Saturday, January 28, 2006

Wholesome Choice - Irvine

I gotta hand it to that surly gentleman who works behind the Persian food counter at Wholesome Choice in Irvine. His grimace is unflappable. His brow is forever furrowed. It actually seems like he's making a concerted effort to avoid eye contact with anyone or anything.

As he scribbled my order for a Chicken Koobideh ($6.99), his death stare was focused somewhere over my shoulder, at nothing in particular. A mischievious side of me wanted to re-enact a certain scene from Seinfeld.

You know the one.

Has anyone ever told you that you look exactly like Al Pacino? You know, “Scent Of A Woman.” Who-ah! Who-ah!

Very good. Very good.

Well, I --

You know something?


No soup for you!


Come back one year! Next!

But I knew better than to piss-off a guy who has a stash of long metal skewers within reach of his burly, hairy arms. And a grump is better than a Soup Nazi. So I took the stub of paper with the order number from his grip and quietly stood aside. I watched and waited as his co-worker took out two more swords from the fridge, its blades packed with ground meat, which he placed over an open pit of fire.

As I counted the minutes until my dinner was ready, I surveyed the rest of this food court within a store. There's an Italian stall with fresh pizzas and pasta across from me. Next to it, Mexican food and American home-style. On the opposite side of the same island, Indian and Chinese. And when you're not feeling peckish for the cooked flesh of landborne animals, there's both a salad and sushi bar towards the back. It's quite literally, a trip around the world in less than forty footsteps.

It wasn't long ago when Wholesome Choice was a Whole Foods Market, and before that, during my undergraduate years at UCI, it was a Ralphs. Of all the things in Irvine that has changed for the better over the years, I think Wholesome Choice is at the top of that list.

An international supermarket with a Middle Eastern accent, it has sparkling aisles and boasts unique products the Whole Foods/Trader Joe's demographic craves, while still pleasing the traditional Persian tastes of its core customer base. A prime example of this is their offering of sangak, a Persian seeded flatbread baked hourly, and doled out hot and fresh from a hearthstone oven to an eager line of customers.

The other staple of the store was this Persian food counter, where The Grump works. Along with the koobideh I ordered, there are shish kabobs, chicken barg, Persian salads, and even colorful stews ready and waiting in steam trays.

But the koobideh is the reason I come to Wholesome Choice. I leered hungrily as my koobideh took on a burnished orange color and a little bit of char. Noticing the ravenous glint in my eye, The Grump's co-worker slid it off the skewer into a waiting styrofoam box of rice. From another spit, he extracted one grilled tomato from a dozen others which were strung together like a gigantic fruit necklace, and off it went on top of the mound, along with a crusty piece of burnt rice.

The Grump took the container from him and pushed it towards me on the counter. He tossed on top of it, a plastic bag with half an onion, a wedge of lemon, and butter. When I noticed that the onion I got was discolored, I meekly asked if I could exchange it. Without a word, he took back the one he gave me and tossed me two new bags. This was his way of saying, "You think I care about the onions!? Take two! Take as many as you want!"

I thanked him profusely and went home to enjoy my dinner (which coincidentally was enough for two).

When I got home, I tore open a packet of sumac, a spice that looks like red dandruff with a citrusy tang, and sprinkled it all over the rice. After a drizzle of lemon juice went on the glistening lobes of the chicken koobideh, we were ready to eat.

The loose grains of basmati were nutty and fragrant, with a sunny streak of yellow rice running down the middle. The koobideh, made from a mixture of egg, ground chicken and turmeric was firm to the touch but tender to the teeth. The grilled tomato was promptly squished and torn apart with a fork. We used its pulp and juices to moisten the rice. And each time I took a spoonful of rice and meat, I peeled off a layer of the raw onion and chomped on it. It's both refreshing and spicy. But the plank of crunchy burnt rice, I ate sparingly. Although it provided a satisfying textural contrast to the meal, it was too jarring and tough to eat for an extended period of time.

With food like this, how can anyone stay grumpy.

Wholesome Choice
(949) 551-4111
18040 Culver Dr
Irvine, CA 92612

Thursday, January 19, 2006

The Magic Wok - Artesia - A Photo Superpost

I've written about this restaurant before. And as I've said in the earlier post, it's not to be confused with the Chinese take-out chain of the same name. This place serves up Filipino food. Great Filipino food.

In fact, not only is it my favorite place for enjoying the cuisine of the Philippines, it's on my short list of all-time favorite restaurants. Period.

It's owned by a motherly Filipina with a jolly face who always welcomes us warmly and dotes on us as if we were her own children.

Nevermind the stains on the ceiling tiles. Forgive the framed pictures perennially hung askew on the bare walls. Yes, her space is spare and the potted plants are plastic, but there's nothing fake about her food and hospitality. Here, it's all about substance, not style.

