Sunday, May 28, 2006

Thai Nakorn - Garden Grove - A Photo Superpost

I've not yet been to Thailand. But without a passport, malaria shots, or a plane ticket, I can indulge in the splendors of its cuisine by just taking a quick hop on the 22 Freeway to the city of Garden Grove.

Those in Orange County who know and appreciate good Thai food have undoubtedly taken this pilgrimage themselves. I'm talking, of course, about the venerable Thai Nakorn.

It's been called the best Thai restaurant in Orange County for a reason. The reason? IT IS THE BEST THAI RESTAURANT IN ORANGE COUNTY! Of course, I'm biased, since it has always been one of my favorite restaurants for at least a decade. But whether you believe this post or my previous two posts on it, one thing is certain; if you haven't tried it, you must.

What awaits you there? Dishes like the following:

Fried Pomfret Fish with Chili, Garlic & Sauce ($11.95) was just that -- a whole white pomfret, a salt-water fish with a milky white and delectable flesh, was gutted, scored, and fried in hot oil until blistered brown and crisp. It was served with a dark red sauce so thick it looked like congealing blood in a bowl.

Tamarind pulp gave this saucy condiment its alarming color and consistency as well as its tart and fruity base flavor. Bold and chunky, it was chock full of sliced chili pepper pods, onion, garlic, and cilantro, folded into it as if a molten lava flow rolled through a vegetable garden.

The next dish was as addictive as it was lethal. Since it was called Crispy Catfish with Mango Salad ($7.95), when we saw the mound of shredded young mango, red onion, and chili, one of us remarked, "Where's the catfish?" in a comical "Where's the beef?" moment.

Indeed, nothing shaped like a fish was to be found anywhere in the dish. Not a head, a fin, or even a tail. Instead, dotting the salad were these golden brown crunchy crumbles that looked like Grape Nuts cereal.

This, it turns out, *was* the catfish. Little morsels of it, were strewn about the dish, functioning like fish flavored croutons. And boy was it good! Who needs to bother with bones when it's all right here in these little granules.

A dressing of lime juice, nuclear chili, sugar, and pungent fish sauce laced each wispy spoonful of the stuff, its flavors bright and intense.

This was a dish that was hard for me to stop eating, even as my brow became soaked with sweat and my burning lips begged for mercy. I yielded only after each and every last crumb was gone.

Pork salad anyone? That's what Nam Sod ($6.50) really is.

Ground pork meat was cooked and tossed with julienned ginger, roasted peanuts, scallions, whole dried chilis, and sauced with lime juice. Refreshing and breathtakingly simple, this salad played very well with rice. The bite of ginger cleared our nasal passages while the lime cleansed our palates for the next mouthful.

Nam Sod can also be had with Crispy Rice, house-made Rice Krispies, which added an extra dimension of texture. Snap, Crackle and Pop never had it so good.

Pad Thai ($6.50) at Thai Nakorn was a serviceable dish and tasted like it should. It's probably just as good as Pad Thai cooked anywhere else, but never is it this saucy and bold.

A spoonful of sugar and pepper flakes straddled the plate; a practice usually seen at authentic Thai joints like this one. Bulbous and sweet shrimp surfed on top of the cresting noodle wave, its tails still attached. Fresh and crunchy bean sprouts finished the dish -- the spaghetti and meat sauce of South East Asia.

Two soups we never pass up ordering are Tom Yum Kah Gai ($7.25) and the Tom Yum Kung ($8.25). Tom Yum Kah Gai was the milder of the two, but not by much. The level of heat, no matter how hot, was tempered by a good dousing of creamy coconut milk. And the spicy brew went on stealth mode because of it.

The first sip entranced our tongues with the tartness of lime, the sugar, and the distinctly herby touch of galangal and lemongrass which hid behind a silky screen of sultry coconut milk. On the second sip, the raucous heat of Thai chili began to hit. By the third, a numbing sensation crept in, letting us know that soon we'd feel the onslaught of a full-on capsaicin attack.

Protein, in the form of heady chunks of chicken, helped to sop up the chili pepper burn. The button mushrooms also made for a good meaty chew -- a cooling foil to the soup.

Tom Yum Kung, on the other hand, was in our faces from the very start. Not being held back by coconut milk made the broth uncensored, naked, and naughty. Diced Thai chilis floated along the top of the red soup; raw and looking for trouble.

