Monday, December 25, 2006

Magic Wok - Grand Re-Opening - Artesia

Christmas came early for me this year. Magic Wok, one of my favorite restaurants in the whole world, re-opened after the fire that gutted one of its neighbors last September forced it to close.

We were in the area on Saturday, and in a practice that had become routine, we drove by with our necks craned out of the window, checking if our beloved hole-in-the-wall had recovered. Then, amidst all the scaffolding and propped-up wooden boards, we saw it. A sign of hope, a sign of life, a sign that said "We're Open".

It was a Christmas/Festivus miracle!

We hailed "Hallelujah!" and jumped for joy in our seats. Or as close to jumping as our seatbelts would allow.

I swung the car around in a hasty U-turn and parked. We were going to eat there. And were going to eat there now. Nevermind that it was only four-o-clock in the afternoon. Nevermind that we weren't hungry. We'd been waiting three months for this and we weren't going to wait any longer, not even the two hours to dinnertime.

As we stood outside gawking, the setting sun struck the top of the building. The marquee -- one that the Filipino owners never bothered to change when they bought the space from the Magic Wok Chinese fast-food chain -- twinkled triumphantly. Nothing in a strip mall had ever looked so beautiful.

The blaze that engulfed the take-out joint at the opposite end of the row had not touched, singed, or sullied the unit that Magic Wok occupied. It escaped with nothing more than water damage to its exterior. A walk inside confirmed this. In fact, it looked as if nothing had happened.

The same red pleather seats occupied the same cramped booths. The same Latinas waited tables. Even the familiar absence of music remained. All that can be heard was the chorus of smacking of lips; the clink of spoons on plates; the sounds of people eating a good meal.

And the food is exactly as I remembered, prepared the way Filipino cuisine is meant to be enjoyed: home-style and cooked rocket-hot to order.

We ordered a trio of dishes for the two us. It was too much food, too early. But upon consuming my first spoonful of it, my eyes crept back into my head in a state of blissful fulfillment. Up to now, the food from nearby Goldilocks and Salo-Salo Grill had been pale surrogates, filling our stomachs but not our hearts.

This is what I call a homecoming.

The first dish to arrive was Pinakbet ($5.99), a stir-fry that eats like a stew, overflowing with almost every product found in the Asian produce aisle. The variety is such that it might actually be easier to recite what's not in it.

In the roster, there are yellow squash, bittermelon, eggplant, okra, onions, and string beans, each contributing its own eye-popping color and distinct texture to the elaborate potpourri.

Some fatty pork and shrimp rides along as protein, but by far, its defining characteristic, what makes pinakbet pinakbet, is the addition of a flavoring agent called bagoong alamang.

This pungent purplish paste, made from the fermentation of brine shrimp, is concentrated and potent. Alone, its sharp odor could be used as a smelling salt to revive the unconscious. But dissolved in the pinakbet gravy, it pulls the dish together like the force of gravity, rendering it more addictive than crack, especially when the runoff is spooned over rice.

Next was Bistek Tagalog ($5.25). It is marinated steak, sliced thin, caramelized, and glazed with a mix of garlic, soy sauce, and vinegar, finished with sauteed onions. The beef is a little chewy, a little dry, existing in the middle ground between jerky and fajitas. This is one of my favorite dishes there. And it should come as no surprise that it's perfect with hot rice.

Last but not least, glass noodles -- clear, elastic threads which stretch like bungees and wiggle like gelatin -- form the basis for Pancit Sotanghon ($5.25). Stir fried with green beans, lean pork, and tofu, it's something a Filipino mother would whip up for a quick supper. One can't help but slurp when eating it. It's just that kind of dish.

Our bellies doubly full, and our hearts content, we drove away with plenty of leftovers. Magic Wok is back. It's going to be a great new year.