The food is the real deal; honest, home-style Filipino cooking done right by people who take a lot of pride in the cuisine, and with prices so low, it's almost criminal not to leave an overly generous tip.

We started with Lumpia Shanghai, which were egg rolls, pure and simple. But instead of being fat and bulky like the Chinese variety, it's long and slender, like a taquito.

Each bite gave up equal amounts of the thin, crunchy shell and that savory pork filling in a perfect balance of textures. I took them for a dunk in banana ketchup, a candy sweet concoction that comes in a bottle, and was in for a new addiction.

The next dish we ordered is both ingenius and insane. What else can I say about what is essentially pork fat, deep fried in...pork fat!

Depending on how one looks at it, it's either a cardiologist's worst nightmare or fondest dream come true. I can feel my chest tightening up and hear my arteries hardening just at the thought of it.

It's called Lechon Kawale. What is it? Answer: deep fried pork belly. Yes, you read that right.

Deep. Fried. Pork. Belly.

Nuggets of unsliced, uncured bacon, is first boiled in a spiced brine, and then cooked in boiling fat until the meat is crackly brown and the rind puffs up like a chicaron.

Each golden chunk possessed a crust that has an ungodly crunch, leading to salty crisped shards of pork, and a mushy layer of fat which felt like custard pudding except ten times as unhealthy. It's crunchy, sticky, salty, sweet, rich and decadent, while still being humbly simple.

As my eyes glazed over and my lips became greasy slick, my brain calculated how many slices of bacon each small piece equates to. The answer? About three. I consumed about five morsels of the lechon kawale that night. I'll let you do the math.

Hyperbolic descriptions aside, it's a great dish, but one that you cannot eat by itself.

To offset the pork fat assault, we ate Ampalaya (bittermelon), stir fried with, of course, pork. But small, lean bits of it this time.

The star of the plate, however, was the bittermelon, and it is true to its name. For those uninitiated to this humble Asian gourd, brace yourself. Its chemical bitterness is the ultimate of all the acquired tastes. Think of radicchio after a good soak in lye soap, and ratchet it up a few notches. That's bittermelon.

To say that it cleanses the palate is not enough. It's shock therapy for the taste buds. With a mouth-filling acridity that is oddly pleasant and off-putting at the same time, you wonder if the enjoyment comes from the sense of achievement one gets after being able to stand the flavor. The bitter taste is obviously the plant's self-defense mechanism trying to fight back.

Amateurs cooking this lethal melon would not know how to properly temper the bitterness. Eat a wrongly prepped bittermelon and you're liable to keel over, eyes winced, face all puckered.

We took comfort in knowing that Magic Wok's cooks prepared the gourd with a deft hand and a hot wok. Along with taming this beastly veggie's bitter bite, the wok gods of the kitchen have also blessed the dish with the unmistakable smoky aroma of wok hey, a key flavor which only adds to its appeal.

Next up was Calamares Prito, which were calamari rings, deep fried with a dense and crunchy coating of seasoned crumbs. Those dark granules of breading, which were caked onto the squid rings, delivered with each teeth-rattling bite, a concentrated flavor of garlic, salt, and spice.

Roughly cut green onions garnished the top, adding a splash of color and a grassy fresh, herby note. I drizzled a few drops of the garlic vinegar which is served along side and achieved levels of greatness never reached before by a plate of fried squid.

No meal at Magic Wok would be complete without a bowl of the sour pork soup called Sinigang na Baboy. This is a soup so zingy and tart that it wiped the palate clean of the grease left behind from the fried entrees.

The murky white broth, culled from simmered pork meat and bones, is punched up with tamarind pulp and citrus juice. A few cuts of daikon, green beans, onions, and other fresh vegetables are simmered in the soup along with hunks of tender pork riblets still on the bone.

Customarily, you consume this dish by dousing your rice with a spoonful of the soup and then dribble some patis (a pungent and salty fish sauce) onto the boiled meat before eating. I did this, but found that just sipping the soup straight up worked just as well.

Daing na Bangus is milkfish tail brined in salt, soy and spices. It's rigorously boiled in this seasoned brew inside a pressure cooker to render the species' many combs of tiny bones brittle and edible. Then, just prior to serving, it's dropped into hot, bubbling oil and cooked until the outside is crunchy and mahogany brown.

It arrived at our table with the tail curled up gracefully, like a snapshot of Flipper the dolphin, frozen in mid-jump.

As I dug in, I am reminded of how milkfish (bangus) was the staple of my childhood diet in Indonesia. It's a fish best suited for eating with a plate of hot steamed rice since the meat has a boldness that's perfect when paired with neutral side dishes. Its robust flavor puts to shame other bland, white-fleshed species like cod and seabass.

