Sunday, June 17, 2018

The Beard Papa's Store That Went Rogue

This is the creme brûlée cream puff from Beard Papa. It is not something you can get at any Beard Papa, because technically it is not an officially sanctioned product. Only one branch makes it--the Monterey Park one, which, for a lack of a better term, has gone rogue. They've veered off the company script and taken some liberties, because, let's face it, you can't run a profitable business with cream puffs alone.

What they've done--without getting permission or approval from the corporate office--is some creative, out-of-the-box menu departures. They've realized that they needn't relegate the crisp, light-as-air, freshly-baked choux pastry shell for only desserts. If waffles can sub in for sandwich bread, why not choux? And if it's to be a vessel for the savory, why not also do interesting fillings such as a house-made smoked salmon and avocado cream?

And since they're already thumbing their nose at the company charter, why not upgrade the standard Beard Papa's cream puff by lopping off the top, sprinkling it with sugar, then torching it to a glassy sheen? What results is an edible, real life incarnation of the Venn diagram for a cream puff and a creme brûlée.

So far, the corporate masters have not disciplined this franchise's owner and chef (who are, full disclosure, friends of mine). But I don't think they will. Besides, it would be good to remind Beard Papa's corporate who invented the Big Mac: a McDonald's franchisee who went rogue.

Beard Papa's
141 N Atlantic Blvd #106
Monterey Park, CA 91754

Mamon Hillside Eatery - Foothill Ranch

Saturday, June 09, 2018

My Thoughts on Anthony Bourdain

I thought he was invincible--not a man, but a god out of Mount Olympus.

I idolized him. I have his books. I have VHS tapes of all the A Cook's Tour episodes that I recorded when it first aired. In my blog, I've mentioned him more times than I have any other person.

When I go abroad or visit a new city, I try to go where he has gone, eat what he has eaten. When I'm writing and I'm lacking inspiration, I would read something he wrote, hoping just a little of his talent could rub off on me.

But no one could touch Bourdain. The way he crafted a sentence, described a dish, an experience, was unique unto him.

Unlike some of my food writing peers, I never met the man, but I don't think I needed to. His body of work has always lived in my head and will continue to influence and inspire me for as long as I live. He is Elvis Presley. He is Shakespeare. But what I've learned in the past day is that he is also human.

Hook & Anchor - Newport Beach

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Splitsville - Anaheim

I didn't go to Splitsville, the new bowling alley and restaurant in Downtown Disney, to go to Splitsville. I went because there was a band that was performing on the Downtown Disney stage that I wanted to see. And to see that band I had to park. And to park at Downtown Disney nowadays (lest I wanted to pay a small fortune in fees) I am forced to purchase at least $20-worth of food at a quick service restaurant (or merchandise from a store) to get the 3 hour validation. If I wanted 5 hours of validation, I'd have to go to a table service restaurant.

I opted for Splitsville for three reasons. First, I'd get the maximum amount of parking time. Second, it was an opportunity for us to check out the thing that replaced House of Blues. But third and most important, Splitsville seemed the cheapest of all the table service options. I thought to myself, "How expensive can place that serves burgers and nachos be?"

The answer is very. Splitsville turned out to be one of the most expensive restaurants I've encountered at Downtown Disney.

The taco salad you see above is a whopping $24. Granted it wasn't much of a salad. It was more of a rice bowl. It contained more clumpy Spanish rice and movie theater-style pickled jalapeños than lettuce. Thinking that we needed something else to add to meal, we also ordered the $14 California roll from the sushi roll menu.

That there was sushi here is noteworthy because it automatically makes Splitsville the only place in Downtown Disney or, in fact, the entire Disneyland Resort property, to serve anything resembling Japanese food.

But before you rejoice, the roll tasted as though it came one of those pre-packaged plastic boxes found at airport kiosks or the forgotten deli bin at the local Stater Bros. However, to me, since it cost twice as much, it tasted half as good. The rice was a gummy paste and the imitation crab was as dry as chalk.

Despite the cost and the bad food, I do have a few nice things to say about Splitsville.