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

To read my previous posts on Magic Wok:
--->>> CLICK HERE <<<---
--->>> AND HERE <<<---

Monday, December 18, 2006

Sushi 5 - Tustin

Eating sushi from what amounts to a baggage claim conveyor belt is an experience I've shied away from until recently. To me, it seemed rife with opportunities for abuse and mischief.

Once made, each plate of sushi is paraded naked, exposed, and vulnerable in front of every single gawking restaurant patron as it rides by on an infinitely looping sushi train. It only takes one ill-timed sneeze to get a lot of people sick.

But in my overactive imagination, worse things happen. I see it as the perfect place where a covert operative can slip in undetected and poison an unsuspecting ex-KGB spy or a Ukrainian presidential candidate (both of whom probably blithely declared "I feel like some sushi tonight!" before their dates with destiny).

So when I found out about a new revolving sushi joint in Tustin called Sushi 5, I held back, with my irrational paranoia preempting my love for sushi. Then the good reviews started to come in, tempting me like a siren's call. But it wasn't until I learned that all plates are offered at $1.99 from Monday through Thursday, that I decided to risk it, especially since, to the best of my knowledge, I wasn't on President Putin's hit list. That and I'm a sucker for bargains.

My fears were assuaged when I saw that the chefs cover most of the plates with a clear plastic dome before the food is sent on its journey around the restaurant. And to ensure freshness, an RFID tag is glued to the underside of each saucer, reporting to a computer which pieces have made one too many roundtrips, and taking them out of the rotation.

Those that you order off the menu arrive via the same conveyor belt, but on colored pedestals matching your assigned table color. It's best to take turns watching out for these pedestals, because once your order comes, it comes fast, and the comedic potential of unwittingly reenacting the chocolate factory scene from "I Love Lucy" grows ever funnier when you don't pay attention.

This almost happened to us, in fact.

As I was snapping away with my camera, one of our orders zipped by like it was on the Shinkansen. Luckily, my friend was ready to catch it before it left our booth for good.

Most of our plates arrived in quick succession after that. But we kept a close eye as we ate the tuna (maguro), which tasted as brisk as a gulp of sea air, and as red as a luscious maraschino cherry.

The sea bream (tai), came with coarsely ground sea salt for dabbing, and a lemon wedge for squeezing. Yellowtail (hamachi), was milky and cooling on the tongue, while the caterpillar roll satisfied with a smoky layer of bruleed freshwater eel (unagi).

We whisked a tantalizing specimen off the conveyor -- which was a white fish brushed with ponzu sauce and topped with shredded scallions -- and promptly consumed it without even knowing exactly what it was.

The spider roll were tiny things -- with probably half the usual amount of deep fried soft shell crab normally seen at other sushi bars -- but it was plenty for the $1.99 sticker price. Salmon skin roll was similarly sized, packed with enough crunchy fresh veggies and a good helping of the salty, savory, crackly rind to keep us happy.

The best of the night were the briny Kumamoto oysters, which quivered and slid down our gullets, chased by tart ponzu and soy.

The salmon (sake) was simple and straightforward, enlivened by thin shavings of onion, but the squid (ika) was so chewy, it annoyed. Contrastingly, the mackerel (saba) was so tender it seemed like it was cooked, and flavored so well it seemed like it was salted. But it existed this way naturally and needed no soy sauce or other accoutrements to dazzle our palates.

The Philly roll -- ordered at the insistence of my friend (yes, that's him giving me the finger on the video) -- wasn't bad, eventhough I usually object to the use of cream cheese on anything other than a bagel.

Hot and scalding, the volcano roll arrived fresh from the broiler with a crowning dollop of Japanese mayo -- a topping browned and bubbling like melted mozzarella on a pizza. After mercilessly scorching the roof of my mouth, the piece melted and oozed with the rich taste of egg and tangy teriyaki.

The spicy tuna roll, had avocado in it, which was a pleasant surprise. But more surprising was that it wasn't spicy. The crunch roll, however, was just as advertised, and it crunched with great vigor. To ensure that it kept this attribute, the drizzling sauce was kept apart and on the side in a plastic cup.

