Thursday, July 26, 2007

Piccomolo - Irvine

O gelato. Why has the public forsaken you?

While your American cousin, the ice cream, enjoys the adulation of countless Food Network specials and a monopolizing presence in supermarket freezers, you eek out an anonymous existence. I have to drive to a mall, either mini or mega, to find you. Only the Loch Ness Monster is more elusive.

You deserve better. But the very nature of your composition makes mass production impossible. You are made of milk, not cream. And because of its lower fat content, you are a fickle creature. If not served fresh, you'll freeze as hard as a rock in the carton.

Though exactly because of your makeup, you melt more cleanly than ice cream in my mouth and with a more refreshing, not-too-sweet finish.

I'm glad that Piccomolo, a franchise devoted to churning you out daily, has moved into my neighborhood. Just in time to fend off the oppressive heat of August.

Piccomolo's got you presented in rippled heaps inside metal bins and in more flavors than the rainbow has colors. And although they call her "fruit gelato", your sister, the sorbetto, holds her own in another set of bins.

Every time I visit, I take freebie samples from both sides. I taste one tiny spoonful here and a tiny spoonful there. It's hard to choose, because you're all so tempting.

One night, I finally decide that I must have two flavors slathered by spade into my small cup ($3.50). Donatella (chocolate hazelnut) and Cookies and Cream proved an ideal match-up; A Yin-Yang handshake of vanilla, Nutella and Oreo.

Then, on another night, another flavor. This time, a Watermelon sorbetto so ripe and so juicy, it was better than eating the real fruit. Amazing how you've distilled the spirit of summertime into a few ounces. And not a single seed to spit out.

Bravo gelato, and your fruity sister too.

(949) 733-3373
6412 Irvine Blvd
Irvine, CA 92620

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Macau Street - Artesia

Universally known fact No. 1: China is a big country.

Universally known fact No. 2: It's the most populous country on Earth.

Given these two facts: Is it any wonder that regional differences in its foods are vast?

In the north, for example, bread is more common than rice. Near the coast, seafood is eaten more than pork. So Chinese food isn't just Chinese food.

For every province (Anhui, Cantonese, Fujian, Hunan, Jiangsu, Shandong, Szechuan, and Zhejiang), there's a unique cuisine. And that's just naming a few. I haven't even begun to talk about the spin that the Chinese diaspora puts on its mother cuisine in countries like Indonesia, Peru and the Philippines.

Funny then that when most of us think of Chinese food, it's usually Kung Pao Chicken or Beef and Broccoli.

But if you live in the Chinese enclave of San Gabriel Valley, you are well aware that there's more to Chinese food than what Panda Express cooks up.

Macau Street is a recent addition to SGV's already voluminous repertoire of Chinese eateries. Its owners hail from Macau, a tiny territory between mainland China and Hong Kong that, until recently, was a Portuguese colony.

A new Macau Street has now opened in Artesia, a city that is building up a burgeoning Chinese enclave of its own (and yet another reason why I think we should annex Artesia and its prettier sister Cerritos as part of OC).

Stylistically, the food is on par with Cantonese cuisine, but there are Portuguese influences, like egg custard tarts, which are divine here.

But the most coveted dish is their House Special Crab where a crustacean is dismembered, rolled in a light batter and then deep fried until all is crisp and crackly. Its final resting place; a plate, whereupon it is showered with golden fried granules of garlic, rough chopped scallions and toasted chili peppers.

The best part of the dish are the egg sacs and unmentionable innards which dangle from the underside of the carapace dome. These are the soft, glandular objects that look like they shouldn't be eaten, but pop one in your mouth and it melts like ice cream on a hot plate -- ice cream that is doubly dosed with cholesterol.

Cholesterol-schemesterol. You're already eating crab. And it's deep fried. No point in worrying now.

And the sea's other notorious carrier of cholesterol, the shrimp? We ordered two kinds; Salt and Pepper Shrimp and that perennial wedding banquet staple, Honey Glazed Walnut Shrimp. The former I ate whole (why bother peeling when the entire animal can be readily consumed, spiky appendages included), the latter I savored with rice to counter its mayonnaisey creaminess.

While you're throwing dietary caution to the wind, go for the Spare Ribs, which are really deep fried morsels of pork fat, and maybe a smidgen or two of meat clinging to bone.

In your mouth, crispness leads to chewiness, and chewiness leads to an oozing meltiness of what I like to call "pig butter". Once you finish gnawing off every edible bit, you spit out the bone. To keep the richness in check, it's lubed in a spicy sweet and sour sauce, which utilizes red food coloring (FD&C Red No. 40) to good effect.

To give your heart hope that it will survive through dessert, get the Stir Fried Chinese Broccoli. It's cooked just enough to get it good and green, but still as crunchy as when it was pulled from the ground. Each stalk is full of chlorophyll and a firm, snappy bite unkind to dentures.

And if you need fish as part of your meal, there's no better way to eat your daily recommended allowance than the Deep Fried Flounder. It's a species as flat as a pizza and just as wide. Encased in raucously crunchy, golden batter and presented head on and tail intact, it's served wading in a salty pool of sweetened soy sauce. Beneath that crackly coating: a mild, supple flesh.

Some bivalves would also be good at this point. Sauteed Clams gets a sluicing in a sauce chock-full of onions, unpeeled nobs of ginger and whole roasted cloves of garlic. It's a fitting end and heady accompaniment to these slippery, squishy buggers, which were alive mere seconds before they were tossed into the wok.