It was a foolhardy thing we did to not specify "mild" when we ordered. Now we were going to pay the price.

Sure enough, the first spoonful sent us wincing in pain. "Oh my freakin' gawd," one of us yelped, vainly fanning his tongue with two hands. This was not a soup for wussies -- and I was a wuss.

Defeated by the mighty soup, I meekly took the shrimp and button mushrooms out of my soup and ate them with some rice. Those with lead-lined stomachs can probably stand this liquid litmus test for chili-heads. Everyone else should probably remember to ask for leniency when ordering.

To quell the fire burning in our throats we ordered Coconut Ice Cream, which did the job, though not before inducing a stifling brain freeze on our first taste. Made from coconut cream, this was one of Thai Nakorn's house creations -- a welcome respite from the dishes that came before -- both rich and icy, topped with crunchy roasted peanuts and slippery lobes of white jelly.

With our palates exhausted from the workout and our bellies full of food, we bid farewell to Thai Nakorn. I would return less than two weeks later.

Thai Nakorn Restaurant
(714) 537-5011
12532 Garden Grove Blvd
Garden Grove, CA 92843

*UPDATE (January 8, 2007): Thai Nakorn has been destroyed by an early morning fire. Read the OC Register story here.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Memphis Soul Cafe & Bar - Costa Mesa

Housed inside a windowless structure that looks like a seedy roadside truck stop, Memphis is as anti-Orange County as it gets. Appropriate, since its next-door neighbor is that supposed anti-establishment shopping center, The Lab, otherwise known as "The Anti-Mall".

While The Anti-Mall shuns the Italian marble and snootiness of South Coast Plaza, opting instead for rusty industrial metal siding and grungy chic, they still manage to sell essentially the same overpriced merchandise sold over the freeway at the mall.

Memphis, thankfully, does not follow suit. Rather than squander its eclectic setting, the restaurant embraces it by serving food that's different than the usual and at prices that are ridiculously affordable, at least during Happy Hour, which lasts from 3:30-6:30 pm.

During this golden three-hour period, everything on the Bar Menu is $4.

Arriving with growling stomachs, we channeled Elvis and ordered almost every single item we saw on the list. These are appetizers. Small plates to share. But as we soon found out, five of them summed up to equal more food than two normal humans can consume in one sitting.

The Pizza was made from a thick focaccia bread -- chewy and toothsome. A dusting of cilantro, cheese, tomato, and sauce played up the andouille sausage, which was roughly cut-up into chunks as big as thumbs and then baked on top of the dough. This smoked pork sausage was so assertively spiced, it bit back -- a New Orleanean kick-in-the-pants on the classic pepperoni pizza pie.

Consisting of bread, meat, and cheese, the Meatloaf Sandwich was a substantial meal on its own. It was easily the singlemost gut-filling dish we ordered. Our hunger pangs were immediately squelched as soon as we swallowed our first hefty mouthful. The richness of the cheese stood up well against the beefy meatloaf, making it a winsome if not an overly-decadent combo. The meat harbored a touch of sweetness and fruity tang from the tomato sauce glaze.

My favorite of all was the Zuni Frybread. Frybread is simply deep fried dough, made from wheatflour bound together with lard. Memphis disguises the inherent unhealthiness of its origins by covering the frybread with fresh white corn salsa and melted pepper jack cheese. The result? Utter deliciousness. The frybread, crumbles like flaky pie crust; the kind made with Crisco. And the veggies did its duty, making me believe, if only for a second, that all this was good for me.

The Steamed Prince Edward Island Mussels and Manila Clams came in a murky red tomato and white-wine broth, studded with diced andouille sausage and celery. Planks of toasted garlic bread crowned the bowl. The mussels and clams, tender morsels of the sea, swam in that caustic brew, which might as well have been lava. I was foolish enough to sip a spoonful of the soup straight up and almost choked from the intensity of the spices. A smarter thing to do would've been to dunk the toast in the broth daintily, like dipping a toe into bathwater.

Dusted with cornmeal, the Fried Shrimp came on the plate doing summersaults. Curled and crispy, with the granules of the cornmeal breading acting like crunchy, edible armor, I took them for dunk in the zesty remoulade dipping sauce. Soon they were dancing in my mouth and then all the way down my gullet. A little overcooked if I was really being critical, but how could I? It's $4 for a generous serving of shrimp fer cryin' out loud!

