Sunday, September 17, 2017

Nishi Poke & Ramen Bistro - Los Angeles

Nishi Poke & Ramen Bistro is not anywhere close to where I roam. It's in LA; and not just LA, but Rancho Park, a place that I can honestly say I've never heard of. But the place came highly recommended by a friend and mentor of mine, who I not only respect professionally but also on matters of food. He insisted I try it, even offering to pay for my lunch.

I told him that wasn't necessary. I was already curious because while Southern California is crawling with build-your-own poke joints and ramen shops, this restaurant is the first I've seen that attempts to do both.

Ramen and DIY poke are two separate and vastly different operating models. So this was a completely new concept--a two-in-one. It was as though Chipotle started offering burgers.

The restaurant was set-up exactly as I thought it would. The poke bar was on one side. The ramen counter with its own blackboard was on the other. But the dining room was a lot better-looking than the tiny strip mall plaza and its atrocious parking lot would have led me to believe. It is, in fact, a very charming bistro.

Each table had compartments stocked with ornate chopsticks and designer ceramic soup spoons. Fanciful sketches of commissioned art decorate walls made of blackboard. I could tell that the owner invested a not insignificant amount money remodeling the place, making it sunny, chic, and fashionable for sunny, chic, and fashionable Westsiders.

Even the poke assembly line got upgrades. It offered not only the usuals of ahi, salmon, and shrimp, but also crawfish, which, in my opinion, is as good as lobster. In addition, there were complimentary toppings I'd never seen before, such as tamagoyaki (Japanese omelette) and watermelon radish.

While the poke is great, the reason to go is the ramen. The noodles hit the chewy sweet spot: not too firm, not too soft. And they're substantial too--thick, almost udon-like--with the consistency of Chinese hand-pulled.

For now, there are only three broth options, with the spicy miso being the best. I knew I was in for a treat when I saw the shifting pools of red floating above the creamy 24-hour-simmered tonkotsu broth. And it's a good, steady heat, not overpowering but hot enough to keep me sipping to maintain the hurt. By the end of the bowl, I was sweating so much I'd depleted the table's napkin dispenser.

But there were other things to love about it, including wads of freshly boiled spinach, cooked cabbage contributing an unexpected sweetness, and two pieces of generously thick pork belly that were broiled to gild the edges with char.

A soft boiled egg was an extra add on, but essential--the yolk straddling the tenuous balance between liquid and solid. It's perfect and a fitting symbol of how this restaurant has managed to successfully straddle the tight rope of two genres.

Nishi Poke & Ramen Bistro
2536 Overland Ave
Los Angeles, CA 90064
(424) 361-5001

Luxor Cafe - Garden Grove

Sunday, August 27, 2017

The Worst Restaurant in Orange County

I had lined up this new restaurant to review for The Weekly. The menu looked eclectic. It was one of those modern gastropubs with an Asian spin. But its Yelp page was strange. There were a lot of one-star reviews. But the text that accompanied those reviews were positive. It turns out that the owner was actually encouraging friends to put them up as some sort of a protest against the site. The owner claimed that Yelp was suppressing the good reviews and asking for money.

The refusal to play the Yelp game sounded admirable, but ultimately, I found the strategy foolish. Past a cursory glance, who among us scrolling for a place to eat would dig into a restaurant's Yelp page to find out why it got so few stars?

But it wasn't a concern of mine. I wanted to try it no matter what.

Yet, as the events of the evening unfolded, I came to the realization that hidden in those self-inflicted one-star reviews might have been bad reviews that were actually earned and warranted.

We arrived at 7:30 p.m. on a Saturday night. The place looked hip. The bar looked well-stocked. But no one, not even one customer, was there. The restaurant was empty.

On the menu, we found a pork belly lumpia that sounded interesting. When I asked our waitress how many came to an order, she said two. Since there were three of us, I asked whether it would be possible to have the kitchen fry up one more and just charge us for it. She went to check. When she came back, she informed me they couldn't do it; I'd have to get two orders.

I politely declined.

Shortly thereafter the first order of lumpia arrived. And then came the second.

"But I didn't want the second order," I protested.

"Oh! I thought you said you did," she said.

We excused the mistake and kept the two extra egg rolls but immediately regretted it. The lumpia, covered in a shell that was overfried and burnt, was so salty it made my head hurt. After that came one travesty after another. The noodle salad was strangely stiff, tasting like it was made with uncooked Top Ramen soaked in water.

Then came the clincher.

"Excuse me," I said to the waitress, "This chicken wing is undercooked. It looks burnt on the outside but it's still raw on the inside."

"It's cooked to temperature," she insisted, "Maybe it's just close to an artery. We all ate it before and it should be fine. It's safe."

There was no apology. No offer to take it back nor to take it off the bill.

And that was that: After 15 years of reviewing restaurants for OC Weekly and this blog, I had finally found the worst restaurant in Orange County.

At this point you might be wondering why I've not mentioned the name of the restaurant. I've decided not to reveal it, nor will I rip it apart for the sake of a good read on The Weekly. As my friends wisely said, "It would be like kicking them when they're down."

