Monday, May 09, 2016

I Took An Australian To Outback Steakhouse

A couple of years ago my aunt and uncle came to visit from Australia. We thought it would be funny to take them to Outback Steakhouse. But crikey! The joke was on us.

My uncle--a retired sheep rancher who can still shear a ewe in the time it would take me to take off a turtleneck sweater--actually loved it.

He was tickled at the mishmash of Australian jargon used on the menu, the boomerangs on the wall, and the kangaroos in the logo. We even took a picture of him in front of the Outback sign so that he could show his friends back home.

Even more surprising, he actually enjoyed the food. And, you know what? So did we.

Outback Steakhouse, which is more Florida Gator than Crocodile Dundee (it started in Tampa), is, to put it plainly, a well-managed restaurant. And since that day we took him, we've actually gone back many times. We've now grown a soft spot for it ourselves.

The complimentary brown loaf of bread is always hot and good. The steaks are decent, the crab stack appetizer is immaculate, and the soups are hearty (if a little oversalted). And yes, I can even occasionally tolerate the Bloomin' Onion, or at least I can until I realize I'm slowly killing myself by eating it.

But more than anything, what we like most about Outback is that its servers, especially those at the Irvine branch, are not just attentive, but also remarkably chummy and cheerful. They are friendlier and more welcoming than most of the servers I encounter at a lot of the independent, non-chain eateries I frequent as a food critic.

And every time we go to Outback, it always reminds me of that time we took Uncle Robert, a man I consider more Australian than Paul Hogan and Steve Irwin combined. I still remember what he said when we asked him what he thought about the place. He said, "It's noice!"

Outback Steakhouse
15433 Culver Dr.
Irvine, CA 92604
(949) 651-8760

Oceans & Earth - Yorba Linda

Friday, May 06, 2016

Dolce Gelato - Laguna Beach

If you sit for any length of time at Dolce Gelato, you'll see the little slide show that this gelateria plays on a loop on its flatscreen TV. The place is proud of being an independent, family-owned, single-store shop unique only to Laguna Beach. But what it should really be proud of are the amazing gelatos, which exist in flavors you never thought could or should be mixed with sugar and milk.

One night, I saw basil, chocolate habanero, and "bread and butterflies", which is the flavor of brown butter and country bread. And when you see something so wild that you ask for a sample, it will taste exactly like that flavor because whatever it is, that thing is actually in there.

The Ferrero Rocher gelato I finally committed a whole cup to tasted exactly like it, with the essence of the creamy chocolate, the roasted hazelnut, and the wafer shell all churned into the crests of its soft-frozen waves.

It was uncanny. But then I didn't expect anything less from the place. I consider it one of the best gelaterias in Orange County. Each flavor is made on site by a chef/owner who does nothing else all day but make gelato. If gelato making was your chosen profession, you can only hope you could do it as well as she does.

Dolce Gelato
247 Broadway St.
Laguna Beach, CA 92651
(949) 715-9249

SeaLegs Wine Bar - Huntington Beach

Friday, April 29, 2016

Playground - Santa Ana

The first time I reviewed Playground in Downtown Santa Ana was when it opened more than four years ago. Since that time it has become a darling of the OC food scene because of good ol' fashioned word-of-mouth, the string of TV shows that the chef and owner, Jason Quinn, has been in...and, oh yeah, that one time when he told an unkind Yelp reviewer to "burn in hell".

That one incident probably cinched his acclaim as news outlets picked up on the story. As with most things this day and age, you don't get anywhere if you don't court controversy.

But if his restaurant is anything, it's something that's almost impossible to review. Because it updates the menu daily, any dish that any reviewer might rave or rant about one night might not be there the next.

So I'll tell you about the dishes I had last week, even though if you're reading this later than the last week of April 2016, you aren't likely to see any of the stuff I had.

