Saturday, June 25, 2016

Longboards Ice Cream Truck - Orange County

No matter what you think about food trucks, you can't not like those that peddle ice cream. Ice cream trucks, after all, predate the recent craze. Whose childhood doesn't have memories of chasing a slow-crawling, sticker-covered van offering prepackaged treats such as fudgesickles, ice cream sandwiches, and half-and-half bars through their neighborhood?

They were a staple on my block during the summer and they left chime-y music box renditions of "The Entertainer" and sugar-fueled kids in their wake.

These days, they're joined by the gourmet kind of truck, which doesn't so much prowl the suburbs as they Tweet, Instagram, and blog where they'll be next.

One of the better ones is Longboards since it not only sells ice cream bars it makes in-house, but lets you customize them whatever way you like. You might say it's the Chipotle of ice cream trucks.

You pick your flavor of pre-frozen bar from chocolate to coconut. Then, you choose what melted Ghirardelli chocolate you want it to be dipped in: milk or dark. And finally, you pick a topping from peanuts to Oreo to potato chips in which it will be covered.

The best combo I've discovered so far is a strawberry bar, dipped in milk chocolate, rolled in graham crackers. Unlike some of their signature combinations, this one has no official name. But if they asked me, I'd call it "chocolate-covered strawberry shortcake".

Longboards Ice Cream

Local. Healthy Tapas & Sake - Costa Mesa

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Harbor Seafood in Kenner, Louisiana (a.k.a. The Best Place To Eat in New Orleans)

So far, I've talked about Cafe Du Monde and Cochon Butcher, the most iconic and the hippest places we ate in New Orleans; now let me talk about Harbor Seafood & Oyster Bar, the best place we ate in New Orleans.

Actually, that's inaccurate. Harbor Seafood isn't in New Orleans. It's in Kenner, which is actually the city you land on when you arrive to Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport.

That is to say: Kenner is to New Orleans what Inglewood is to L.A. You're still technically in Inglewood when you're in LAX, and you're in Kenner when you land at MSY.

This fact makes the place even more elusive to non-locals. It's not listed in any guidebooks. It's never been featured in any travel shows. Bourdain and Zimmern haven't been here.

For these reasons, most tourists are clueless about its existence and pass right by it when they beeline it to the French Quarter. We did too, until one of our Uber drivers casually mentioned it out of the blue.

"Hey, do you guys like seafood?" he said in a hushed voice as he was making a turn.

"Yeah! We love seafood!" we said.

And it was then that he told us.

"Harbor Seafood," he said. "It's amazing. Crawfish. Oysters. Been there forever. Lines out the door. Gotta get there early. Have you had lunch? Go there now! It's just about to open. It's around the corner from your hotel. Down that way three blocks!"

We didn't go right then. We waited until dinner. It was our last meal before we flew out the next morning. And rather than walking, we took a Lyft. And when the Lyft driver asked us where we were headed, she corroborated the Uber driver's story.

"Oh, that is a VERY good place. My family and I go there all the time. Get the gumbo. It's been there forever. See, there's already a line. But it's a small place. It'll move quickly. I'll drive you up right to the front. Enjoy your dinner!"

And thus began an amazing night. A mind-blowing night. It was the New Orleans feast we'd been waiting for.

We ate until we nearly burst. We drank sweet tea and sweaty mugs of cheap $2 beer. We sucked the spicy juice out of crawfish heads, sunk our teeth into a snappy-spicy Cajun sausage, and gulped creamy, sweet, ultra fresh gulf oysters the size of paddles.

We ate and ate.

There was an amazing potato salad with bits of egg in it. And the gumbo was like New Orleans history in a cup.

We even devoured a fried-oyster-and-shrimp po boy and gumbo on special even though we were already stuffed by then.

"My God," we said to each other with wide-eyed disbelief as we bit into those sandwiches. "How spectacular is this po boy!?"

