Monday, July 27, 2015

Piadina - Irvine

What is a piadina? The easy answer is that it's a sandwich, since it technically has a bread-like substance "sandwiching" meat, cheese and veg. But then, it's just as easy to say that it's anything but a sandwich, since it can taste like a cross between a pizza, a calzone, a wrap, a burrito, a quesadilla, and a Chinese-style beef roll, all at the same time.

So I'll just tell you what happens when you order one. A ball of dough is compressed into a thin disc in a gigantic vice, the same kind of contraption you've probably seen at most of those new make-your-own-pizza joints of late. Then the dough disc gets slapped onto an griddle where it toasts as though it were a tortilla. After it gets mottled with brown spots on both sides, the flatbread is transferred to the filling station.

Since it's all one price, I choose the one that had the longest list of components. This would be the one called "Reggio", with "Prosciutto, Parmigiano-Reggiano, Mozzarella, Mushrooms, Arugula, Tomato, Tartar Sauce, and Tabasco." But ultimately, it wasn't the fillings that mattered; it's that flatbread.

It crackled crisply like the best Chinese onion pancake, but sans all the grease and thinner by half. And it remained crispy from my first bite to my last--this despite the smears of sauce, the moisture from the mushrooms, and the two kinds melting cheese.

So what is a piadina, really? It's delicious--one of the best sandwiches/non-sandwiches I've eaten in a while.

2933 El Camino Real
Tustin, CA 92782
(714) 417-9660

TAPS Fish House

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Monster Munching: Now On Facebook!


Just wanted to clarify that Monster Munching isn't going away (yet!). The blog, as you see it now, won't change. It's just that I've created a Facebook account that you can subscribe or like (or whatever it is that people do on Facebook). And when you do, it'll let you know when a new Monster Munching post (and my OC Weekly restaurant review) comes online!



I've been doing this blog for more than a decade now. It has outlasted a lot of the restaurants I've reviewed for it. It has been around before Yelp became a verb.

But now I'm at a crossroads. Readership isn't what it used to be. And as I focus more and more on my role as OC Weekly's food critic and writing daily posts for OC Weekly's Stick A Fork In It blog, which I'm proud to say I helped establish with Gustavo Arellano, I decided I have two options for Monster Munching going forward:

1. Euthanasia.


2. Take the defibrillator paddles out for one last jolt.

For now, I'm going with #2.

But since trying to get more people to discover the blog requires SEO skills I don't have and money I don't wish to spend, I've come up with the next best thing: Facebook.

Yes, this blog is now on Facebook. I'm not sure yet how well this will work out. But I'm told Facebook is where all the cool kids are.

So if you're on Facebook, "Like Me"...(that's the first time I've typed those words and now I feel dirty), because at the very least, you'll see when I've put up a new review without having to check back here.

Here's the link:

Now, what's this about SnapTweets and TwitterGrams?

Gypsy Den - Santa Ana

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Jollibee - Irvine

As a fast-food joint, Jollibee isn't immune to offering combos. The Filipino fried chicken peddler will sell you fries to go with the burgers, and then bundle in a big ol' soda to wash it all down. But the combo I like better is the one that combines their version of pancit palabok with a drumstick.

It encapsulates what Jollibee represents in one tray--the harmonious dichotomy of Filipino and American fast food. On one side, rice noodles doused with garlic-y gravy and dusted with pulverized pork rinds. On the other, a battered deep-fried chicken leg that doesn't look much different from KFC's.

After I squeezed three packets of lemon juice into it, I slurped the noodles--something I previously described as looking like pad thai, but tasting nothing like it. And then, I chomped into the chicken as a separate mouthful, steam plumes escaping from the fresh-off-the-fryer drumstick, the skin 'neath the batter rendered crisp.

But when it settled, it didn't make me feel awful like the time I had a Western Bacon Cheeseburger Combo at Carl's, all this despite the fact that Jollibee still insists you chase it with a big ol' sugary soda.

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

Outpost Kitchen - Costa Mesa

Sunday, July 05, 2015

Scoops N Scoop Creamery - Irvine

If you're a new ice cream entrepreneur these days, it's likely that the the words "liquid nitrogen" are in your business plan. That or "donuts".