Alone on a plate of its own, the piece of sea eel (anago) was one of the softest, sublimely marvelous things to come out of the ocean and into my mouth. It is prepared simply cooked, with no sauce to obscure its decadent flavor -- a prime example of what the Japanese call umami.

After we finished, the waitress counted our empty plates and multiplied that number by $1.99 to get our total. We were pleasantly full but not overly stuffed. Hours later, I was still alive with no ill-effects, and actually quite happy that I kicked my fear.

I shouldn't have been afraid of revolving sushi, and neither should you. Unless, that is, you have been publicly critical of the government in Moscow.

Sushi 5
13962 Newport Ave.
Tustin, CA 92780

To watch a completely unrelated video I found on YouTube taken from the sushi's point of view:
--->>> CLICK HERE <<<---

Monday, December 11, 2006

Goong - Irvine

It's that time of year again. A time for sweaters. A time for raincoats. A time for sundubu jjigae -- Korean tofu soup -- food expressly designed to melt away the cold-weather shivers. It's a meal so soothing, so satisfying, that I look forward to winters so that I can have it. And when Jack Frost starts nipping at noses, there's no better form of nourishment to provide ample dosages of warmth and comfort.

In the City of Irvine, there is no shortage of places to take refuge from the chill and tuck into such a meal. No matter where you go, it's brought out steaming and simmering in a cauldron, ready for a raw egg to be cracked into it. Then, rub your hands, and lick your lips. You're in for a treat.

One wet and blustery evening, with our cheeks raw from the icy wind, we hit up our default joint for the dish, Irvine Tofu House. But as soon as we drove up, we knew something had changed.

The flapping green banner draped over the entrance said it all. Irvine Tofu House was no more. A new place, called Goong, had taken over. We entered without trepidation, because at that point, any tofu soup was good tofu soup.

The layout of the restaurant remained the same, save for a few plasma screens, a cleanly lit wall, and some new upholstery. The menu, however, got an extreme makeover.

Present and accounted for were the tofu soups, but there were new dishes I'd never seen before, all of them strange and exotic to this non-Korean. There were pancakes that looked like pizzas, cut into wedges and served from a hot plate, and stir fried noodles with unpronounceable names.

But we weren't in the mood for exploration that evening. We knew what we wanted and we wanted it fast. The usual: Combination Tofu Soup, chock full of clams, shrimp, oysters, and beef ($7.99).

Almost as quickly as our order went in, the saucers of banchan started to arrive. I counted nine varieties of these complimentary side dishes.

There was fried yellow croaker, a small fish blessed with succulent flesh on every inch of its five-inched frame. On another saucer, squid meat, playfully chewy, diced into the size of Tic Tacs, steeped in gochujang. And then there were the candied soybeans, so sweet it could've been mistaken for Jelly Bellys.

Of course, there was the obligatory kimchi, Napa cabbage perfectly pickled with scorching red pepper, which bit back with sharp teeth. Constrastingly cool was the shredded seaweed, which crunched clean and fresh.

Then there were tiny blocks of fried tofu, in a perky marinade of chili and green onion, which blasted my palate with intense flavor. While cucumber, made tart by a brine of vinegar, soy, and sesame oil, had a potency all its own.

A soup bowl of cold vinegary broth pulsed with the color and vibrancy of red pepper. It stung my tongue as I sipped it, while floating pieces of radish refreshed.

There were less than stellar performers too. The bean sprouts were flat and unexciting, while the potato salad, waxy and flavorless. The shredded radish pickles were also inordinately dull.

But these minor disappointments disappeared when the main attraction made its entrance. And it was all that I hoped it could be and more.

The soup, gurgled and sputtered, heartily swallowing the albumen and yolk of the egg I dropped into it with an enveloping gulp. I ladled some hot broth and tofu curd over what was left peeking, to bury the egg deeper into the belly of the brew to cook.

