Sunday, March 25, 2007

Franco's Pasta Cucina - Irvine

Within a block of John Wayne Airport, inside one of Irvine's many banal food courts, you'll find Franco's Pasta Cucina -- the gleaming pearl in a sea of heat-lamp and chafing-dish mediocrity.

Acting on a tip whispered to me by fellow food blogger Deb of Dinner at Six, I found the man himself dressed crisply in chef's whites, presiding in a kitchen no larger than a prison cell.

With a booth plastered with glossies of the chef in younger days -- standing beside political dignitaries like Clinton and Kissinger and his arms around Hollywood luminaries like Stallone and NYPD Blue's Dennis Franz -- Franco is otherwise an unassuming gentleman within reach of his sixties, with slicked-back salt-and-pepper hair.

Although his pedigree seems more apropos to establishments with wine-bottle candles and red-checkered tablecloths, during the office-park lunch rush that occurs every weekday, Franco performs in a one-man-show which can only be described as "magic by pasta."

Up his sleeves are unexpected things such as salmon, feta, and yellowtail, which he juggles with rigatoni, fettucine, linguine, and gnocchi. Tossed in a saute pan, and coaxed by his deft hand, these disparate ingredients coalesce into masterpieces worthy of a thousand Mario Batalis.

But at $8.00 for a pasta dish, salad, garlic bread, and soda, his creations are offered for a price that won't even cover valet parking at Mozza.

An instant favorite is the "linguine with clams in a light spicy clam sauce," where generous fistfuls of the chopped bivalve is folded into a buttery concentrate redolent of sweet garlic and dotted with freshly shorn Italian parsley. Perfectly cooked linguine is then added to the mix, tossed until every inch of the noodle is sluiced with flavors of the briny deep.

This wonderful pasta dish made me rejoice that stuck with us Irvinites in food court purgatory -- amongst gloppy orange chicken and limp pizzas -- is a world-class chef like Franco, who can magically transport us to Italy, if only just until he closes up shop at 2:00 pm.

Franco's Pasta Cucina
(949) 852-4699
2222 Michelson Dr Ste 206
Irvine, CA 92612

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Kura Sushi - Costa Mesa

More than a decade ago, I sat at a sushi bar for the first time. It was an intimidating experience. The creeping feeling of dread started with that order sheet. On it was a long list of species only a Japanese marine biologist could decipher. But more discouraging than not knowing what words like hamachi and kanpachi meant, was the fact that the English translations printed next to it were just as beguiling. The only difference I could fathom between "yellowtail" and "amberjack" -- the English words for hamachi and kanpachi -- was the price.

As a young, ignorant newbie, ordering sushi from a roster of unknowns, sight unseen, is only slightly less risky than buying stuff on eBay: sometimes, depending on the vendor, the price paid is not equal to the perceived value or quality.

Kura Sushi, by contrast, is the WalMart of sushi bars -- the type of place I wish I knew about during those formative years of sushi exploration. At places like this, you can give everything the once-over, and eliminate the element of surprise because everything is just as it is. What you see is what you get: sushi mass-produced as a food, rather than as an artform. And it's all affordable enough to be anti-competitive.

This two-year-old, revolving sushi bar in Costa Mesa is one of many sushi joints in a town overpopulated by sushi joints, but it is unique because it is accessible where others are austere. Kura is popular with teens and families alike, most of whom, I gather, has never attempted to get a reservation at Sushi Shibucho just a few blocks down. But what Kura lacks in tradition and reverence, it makes up with a fun, casual, and very visual environment.

The room is in constant motion as a well-stocked conveyor belt snakes around a brightly lit space, transporting sushi on covered saucers. To find out how much a plate of sushi costs, you need only to look at the placemat, which outlines the price assigned to each color;

Pink = $1.25
Blue = $1.75
Wood Pattern = $2.25
Fish Pattern = $2.75
Green = $3.25

Despite the bargain-basement prices, the sushi is dependable, predictable, and decent. Most of the rolls are variations of the California Roll, with a chopped imitation crab center. Topped with whitefish, salmon, avocado, and tuna, it becomes the Rainbow Roll. Another variation has it smothered with bay scallops and spicy mayo.