It is massive. Constructed mostly of glass, it is two levels of Googie--something out of the Jetsons. And as far as the bowling lanes, there isn't just one big one, there are a whole bunch of tiny ones, scattered throughout the labyrinthian building and encompassing two floors. There are also two kitchens on both levels, each the size of full-sized restaurants themselves.

I also liked our server. When I asked him at the beginning of the meal if there was a minimum purchase amount for parking validation, he smiled and said, "Yes, there is!" as he winked his eye like a vaudevillian.

I laughed.

To prove that he cared more about us than abiding by some arbitrary mininum purchase requirement, he offered to validate the ticket for me on the spot, even before I ordered anything.

"What a charmer!" I thought.

By the end of it, counting a larger-than-usual tip for our server, I paid exactly $50 for that overpriced taco salad and that horrendous sushi roll. I may have been completely wrong about my decision to go to Splitsville, but I know a good server when I see one.

1530 S Disneyland Drive
Anaheim, CA 92802
(657) 276-2440

Bao-N-Baguette - Fountain Valley

Wednesday, May 09, 2018

Sawleaf Vietnamese Cafe - Irvine

It's not often that I go back to a restaurant I already reviewed, even if it's been a year. But when I do, it's nice to see brand new dishes like this filet mignon pho in a Hue-style broth, a soup that tastes halfway between traditional pho and Thai tom yum. Not only is it requisitely beefy with whiffs of star anise, it's also sufficiently hot and tangy that I required no additional Sriracha squirts, squeezes of lime, or even one slice of the jalapeño.

It's also nice that they framed and hung my review on the wall. Seeing this always gives me the opportunity to say to whoever I'm with, "Hey, if this guy says this place is good, it must be good!" as I point at it, winking.

The eye rolls I get are priceless.

Sawleaf Vietnamese Cafe
13786 Jamboree Rd C
Irvine, CA 92602
(714) 417-9028

Basilur Tea & Coffee - Buena Park

Sunday, May 06, 2018

How To Do Chanko Nabe At Home

Chanko nabe, a.k.a. sumo stew, is the thing I crave when the temperature dips below 50 degrees and it starts to rain. It is, like all hot pot dishes, cold weather food. But this dish, which is famous because it's what Japanese sumo wrestlers eat to bulk up, is also pure comfort food. The problem is that there’s only one restaurant in OC that serves it: Torizo in Fountain Valley.

I love Torizo's chanko nabe, but not enough to endure the 405 at rush hour on a weeknight.

Fortunately, chanko nabe is not very hard to make at home. The broth can be dashi or chicken broth, flavored with sake or mirin, but the recipe is not hard set. So long as you have lots of vegetables and lots of protein, you can make chanko nabe and, most importantly, make it your own.

Actually, I take it back. To me, there are two things a chanko nabe has to have. One: there must be a tableside stove that keeps your pot simmering as you eat. Two: it must have homemade meatballs.

Typically, the meatballs are made from ground chicken, but I've made it with ground pork. It tastes just as good.

I'm not going to give you my recipe for the meatballs because I basically followed the one outlined by one of my favorite YouTube cooking shows, Cooking with Dog. Also, I don't need to tell you what other ingredients I dumped into my pot, because you can see it arranged in some sort of order in the video I shot above.

I follow the rule that anything that works well in a shabu shabu pot is fabulous in a chanko nabe. As they never overcook, mushrooms are ideal. And for me, tofu is always required. But the most important ingredient of all? Heat. Constant heat. Everything has to be piping hot from the first morsel to the last drop.

Chef Peter Hung - Garden Grove

Tuesday, May 01, 2018

Chicken Sotanghon Soup at Jollibee - Irvine

I once had an office mate who'd make a face when he saw me eating cold pizza for breakfast. For him, the first meal of the day couldn't be more complicated than cereal. Anything possessing flavor or was the least bit savory was disagreeable to him. "It's too early!" he'd say.

I thought about him as I slurped this sotanghon chicken soup for breakfast at Jollibee. I'm not sure how often it is eaten for breakfast in the Philippines, which is the country from which Jollibee hails; but I know that soto, one of my favorite Indonesian breakfast dishes, is a soup of similar constitution.