In the end, we had enough food left over for an "Anti-breakfast" the next morning.

Memphis Soul Cafe & Bar
(714) 432-7685
(714) 708-3785
2920 Bristol St
Costa Mesa, CA 92626

Monday, May 15, 2006

Non-California Adventure: Ann Arbor, MI

Once in great while, my job requires me to travel. Since my field is unglamourous, the destinations usually aren't either. New York? Miami? Las Vegas? Done them all, but always on my own dime.

No, when the company foots the bill, it's usually for a trip to someplace like Greenville, South Carolina or Hartford, Connecticut. Cities where people live and work, not where tourist come to play. But this isn't to say that these aren't worthwhile locales to visit. Downtown Greenville was contemporary with the requisite Southern charm and character. The restaurants offered stick-to-your-ribs food that still haunts my dreams. One of the best plates of fried chicken I've ever had I ate in Greenville.

A few weeks ago it was Ann Arbor, Michigan. Having visited Michigan only once before, in a city called Pontiac, I half expected Ann Arbor to be more of the same. Pontiac, from what I remember of that trip I took exactly a decade ago, was a blue-collar town with more fast food joints than anyone could ever need or want. But as soon as I arrived in Ann Arbor, I knew -- this ain't Pontiac.

Anchored by the University of Michigan at its nucleus, Ann Arbor is a college town brimming to its borders with coffee shops, book stores, and restaurants -- a midwestern burg with hints of Berkeley liberalism, a splash of Manhattan class, and the polish of Pasadena. But to compare Ann Arbor to other cities is to insult it. It's got a proud personality all its own.

And what I found on my own was only surface level scratch, confined to a few hours on a night I had free time. But I was so impressed by what I saw that on my flight back to Orange County, I made a vow -- to be better prepared the next time I was sent out this way. My mission: to eat where the locals eat; to walk where they tromp.

A scant few weeks later I learned that I would be returning to Ann Arbor for a second time. Without hesitation, I e-mailed Joy, a reader of this humble blog, who now lives in Irvine but used to be an Ann Arbor local. She graciously provided a list of her favorite haunts. I printed her recommendations, stuffed it in my travel bag, packed a camera, and booked an extra day at the hotel.

A2, as locals like Joy called it, has two institutions other than the University that are destinations in and of themselves: Krazy Jim's Blimpy Burgers and Zingerman's Delicatessen.


Blimpy Burgers was an enthralling experience. I was giddy with delight when I first saw the place. It's a small, greasy spoon with old swivel chairs. The line to order saddled up to a sizzling griddle and a bubbling deep fryer.

I was eager to eat, but one thing Joy said stuck in my mind. She warned that the people who worked there sported an attitude and expected that customers order with precision and without hesitation. I was thinking Soup Nazi from Seinfeld, but didn't really believe it.

Rude midwesterners? Impossible.

The first visit I made was on a weeknight. The joint was nearly empty, but alas, it didn't stop the young grill-man from yelling at a customer who was unwise enough to answer his cell phone in line.

"Take it outside! Can't you read the sign!?" he said as he pointed at it with his greasy spatula.

So before I saddled up to order, I wiped the smile off my face, righted myself, and rehearsed what I would say over and over in my mind.

"Double with egg, on an onion roll. Double with egg, on an onion roll."

As soon as I flawlessly rattled off my order, the guy plopped down two spheres of raw meat, the size of golfballs, directly onto the grill to heat. Then, without warning, he smashes it flat with his spatula to finish cooking on that side and then a final flip to finish. A fried egg, tomato, lettuce, onion, pickles and a slather of mayo later, my burger was ready to eat. An order of habit-forming, crunchy onion rings came in tall singular lacy gob that reached for the ceiling.

The burger was delicious. If I had to decribe it, it's as if In-N-Out and Fatburger decided to marry, have children, and move out to the Midwest. The patty is thin like In-N-Out's, but the add-ons like fried egg, chili, and bacon makes the burger endlessly customizable, à la Fatburger. They tout the fact that there's over a million possible Blimpy Burger permutations. With unconventional extras like salami, I don't doubt it.

On the second trip made over the weekend, a woman was flipping the burgers. It was then that I saw the trademark Blimpy Burgers attitude in its full splendor. No one was safe from her acid tongue. Fellow customers, her own co-workers, even small children -- if someone did something she didn't approve of, she'd have something to say to them. This was a mean woman who made mean burgers.

