! Money! Just me give me whatever!

92 Corporate Park # H
Irvine, CA 92606
(949) 756-8875

Pub Thirty-Two - Mission Viejo

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

The Original Sriracha Hot Chili Sauce Popcorn

Have you just about had it with all these Sriracha sauce-inspired products? Most of it is ridiculous. Sriracha beer? I bet it tastes like what it is: a gimmick.

Besides that, most of these products don't have much of in the flavor of the Huy Fong brand hot sauce that started it all. For the record: that Lay's potato chip flavor was let down, and even though I adore Jack In The Box, I'm avoiding their Sriracha burger at all costs. I figure it can't be better than what I do with their already heavenly two-for-99-cents tacos, which is cover it in Huy Fong's sauce when I get them home.

But then I found this at the market formerly known as Marukai. Notice that it has all the markings of an actual Huy Fong branded product. And when I looked at the ingredients, actual Huy Fong Foods Sriracha is listed after the popcorn and the sunflower oil used to pop it.

And after tasting it, let me tell you: this is only the Sriracha derivative product the world needs. It's really spicy. I mean, scorching. And it has the same zing, that garlicky tang, that secret-recipe signature flavor that only Huy Fong has and other imitators just can't copy...and man, there a lot of imitators out there!

La Pollada - Anaheim