Our fried milkfish had a dense flesh which carried a slightly acidic tang with a mild, tart taste of yogurt. The rich and heady aroma of the fish, coupled with the seasonings used, made it another highlight of our dinner.

These fabulous dishes fed the five us until we were busting at the seams, but only totaled a little over $30. What a paltry sum for such an enjoyable journey through the food of the Philippines from an unassuming family restaurant in Artesia.

The Magic Wok
(562) 865-7340
11869 Artesia Blvd
Artesia, CA 90701

Monday, January 16, 2006

Hong Kong Fishball House - Rowland Heights

Today I enjoyed a nice steaming bowl (albeit a styrofoam one) of fish ball noodle soup at a little stall next to the Hong Kong Market on Colima in the city of Rowland Heights. It's immediately located to the left of the supermarket, in the alley where the ghostly stench of stinky tofu haunts the air.

The family that owns this shack serves good, comforting, simple, and inexpensive noodle soups and snacks, in what is literally a walk-up window, where I have stoop to place my order.

In a jiffy, the noodle soups were ready, along with a side order of fried calamari.

We took the meal under the shade of umbrellas, where we slurped on the noodles and sipped hot soup, as the cold January breeze nipped at our necks. What better to warm us to the core than these supple white rice noodle ribbons in a clear, sweet, and salty broth with bits of preserved vegetable for flavor, bean sprouts for crunch, steamed shrimp, and five round, chewy fish balls which bobbed like buoys.

We also enjoyed the calamari rings, deep fried in a light, golden batter, served over a bed of pickled veggies and a side of sweet 'n sour dipping sauce. These curly Q's of squid were addictive, dastardly crunchy, and the perfect compliment to our noodle soups.

The cost for our soul-warming, gut-filling meal? $2.75 per bowl for the noodle soup and $2.50 for the fried calamari.

I had enough cash left over to buy a cold, iced, tapioca milk tea afterwards from the Lollicup stand inside the market. What better way to make our core temperatures plummet back down?

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

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

California Fish Grill - Irvine

After checking up on the progress of the new California Fish Grill every time I drove by on Barranca, yesterday I finally saw its sign lit and a "Now Open" banner flapping in the breeze.

Finally, Irvine has it's very own "fast-casual" fish restaurant, where I can get a decent grilled fish dinner for no more than $10.

For a while, Malibu Fish Grill in Santa Ana was a fine substitute, the closest alternative available when I didn't feel like driving to California Fish Grill's other stores in Anaheim Hills, Cypress, or Gardena. But it wasn't close enough. I wanted something even more local; something I didn't have to jump on the freeway for. And now I have it!

To quote Bruce the Shark from Finding Nemo;

"I'm havin' fish tonight!"

With an average meal (complete with fries and coleslaw) just hovering around $8, it's unfortunate that they didn't decide to open here sooner. At this price, you'd be lucky to get away with a small appetizer at The Fish Market over in the Irvine Spectrum. And let's not forget tip and the Spectrum parking zoo. And The Fish Market's food? Fuggedaboutit!

Nope. California Fish Grill's got everything I need. A good seafood meal for about the same amount of money I would pay for a burger and fries, served in a reasonably chic and clean environment.

The brand new Irvine store is definitely spiffy and sleek. Although the polished metal chairs, exposed aluminum ducting, and the steel buckets stocked with condiments make it look like the Tin Man from Oz used to live there, the large plate glass window looking into the open kitchen was a welcome sight. The better to spy on how your food is prepared!

And the food is good.

The grill menu is your best bet. You choose from a list of species:

Mahi Mahi
Ahi Tuna
White Roughy
Cat Fish
Sword Fish
Cajun seared Ahi Tuna (served rare)
Giant Shrimp

And once you decide, you'll be asked whether you'd prefer garlic butter or Cajun spices to top it, and if it will be fries or rice. Then you pay. You get a placard with a number. And you pick your own table and wait for the food to be brought to you.

The Grilled Salmon I ordered from the specials of the night ($7.99) included not one but two long filets of the fish, shiny and lacquered with a vigorous dusting of Cajun spices (a.k.a. "bammage") over a handful of shoestring fries. On the side; a crusty and dense slice of sourdough and a small scoop of tangy coleslaw.

The fries, tossed with salt and dried parsley, could have been more crisp, but the salmon was cooked perfectly. The flesh of the fish was still moist and buttery while the char marks added a smoky note. The Cajun rub wasn't overpowering, offering just the right amount of punch.

The Grilled Mahi Mahi ($7.45) was just as good. The light, flaky fish was creamy and subtle. The top was slathered in a melted butter sauce infused with garlic. All of it went beautifully with the faintly nutty rice pilaf served underneath.