In fact, the components of Jollibee's dish is almost identical to soto. You've got bits of boiled chicken, translucent bean thread noodle, and a hot, mildly-spiced broth that ties it all together. You're even supposed to squeeze a lemon into it, which is also what you do to soto. The only thing missing is the rice.

More than anything, eating this soup brought me back to the last time I was in Semarang, Indonesia. We'd get up at the crack of dawn while the early morning air around us was still cold and dewy. We'd walk to our family's favorite soto stand, a roadside shack covered in tarp.

Inside this ramshackle structure, the soto man would construct his bowls, scooping rice from a pot, ladling the soup from a bubbling cauldron, topping it with all matter of herbs. He'd hand it to us while it was still steaming hot.

We'd slurp and slurp as the warmth and sustenance from the bowl woke us up and sustained our bodies for the day ahead. Cereal ain't got nothing on this.

2180 Barranca Pkwy #120
Irvine, CA 92606
(949) 660-1586

Heirloom Farmhouse Kitchen - Irvine

Saturday, April 21, 2018

My Love-Hate Relationship With Lady M Cake Boutique

At $90 a pop, this is probably the most expensive 9-inch birthday cake I’ve ever bought. And it’s not the first time I’ve bought it. It’s from Lady M, which, to my knowledge, is the only bakery in these parts that offers such an item--a cake made up of at least twenty individual crepes layered on top of each other, one-by-one, whipped cream in between.

It’s a good cake, a unique cake, something I’ve written and raved about on this very blog; but every time I purchase one, I am reminded of how high and mighty Lady M is.

As you may remember from my previous post, they call themselves not a cake bakery, but a “cake boutique”. Also they post a uniformed guard outside the door as though what they're selling was made of diamonds and gold instead of flour and sugar.

But today, I found out that when you call the phone number, you’re not connected to the local store you think you’re calling but rather, a centralized call center.

It was from speaking to the unusually formal-sounding phone representative--who I imagine is sequestered in an all-white room located in an all-white tower in Midtown Manhattan--that I found out they won’t write "Happy Birthday" on the cake for you unless you pre-order and pay at least two days in advance.

"How much time do you need to scribble 'Happy Birthday' in colored frosting?" I thought to myself.

Soon, I was transferred to the local branch to reserve the cake. And for the next few minutes, I spoke to an even more robotic woman whose factory setting seemed to be stuck on “insolent”.

She told me that to reserve a cake (which I was going to pick up that same afternoon), I'd have to pay for it now, over the phone. She asked for my credit card, which was immediately charged the $90. When I got the receipt via text, it said that all sales are final.

I point this out not because I am opposed to paying up front nor the fact that this is the only bakery I know of that insists on full payment for reservations; I point this out because it made me uneasy that they've now got all my credit card information scribbled on a random piece of paper. I was also told (not asked) to bring a photo ID when it came time to pick up the cake.

When I went to the store to pick up the cake, I saw, for the first time, that the uniformed guard wasn't at the door. I walked up to the cashier, showed her my ID, and saw her pull out a three-ring binder in which my credit card information was written in pen.

For a business that does not seem to trust its customers, Lady M seems to ask for a lot trust that that binder won't get into the wrong hands. Where's that guard when you need him?

Lady M Cake Boutique
2967 Michelson Dr B
Irvine, CA 92612
323) 825-8888

Bawarchi Biryanis - Lake Forest

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Joe’s Kansas City Bar-B-Que - Kansas City, KS

Is Joe’s Kansas City Bar-B-Que a restaurant in a gas station or a gas station with a restaurant? And is it in Kansas City, Kansas or Kansas City, Missouri--which are two separate towns that happen to be next to each other? And is it really in Anthony Bourdain's list of "13 Places To Eat Before You Die"?

The answer these questions are "both", "Kansas", and "yes".

And it's for all of these reasons, but mainly the last one that we made our pilgrimage. The pork ribs are divine, served with only its dry rub and so tender and uniform in texture it's almost ham. But the best thing I ate were the burnt ends, which is everything I like in BBQ distilled into intense single-bite cubes of charred melty fatty smoky meat.

