Friday, May 25, 2007

Clemente Seafood - Santa Ana

On the border of South Coast Metro (a made-up name for an area developers thought was too genteel to be called Santa Ana), sits a Mexican restaurant that serves nothing but seafood.

Better known by locals as Mariscos Clemente, this is the kind of joint that peppers the streets of Santa Ana proper, where you can't go a mile without seeing one. But the closer you get to South Coast Plaza, the frequency of these sightings diminishes to nil. Step inside Mariscos Clemente and you quickly see why. This is a decidedly non-corporate place -- a no-frills mom-and-pop with specials xeroxed on plain paper and taped up haphazardly behind the register.

But that's not to say that it isn't a pretty space. A big, fake marlin dominates one wall, and a gorgeous mural graces the other. Airbrushed on bare brick, it's artwork as pretty as anything Wyland has ever produced, featuring sea creatures frolicking in an idyllic, underwater seascape complete with a cresting wave and a waterfall.

And if you haven't already guessed, there's absolutely no chance of encountering a Meximelt® or a Crunchwrap Supreme® here. In fact, you'd be hard pressed to find anything with the usual Mexican trappings of grated cheese and refried beans. The name of the game here is seafood. Lots of it. Served in cocktails, fried in tacos, and boiled in soup.

My first sampling of the food (and so far, the only one after three separate visits) is their Tostada de Ceviche de Pescado ($3.25) and it's as refreshing a dish as I've ever had. Chilled, flaked fish -- with the feel of damp cotton and the look of snow -- is mixed with cilantro, onions and tomato, then heaped onto a corn tortilla disk.

A squeeze of lime perks up the cooling concoction further, making for the most briskly invigorating, and also, the most guiltless plate of food to come out of any kitchen, Mexican or otherwise. The only thing that seems like it has any calories is the syrupy sweet-and-sour sauce it is served with. And that's only because it tastes a lot like Hawaiian Punch.

Although it's close to perfect, my only wish is that they used freshly fried tortilla rounds instead of the factory-produced variety seen at American grocery stores. In fact, I took advantage of the basket of the house tortilla chips (which comes gratis when you dine in) to scoop up most of my ceviche.

Better by miles, these are my kind of chips: thick and sturdy like a ceramic tile, with a crunch noisier than a thousand pork rinds. Accompanying them was a thick, fiery salsa culled from milled tomato and shotgunned with diced onion. It'll remind you that despite the new high-rise, high-priced condos going up across the street, you're in Santa Ana -- and it's delicious.

Clemente Seafood Restaurant
(714) 556-2815
124 W Macarthur Blvd
Santa Ana, CA 92707

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Italian Tomato - Costa Mesa

Japanese bakeries have something in common with other Asian bakeries: they produce cakes and pastries that feature a Zen-like balance of flavors. Less important is how much butter they can cram into the frosting, or how much sugar they can work into the batter -- a practice lamentable in American bake shops, and the reason why I never, ever buy a cake from Albertsons or Ralphs.

There's no danger of such sugar shock at the Italian Tomato, which is located in a prime spot inside the ever popular Mitsuwa food court. Once diners get their fill of ramen, udon, and curry, Italian Tomato is there to entice them with sweets that aren't too sweet.

Recently, we went there specifically for an afternoon of dessert snacking and bought a pair of treats. The first was a crepe ($2.75), which looked like a cannoli, filled with a winning custard and topped with fruit. Inside and towards the center we discovered chunks of sponge cake. Although delicious, we would've preferred more custard. Better was the tiramisu ($4.00), which had a good and generous dusting of coffee/cocoa powder on top and three, feather-light layers of cake separated by whipped cream and a good soaking of coffee. It even came with a white chocolate nametag with the word "Tiramisu" scribbled in script, as if there could be any mistake.

Italian Tomato
Mitsuwa Marketplace
(714) 557-6699
665 Paularino Ave.
Costa Mesa, CA 92626

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Yogurtland - Irvine

The Irvine Yogurtland finally opened today and it's much too cute -- as if Hello Kitty threw up on a Jamba Juice. Designed with a chic feminine aesthetic, it is crisply painted in muted pastels and incorporates over-sized, softly-focused glamour shots of fruit.

The furnishings are by IKEA, and in the middle of the room, vertical panes of stenciled glass grow out of the floor and into the ceiling. They separate the space in two and await some poor sap with fro-yo tunnel vision to run right into the see-through surface like a disoriented bird into a window. This is a decorative element full of slapstick-comedy potential; but one that makes this Yogurtland the prettiest, little frozen yogurt shop in Orange County.