But so far the liquid nitrogen ice cream joints are outnumbering the ice-cream-stuffed-donut ones. Liquid nitrogen ice cream is the new frozen yogurt.

I've lost count on how many opened in the last few months alone. But if you've been to one, you'll notice, for the most part, they're all nearly the same. Heavy duty mixers are installed behind a see-through partition. Next to them are spigots connected to the LN tanks. When you order, you tell the cashier not just what flavor your want, but also what kind of milk.

Scoops N Scoops offers four choices of your base: premium milk, coconut milk, yogurt, or organic milk. Then comes one flavor, and if you're feeling spendy: toppings and extras that could also include cotton candy.

Whatever you order: you're in for a spectacle. The fog spills out from the mixing bowls and onto the floor as though a Rush concert just broke out in the middle of Irvine.

But it's not all for show (though most of it is). The liquid nitrogen is supposed to freeze the ice cream so fast, no aeration occurs nor do ice crystals form. This purportedly results in a denser, smoother texture of ice cream. It's like a shortcut to Häagen-Dazs without all the churning.

I tried a chocolate hazelnut on yogurt and it was indeed dense and smooth. A friend's strawberry ice cream with plain milk turned out best, tasting like super premium ice cream. And since they used actual fresh strawberries, it tasted like strawberry ice cream always should: perky.

Another friend's coconut ice cream in which they seem to have pumped in a few squirts of coconut syrup, did not fare as well. It was so sweet, it rotted out teeth on contact.

If you intend to try it: Be prepared to spend twice, if not three times, as much than you would for Thrifty's ice cream at Rite-Aid. But again, you're not coming just for dessert, you're there for dessert and a show.

Scoops N Scoop Creamery
14411 Culver Dr.
Irvine, CA 92606

Cesar's Bistro - Long Beach

Friday, June 26, 2015

Mendocino Farms - Irvine

Mendocino Farms makes a banh mi sandwich that isn't exactly a banh mi sandwich. The bread isn't a baguette; it's ciabatta in the usual ciabatta shape: square. But because it's crisped up on a panini press, the bread crackles when you bite into it, just as the crust of a proper baguette should.

And in eating it further you realize how very banh mi-like this sandwich actually is. Nearly all the flavors you expect and had in the last real banh mi you ate is present and accounted for: pickled daikon, pickled carrots, plenty of sliced jalapenos, cilantro, cucumbers, and a good spackling of mayo.

No, there's no pate, or the umami of Maggi. And the braised and caramelized Kutobuta pork belly stuffed in there as protein is a little bit of an overkill, but that's fine too, since what you're really tasting is everything else in this "banh mi"--an item described on the menu as a "playful take on the popular Vietnamese sandwich."

All of this is to say that it's still not a banh mi, not exactly--but that's doesn't mean it isn't good.

Mendocino Farms
4175 Campus Dr. Ste B
Irvine, CA 92612
(949) 783-2900

Kaya Street Kitchen - Aliso Viejo

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Afters Ice Cream - Tustin

Though I was one of the first people to write about Afters and its ice-cream-stuffed donuts, I think I'm one of the last people on Earth to try them.

There are about a hundred reasons why I didn't try them sooner. Those hundred reasons are probably still standing there in line at the Fountain Valley store as we speak.

But after finally getting around to tasting my first "Milky Bun" (that's what Afters calls its ice-cream-stuffed donuts) last weekend at the virtually deserted and newly opened Tustin store at three in the afternoon, my question to anyone who've actually stood in that line is: Was it worth it?

Because what I tasted was a glazed donut, split in half, with ice cream in the middle. Sure, the donut is reheated using some sort of unseen contraption so that you get a warm donut around the cold ice cream.

But it's still just a glazed donut.

With ice cream in the middle.

Actually, what I noticed above all else was this: The donut was all I could taste. Due to its sweetness, the ice cream became a big cold gob of nothing.

