Sunday, October 29, 2006

Original Mike's - Santa Ana

You wouldn't know it from looking at him, but Mike Harrah owns most of downtown Santa Ana. Featured with his mug as the cover photo for a lengthy article in a recent issue of OC Metro, this man with a grizzly beard is credited by the magazine for revitalizing Santa Ana's business district. He isn't, contrary to what I first believed, a long-lost member of ZZ Top.

But along with being a real-estate developer, millionaire, and an all-around contradictory (and controversial) figure, I learned that Harrah is also a restauranteur. A few years ago, he took a derelict car dealership on First and Main and transformed it into a sprawling eatery, bar, and nightclub.

Redubbed Original Mike's and swathed with a fresh coat of paint, the building nevertheless remains exactly as it stood in 1919, the year it was built. Red brick masonry adorns one side of the structure, while on the other, windows previously boarded-up now face traffic with broad panes of glass.

I stepped inside, and was immediately transported to another time and place -- to a saloon from a bygone era and an Orange County with which I was unfamiliar. Every inch of the place seemed to ooze history, and my eyes feasted on the sumptuous surroundings long before my mouth feasted on the food.

Above us, belt-driven ceiling fans paddled the air. In the main dining room, an open kitchen gleamed with white tiles and chrome. At the bar, saddles functioned as stools. On the walls, trophy swordfish and vintage photos covered all corners. In the original showroom of the old dealership, a restored Packard sparkled, now surrounded by high tables and chairs.

While our party waited for our food, our eyes kept drifting to take in more of the gorgeous space. Our attention returned only when lunch arrived.

The Griddle Burger ($9.95) I ordered was big enough to share, which I did. Between the toasted bun, a thick patty of formidable girth was griddled to a crusty char, topped with a shiny blanket of melted cheddar. It came with the works -- chopped lettuce, sliced tomato, pickles, mayo, mustard, and red onion slivers -- and ate like all good burgers should; supremely filling and beefy.

The side of onion rings which came with the burger was of the breaded variety. I thought they were a bit too thick and heavy, but others at my table found it crunchy and addictive. The Fiesta Coleslaw -- the second side item to be included with the burger -- refreshed with julienned cabbage still garden-stiff and crisp.

You wouldn't know it from looking at it, but you're still in OC when you eat at Original Mike's.

Original Mike's
(714) 550-7764
100 South Main Street
Santa Ana, CA 92701-5220

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Quan Hop - Westminster

If pho isn't the official dish of Little Saigon, it should be. Walk any square block on Bolsa Street and you won't see just one restaurant hocking bowls of the noodle soup, but three, with a few more crowding your peripheral vision. Pho joints are to Westminster as taquerias are to Santa Ana; a ubiquitous part of the landscape.

But as tacos aren't the end-all-be-all of Mexican food, neither is pho. Rather, it is a place to start; an accessible dish that acts as a gateway to the other wonders of Vietnamese cuisine.

Quan Hop, the little sister to Quan Hy (a Little Saigon institution I haven't had the pleasure of trying), sells pho. And it does the dish quite well; one of the best bowls I've had in the area, in fact.

Their Pho Tai Bo Vien ($7.25) is, quite literally, the filet mignon of phos. Membrane-thin slices of the raw, premium steak is the featured ingredient and is so flavorful and tender it doesn't just melt in your mouth, it disintegrates.

It's cooked simply by immersion in a shimmering, anise-scented beef broth which also animates the springy homemade meat balls, the transculent slivers of onion, and the toothsome strands of rice noodles. Slurping isn't only unavoidable, it's required and expected, even in Quan Hop's crisply clean designer surroundings.

But to stop here would be criminal. As you wouldn't leave Paris after having just a baguette, you shouldn't leave Quan Hop without trying one of their Hue specialties.

Hue cuisine -- hailing from the central part of Vietnam -- is the food of royalty, from a time long gone and almost forgotten. The typical Hue dish is a measured balance of flavors and textures, with an added emphasis on presentation, and will often come with its own special sauce, for dipping or dousing.