There was the incredibly tender and crispy Spanish octopus with perfectly fried potatoes plated using negative space. And a melting hunk of Kurobuta pork belly tucked in a steam bun with guacamole. And a Gibraltar-sized boulder of pork chop that had our entire table contemplating how best to extricate the last of the meat from the bone.

There was the stir-fried udon dish that came with a raw egg yolk on top to mix into it. And the eight-piece order of the Memphis-style Uncle Lou's fried chicken I'm going to talk about next week in OC Weekly.

Then there was the Brussels sprouts we ordered to offset the meat dishes, which turned out to be as rich as any of them.

And then there was dessert: an awesome sticky toffee pudding with salted whipped cream, and the drink special of the night called "Purple Rain," which they offered to honor Prince who died earlier that same day.

So even if you're reading this in the distant future, go anyway, because Playground is like a box of chocolates, and you know what they say about that...

220 E 4th St #102
Santa Ana, CA 92701

Baos Hog - Garden Grove

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Chili Chutney - Lake Forest

I have an equal number of Indian and Persian co-workers. So whenever I go to lunch with them, it's usually a restaurant that serves one of the two cuisines, both of which Orange County is blessed to have in spades.

But there's one restaurant that seems to exist to please both groups simultaneously, and not by accident or happenstance or artificial fusion-y construct--Chili Chutney in Lake Forest is an Afghani restaurant, and if you look at a map you'd see why it's a perfect example of cross-cultural sharing.

Afghanistan is sandwiched between Iran and the Indian subcontinent.

As such there's overlap in the cuisine. There are kormas like you'd see in Indian restaurants, but also koftas that aren't unlike Persian koobideh.

I went during their buffet lunch ($11.99), and it was as though I was at one of those Thai and sushi hybrid restaurants--but with way better results.

Yet, although there are similarities to Indian and Persian, Afghani cuisine has distinct characteristics all its own. If I were to generalize, I'd say it has a lighter hand at spices than Indian and has fewer sour notes than Persian.

But whether my co-workers and I are at an Indian, Persian, or Afghani buffet, one thing's always the same: we overstuff ourselves to get our money's worth. That's universal.

Chili Chutney,
24301 Muirlands Blvd.
Lake Forest, CA 92630
(949) 859-1778

Wok N Tandoor - Orange

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Steakhouse 55 - Anaheim

The closer you get to Steakhouse 55 inside the Disneyland Hotel, the more you smell the unmistakable, distinctive aroma of big, thick, juicy steaks sputtering in pools of melted butter. The intoxicating fumes are the same fumes that envelops you the second you enter any steakhouse, whether it's Mastro's, Capital Grille, or Ruth Chris.

If Steakhouse 55 smells like a prototypical steakhouse, it looks like one, too. In fact, aside from the classic pictures of Walt, the layout and feel of the room are almost identical to the South Coast Plaza Morton's--with dark lighting, uniformed waiters, and booths along the wall--except, you know, good food is served.

(Yes, you read that right: I dislike Morton's.)

That night, we ate crusty bread and a nice, cold wedge salad with hunks of crispy pork belly and candied pecans. An appetizer of cocktail shrimp had the pink crustacean bodies entwined around each other like something out of the Kama Sutra. This was followed by a thick prime rib with a lovely au jus and cleansing horseradish sauce in a boat. It reminded me that I don't eat prime rib often enough.

Since we had the meal during OC Restaurant Week, dessert was included. A creme brûlée had a donut on top of it, but the chocolate cake was particularly amazing--it had bits of crushed toffee embedded in the filling. And because we were celebrating a birthday, we also got a complimentary third dessert: a chocolate bomb with Mickey ears on it.

We took most of the desserts home and ate it over the course of a few days to spread out the calories, which is also prototypical of us to do after we go to a steakhouse.