That's what perplexes me most about these Milky Buns. Afters obviously took the time to craft some ice cream in flavors that are creative and good; but stuffing them inside that donut is akin to writing the perfect song and then having William Hung sing it.

Afters Ice Cream
13662 Newport Ave. Ste C
Tustin, CA 92780

Napa Rose's Chef Counter - Anaheim

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Mochi Cream - Costa Mesa

You know what Asian palates love? Chewy and jellied textures. Think of boba. Think of the tendon in beef noodle soup. And mostly, think of mochi, which is, I think, the penultimate in Asian textural foods. It exists simply because of its chew. The sensation in your mouth is similar to gnawing on your own inner cheek for dessert. And that's appropriate because, my, what desserts mochi makes!

For sure you've had mochi ice cream at Mochilato, or any random Japanese restaurant where they might offer it at the end of a meal. You may have even had J. Sweet Bakery's strawberry mochi, which unfortunately, they stopped making.

What the new Mochi Cream in Mitsuwa's food court does is a combination of the two. Mochi Cream's mochi creams have the smooth oval shape of a mochi ice cream, but are filled with all sorts of things other than ice cream.

I tried three last week and realized the caramel custard one actually contained caramel custard. The strawberry and the chocolate had a sort of mousse tucked inside. And the mochi that surrounded them were of the right thickness and yes, pleasantly chewy. I loved them.

But you know what else they have in common with mochi ice cream? Their price tags. Each mochi cream cost about two dollars. I think they know that Asians who love chewy and jellied textures won't be able to resist. Besides, beef tendon doesn't go so well with chocolate.

Mochi Cream
Mitsuwa Marketplace
665 Paularino Ave
Costa Mesa, CA 92626

Phoenix Food Boutique - Garden Grove

Thursday, June 04, 2015

Milt's Stop & Eat - Moab, UT

If you're going to see Arches National Park, you're going to have to stay in Moab. And if you're going to stay in Moab, you must eat at Milt's.

Every town has a place like Milt's. It's one of those lunch counter/greasy spoons that's been around longer than most of us have been alive. On the walls, there are faded photographs with people wearing horn-rimmed glasses before wearing them became ironic. And when I was there, I heard a cop proudly announce to the couple next to him that he'd been eating at Milt's since he was five.

If you're in Moab, it's where you should eat too. All the travel books, TripAdvisor, and Yelp will tell you the same. I concur.

Park on the unmarked gravel lot, creating your own space if you have to. Then mosey in, breathe in the beefy fumes from the patties that sizzle on the flattop griddle, and don't forget the tater tots, the onion rings, the hand spun milkshakes for dessert. There's nothing you don't know here. Everything is cut from the cloth of classic Americana. The burgers are thick, the meat loosely packed and sandwiched between a toasted bun with an excess of mustard and pickles.

Milt's is as a beloved and iconic part of the landscape as the Delicate Arch of Utah and will probably last just as long.

Milt's Stop & Eat
356 E Mill Creek Dr.
Moab, UT 84532
(435) 259-7424

Hakata Ikkousha - Costa Mesa

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Cha For Tea - Irvine

I've said it before, but I'll say it again: I've grown tired of boba milk tea. There was a time that I craved it like a crack addict, when I relished the forever chew of those marble-sized pellets, yearned to feel the thunk-thunk-thunk of them being propelled up through the oversized straw. It was something I discovered in my late teens, then gorged on for a decade, then got sick of.

These days, I pass on the boba. Don't get me wrong. I still go to Tapioca Express on a fairly regular basis. It's just that now I always order the taro milk tea, sans the tapioca pearls.

Taro milk tea is, to me, the closest I can get to a malted milk shake without actually committing to all the ice cream fat and calories. It has the same mellow Ovaltine sweetness--that union of the slightly starchy and the creamy. And it comforts me, every time.

Tapioca Express makes my favorite rendition, which I'm not sure even has any tea in it; but just as good, if not lighter and with a more tea-like tannins in it, is Cha For Tea's.