There's also nigiri, presented most colorfully in a threesome of maguro (tuna), hamachi (yellowtail) and sake (salmon), which share the same plate. It's a calculated eye-catcher of dazzling red, demure pink, and sultry orange. Everything about it screams "Pick me!"

Same goes for another favorite of mine: the Cajun Salmon. It's two gorgeously torched pieces of fish on rice, crowned with ribbons of red onion and diced scallions.

Kura does particularly well with appetizers such as edamame. A serving is packed in so densely that lifting the lid always triggers an avalanche of the boiled and salted soybeans. Their seaweed salad is also worthy of mention. Spiked with sesame oil, it is as crisp as it is refreshing.

Also not to be missed when it's piping hot, are the takoyaki balls. These soft spheres of cooked batter hide a chewy morsel of octopus at its nucleus. Drizzled with a syrupy, tangy sauce and a liberal squirt of Japanese mayo, they are just about the most irresistible objects to whiz by on the train.

Another non-sushi item I crave is the gyoza, dumplings filled with minced pork. When it's freshly fried, there's nothing that crunches quite like the way its crimped edges crackle.

Since those early years, I have graduated to omakase and developed an addiction to uni, but it's nice to know that Kura Sushi is there when I need sushi and have only a few bucks in my pocket.

Kura Sushi
(949) 631-3200
212 E 17th St
Costa Mesa, CA 92627

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Carnitas Los Reyes - Orange

Criss-crossing metal bars protect grimy windows. On the glass, the words Burritos, Tortas, Tacos, Combination Plate! are stenciled in neon colors. Touted as one of the best taquerias in Orange County by OC Weekly's Gustavo Arellano, fellow blogger Diamond Dog and others, this is Carnitas Los Reyes in Orange. But the joint wouldn't be out of place in a dusty border town. After I stepped inside, I half expected "El Mariachi" to breeze in after me, toting a guitar case and a wink.

The menu -- scribbled with markers on whiteboards precariously hung above the counter -- features buche, lengua, and al pastor variations on everything from tacos, to tortas, and quesadillas.

A faded mural depicted an idyllic ranch scene, but the room I stood in was as hot as the Sonoran Desert. This was because it shared the same boxy space as the kitchen. The heat from the glowing red bulbs of the radiative lamps, the bubbling deep fryers, and the sizzling griddles kept every square inch at one constant temperature: hovering somewhere between ninety degrees and hell.

But despite the sweaty workspace, the gentleman who took my order was surprisingly upbeat without a trace of fatigue. He was just as old as I was, but much happier and jollier than I would have been if I had just pulled an eight-hour shift in that sweat-box of a room.

I asked for some carnitas tacos, but he informed me that it'll be another twenty minutes before the next batch is ready.

"Two al pastor tacos then," I said.

"Everything on it?" he grinned.

"Yup! Thanks!" I replied.

Another guy, whom I will call "The Assembler," prepared my order. With a cleaver, he hacked hunks of pork into tiny pieces, and spooned fistfuls of the meat, some onions, and cilantro with one hand and onto the other, where two warm tortillas were waiting. He moved at whiplash speed and with the same deft movement of a master sushi chef.

In a blur, after stuffing each taco, he rolled the tortilla into a tube, tucking one side into the other, and then wrapped it in paper and foil.

My take-out order included a paper sack crammed with chips, a cup of fresh-milled salsa for scooping, and some pickled carrots balled up in Reynolds Wrap.

Each overstuffed taco sold for an insane price of one buck. The Al Pastor Taco, which is described as "BBQ Pork", is composed of chunky bits of roasted pork, marinated in a caustic brew of spices. Although not as spicy or rich as other al pastor tacos I've had, it still did its duty as a full-fledged and authentic taco, especially after a few hits of El Tapatio. I only needed two of these obese pouches to quench my hunger, where usually it would take five.

Next visit, I'll be trying their namesake carnitas, and the chorizo, which Senor Arellano describes as "cooked in oil that looks and feels like transmission fluid but tastes like a thousand spicy hogs."