Steakhouse 55
1150 Magic Way
Anaheim, CA 92802
(714) 778-6600

Playa Amor - Long Beach

Monday, April 04, 2016

Dim Sum Express - Monterey Park

You know what’s the best kind of dim sum? The kind you don’t have to wait in line for. This place--which has been around longer than I can remember--is where I go for no-wait dim sum. For years and years, it has been serving impatient people like me har gow (shrimp dumplings), cha sui bao (steamed buns stuffed with ruddy Chinese BBQ pork), and shu mai (pork dumplings) in the time it takes for McDonald’s to give you your French fries.

It’s appropriately called Dim Sum Express and it’s quite literally a shack in the middle of the street. It has two small windows: One where you order the dim sum, another where you pick it up.

I must warn you that this is no-frills dim sum. This is dim sum where delicateness and finesse is eschewed for girth and value. The shu mai is sold by the piece at slightly less than a buck. Eat two and you’ve consumed about the equivalent of three McRibs' worth of pork. Beneath the thick (and not particularly tender) translucent skin of the har gow, you find four shrimp compacted into a tight sphere as dense as a golf ball.

The best deal is the combo plate that has two of nearly everything they have for about $10. It feeds two people and includes the baked BBQ pork tarts, egg custard tarts, egg rolls, shu mais, har gows, and the hom sui gok (deep-fried glutinous rice dumplings)--the best thing they make. They’re shaped like Nerf footballs, almost as big as one, and filled with a smidge of minced pork. And when you bite into one you meet a lacy crust that crunches like a breakfast hash brown and then the chewy interior of mochi.

You take it all home, brew a mug of tea, and enjoy it all with the knowledge that there are probably still people waiting in line to get into Ocean Star as you finish your last crumb.

Dim Sum Express
326 N Garfield Ave
Monterey Park, CA 91754
(626) 307-5800

Gratitude - Newport Beach

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Spires - Tustin

It may or may not surprise you that I've never eaten at Spires. IHOP? Denny's? Plenty of times. But Spires? Not even once.

And I'm glad I waited until this afternoon to eat in one and not twenty years ago, because just like a time capsule, the more decades you let pass before you peer into it, the more interesting its contents become. Denny's and IHOPs may get updated with the times, but it would appear that Spires has been locked in amber since the era of disco.

I went to the one in Tustin and when I walked in, I was surrounded by a non-ironic lunch counter and crescent-shaped, pink Naugahyde booths, some of which were already cracked. Norman Rockwell prints hung on the wall.

But the best clue that things haven't changed much here? The customers. These were regulars who knew each other, knew the wait staff, and presumably ate the same meal every time they came, week after week. And came they did, one after another, inching slowly, with their canes and walkers. I'm not exaggerating here. Of the ten who people passed our booth, only two of them were able to walk unassisted. If gastropubs are for hipsters, diners like this are for hip-replacements.

Looking at the menu, I realized why there were more senior citizens here than at a Murder She Wrote convention: underneath every price was a lower one for seniors.

Yet even the regular rates were more than reasonable for the amount of food served. For $9.69, my lovely dining companion had the filet of sole, with which she chose a gravy-glopped mashed potato as a side and a bowl of starchy clam chowder for the soup.

For $8.99, I opted for the half fried chicken (that's four pieces of hen!) which also came with a soup and a mountain of French fries. Added to every platter were griddled vegetables in the form of zucchini and carrots.

The fish was better than expected--tender, milky and moist. The chicken could've been crispier with its skin. But the best part of the experience wasn't the food; it was the feeling that I stepped out of the DeLorean and into the movie Cocoon*.

13451 Newport Ave.
Tustin, CA 92780
(714) 544-0631

*And yes, I do realize that by using that movie reference, I'm actually dating myself. I am, in fact, much closer to becoming a senior citizen than some of you reading who weren't even born when that film came out. But one day, when I'm inching my way into Spires with my walker, I now know that the Naugahyde booths will be soft and cushy.