Yet another characteristic of Hue food is the creative use of rice flour, which Quan Hop expertly demonstrates in a dish called Banh Beo ($5.00); one the restaurants signature concoctions.

Rice flour batter is steamed in miniature saucers and sprinkled with minced shrimp meat, diced scallions and fried caramelized bits of onion.

An order comes in eight single serving shots, arranged in a tic-tac-toe grid on a square dish. Holding the center square is a bowl of sauce with floating rounds of diced Thai chilis -- bobbing menaces you should treat like sea mines.

To eat a Banh Beo, take a teaspoon to task and splash on a few drops of the golden sauce, then scoop out the rice cake as you would a cup of dessert gelatin. The opaque and milky white substance, is not unlike a very dense rice noodle, with a clean, light, and firm texture which not at all starchy or pasty.

But for all intents and purposes, it is devoid of flavor, which is where the toppings and the sauce come in. The latter, in particular, provides a pungent, sweet, and vinegary bite; the kind that leaves you wanting more.

For an explosive burst of scorching heat, add a few pieces of the Thai chili -- you'll be glad the room is air-conditioned.

Banh Hoi Thit Nuong ($7.00) is another variation of the rice flour theme. For the dish, curly strands of rice vermicelli noodles are knitted to form flat and floppy rectangular swatches and served with crispy grilled slices of lemongrass-marinated pork.

The meat is then to be wrapped in this noodle-mesh pancake and eaten with accoutrements of cucumbers, pickled carrots, iceberg lettuce, and minty tia to leaves. Flanking the dish is, of course, a thin dipping sauce spiked of garlic and chili, which reins it all in like a unifying force.

If you demand that your rice noodles are a served in its original incarnation, the bowl of Hu Tiu hop Dai ($6.75) should prove pleasing. The mound of round noodles comes dry, with a topping of herbs, minced and whole cooked shrimp, and slices of roast pork. A base of shredded lettuce lurks on the bottom of the bowl for crunch.

On the side, in a smaller bowl, is the sauce to be poured and then tossed with the other ingredients. As dark as crude oil and as thickly sweet as pancake syrup, this specially formulated brew adds a bold complexity to the dish, and makes for a noodle salad to beat other noodle salads.

Another item from the appetizer menu resembles something you'd see at dim sum. Banh uot Tom Chay ($5.50) is as slender as a taquito, and comes six to an order.

Each roll -- made from rice flour batter spread as thinly as a crepe -- is as delicate as a pre-dawn dream. But the sauce which accompanies is redolent of chopped garlic, floating in raw chunks and ready for action.

As a finisher to the meal on one visit, the restaurant supplied complimentary fried sesame seed balls. Deep fried to a nutty crisp, each glutinuous rice sphere hides a sugary sweet mash of yellow bean paste. I'd gladly put down a jelly-donut to have these for breakfast.

Quan Hop's menu is full of such surprises. All an intrepid diner has to do is look past the pho column and venture into the unexplored and tasty.

Quan Hop
(714) 689-0555
15640 Brookhurst St
Westminster, CA 92683

Post-script: Read Professor Salt's review of Quan Hop's pho here!

Friday, October 20, 2006

Listed on OC Weekly's "Best of OC" Issue

Question: What do this blog and Tommy Lasorda have in common?

Answer: No. 60 and No. 61, respectively, in OC Weekly's Annual "Best of OC" Issue.

I am honored, delighted, amused, ecstatic, and humbled.

Thanks again to OC Weekly, Gustavo Arellano, my friends (both blogging and non-blogging) and my readers, for tolerating this hobby of mine and making it so much fun.

To read the whole list click here, or pick up an issue throughout the County.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Spago - Beverly Hills

If The French Laundry is my Everest, Spago is my K2.