The bread's so light, airy, fluffy, with just the barest hint of a crackly crust.

How is it possible that the fried seafood, and the mustard, mayo, lettuce and tomato--something locals refer to as having your po boy "dressed"--end up tasting so much more than the sum of its parts?

And how is it possible this gigantic plate of food is $10.50, and the crawfish is $2.99 a pound, and the oysters $4.50 for a half dozen?

"Did you notice the crawfish isn't drenched in butter like it is at those crawfish joints in California?"

"Yes! Yet still it tastes better, spicier, sweeter!"

"We should've been eating here all along! Can we move here?"

"No, it's too humid. You'd die of heat stroke."

"But the next time we visit, we're eating here, like every night, okay?"

"Oh yeah, absolutely!"

Harbor Seafood
3203 Williams Blvd.
Kenner, LA 70065
(504) 443-6454

Angelina's Pizzeria Napoletana - Irvine

Tuesday, June 07, 2016

Cochon Butcher - New Orleans

If you read The Lonely Planet guidebook for New Orleans, it will suggest that you add Cochon Butcher to your itinerary. It is not wrong.

This deli counter and sandwich shop in the middle of an industrial district is attached to Cochon, one of Donald Link's places. If you don't know who Donald Link is, perhaps you've heard of his restaurants Herbsaint and Peche, both of which won several prestigious awards I won't begin to list here. Or maybe you've seen the guy eating crawfish with Anthony Bourdain in New Orleans on his CNN show.

But the real reason I would second Lonely Planet's recommendation to visit Cochon Butcher is the fact that this deli is a bonafide charcuterie. It makes all the meats it sticks into the sandwiches.

As the name would suggest, most everything is pig-based. The kitchen even makes a sandwich called Le Pig Mac, which looks exactly like a Big Mac--two patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese on a sesame seed bun--except made with pork, and supposedly way better.

I didn't try the Le Pig Mac, but I mention it because it shows Link's sense of humor. There's also this: he's got a big Star Wars fetish. As soon as you walk in, there's a life-sized Chewbacca wearing sunglasses. A 3D model of The Death Star appears to have crashed into one of the walls. And in the men's restroom, there's Chewbacca again on the wallpaper, watching you pee.

The most popular thing to order here is probably the muffaletta--the quintessential sandwich of this area after the po' boy.

And it was a behemoth--packed with layers upon layers of salame, ham, bacon and a few other porcine-based products I could not begin to identify. All of this was tucked between a gigantic dome of a sesame-seeded crusty loaf of a bun that crackled just slightly when I bit into it. And slathered between it and the melted cheese was just enough olive spread to counteract the pork. One order was big enough for the two of us. The kitchen knew it since it's cut into quarters.

Apart from being the first muffaleta I've eaten in New Orleans, it was the best pork sandwich I've ever had. And if it could speak, I imagine it would say "May the Pork be with you!"

Cochon Butcher
930 Tchoupitoulas St.
New Orleans, LA 70130
(504) 588-7675

P.S. This post is the second of three that chronicles the best food we had during a recent trip to New Orleans. Stay tuned for a post on the best meal we had in The Big Easy!

Irrawaddy Taste of Burma - Stanton

Wednesday, June 01, 2016

Cafe Du Monde - New Orleans

It can easily be argued that New Orleans has more iconic foods than any region in America. For starters there's muffaletta, po boys, gumbo, red beans and rice, and etouffee, just to name a few. But on top of that list has to be the beignet. And when you're in New Orleans, not going to Cafe Du Monde to get your beignets is tantamount to refusing to take a picture of yourself in front of the Eiffel Tower. You just have to.

Yes, the original Cafe Du Monde in the French Quarter is touristy. It's a mess, actually. The floor is sticky, covered with powdered sugar where there's not puddles of spilled coffee. Trying to find a table is chaotic. There's no attempt at any sort of order. And if you go when it's busy, which is all the time, you're going to have to troll the open-air dining area until something opens up. And when you find a table, you will most likely have to wave down one of the many busboys/waiters to clean up the refuse from the previous occupants.