This time around, to accompany our Blimpy Burgers, we asked for the deep fried "Mixed Veggies". Mushroom, broccoli, cauliflower, onion and zucchini are dusted in a seasoned flour and cooked in gurgling oil to a deep golden brown. It was tempura-like in its execution, but exhibited a crumbly crunch instead of a light, lacy crisp. This was a side dish that's both dangerously addictive and unhealthy. Definitely the wrong way to get your daily recommended serving of vegetables, but why does it feel so right?

Krazy Jim's Blimpy Burger
(734) 663-4590
551 S Division St
Ann Arbor, MI 48104


Zingerman's Deli is revered for being the best deli in America that isn't in New York City. Some folks in Ann Arbor might even debate that statement. They'd passionately proclaim Zingerman's as the best in the U.S.

I'll leave the verbal brawls to others who know better. But for what it's worth, I quite enjoyed the sandwich I ordered. Although I'm used to fattier, wetter incarnations seen in California, the carved pastrami and corned beef was just what I'd expect from a deli with Zingerman's reputation. Flanked by two kinds of bread with two kinds of cheese and slathered with a good deli mustard, it made for a hefty dinner.

Housed inside a cramped brick building, the store was well-stocked with hanging meats, cheeses, and canned goods. One shelf towered above all others with golden loaves of bread, some braided and some crusted with seeds; a gallery with edible works of art. This is the Louvre of food in Ann Arbor.

Next door to the deli, was Zingerman's "Next Door" which looked like a house the company took over to sell desserts and coffee. This was also where customers of the deli would be served if they chose to dine in. We did on our last visit and sampled an exquisite but simple slice of cocoa cake with a scoop of vanilla gelato while enjoying the spring air on their patio.

The employees, perky and cheerful students from the University, were all probably very happy to be working at the town's landmark. Or maybe it's perhaps because they get discounts on shots of espresso.

Zingerman's Deli
(734) 663-3354
422 Detroit St
Ann Arbor, MI 48104

To see more of my Ann Arbor photos and commentary:


Sunday, May 07, 2006

Crescent City - Tustin

So there we were at Crescent City in Tustin, standing in the narrow pathway leading to the cashier, staring as if in a trance at their encyclopedic list of a menu -- which was printed on a laminated sign as tall as I was -- when a large, hulk of a man in loose-fitting black pants with white stripes strode in through the door past us. He was bald, save for some grey patches of stubble that peppered his chin and the rear of his scalp. With his thick jowl and eyes that looked like he just woke up from a restless nap, he could’ve been Abe Vigoda's doppelganger, except a decade or two younger and much better-fed.

Noticing that we were becoming dizzy at the countless possibilities of what to order for lunch, and still not any closer on deciding, this man stopped cold in front of us, turned to face me and said in a low rumble, "Whaddaya feel like? Steak?"

"Steak? Umm", I stammered, pausing as my brain tried to process who this stranger could be, and more importantly, why he cared about my lunch.

"I'm the chef," he quickly clarified, sensing my growing uneasiness at his curiosity.

Relieved and elated, I asked him with renewed enthusiasm, "What kind of steak? And how do you serve it?"

"It's strip steak, served in a sandwich with a salad or fries."

"Sounds great!" I said.

He nodded approvingly, and returned to the kitchen -- presumably to slap a steak onto the grill.

The cashier, overhearing the exchange, followed, "So that'll be a steak sandwich. What kind of bread?"

Not expecting that we had more decisions to make, we begrudgingly asked what our choices were. As she began reciting what was available, the chef interrupted, his voice booming from the kitchen -- "Have it with the croissant!"

"You heard the man,” I said, smiling at the cashier.

Later, while we waited for our steak sandwich to arrive, we noshed on the Popcorn Shrimp ($6.95) we had ordered as an appetizer. It came on a small hill of freshly fried, crispy fries. The shrimp, round and plump spheres the size of gumballs, made for pleasant palate teasers, each poppable, like deep-sea Bon-Bons.

Hidden within the crevasses of its crunchy battered crust, the succulent and slightly sweet morsels harbored the slow, latent burn of Louisiana hot sauce; the cumulative effect of which numbed our lips, giving us the sensation of being stung in the mouth by a chili pepper bee. Our only regret was that there were just enough of these ocean nuggets to tantalize, but too few of them to satisfy.