As such, when I was asked what restaurant I'd like to be treated out to for my birthday, I quickly replied, "The tasting menu at Spago" since it required nothing more than a reservation and a full tank of gas (for my second trip to L.A. proper in a year)...and oh yeah, oodles of cash.

In case you're keeping track: yes, this is the second birthday meal to occur after the blow-out at Bluefin a week prior.

And in case you're wondering: yes, when my generous and wonderful dining companions' birthdays come around, I plan to return the gesture in spades.

But still, out of sheer guilt, and to set the bar so that I may clear it myself when that time comes, I chose Spago's less expensive lunch tasting menu, which by the way, already runs $80 per person (before tax and an additional 20% service fee).

The expense is not surprising when you realize this is the same Spago where Elton John hosts his Oscar parties; the same Spago which is the flagship of the Wolfgang Puck empire; the same Spago which is #4 on Gourmet Magazine's Top 50 Restaurants in the U.S.; and the same Spago which won a James Beard Award last year.

And let's not forget: IT'S IN BEVERLY HILLS!

But despite the formidable credentials and the 90210 ZIP code, not once during our Saturday lunch did we feel out of place. The staff couldn't have been more cheerfully accommodating, and we couldn't have felt more comfortable and welcome.

Even pastry chef, Sherry Yard, came out to chat and asked how we enjoyed the meal.

Everyone we interacted with was professional but not stuffy. And since the tasting menu demands full-service, no less than three servers doted on us, explained the dishes, refilled our drinks, and replaced the silverware and china. They not only used crumb scrapers, but also gleaming silver-plated food domes which kept hot dishes hot until it was lifted off with a flourish in front of us.

While the service staff put us at ease, the kitchen staff had us on our toes. Their creativity was revving at full bore, and their desire to impress, challenge, and beguile was palpable at every turn; from the amuses to the petits fours.

The first amuse bouche emulated one of The French Laundry's signature items; the tuna tartare cone. Chopped raw tuna, laced with a stinging pepper sauce, was scooped into a miniature cone dotted with black-sesame seeds. Bonito flake streamers completed this whimsical nod to Baskin-Robbins.

Although the tuna sparkled, it was the cone that dazzled. Simultaneously savory and sweet, it resembled Chantilly lace woven from spun sugar.

The second amuse, was a bite-sized curl of salmon, lightly peppered, studded with onion, and topped with salmon eggs. It rested on a pillow-soft blini.

The chilled fish was the perfect foil to the airy warmth of the pancake; but it was the herby hit of dill which punctuated the luscious hor d'oeuvre, and whetted our appetites for more.

For the last amuse, a baked orb of feather-light puff pastry hid a buttery center of bacon fat. They called it Bacon Confit en Croute; I called it the Coronary Cloggin' Cream Puff.

Thankfully, there was only one per person, or else I would have gorged myself until I keeled over from heart failure -- with my hands clutched to my chest -- dead with a smile frozen on my face.

The basket of bread featured towering triangles of lavash, arranged to look like the tentacles of the Kraken reaching up from the depths.

Singed on its fringes from the fires of the oven, the crackers shattered into jagged pieces when bitten, and tasted like Wheat Thins on crack.

The first course went for the gut, literally, and set the tone for the rest of the meal. It was a message from the kitchen: "You asked for a tasting menu; we're going to give you one."

Veal sweetbreads, a euphemism for "pancreas of a young cow," sounded harmless enough for my dining companions, who were blissfully unaware of this fact.

I waited until they finished their plates before I informed them of what they had consumed. Thankfully, neither blinked when I did, which was both a testament to their open minds and how well the kitchen prepared the nasty bits.

Seared and paired with a tangerine gastrique, the spongy white lobes squished beneath our teeth, sublimely soft, like a meat marshmallow. The acidic sauce helped to tame the milky richness of the organ and temper the offal funk.

The next course was less exotic but just as ambitious. Maryland blue crab, sea urchin roe, and Matsutake mushrooms are cooked simply, then bathed with a mascarpone emulsion.