But as soon as you order your own plate of beignets and coffee, you realize you're just as messy as everyone else is. You use up more napkins than you've ever used before. You spill your coffee. And the powdered sugar? You get it everywhere.

Cafe Du Monde piles their beignets with so much powdered sugar your fried dough mountain looks like the summit of Everest after a blizzard. And if you lift one up to your mouth, and you breathe on it wrong, the sugar goes airborne. No matter what, some will get on the table, on your hands, all over your face.

We read from a guidebook not to wear black at Cafe Du Monde. That was one of the best pieces of travel advice we ever took.

But oh how lovely these beignets were. Despite all the trouble and messiness, they were delicate objects. Fluffy and moist on the inside, just crisp on the outside--the whole thing eaten hot out of the fryer. Of course, we took a selfie of ourselves eating it. You just have to.

Cafe Du Monde
800 Decatur St.
New Orleans, LA 70116

P.S. This post is the first of three that chronicles the best food we had during a recent trip to New Orleans. Stay tuned for more!

Holsteins Shakes and Buns - Costa Mesa

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Skewers by Morimoto - LAX

Get ready for a post about a First World Problem: flight delay. Our Delta flight from LAX to New Orleans didn't start out well, but a comedy of errors made it worse and worse. First, the gate kept being changed. We felt like cats chasing a laser.

Then they said the airplane was "broken." When they finally got a new plane flown in 4 hours later, no one was available to fly it--the original pilots had "timed out". So we had to wait a few more hours for new ones to be flown in. Yes, the new pilots had to be flown in. Like from another airport.

In the meantime, the ground crew kept trying to give us updates. But each update was a report of a new setback. By the twelfth announcement, all they did was make everyone even angrier.

Long story short: instead of taking-off at the time it said on our ticket (5:20 p.m.), it was 11:40 p.m.

If you're counting, that's more than a 6 hour delay. And it put our arrival to The Big Easy at 5 a.m. Saturday instead of 11 p.m. Friday.

Delta did try to make amends by giving us snacks and soda at first, but when they saw that some of us in the terminal were getting "hangry" along with getting angry, they brought the big guns: free Subway sandwiches and chips.

By that time, we had already eaten. It turns out that there's no better Concourse in LAX to be delayed than the one we were in.

There was bevy of new eateries here, not a single one of them McDonald's or Cinnabon. There was a Lemonade, Rock & Brews, a food court with the Fairfax Farmers Market greatest hits, and Ben Ford's (yes, Han Solo's real son--no, not the one that killed him) Filling Station.

We ended up at a restaurant called Skewers because my lovely travel companion saw a picture of a beef bowl that she thought looked particularly scrumptious. But it wasn't until I went up to order it that I realized Skewers was conceived by none other than Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto.

Then it all started to make sense. I saw kushiyaki being grilled on an actual robata. I witnessed ramen noodles boiled to order and shaken vigorously to get rid of excess water. And when I tasted the thin strips of meat in my $14 beef bowl, it was tender and melting despite having very little fat. This was one of the bests Japanese gyudons I've ever had. The flavor was the exact right balance of shoyu-mirin-and-dashi. The freshly toasted sesame seeds sprinkled on top were aromatic. Even the rice was excellent.

It was everything Yoshinoya beef bowls (which I love) could ever hope to be but never are.

Still, it was a $14 beef bowl. But that's fine because it reminded me of a Jerry Seinfeld joke when he said: "Do you think that the people at the airport that run the stores have any idea what the prices are every place else in the world?"

Ah, Jerry Seinfeld, what kind of comedy gold could you have mined from that 6-hour flight delay?

Skewers by Morimoto
Los Angeles International Airport
380 World Way, Terminal 5, Gate 54A
Los Angeles, CA 90045

Taverna - Laguna Beach

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