Evidently, with the money so well-spent on the interior designer, none was left over for a proofreader. On a large plate glass plaque etched with verbiage extolling the virtues of yogurt, spelling slip-ups, grammatical gaffes, and embarrassing "Engrish" run rampant. A copy editor would be reduced to tears, but we were more than slightly amused as we saw it on our way to the yogurt machines.

There are eight machines in all, located at the back of the store, inset behind a green tiled wall, and invisible save for their spouts, which output sixteen different flavors. And as this is essentially a yogurt buffet, our journey begins at the first one with a styrofoam or plastic cup.

But before dispensing, we start by surveying the options first. The reason? A more enticing flavor will be inevitably found further down the line, and we want plenty of vacant space in our cup to allow for it.

Like many post-Pinkberry yogurt stands, fresh fruit, nuts, and cereal await at the next stop after pouring: the topping station. I choose chopped mango and strawberry to crown my self-styled plain yogurt/blueberry/mango frozen treat.

It is my opinion that fresh fruit is a better complement to yogurt than those macerated, syrupy preserves found at fro-yo joints established in the pre-Pinkberry era. In fact, it's not a stretch to say that it is one of the reasons for Pinkberry's success.

Finally, when I'm good and ready, the last stop is the weighing station and payment, where I will be charged $0.30 for every ounce of yogurt and topping.

I average between $2 to $3 for a serving of dessert that more than satisfies, and with less hype than Pinkberry. Close to home, this Yogurtland will be my go-to frogurt stand; girly-decor and bad grammar notwithstanding.

To read my post on the Fullerton Yogurtland:
--->>> CLICK HERE <<<---

14775 Jeffrey Road, Suite J
Irvine, CA 92618

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Kim Loan - Fullerton

There are few establishments that can defy trends, fickle tastes, and the passage of time. Kim Loan is one of those places. This Fullerton Vietnamese restaurant is the grizzled old bear in a tired asphalt parking lot once anchored by Alpha-Beta and Thrifty's. In the twenty years or so years of its existence, it has outlived them both, survived at least two fires, and stands proudly as one of the few Vietnamese joints to have succeeded outside of Little Saigon.

The tables are worn, rubbed off by thousands of elbows, and the ceiling tiles are yellowed with age, but the owner's smile remains genuine even as his eyelids reveal more than just a hint of fatigue. After years spent in faithful service to his customers, his hair has greyed and his step is slower than I remember. But even as he commands an unseen kitchen crew and a familiar group of waiters, he still manages to chat up one of his many Mexican customers in flawless Spanish, bark back orders in Vietnamese, and greet me warmly with a "Hi! How are you?"

This easy charm and accessibility translates to his food, which he offers at a low price and in ample portions. His meals are simple, honest, and aimed to please the proletariat, not the gourmand (who will rightly scoff that his pho is too sweet). Come around lunchtime, and you'll see guys in greasy overalls, women in pastel nurse uniforms, and an occasional office drone shoveling spoonfuls of rice and meat into their gullets.

It was this food that first introduced me to the wonders of Vietnamese cuisine when I was an impressionable teen. And now, nostalgia brings me back.

I ordered up a mound of steamed broken rice with a trio of traditional toppings: thin, brown planks of grilled pork, a yellow block of egg quiche, and some shredded pork skin. The grilled pork was just as I remember; sugary to the point of overkill, aromatically scented with fish sauce, and charred from the smoky heat of the grill. Cellophane noodles acted as rebar inside the sturdy egg casserole, which tasted like it was lovingly hand made by a Vietnamese grandmother. Eaten with nouc cham, fresh cut cucumber, lettuce, and tomato, this plate of food fed my memories as well as my stomach.

Another dish I ordered to bring back a surge of fondness was something they call Fried Salted Shrimp. First a saucer of squeezed lemon juice is brought out, sloshing its way up the shallow brim: a signal that the shrimp and all of its delectable deep-fried glory was about to arrive. When it did, I dipped a lightly battered prawn into the tart citrus puddle before popping it into my waiting mouth.

Fried golden to the right degree of doneness and optimum crispness, the sweet crustaceans are a treat to eat and more addictive than popcorn. As good as the shrimp was, it would not be complete without the flavor-packed golden bits of toasted garlic, which were strewn over the dish like crunchy confetti.

I don't know how long the owner intends to keep Kim Loan open, but here's hoping to at least another decade and many more humble plates of good food, priced low.

Kim Loan Restaurant
(714) 773-0374
1651 W Orangethorpe Ave
Fullerton, CA 92833