Afterwards, I scooped up some tofu and blew on it. It quivered like jelly as I slurped it down. Shutting my eyes to revel in the silken warmth of it all, I felt the soft curds liquefying, leaving me in a state of happiness and bliss.

Gone were the salad days of summer. But here to stay the winter was sundubu jjigae.

14775 Jeffrey Rd.
Irvine, CA 92618

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Quan Hy - Westminster

There were ten of us, converging to meet at Quan Hy in Westminster, like a conference of mobsters.

Eatdrinknbemerry and Oishii Eats, representing the LA Gang of Food Bloggers, put the event together while they were visiting our turf, and graciously invited the OC Bloggers which included myself, Beach, Chubbypanda and his fiancee Cat, Deb, Professor Salt and family.

We were all packing digital cameras, ready to shoot. And as the plates of food arrived, what occurred looked like a Mexican standoff, as only food bloggers could have it. All lenses were aimed and then, shutters clicked and snapped at the bounty; a Central Vietnamese feast which covered every square inch of the round table.

The first photos taken were of the Banh Beo ($4.75) and Banh Uot Tom Chay ($5.50), each delectable but identical and indistinguishable to those served at its sister restaurant, Quan Hop, which I previously reviewed on this blog.

Banh Quai Vac ($5.50), which were translated as "potstickers" on the menu, should have been dubbed "platestickers" since it grabbed onto the plate as if it had suction cups, and wouldn't budge without a fight. It was a demonstration on the adhesive power of glutinuous rice, here used as a wrapper for this translucent and luminous appetizer.

Once I was able to wrangle it off the plate and tuck it into my mouth, the bite-sized oval morsel also resisted my bite, chewing like a half-dozen gummy bears balled up into one. Beneath the playfully elastic membrane hid a phalanx of flavors, including pork and shrimp. The pair frolicked with diced mushroom in a filling both bold and rich. This was like dim sum amplified to eleven.

The Banh It Ram ($4.50) took the prize for textural and tactile overload. Not only did it possess the same components of the banh quai vac, it rested on a golden disk of fried rice cake, which had its own unique qualities to show off; a crunch noisier than a thousand pork rinds crushed by a thousand teeth.

In my skull, its raucous crackle reverberated and battled for aural dominance against the dampening might of the sticky glutinuous rice. It was like listening to an orchestra of crashing cymbals being suddenly muted by a tidal wave of slime. But in this game of one-upmanship, I was the victor.

Goi Mit ($10.00) was jackfruit salad with bits of shrimp and diced pork. This was my favorite of all the dishes, and also the most refreshing. Counterintuitive, since pork was a major constituent of the salad, existing in chewy clear, gelatin-packed pieces and in meaty slivers of greyish flesh. But with a tangy dressing that sliced through the protein pile like a vinegary blade, the salad did indeed delight the palate and made it beg for more.

Herbs such as lemongrass and and basil cut through further with an invigoratingly floral and garden-fresh flourish. Best of all were the planks of light-as-air rice crackers which surrounded the salad mound like a life raft. Depending on the user, they functioned as either crouton or scoop.

Not realizing that the others had each ordered a main course for themselves, and were already digging into them, I followed suit with an unadventurous choice in Bun Thit Nuong ($5.95). It was a wholly filling bowl of chilled and wiggly rice vermicelli noodles, resting on a bed of chopped lettuce and herbs. On top were the requisite pieces of grilled pork, with a generous sprinkling of sweet fried shallots. On the side, a ramekin of nuoc cham for dipping.

This was one of the better renditions of the dish I've had in a while, though next time, I'll be diving into the deeper depths of the menu, which also promises escargot, rice porridge, and jellyfish. More fodder for the food blogging paparazzi.

Quan Hy Restaurant
(714) 775-7179
9727 Bolsa Ave
Westminster, CA 92683

To read Chubbypanda's report of the lunch:
--->>> CLICK HERE <<<---