People Issue 2016: Kristin Nguyen of Garlic & Chives
People Issue 2016: Paul Tran of Halal Guys

Kitchen Republic - Huntington Beach

Sunday, March 13, 2016

The Best Sushi in Orange County

Lately, every birthday we've celebrated tended to end in zeroes, and to commemorate another one, we again went to Sushi Noguchi--where the cost of the top-tier omakase also tended to end in zeroes (two of them, in fact).

But when every morsel we ate had us mouthing to each other the words "Oh my God!", I knew it was worth every penny.

If I haven't said it before, Hiro Noguchi makes the best sushi in Orange County.

He has no equal.

Last night, he fed us an omakase dinner that topped the last one, which was already hard to top.

As usual, he introduced us to fish species we'd never heard of; new preparations we'd never seen.

There were teensy weensy Japanese icefish, needle fish with its eponymous pointy nose on display, and golden eye snapper with a shock of brilliant strawberry pink skin.

We ate a luscious ootoro, crunchy deep fried amaebi heads, and a steamed fish ball draped with a creamy slice of halibut.

And then there was his masterpiece: a sashimi plate teeming with flowers and leaves. He took several minutes sculpting, decorating, and tweezing it into perfection. It was so meticulous, it wasn't just a sashimi plate; it was ikebana--and it was breathtaking.

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

Tani - Tustin

Monday, March 07, 2016

Bánh Cuốn at Tan Huang Huong - Tustin

Even if you're not Vietnamese, you've surely heard of bánh mì, those Vietnamese sandwiches constructed from crusty French bread, homemade charcuterie, and pickled carrots and daikon.

But have you heard of bánh cuốn? First of all, bánh cuốn has nothing in common with bánh mì. It's not a sandwich--it's cross between a dumpling and a crepe.

To make bánh cuốn, rice batter is spread thinly on a cloth stretched out over boiling water. The steaming transforms the batter into delicate sheets of noodle that's carefully peeled off, then wrapped around bits of pork and wood ear mushroom.

But the reason I mention bánh mì in a post about bánh cuốn is though there are restaurants in Little Saigon solely dedicated to making the dish, you're more likely to encounter bánh cuốn at a bánh mì shop.

Such is the case at Tan Huang Huong in Tustin. The bánh cuốn is laid out next to register, wrapped in plastic and offered in about three varieties. The one you want is the complete kit you see above. It's sold for $5 and includes crisp fried onion, a side of julienned vegetables, slices of chả lụa (Vietnamese bologna), a fried tofu, and a nước chấm dipping sauce.

To eat it, you dip the meat, veggies, but especially the translucent parcels of the bánh cuốn into the fish sauce, slurping all the way.

Since bánh cuốn is typically eaten for breakfast, Tan Huang Huong's stock tends to run out the later you go in the day. But I've always been lucky to score one for a light lunch or, if I'm feeling peckish, bánh cuốn is actually a great first course before tucking into one of Tan Huang Huong's bánh mìs, which, by the way, are great, too.

Tan Huang Huong
14081 Newport Ave
Tustin, CA 92780

What A Dish Cafe - Dana Point

Monday, February 29, 2016

Wanna Hear My Voice on a Podcast?

You know the phrase that goes "that guy has a face fit only for radio?" I think that's me. I also have a speaking voice fit only to be transcribed into text.

But I let go of my personal insecurities when April Balotro and Vanessa Yee invited me to come chat on their "The Bull and The Badger Podcast".

We recorded it on location in Costa Mesa last October, but it was published today.

On the show, we covered the Orange County food scene and how I got into this crazy business of reviewing restaurants. And though I mumbled incomprehensibly a few times, stuttered more than once, I had a blast. The hour and a half I spent with them gabbing flew by, and it was over before I knew it.

So if you have some vacuuming to do around the house, or you're in between episodes of Serial, you can listen to the interview by clicking above or downloading it through iTunes.

A big thank you again to April and Vanessa for the invite!

Abyssinia - Anaheim