Sunday, June 25, 2017

I Had Better Food at Aria's Lemongrass than at Lotus of Siam

I thought I knew what to expect at Lemongrass.

It is, after all, an Asian restaurant inside a casino. Past experiences with other Asian restaurants inside other casinos told me I was in for yet another ham-fisted attempt at Thai, Chinese, or both. And it was going to cost me twice as much as what I'd usually pay at an actual Thai or Chinese joint.

But when you're given hotel credit to be spent on food and your choice of where to spend it includes restaurants from Michelin and James Beard-award winning chefs, you have to settle on what will stretch your money the farthest.

So Lemongrass it was, because even in a high-priced Vegas casino like Aria, Asian food is always cheaper than the next alternative.

However, I'm glad to report that Lemongrass did not suck. In fact, it was spectacular.

The pineapple fried rice we ordered was light enough on the curry powder that it left a good impression rather an overpowering one. The pad see ew was textbook, with the gailan crisp, the meat velvety, and the noodles absorbing not only the sweet soy seasonings but the "breath" of the wok.

And there was a crab omelette that had so much crab meat, every bite was like discovering a trove of buried treasure.

Best of all was the chicken larb, which was so spicy, so funky, so well-constructed of fish sauce, rice powder, lime, and tons of chilies, that it made me question my entire way of thinking: Asian restaurants inside casinos CAN BE good!

I would even say this particular experience was BETTER than the last time I ate all the usual Issan favorites at Lotus of Siam, Vegas's highly lauded Thai restaurant. And it had nothing to do with the fact that this meal was essentially free!

ARIA Resort & Casino Las Vegas
3730 S Las Vegas Blvd
Las Vegas, NV 89109

2145 Pizza - Costa Mesa

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Hong Kong Fishball House - Rowland Heights

Pictured above is some snacks we ate today from Hong Kong Fishball House in Rowland Heights. Fried tofu. Fried fish balls. Fried squid. The kind of food that we'd probably get if we saw it at OC Night Market (which is, by the way, going on this weekend at the OC Fairgrounds).

But unlike OC Night Market, there was no parking fee, no admission cost, and no lines.

Plus it's cheaper. The total for all this was $14.65, which includes the boba drinks we got from a stall inside Hong Kong Market's mall.

So since we paid less, it wasn't in OC, and it was daytime, I guess I should say that our experience wasn't at all like being at the OC Night Market--it was better.*

Hong Kong Fishball House  
18414 Colima Rd
Rowland Heights, CA 91748

*Thanks to cookiemonster for co-writing this post.

Mhat Korean Restaurant - La Palma

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Fullerton's Kim Loan Is Still Going Strong!

Thirty or some odd years ago, my parents introduced me to Vietnamese food for the first time at Kim Loan Restaurant in Fullerton. Soon, dinners at Kim Loan became a monthly ritual for our family. Then we moved away. I grew up and went on with the rest of my life.

Tonight, I went back for the first time in a decade. But when the owner saw me, he remembered who I was!

He immediately asked how my parents were doing.

"They're fine, and enjoying retirement," I replied, realizing that when I, myself, retire someday, the owner might still be here to serve the same great food as he did tonight.

Kim Loan Restaurant
(714) 773-0374
1651 W Orangethorpe Ave
Fullerton, CA 92833

Centro Collective - Lake Forest

Saturday, June 03, 2017

Au Revoir, Cirque Magique

It was a few days after we went to Pirate's Dinner Adventure in Buena Park that we got a call from the venue.

"Would you like four free tickets to our new Cirque Magique show?" said the female voice on the other line.

"Free? Why? What's the catch?" we asked.

"No catch," the caller replied, "we just wanted to invite our previous guests to see our new show. Lunch is included, by the way."

And so we said yes, and returned to Buena Park a week after Pirate's, which was, in retrospect, just a corny pirate-themed stunt show that's only a hair better than the free one Treasure Island used to do on Las Vegas Blvd. It wasn't worth the money and the dinner was barely edible. On my plate was soggy roasted chicken, mushy vegetables, gloppy mashed potatoes--the kind of food I remember eating at my college dorm cafeteria.

We expected more of the same with Cirque Magique.

"But hey", we thought, "at least this time, it's free."

What Cirque Magique turned out to be everything Pirate's wasn't. Where Pirate's was plodding and mired in plot, Cirque Magique was fun and breezy.

It's set in Pirate's pre-show bar area and it had a singular purpose: to showcase the talents of its perfomers. There were showgirls, a juggling act, an aerial contortionist, fourth-wall-breaking clowns, and an Asian magician that did a floating table trick using Pixar's Up as theme.

And the food we ate was better than expected. The cheeseburgers were thick and meaty; the fries, crispy and hot.

But what most impressed was how hard everyone worked to show us a good time. The backup dancers, in particular, did double duty as our servers. They refilled our water glasses in between numbers that required them to do multiple leg kicks.