The sweet morsels of the crustacean mingled with sea urchin roe, which burst with a sea-salty tang of their own. The Matsutake mushrooms, exhibiting something the Japanese call umami, countered the cheesy creaminess and foam of the mascarpone.

This slobbery mess of a dish worked despite the fact that mascarpone, Italian cream cheese, is normally relegated to tiramisu.

The agnolotti, mini-purses of pasta resembling ravioli, oozed a buttery filling while sugary corn nibblets contributed texture. But the white truffles, which adorned the top in generous razor thin shavings, did not stand a chance from the flavor assault of the other two ingredients.

Its subtlety was lost, but not missed. Although the fact that its was there in the first place justified how much this meal was going to cost.

For the next course, skate was pan fried, and done up Indian style, with lentils and two kinds of chutney; mint and tamarind. The former scorched and cooled the tongue, while the latter tasted vaguely of prunes.

The combined effect was aggresive; a frontal attack on the mouth and sinus. It was almost too much for the delicate meat of the stingray to bear. But the striated flesh held its own with a bouncy and plump texture somewhere between lobster and trout, pulling apart in clean strips.

The last savory dish was also our least favorite. Roasted squab (yes, pigeon), was served provocatively, with the toes and feet still attached to the drumstick, and its talons curled-up in unimaginable anguish.

Next to it, the rare, bloody chunks of the breast looked tender but gnawed stubbornly like stale chewing gum. Making matters worse was the subcutaneous membrane separating skin and meat, which stretched like latex and contributed even more chewiness.

The whole thing also stunk of Chinese five-spice powder, which amped up the gamy flavor of the squab tenfold, and clashed with the drizzled port wine sauce.

In keeping with the Chinese theme, a side dish of stir-fried haricot verts and okra was slathered with oyster sauce. But this too was heavy-handed, and a chore to eat.

A wedge of runny cheese signaled the impending close of our lunch. The name of the sample escapes me, but it came with a rind covered in ash, and a taste reminiscent of brie with the slight medicine tang of bleu.

We spread the cheese on toasted raisin bread and spooned a touch of the berry marmalade. What we couldn't scrape with our knives, we pinched off with our fingers, leaving behind a clear sign that we enjoyed the dish -- napkins streaked with black soot.

For dessert, the warm berry crumble was presented in a boomerang-shaped bowl and a crowned with a scoop of "fifty vanilla bean ice cream."

The ice cream disappeared too quickly, and left us to finish a half bowl of the lip-puckeringly tart compote alone, without it.

Just when we thought it was all over, petits fours graced our table. The five delectable mini confections -- decorated in fondant, chocolate and cocoa dust -- promised teeth-rotting delights and delivered.

Our favorite by far was the chocolate cube, with a top lid composed of round chocolate pellets. Our server was instructed by the pasty chef to tell us to pop the entire piece in our mouths, lest we wanted chocolate sauce to squirt out and onto our shirts. Heeding the advice, we did so and felt the gush of liquid as soon as our teeths punctured the thin chocolate shell. The rush of chocolatey goodness made us giggle as only chocolate could.

The same instructions applied to the lemon "gusher", and when we ate it, it tickled us just the same.

My culinary K2 conquered, only Everest remains. And if you ask why, I'll answer, "Because it's there."

(310) 385-0880
176 N Canon Dr
Beverly Hills, CA 90210

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Bluefin - Newport Beach

"You know what sucks? This food tastes expensive," said one of my dining companions.

The three of us were enjoying the fish course of Chilean seabass during an omakase meal at Bluefin in Newport Beach, celebrating another year in the life of me, when he uttered this enigmatic statement.

"What do you mean?" I inquired, curious and slightly concerned that he was going to regret paying for dinner.

"What I meant was that you have to spend the money to get this quality, this taste," he clarified, after coming to the sober realization that no meal like this could ever be offered for less.

And he was right.

The ingredients; the execution; the whole experience was worth the expense and tasted like it.