Thankfully, the skirt steak sandwich ($7.95) came just in time. The meat was beefy, bold -- flavored deeply from its crust to its still-pink center with red wine. Cut into fajita-sized strips and stuffed inside a buttery croissant, it was the star of the sandwich, supported by an eclectic cast of characters, which included sharp, crumbled bleu cheese, crunchy bits of chopped pecans, and spicy red onion. Was it typical of a New Orleans sandwich? No idea. But it was damned tasty, proving that sometimes it's okay to listen to a stranger, especially if he turns out to be the chef.

Crescent City
(714) 263-3111
2933 El Camino Real
Tustin, CA 92782

Note: To read my earlier review of Crescent City, click here.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Desserts from Banh Mi Che Cali - Westminster

Banh Mi Che Cali is the best and possibly the cheapest place for banh mi, those Vietnamese sandwiches made of crusty French bread and stuffed with all manner of meats, pickled carrots, daikon, cilantro sprigs, and fiery jalapenos. But did you know that this modest Little Saigon chain also sells delectable Vietnamese desserts too? Yes! It's true!

What most people tend miss is that the Vietnamese word for dessert is, in fact, in their name.

Che, pronounced "ch-eah" (rhymes with "Yeah!"), is the general term for a sweet dish or dessert, which in Vietnam, is usually soupy and can sometimes contain sweetened coconut milk, some sort of starch, fruits, jellies, or all of the above. Some che is served chilled while others, hot.

Banh Mi Che Cali's selection boasts an eye-popping palette of colors usually reserved for a Nickelodeon cartoon or a psychedelic head trip. Slimer green, bubble gum pink, vibrant sports car red -- these are artificial colors, but the flavors are geniune.

Sold by the tub for $1.50 a piece, each small plastic container holds a single but generous serving of a palate pleasing treat. The third tub is free when two is bought, so I often load up on them in multiples of three, fishing out the cold che from the fridge myself and then asking the friendly ladies behind the counter to ladle and pack some of the hot che from the steam trays.

One of those hot che's, called Che Ba Ba, resembles thick chowder -- milky white and chock full of goodies. Although coconut cream is used instead of dairy cream, this is still a rich dish. It's perhaps better enjoyed when your stomach isn't quite yet full. The fragrant and hearty sweet cream of the coconut binds the items of the "stew" together, which if you aren't familiar to Asian ingredients, may read more like a shopping list for your aquarium.

Among others you'll find are squirmy clear agar-agar, tapioca pearls the size of BB pellets, crunchy julienned pieces of black seaweed, and crinkly white fungus, which when eaten, feels like chewing on something between tripe and celery.

Before you recoil in disgust, remember that Jell-O gelatin is made from the scum skimmed off after boiling down beef bones and cow hides. For che, nothing comes from an animal, just seaweed and plants -- all existing to enrich your senses with playful textures without bothering poor ol' Bessie.

My favorite of all che's comes from the refrigerated side. Named Che Banh Lot, it looks like small, green and stubby worms. In fact, we affectionately call it "The Little Wormies", since there really is no better description.

Made from cooked tapioca starch batter which is pushed through a sieve and dropped into an ice bath to set, these "worms" wiggle on your tongue like seals on a Slip N' Slide. But most of the flavor comes from the thinned and sweetened coconut milk which accompanies an order in a smaller container.

The aromatic punch of pandan, a tropical leaf that echoes vanilla, is the star attraction of another chilled, coconut milk soup called Che Thai. This one is thin and cold, featuring bright yellow jackfruit pieces, luminous white balls of longan, and emerald green cubes of agar-agar. It's the most refreshing che of the bunch -- light on the palate and waist-line.

The most striking to the eye is Che Hot Lu, which features clusters of flourescent red spheres made to resemble pomegranate seeds or cherry red fish eggs. The exterior has a jelly-like texture, but the core bites like a water chestnut. These chewy/crunchy morsels are set atop more agar-agar, clear ones cut into strips, and a cube of sweet mung bean paste on the side.

Che: a dessert worthy enough to follow banh mi.

Banh Mi & Che Cali Bakery
(714) 839-8185
15551 Brookhurst St
Westminster, CA 92683

*Special thanks to Christine and chair for helping out with the Vietnamese translations.