My friends are absolutely right. Looking around at that empty place, it'd be lucky if it survives the year. And when it does die, it will have done it to itself.

The Water Brewery - Costa Mesa

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

$5.25 Boba Milk Tea vs. $1.50 Boba Milk Tea

The milk tea you see to the left is from Gong Cha, the newest and shiniest boba shop to open in Irvine. When I ordered it, the cashier asked what sweetness level I wanted (either "no sugar", 30%, 50%, 70%, or 100%) and what level of ice I preferred (either "no ice", 25%, 50%, or 100%).

After that came the toppings. I chose boba (which they called "pearls") and pudding (which was still called "pudding"). Each topping cost an additional 50 cents. Two people and at least one cocktail shaker were involved in its preparation.

When I was presented with the final product, the person told me that I should let them know if anything needed to be adjusted.

Since I opted for the large, and it was the "Brown Sugar Fresh Milk Tea" from their more premium "Fresh Milk Series" list, the total cost for the drink was $5.25.

I still am unsure of the difference between this "Brown Sugar Fresh Milk Tea" and the regular "Pearl Milk Tea", which can be found under the regular "Milk Tea Series" list. But if I had opted for that one in the medium-sized cup, it would've been $3.75.

I point this out because the milk tea you see to the right is from Banh Mi Che Cali. It cost me $1.50 (Banh Mi Che Cali offers two milk teas for $3, toppings included).

It came out of a circulating beverage dispenser. And it tasted no different than the one on the left.

Gong Cha
14130 Culver Dr. Ste H-2
Irvine, CA 92604
(949) 656-8276

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

Lido Bottle Works - Newport Beach

Sunday, August 06, 2017

Why I Don't Like 626 Night Market

This weekend, the crowds will swell again at 626 Night Market in Santa Anita Park. It's the second to last one of the summer. And I get its appeal. For some it may be nostalgia for the night markets of the old country. For others, it's something different to do on a summer's night that's festive and outdoors.

But for me, the more I go, the more I realize how utterly pointless the whole exercise is. First, there's the traffic nightmare in and around it. Then comes the inevitable search for an open parking spot that's not a mile away from the venue. And when I get inside the gate, I have to navigate against herds of people going in different directions. There are lines everywhere. And for what? To eat the same foods I've had elsewhere? To drink a boba milk tea that tastes like all the others?

And then there's the thing that makes it all for naught: the prices.

To be clear, I'm not complaining about the $3 admission fee that the 626 Night Market organizers charge to cover the security guards, fence rentals, and whatever else. That's a sunk cost I can understand. Besides, it's still far less than what they charge for OC Night Market, where they also levy a parking fee.

It's just that when I realize how exorbitantly more expensive everything is, I can't help but think that a lot of the vendors regard the whole endeavor as an opportunistic money grab. To them it must be like shooting fish in a barrel if the fish had pockets full of disposable income. How else to explain how one stall was selling six or seven measly fried quail eggs for $9?

Of course, there are exceptions like the $15 uni rice bowl you see above. A vendor called "Beach Live" served it in an actual sea urchin shell for $15, which is not only reasonable, but a bargain when you consider what a sushi bar would charge for the five lobes of fresh sweet uni we found still stuck to the sides.

Other than that, 626 Night Market is not where you are going to find bargains for food. 626 Night Market is a perversion of what the original night markets in Asia are supposed to be, where the non-wealthy can get a great meal for not much money. In fact, it's my opinion that when you go to 626 Night Market, what you're paying for is the privilege of having a Third World eating experience in a First World country.

One might argue that it's like camping. Although the invention of hotels has made it unnecessary for anyone to sleep outside when they travel, people still camp because it reminds them of the essentials, something that brings them back to basics.

So if you haven't gone or you're a person who might enjoy 626 Night Market for what it is, then you should go. But personally, when sleeping in a tent costs as much as a night at Waldorf Astoria, I'd rather go for the room service.

626 Night Market
285 W Huntington Dr.
Arcadia, CA 91007
(626) 765-5166

Free Range Cafe - Newport Beach

Wednesday, August 02, 2017

Another Rhyming Review of Cafe Hiro - Cypress

Cafe Hiro is a monthly ritual,
Our usual Cypress spot.
That's no secret on this blog.
We go there and go there a lot.

We order as we always do,
The same dishes, the same iced tea.
Uni spaghetti. Osso bucco.
That fabulous katsu curry.

But sometimes, there are specials.
Special plates, special deals.
One night, t'was a shrimp tempura salad,
which ate like two meals.

Then karaage made of yellowtail,
Firm and cold its flesh.
Not unlike Filipino escabeche it was,
Sour, and sweet, the red peppers fresh.

Dessert is almost always the bread pudding,
A croissant, egg, and chocolate composite.
After all the years and all the meals,
Maybe Cafe Hiro should just take my direct deposit.

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

Goodies in the Pantry - Orange

Sunday, July 30, 2017

OC Fair 2017 - Our Visit in Haiku

OC Fair Express.
Irvine to Costa Mesa.
Seven dollars saved.

Giant wheel of lights.
Smoke billows to the night sky.
Bodies back-to-back.