I enjoyed myself so much that if we didn't get in for free, I would have gladly paid the regular admission price of $25 per person.

Now, after I've told you how great it is, here's the bad news: for some reason, Pirate's has now closed Cirque Magique for good. It's never coming back. So I guess there was a catch to that offer after all.

Cirque Magique
7600 Beach Blvd
Buena Park, CA 90620

Nobu - Newport Beach

Friday, June 02, 2017

The Not-So-"Secret" Pizza Place at The Cosmopolitan - Las Vegas

How popular does the secret pizzeria at The Cosmopolitan in Vegas have to be before people stop calling it "secret"? I think it's reached that point. As of this writing, it's got 3,439 Yelp reviews, the most of any pizza joint in this town.

To put that in perspective, "Secret Pizza" has more than double the reviews as the next most popular place (Pizza Rock Downtown with 1,553) and four times as many reviews as Wolfgang Puck's Spago at Ceasar's Palace (with 985).

In fact, if you measure it strictly by Yelp reviews, "Secret Pizza" is now the 6th most popular restaurant in all of Vegas. Number five, by the way, is Lotus of Siam.

So I think a more apt nickname for it now should be "Hidden Pizza", because if it's your first time, you do actually need instructions to find it. It's not listed in any casino directories or maps, nor is there any signage that says "Secret Pizza".

Also, the place is not really called "Secret Pizza". The official name printed on the receipts is "Pizzeria at The Cosmopolitan".

Here's how to find it:

Ride the elevator all the way up to the third floor where Jaleo is. Directly to the left of it, there's a hallway lined with album covers. The pizzeria is at the end of this hallway.

Or here's another way to find it: just look for the ridiculously long line, especially if you're here on a busy weekend.

Slices (which are about two thirds the size of Costco's) start at $5 for a plain cheese, and $5.50 for a single topping. I found the crust to be slightly overworked, so it's chewier than I expected. But it's crisp, thin, a good if not an exemplary facsimile of a New York slice.

Out of my all-time favorite pizzas, I'd place it after other great pies I've been fortunate to try over the years. It's almost as good as Landini's in San Diego, Apizza Scholls in Portland, and Home Slice in Austin, which is, by the way, the only pizza I've ever eaten that made me dream about it for days.

Still, when you're in Vegas, I'd recommend seeking out The Cosmo's "Secret Pizza". It's one of those things you have to try just so you can say you did.

Besides, it's not its fault that it has become so hyped and the furthest thing from a "secret". When you see it, you can certainly see it started out humbly. There's a counter where you consume your pizza on a flimsy paper plate while standing up, just like in Manhattan.

So go! Get in on the worst kept "secret" in Vegas since Bugsy Malone!

Secret Pizza a.k.a. The Pizzeria at The Cosmopolitan
3708 S Las Vegas Blvd
Las Vegas, NV 89109

Hendrix - Laguna Niguel

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

10 Years at OC Weekly!

Today marks my 10th year writing restaurant reviews for OC Weekly, Orange County's greatest paper!

Since that first review (published on May 10, 2007), I've eaten at and reviewed more than 500 restaurants. In the process I gained at least 15 more pounds than when I started, but also wrote what I estimate to be more than 500,000 words.

As a point of reference, Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace ticks at 587,287 words. So if my math is right and I keep at it, it'll only take me two more years to catch up to him.

In any case, I hope my reviews have been informative, fair, and, most importantly, fun to read. It has been fun doing them.

When I reached the five year milestone, I commemorated it by going back to eat Thai Nakorn--the first OC Weekly review I did.

This time, in light of the weight gain I've already mentioned, I'm going to refrain from celebrating with more food.

Instead I will take the opportunity to just thank all the great people at OC Weekly who made it possible for me to turn a hobby into a fun, rewarding, and enviable job.

So, thank you, Gustavo Arellano for your enduring support and mentorship; Lisa Black for happily handling all my late invoices; Dustin Ames for being the best art editor on Earth; Brian Feinzimer for all the beautiful food photos; Anne Marie Panorigan for being a great friend and tipster; Ted Kissell for hiring me; and Leo Tolstoy for setting a goal for me to aspire to.

Last but not least, I'd like to thank you all who are still reading this blog for sticking with me all these years!

*On a more personal note, I'd like to publicly thank my lovely dining and life companion (a.k.a. cookiemonster) and for convincing me to try out for this job in the first place. I still remember your words of encouragement: "The worst they can do is say 'no'!"

So thank you, cookiemonster for always being there for me; for enduring the bad restaurants even though all you wanted to do was stay home for the night; allowing me to order food I know you don't like; and for being my in-house editor-in-chief! Love you, abey!

Sawleaf Vietnamese Cuisine - Tustin

Sunday, May 07, 2017

Are You A Cake-Person or A Pie-Person?

There are two kinds of people: those who love cake and those who love pie.