But all isn't perfect yet at this new outpost. The salsa from the self-serve bar is inexplicably bitter, and the credit card machines didn't seem to work that night (bring cash). Regardless of these minor kinks, I'm glad to have found Nemo in Irvine.

"Fish are food, not friends!"

California Fish Grill
3988 Barranca Parkway #B
Irvine, CA 92606

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Toko Rame Indonesian Restaurant - Bellflower

Nasi Bungkus (which literally translates to "wrapped rice"), is a stereotypical Indonesian take-out meal; a mound of rice with small tastes of different items heaped on top, packed conveniently in a folded-over banana leaf for easy carrying as you make your way home through the kampung (village).

If you lived in the tropics, there'd be no need for sytrofoam containers either, especially when you've got banana trees growing around you like weeds. And there's also that faint, but fragrant botanical aroma this natural packaging imparts to the steamed rice. Always a plus!

Toko Rame, one of the few Indonesian restaurants in Southern California, offers the dish in exactly this manner.

Served on a shallow basket made of woven bamboo stalks, the Bellflower restaurant's banana leaf rice parcel looked like a purse with a fat lump of a belly. It's secured shut at the top with a wooden skewer threaded through the leaf like a nose-piercing on a tribesman from Borneo. I pulled out this bamboo spear and the package unfurled, revealing a colorful array of meat and vegetables, tightly packed-in with a football-shaped base of steamed white rice.

The ikan (entrees) inside included:

Sambal Telor: What looks like a giant red eyeball covered in veins is actually a hard boiled egg, deep fried in hot oil to create a lacy, blistered skin. The egg is then stewed in a brew of chilis and tomatoes. The main function of this item is to soothe the palate from the fiery onslaught of the other entrees, although it is itself, spicy.

Rendang: This is a chunk of beef braised in coconut milk, intensely spiced with lemongrass and turmeric. The meat falls apart in tender strands with a gentle pull of a fork. The flavor is deep, earthy, and bold. The Yang to the Yin of the rice.

Sambal Goreng Ati Rempelo: It's a lip-burning, throat-constricting, caustic stew of chili, potatoes and chicken liver. Easily the hottest item of the bunch. The potatoes crumble pleasantly, but the small chunks of chicken liver chewed and tasted like pencil erasers (the only misfire).

Ayam Goreng: A small cut of salty, marinated chicken thigh is fried to a golden crisp. Indonesians like their chicken well-cooked and dry, until you can't tell dark meat from white, and this one is no different.

Tahu Goreng: Simply, a cube of fried firm tofu. Another mild item to give the tongue a break from the spice lashing.

Lodeh: A douse of soup with cubed chayote, peas, and green beans simmered in a thin coconut curry broth. The chayote has the color and texture as soft as honeydew melon but without the sweetness.

The heat level of this dish caused a gushing geyser of sweat to cascade off my brow. Even as I write this review, beads of perspiration are forming on my scalp as I recall memories of that meal. This is a common reaction when I eat cuisine from the region of Sumatra called Padang. The cooks there are known for their fiery foods, with flavors that are razor sharp, vibrant, and sometimes, a little funky. It's the kind of stuff that I taste in my gurgled belches hours after the last bite.

The second dish we tried that night was tamer, but not by much. Soto Ayam Kudus is chicken soup seasoned with turmeric and other spices, made zesty with a squeeze of lemon juice. The color of the liquid is bright yellow and is customarily eaten with rice already immersed in the broth. Toko Rame serves the rice on the side, but the soup is still authentic.

But being a stickler for things I grew up with, I still prefer the rendition of soto from my hometown of Semarang which is more subtle and uses the jelly-like bean thread noodles instead of the firm "rice stick" noodles utilized here.

The quartered hard boiled egg and the fried emping (melinjo crackers) were a nice touch to the soup, the latter acting like those saltines people put in their Campbell's Chicken Noodle. These "chips," made from melinjo nuts, have a pleasant bitter taste that cuts through all the other flavors.

This dinner transported me to an exotic place; a bustling thoroughfare jammed with beeping mopeds weaving around street vendor carts, billowing palm trees, and the balmy sweet tropical heat of Java.

We paid the meager sum for our meal (cash only) to the owner, a woman wearing a hijaab and her twelve-year-old son, who was our server, and left the small, spartan dining room to the parking lot, ambling out in a food-induced stupor.

We were in a dingy strip mall on Bellflower Blvd. A few yards away, traffic swished by on the 91 freeway overpass, oblivious to the fact that the culinary delights of a tropical archipelago is just an exit away.

Toko Rame Indonesian Restaurant
(562) 920-8002
17155 Bellflower Blvd
Bellflower, CA 90706