Cute racing pigs race.
Acrobats defy physics.
Corn roasted in husks.

Chicken Charlie line.
"Two drumsticks please, and a breast."
"Can I have some Ranch?"

Something sweet perhaps?
Every year: Lazy Toucan,
For funnel cake fix.

Full of fried foods now.
Another OC Fair: done.
Now summer's complete.
OC Fair
88 Fair Dr.
Costa Mesa, CA 92626
(714) 708-1500

Legado Bar + Kitchen - Laguna Niguel

Saturday, July 29, 2017

"Stacked" Bowl at California Gogi Grill - Irvine

This is the "stacked" bowl at California Gogi Grill.
It's now neat and compartmentalized. Before, it was a mess.
But for $8 a pop, it does the job.
No more; no less.

The kimchi's too sour,
The potato salad, too runny.
Yet it's still better than the other alternatives,
The best deal for the money.

You get rice, 6 sides, 2 meats,
The noodle dish called japchae.
It's all built by assembly line.
Yes, it's the Asian Chipotle.

This is the "stacked" bowl at California Gogi Grill.
For $8, it's cheaper than Panda Express.
And like I said, it does the job.
No more; no less.

California Gogi Grill
4237 Campus Dr Ste B157
Irvine, CA 92612
(949) 854-0000

Oak & Coal - Costa Mesa

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Beard Papa's - Monterey Park

How many engineers does it take to run the best Beard Papa's franchise in California?

Answer: Two. And they're both friends of mine.

Kenny (who handles the business side of things) and Bonnie (who handles the day-to-day) and I go way back. We went to UCI Engineering together, but after graduation we took different paths.

Kenny went into insurance. Bonnie went to design jets for Northrop and then to culinary school. Now they're working together, here at the Beard Papa's shop underneath Ocean Star in Monterey Park.

But it's Bonnie--previously the sous chef at the much-lauded The Spice Table--who has made this Beard Papa's shop unlike any other I've ever visited. To complement the usual cream puffs with those crackle-crusted shells and cool vanilla cream fillings, she's added meticulously crafted drinks that uses ice cream, custard pudding, and syrup that she makes all herself, from scratch.

Why is she putting all this thought and effort when her competitors are using powders and squirts of high fructose corn syrup? Because that's the Bonnie I've always known.

It's also why you should visit!

Besides, where else can you buy a cream puff and wash it down with a drink made by a Le Cordon Bleu grad who used to work on fighter planes?

Beard Papa's
141 N Atlantic Blvd
Monterey Park, CA 91754

Pacific Hideaway - Huntington Beach

Sunday, July 16, 2017

The Jucy Lucy at Matt's Bar - Minneapolis, MN

I went to Minneapolis and had what may be one of the most iconic foods in the city.

It's called the Jucy Lucy and from what I can gather, it's to Minneapolis as the Red Hot is to Chicago.

Matt's Bar is the place that invented it. There's routinely a line outside, which is largely due to the Travel Channel.

But since it's still very much a dank, local bar, like a real-life Moe's Tavern, its fame seems all the more incongruous.

Heck, President Obama ate here. There's a picture of him, smiling, arms around the family that now owns it.

Of course, he had a Jucy Lucy, which is essentially a burger with cheese embedded in the middle of the patty, served between a dense bun with grilled onions bits and three slices of pickle (yes, exactly three).

When you bite into the burger, a scalding torrent of cheese is supposed to flow out of it like a Hot Pocket made of meat. And mine did.


Honestly, it only spurted out cheese just from one side of the patty. The rest of it was actually cheeseless. But it was still a treat--a great burger made by a great place that was once visited by a great President.

Matt's Bar
3500 Cedar Ave S
Minneapolis, MN 55407

Coq Au Vin - Fountain Valley

Tuesday, July 04, 2017

Half-Order Carne Asada Super Nachos - Alberto's - Tustin

Is it just me or does this half-order of carne asada Super Nachos from Alberto's remind you of a flower? Look at the petals of freshly fried tortilla chips blooming from the meat, cheese, bean and guacamole!

Or maybe it looks like it because it's been a while since I've allowed myself one of these. As they say, absence makes the heart grow fonder. And this is the kind of food that would do just that--not to mention do a lot of other things to your heart.

You're not kidding yourself when you eat it. You know it's junk food. But it's the best junk food. Particularly late at night, in front of the TV, while binging on Netflix.

And if you live in Tustin/Santa Ana/Irvine, there's yet another joint where you can pick one up, scarf it down, and feel guilty for days. I got mine at the brand new Alberto's on Newport near Walnut, in what used to be Omega Burgers.

The price is a little more expensive these days than I remember--around $7 for the half order. And you should always opt the half since the difference between it and the full order is nominal. It's still worth it, though, especially when you consider how little $7 can get you elsewhere.

If you go, you should always ask for the pickled carrots, which are free. Think of it as the card that goes with your nacho bouquet. Just be careful not to make these nachos too much of a habit, or else you might actually get a bouquet with a card that says "Get Well Soon!"

14551 Newport Ave
Tustin, CA 92780

TRADE - Irvine