Carnitas Los Reyes
(714) 744-9337
273 S Tustin St
Orange, CA 92866

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Waikiki Hawaiian Grill - Tustin - A Photo Superpost

The stout, happy woman who greets me at Waikiki Hawaiian Grill is always in a good mood, which puts in me in a good mood. But her cheer and friendly demeanor isn't the only thing that keeps me loyal to this Tustin eatery: it's the food produced by her husband.

In the kitchen, this square-jawed Korean man in a baseball cap commands a crew of two hard-working Latinos. Working just as feverishly as his employees, his face seems forever flustered, like a marathon runner on his final mile.

But as a driven perfectionist, I often see him doting over a styrofoam container of loco moco as if he were being judged on Top Chef. With determined concentration and an intensity of purpose, he ladles just the right amount of gravy, and scoops the roundest, most perfect hemispheres of rice.

Outside, in the dining room, where the tables gleam like polished surfboards, the only CD they own -- Israel Kamakawiwo'ole's "Facing Future" -- loops continuously, piped in through tiny speakers. IZ's creamy voice and the pluck of his ukelele bounces around the walls of the spotless, cheerful room, and in your head for eternity. The last track you hear is the one you'll be humming for hours.

But what better than the best Hawaiian music to accompany the best Hawaiian food, like Waikiki's Loco Moco ($5.99) -- the finest I've had anywhere. It's a rich, hearty dish that begins with a foundation of rice, and continues with two ground beef patties, two sunny-side up eggs, all drenched in a salty, brown gravy made from scratch.

As any loco moco maven will attest, what makes or breaks a loco moco is its two principal components: the beef and the gravy.

It only takes an unseasoned patty or an insipid gravy to tip the balance from a heavenly loco moco to one that will make you sick from nausea. Not here. The beef is salted perfectly, and the gravy elevates the meat in a way that gravy always should.

In fact, the last time I ordered the loco moco, I found myself sopping up every last drop with what was left of the rice.

My favorite item to come out of his kitchen, however, is the Chicken Katsu ($5.99), which amply feeds two with leftovers for the weekend. Served with a scoop of rice and a mayonnaisey mac salad, it is simply the most divine katsu to ever grace any plate, styrofoam or otherwise.

The secret of its success is three-fold.

First, the crust. Through what must be some sort of bizarre alchemy, the crackly integrity of the breaded shell remains greaseless and fully in tact, even after a thirty minute travel time to my door. Possessing a crunch heartier than a thousand Saltines, you won't find a soggy piece in the pile. Every strip of the breading is as sturdy as it is flavorful, with a faint buttery sweetness hiding inside each Panko crumb.

Secondly, the meat is cooked to just the right degree of moistness -- not slobbery (underdone) or dry (overdone). It's a happy middle which will please both white-meat and dark-meat connoisseurs.

Last, but not least, is the sauce, which is pitch-perfect and well-balanced in every sense. Served in small plastic containers, it has the tangy fruityness of pineapple juice which is softened by sugar and then sharpened by chili. The woman, who knows I love the stuff, packs away two servings for me without having to ask.

When I'm hankering for fried rice, the kitchen chief also cooks a mean version called appropriately enough, Hawaiian Fried Rice ($6.49), with loose, toothsome grains, stir-fried in a wok until it attains the ruddish color of paella.

He doesn't skimp on the proteins either. Included in the dish are meaty strips of their BBQ chicken, and three fat shrimp along with some juicy chunks of pineapple.

Another dish I tried recently was Garlic Shrimp ($7.99), which resembles the Chinese restaurant staple, "Salt and Pepper Shrimp", but served on top of wilted cabbage.

An order comes with rice and mac salad, with a dozen of the plump crustaceans lightly floured, deep fried, and then wok-tossed in an aromatic mix of minced garlic and chopped scallions. If you get it as take-out, it will stink up your car, your house, your breath, and still leave you begging for more.

Of course, since I'm mentioning everything I like about the place, let's not forget about their Hawaiian BBQ plate lunches, which I've reviewed previously on this blog. It's still formidable, gut-busting, and delectable.

And no I haven't forgotten about the Spam Musubi ($2.69 for 2). It's SPAM-tastic!

Waikiki Hawaiian Grill
13771 Newport Ave. #10
Tustin, CA 92780