And need I mention that the BBQ here is dirt cheap? The Cowboy Special platter--consisting brisket, pork ribs, sliced sausage, two sides (potato salad and red-beans-and-rice), and Texas toast--costs $15.29. The half pound of burnt ends cost $9.25.

It's almost appropriate that it's in a gas station, because it reminded me, in one nice package, of the two things that are way more expensive in California.

As of this writing, gas in Kansas City is $2.50 per gallon.

Joe’s Kansas City Bar-B-Que
3002 West 47th Avenue
Kansas City, KS 66103

Bawarchi Biryanis - Lake Forest

Sunday, April 15, 2018

A Most Disappointing Sushi Meal


As this blog's purpose is to highlight great places to eat rather than tearing the bad ones just for giggles, I've decided not to name the sushi bar I'm reviewing here. But there should be plenty of clues to tell you which restaurant I'm talking about.

Things started well. The ingeniously-placed mirrors in the waiting area, which is separated from the bar and the dining room, had the effect of disorienting me like I was in a carnival fun house. And then there was the professional appearance of the staff. The chefs wore blue kimono uniforms while the waitresses, red ones. Blonde wood slats surrounded the booths and the whole interior design evoked the rustic presence of a well-kept Japanese country inn. The place looked like another Honda-Ya, one of my favorite Japanese restaurants in Orange County.

We began with something called "bonta", a sort of Scotch egg-like concoction. They were quail eggs encased in balls of shrimp, which were deep fried and served on a small hill of tempura crumbs. As I dipped them into its mayo and piquant red pepper sauce, I realized I liked them so much I told myself I need to come back and have more during Happy Hour, when it's discounted by half.

Next, there was the salmon skin salad, a big portion of salmon skin scraps render to crispy in a toaster oven. They were piled in a big bowl of off-the-shelf salad greens with a few thinly sliced avocados. It was good, but I've had better.

After that, things slowly slid from being merely mediocre to deeply disappointing. The sashimi platter--a standard assortment of salmon, ahi, hamachi, yellowtail and albacore--was sliced with no uniformity. Some parts were fat and others thin as carpaccio. The presentation was also lacking, looking as though it was just slapped together in haste and only slightly more appetizing than a Sea World chum bucket.

Then the nigiri part of the omakase combo set came, which was the most disappointing of all. It was a repeat of the same roster of fish I had already eaten in the sashimi box, of which, at this point, I had already grown tired and bored. But the rice was barely there and what was present was gummy. Worse, the method in which the fish were cut was again haphazard and sloppy. Some pieces were ragged; some were as thick as slabs. And the flavor and consistency was on par with what I've had at those all-you-can-eat sushi emporiums, which isn't a compliment.

Maybe I should've ordered the dinner combo with the cooked dishes. Maybe I should've stuck with the rolls, such as "Orange City" named after the burg in which this restaurant is located. Or maybe I should've known better that a place that dabbles in Groupons (which I used) and offered free ice cream with a Yelp check-in (which I did) would not and could not, in any way, measure up to the Sushi Noguchis and Nana Sans of the world.

Maybe I won't be coming back for that Happy Hour after all.

Raw Bar by Slapfish

Sunday, April 08, 2018

Tasaka Guri Guri - Kahului, Maui, HI

The last time I went to Maui, I consulted with none other than Kirk of mmm-yoso, the uber blog that has taught me everything I know about Hawaiian food, not to mention where to eat on every island in the chain.

At the time, I printed out his recommendations on a slip of paper and stuck it inside the pages of the Maui Lonely Planet book I brought.

On this trip, my second time, I took that same book and when I opened it, I rediscovered the piece of paper with Kirk's recommendations. And just as I did then, I went to every place he recommended, which includes Sam Sato's, and this place, Tasaka Guri Guri, which is a treasure.

I won't bore you with the details of what it is and tell you why you should go here if you're ever on Maui. Just read Kirk's blog post and you will convince yourself.

Tasaka Guri Guri
70 E Kaahumanu Ave # C13
Kahului, HI 96732
(808) 871-4513

Kakurega - Costa Mesa