At $75 per person, omakase at Bluefin was certainly not a poor-man's supper and the restaurant -- with an expansive view of the blue Pacific -- was not in a poor-man's neighborhood. Located at the foothills of an exclusive oceanfront community, Bluefin is where O.C.'s affluent dines on sushi, and where their bimmers and lexii outnumbered our late model Honda by the hundreds.

Omakase, which translates loosely to "chef's tasting menu", is the most expensive way to eat but also the most rewarding and easy to order. All that was asked of us was whether we harbored any food allergies. We said we had none, but had a good chuckle afterwards at the prospect of answering, "Yes, we are deathly allergic to any and all seafood."

From that point onwards, the evening went on auto-pilot as dish-by-dish, a sampling of the freshest the kitchen had to offer arrived at our table.

The first amuse bouche was a morsel of tempura, as light and as airy as cotton, containing within its lacy construct, a lone piece of mushroom.

It disappeared as quickly as it appeared, like an ghostly apparition stuck between worlds.

Another was a rolled slice of rare duck breast, skewered on a toothpick with a softly stewed radish. A light drizzling of pan sauce brought flavor to the party.

The duck ate like tender beef steak, but with a presence on the tongue that was neither fatty nor heavy.

Rambutan -- whose spiky, alien appearance looks like the product of a cross-breeding experiment on a sea-urchin and a strawberry gone awry -- is actually just a very hairy cousin to the lychee.

Creatively featured as an amuse, the translucent flesh of the fruit was extracted, chopped to bits and mixed with diced prawns and lobster. Then this "salad" was stuffed right back into the hollowed-out peel and crowned with dollop of caviar and gold leaf flakes, producing a thimble-sized presentation both absurd and brilliant.

I tossed it back like a Jell-O shot and found that the rambutan crunched like lychee, but with a sweeter and more acidic bite; a perfect pairing with the briny meat of the shellfish.

The most substantial amuse came in a tall martini glass and was a cross between gazpacho and ceviche. Diced mango, cucumbers, and tomato among others, were macerated in tomato juice perked-up with lime.

Succulent crab meat swam and danced playfully in the fruity elixir and then in our mouths.

Next was the sashimi salad, plated gorgeously and artfully arranged like a tranquil bonsai garden. Sprouts, belgian endive, grape tomato, and arugula joined chilled slabs of bluefin tuna and thick scallop steaks.

Most striking to the eye was the cherry red akami, which slid down our gullets with the ease of satin. But the prized otoro, cut from the fattiest part of the fish's belly, melted on our tongues like a dream. And the scallop, so fresh it throbbed, was the perfect mopping device for the ponzu; a sauce puddle full of pulp and pep from citrusy yuzu fruit.

Also delightful was the brisk and invigorating shredded daikon bundle. Rolled to a tight cylinder with a thin sheet of cucumber, it delivered a refreshingly clean and icy jolt when bitten -- a palate cleanser if ever there was one.

Pan roasted Chilean sea bass was centerpiece of the next course, but the star of the plate was the glistening sea urchin sauce beneath it.

Creamy and rich like runny egg yolk, with the naturally salty and sweet soul of uni inhabiting every molecule, the sauce elevated anything it touched to ethereal heights. The meaty matsutake mushrooms; the delicate pearl-fleshed fish; both became the best versions of themselves despite their already prestigious culinary pedigree.

All we needed was bread to wipe up every drop. But bread was not to be had as this was still a Japanese restaurant.

So my eyes darted left. Then darted right. I wanted to lick the plate clean, but it would attract undue attention and embarrassment. The best I could do was to coat an asparagus spear with the last specks of the sauce and ate it slowly to savor.

The next course featured distinctly French and distinctly Japanese delicacies in the truest sense of the word "fusion." The dish was the most daring Franco-Japanese alliance I've seen yet, until Jean Reno and Takeshi Kitano decide to team-up in one ass-kicking movie.