And whenever I get a taro milk tea there (or anywhere, for that matter), an order of spicy popcorn chicken is a must. And Cha For Tea's chicken is one of the spiciest and crispiest in town. The drink complements the chicken, a pairing as essential as milk and cookies, beer and pretzels, but even better than that.

Cha for Tea
4187 Campus Drive M173
Irvine, CA 92612
(949) 725-0300

Kettlebar - Tustin

Friday, May 22, 2015

Napa Rose's Chef's Counter - Disney's Grand Californian Hotel

Here are 9 essential tips you need to know about dining at Napa Rose's Chef's Counter.

1. There are three Chef's Counter seating areas.

The two that fill up the quickest are the group of seats in front of the main kitchen. The last is in front of the dessert station, where we sat with front row seats as two pastry chefs assembled strawberry tarts and torched creme brûlées.

2. There are two seating times: 5:30 p.m. and 8:30 p.m.

You need to reserve at least a week or two in advance. The 8:30 slots go quickest, so plan ahead. You probably want the 8:30 time slot. It's the most relaxed since no one comes after you, so you can pace yourself. This brings me to my next tip.

3. Plan for a 3-hour dinner.

Course by course, one by one, 'til you shout, "Enough! I'm done!"--a meal at the Chef's Counter is a slow, pleasureable affair. When you think you've reached the last course, you haven't. It's like one of those but-wait-there's-more informercials.

When the chef noticed a person in our party had hardly touched a steak dish, she asks if anything's wrong.

"No, it's great," my lovely companion replies. "I'm just so full!".

"But we've got another dish lined up for you guys!" said the chef.

4. Expect a five-course meal, not counting the small tastes of other things in between.

If I counted everything that came at us, there were actually about seven courses. The amuse bouche. A salad or appetizer course. The fish course. A savory mushroom cappuccino in an espresso cup. A meat course. Another course after that where anything can happen. A dessert course. And finally, a tiny box of chocolates we took home and ate two days later because it took us that long to digest this meal.

So budget your stomach space wisely. No matter how divine those cheese-crisped triangles of lavash in the basket of bread are, save them for the doggie bag. You've got courses to finish.

5. The cost per person as of this writing is $100. Wine pairings, $45.

The a la carte menu and the $100 Vitner's Table prix fixe are also available at Chef's Counter. But it would be a waste of your reservation not to surrender your evening to the whims and talents of Napa Rose's chefs and sommeliers.

Besides, if you're a fussy eater, the Chef's Counter is made for you. You don't like a certain kind of meat? Allergic to shellfish or peanuts? Have an irrational fear of vegetables? This is the time you get to tell them all your weird food aversions and fetishes. They will customize every course to you as much as they can.

Here's an example: my lovely companion told them early on she doesn't eat anything rare and doesn't like duck; so on one course, she got a lovely risotto while another friend got a still-bloody slice of duck breast.

On that same course, I (who told them "I eat everything") got the most advanced dish of all: pan-seared sweetbreads.

6. Contrary to other reports, the person who will be taking down your likes and dislikes might be your sommelier, not the executive chef or chef du cuisine.

Be sure to tell who ever asks exactly what's on your mind, or else you might get something you won't particularly enjoy.

7. For every single course, each person in your party will get a completely unique dish.

This is the mind boggling part of Napa Rose's Chef's Counter: they cook individual meals for every member of the party for each course. If you go with 3 other people, you will potentially get to sample at least 20 distinctly different dishes. You won't ever see the same dish twice. No other restaurant I know of that offers prix fixe meals would do this willingly. Napa Rose thrives on it.

8. If you do the wine pairing, you will also get a unique set of wines different than anyone else in your party.

I tasted 5 different wines that went with 5 different courses, each one completely different than what another friend was served. And be prepared to drink a lot of wine--the sommelier is not stingy with his pours. This brings me to my final point.

9. You will gain weight from this meal.

After going home fuller than I've ever been in years, when I got on the weighing scale the morning after this feast, I weighed three pounds heavier than the day before.

Napa Rose
Disneyland Resort
1313 Disneyland Dr.
Disney's Grand Californian Hotel & Spa
Anaheim, CA 92802
(714) 635-2300

Crispy House - Artesia