If you're a cake person, you not only relish the ethereal fluff of a properly made angel food and the coffee-moistened layers of a tiramisu, but also brownies, which, let's face it, is basically a failed chocolate cake cut into bricks.

Pie people, on the other hand, prefer desserts where the flour component and the filling are separate and distinct from each other. Apart from actual pies like apple and banana cream, think peach cobbler and fruit tarts. If you like those, you're a pie person.

You're also a pie-lover if you prefer empanadas over churros or would rather have a turnover instead of a donut for breakfast.

I'm a proud pie-lover. And as one I rejoiced when I saw that Marie Callender's (one of my favorite pie purveyors) was currently offering their Double Cream Strawberry Pie for $8.99, which isn't just cheaper from their regular price by about $7, but also a strong rebuke of those hipster pie shops who dare charge upwards to $8 for a single slice.

And in this pie I found my muse--a dessert with layers of tangy-juicy-sweet fruit, cool pudding, and cloud wisps of whipped cream that's cradled by the crumbly crunch of its crust.

As I ate, I realized no strawberry shortcake could ever match the contrast of flavors and textures I experienced here, in this messy, wonderful slice. And it's for these reasons that I find myself squarely in the pie camp.

There is, by the way, a third kind of people I've not yet mentioned. These are those who like neither pie nor cake. But let's call them by their real names: joyless muggles.

Marie Callender's
31791 Del Obispo St
San Juan Capistrano, CA 92675

Burritos La Palma - Santa Ana

Friday, April 28, 2017

Porto's - Buena Park

Can we all agree that Porto's is the greatest bakery of our generation? The cheese rolls are ethereal and crisp; the potato balls, soft and fragrant of cumin. But let's admit it: The real reason everyone waits in that line at the new Buena Park branch (or heck, every branch) is because of how low its prices are.

Where else can you get a whole 9-inch birthday cake that serves a dozen people for less than $25? And that actually tastes good? I mean, have you seen the tiramisu cake here? The top is so packed tall of shaved chocolate, it doesn't even fit in the box!

And when I tasted it, it was like I was tasting tiramisu for the first time--light but rich, fluffy but decadent, a masterful balance of marscapone, coffee, moist cake, and chocolate. It's a benchmark for other things that might call itself tiramisu just as Porto's is a benchmark for anything that might call itself a bakery.

Porto's Bakery & Cafe
7640 Beach Blvd.
Buena Park, CA 90620
(714) 367-2030

Meizhou Dongpo - Irvine

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

LaCroix Now Sold at Costco - Tustin

As always I'm late to the party when it comes to hip food trends. It wasn't until late last year that I got wind that all the cool kids were drinking this flavored fizzy water called LaCroix, which has since gotten so popular, analysts point to it as one of the reasons soda sales are plummeting all over the country.

Like everyone else, I love the lime, which tastes like 7-Up after it's been diluted with lots of melting ice--the only way I tolerate sodas.

Purely for irony, here's a picture of the can I drank with a slice of Marie Callender's banana cream pie--something hip paired with something tragically unhip. A great combo, by the way.

But the reason I'm devoting a whole post to LaCroix is because Costco in Tustin now carries it by the 24-pack, just as I'm getting addicted. Not only is it cheaper by the double dozen, it's quite nice not having to compete with Millennials and hipsters at Target and Sprouts for sixpacks of the lime! Now what do I do with the excess lemon and pamplemousse?

Costco Tustin
2700 Park Ave.
Tustin, CA 92782-2708

Plumeria Cafe by Stacks - Laguna Niguel

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Taco Tuesday at Holé Molé - Tustin

Ah, Taco Tuesday. If it's not the best alliterative excuse to eat food on a particular day of the week, it's the only one that means anything to anyone. Meatless Mondays? Is that even a thing?

Of course, the reason Taco Tuesday is so great is that taco joints have taken it upon themselves to offer discounts on the day, even if it's the measly 20-cents that Holé Molé takes off its normally $1.39 asada, carnitas, chicken, and al pastor tacos, which is, when you think about it, like a "Buy 7, Get 1 Free" deal.

You could take them up on it--which I did--but I've discovered that it's the fish tacos that you actually want here. Not only are they individually hand-dipped in batter and then freshly fried into the crispiest and most delectable fish tacos in OC, they're actually discounted 50-cents from their usual price.

But you know what's even better than that? The crunchy-shelled bean-filled tacos, which are sold for 59-cents, and not just on Taco Tuesday, mind you, but every day of the week. And to complement them, they have a self-serve trough filled with hot-from-the-fryer, spice-dusted, deep-fried yellow chiles that's free for the taking, any time of day.

Who needs alliteration when you got tacos for fifty-nine and fried chiles for free. "Fifty-nine and free for the foreseeable future" just doesn't have the same ring to it anyway.

Holé Molé
14430 Newport Ave.
Tustin, CA 92780
(714) 505-2502

MFK by Aysee - Anaheim