The Japanese component was mountain potato, appearing in two forms; finely diced as the garnish and thickly sliced as the base of the stack. Each demonstrated this exotic root vegetable's defining characteristic; a mucilaginous secretion that fills the mouth with a slippery goo resembling okra slime.

Augmenting it was the soon-to-be-outlawed French delight, foie gras, seared to a savory brown crust and a silken center. Smooth beyond all comparison, this nugget of goose liver was an organ meat that didn't taste like one. This was edible velvet.

The bridge that brought the French and Japanese oddities together was the third component, a diplomatic emissary in the form of a thick, beefy hunk of filet mignon, cut into generous slices and served with a reduction made from pan drippings and red wine.

The final savory dish was a nigiri sampler from Chef Abe's sushi bar. Chief among the colorful selection was the freshly shucked flesh of amaebi, sweet shrimp. Mere seconds from being alive and mere minutes from rigor mortis, it crunched cleanly beneath our teeth.

But on the whole this final course seemed to suffer by comparison to those that came before, like a concert headliner outsung by the opening act.

For the sweet course: a slice of dense chocolate cake, vanilla ice cream, and fresh strawberries.

Although still decadently delicious, the dessert was not remarkable by any means. But it was just the thing to slowly bring us back down to Earth and, more importantly, re-acclimate ourselves to a life of ordinary food which won't taste as "expensive."

(949) 715-7373
7952 E Pacific Coast Hwy
Newport Beach, CA 92657

Monday, October 02, 2006

Aloha Hawaiian BBQ - Costa Mesa

I've not yet been to our 50th state, but through the recent rampant proliferation of Hawaiian eateries in O.C. and education from fellow bloggers Kirk, Reid, and Kathy, I'm already in love with one island staple: the plate lunch.

This is a meal borne out of the cultural mish-mash that is modern Hawaii. In a plate lunch, you'll find the flavors of Polynesia, China, Japan, Korea, Portugal, The Philippines, and Hormel. All designed to feed and fill. This is the kind of food that will stick-to-your-ribs and stay there as belly fat.

It begins innocently with two scoops of sticky rice and a scoop of macaroni salad. But then comes the limitless varieties and quantities of protein -- like grilled short ribs and breaded chicken thighs -- heaped on in portions suited for a Sumo wrestler.

Which leads me to this question: Why aren't there more fat hula dancers in Hawaii?

Knowing how large the portions usually are at these places, when I followed up on fellow Chowhound JB's tip on Aloha Hawaiian BBQ in Costa Mesa, I opted for a Chicken Katsu Mini Meal ($4.59).

It ticks a few bucks below the cost of their full blown plates. But any hope of eating light was immediately lost when I opened the styrofoam package back at the office.

This was not the Mini Me of Mini Meals. Instead, it would satisfy Fat Bastard himself.

There was enough chicken to easily make three super-sized sandwiches, although there was only one scoop of rice, not two.

The slabs of dark meat chicken were simply rolled in egg and breadcrumbs, fried to a golden brown, and chopped into strips. Unfortunately, the travel time and the steam from the hot rice dampened and dulled what probably began as a crackling coat of crunchy breaded crust.

It needed a good dunk in Aloha's katsu sauce to bring it back to life. The warm elixir did the job with an assertive vinegary tang and a subtle chili bite that could wake the dead.

On a second visit, I decided to eat in-store, ordering the Kalua Pork Mini Meal ($4.59). Being new to Kalua Pork, I didn't know what to expect, but the smell that snaked up from my container was familiar. It was an aroma that could only be pork.

Piled on top of steamed cabbage, the mound of shredded meat tasted like soggy carnitas or pulled pork after a soak in salty broth. The moist strands spread the unadulterated flavor of pork around my mouth like a mop.

After finishing each of these so-called Mini Meals, I was in for a "major" food coma.

Aloha Hawaiian BBQ
3001 Bristol St. Suite E
Costa Mesa, CA 92626