And for starch, a nice plate of noodles is better than rice. Not just any noodle though, the House Special Noodle -- a crispy nest of deep fried noodle doused with a gravy-rich stir fry of meats and veggies. Act quickly if you want to eat it at its full potential. Because as the gravy seeps through it, the crackle of noodle mesh subsides. But even if you dawdle, don't worry; the dish is still delectably edible even when soggy. It makes for great leftovers the morning after.

Other than the egg custard tarts (which you have to order), Macau Street will put out a complimentary finisher to your meal. Ours was almond pudding poured and set inside hollowed-out egg shells. Freebies like this are rare, only seen when a Chinese restaurant is new and the servers are actually happy to serve.

And, after you crack, peel and eat them, you'll discover two new revelations: not every Chinese restaurant has rude waiters, and not all Chinese meals have to end with a fortune cookie.
To read Wandering Chopsticks' post on her trip to the original Macau Street:
--->>> CLICK HERE <<<---

Macau Street
(562) 809-3106
11614 South St
Artesia, CA 90701

Monday, July 09, 2007

Lucille's Smokehouse - Tustin

In what seemed like a blink of an eye, a new shopping center materialized at the corner of Barranca and Jamboree. This, of course, is The District –- a puzzling assortment of retail stores, a movie theater, and dining establishments built beneath the shadow of the Tustin blimp hangars.

Why is it puzzling? Well, there’s already a Lowes, a Home Depot, a Costco, a Target and a Best Buy just three miles down the road, on the same street no less! Do we really need two of each barely minutes apart?

Either the developers have short attention spans or they think we do.

But it isn’t all carbon copies of things, at least not of things that already exist within a five mile radius. The first is the new AMC, which, I have to say, is great since all shows before noon on weekends are just six bucks. Regal/Edwards Cinemas' strangle hold on South County residents is now over.

And for eats, there’s Lucille’s Smokehouse, which makes two for South Orange County (the other is in Lake Forest).

There’s a quaint, rags-to-riches fable written on its website (and its menu) about Lucille Buchanan, its diminutive founder from the South who learned how to make barbecue from her Granny. But let’s get it straight right now: the story is a complete fabrication; a tall-tale; a work of fiction, albeit one crafted by a master stroke of marketing genius. The man behind the curtain is actually an established restaurateur named Craig Hofman, of Hof’s Hut fame.

Lucille Buchanan is just as real as Ronald McDonald, and the restaurant can trace it’s humble beginnings all the way back to 1999, when it first opened in the L.B.C. (Long Beach), which means it has more in common with Snoop Dogg than B.B. King.

The lore extends to the interior design theme –- a faithful and loving tribute to roadstops seen from Arkansas to North Carolina.

There’s Southern kitsch all over the walls; checkered flooring; fanciful illustrations of pigs; and plaques with quotes that sound like they were penned by Mark Twain himself. All of it contributes to a down-home look, requisite charm and warmth not seen west of the Mississippi.

Even the drinks are poured into Mason jars. The beverage of choice to sip out of said container? Why, sweet tea ($2.75) of course! And instead of bread, it’s a basket of biscuits with apple butter. Although I’ve had better biscuits, Lucille’s was fluffy and enjoyable enough to kill your appetite. My warning to you: try a bite, but that's all.

The reason? Their portions are designed for Southern appetites, which is to say, they’re huge.

The Appetizer Platter ($18.95) was a meal for three onto itself. The best item on the gargantuan plate was the BBQ wings, hickory smoked in Lucille’s big metal contraptions. The fried chicken strips were also surprisingly juicy –- a rare thing to behold since once breast meat is ripped from the carcass, usually dryness inevitably follows.

The rest of the crew included more fried foods than a physician would recommend in one sitting: fried green tomatoes; onion straws; stuffed jalapeno; Dixie egg rolls (basically diced chicken and corn inside an egg roll wrapper); and a tri-tip quesadilla, which wasn’t fried exactly but definitely not what you call heart-healthy either.

And if your stomach can take it, there’s Lucille’s main attraction: the Baby Back Ribs ($24.95 for a full rack). Now I must preface this part with a disclaimer: I’m not an expert on BBQ. I don’t claim to have ever tasted the barbecue in Kansas City, Memphis, or Texas, but I think I know a good rack of bones when I see one -- and Lucille’s was pretty darn tootin’ great.

There’s the meat, which had a pink luster due to the permeation of smoke into each molecule of pork. To say that it's smoky and sweet is probably not necessary. And yes, it's fall-of-the-bone tender. But the best feature of these ribs in my opinion? Those crusty, charred areas -- where pork fat, brown sugar, and carbon fused together to form a tasty burnt mass.

In the end, with our fingers throughly gunked and sticky with cue sauce, we resorted to holding the drinks between our palms.

By the way, the plate of ribs came with two sides. In our case, mac n’ cheese and fries. The three of us (who shared the meal I’ve thus far chronicled), only managed to make a slight dent in the fries (which were battered, crispy and delightful). The mac n’ cheese was pristinely untouched by the time our bill arrived.

And how was Lucille’s “famed” peach cobbler? I have no idea. In the times I’ve patronized the Long Beach and Brea branches, I’ve never made it past half of the main entree. The same goes for this new Tustin store. Someday, I might just cross that finish line and try one of their desserts. On that day, I'll go home on a stretcher.

Lucille's Smokehouse
2550 Park Avenue
Tustin, CA 92782

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

One Street, Two Ramen Houses

It's entirely too hot here to even think about eating ramen. Excessive heat advisories are in effect; the sun is shining; it's finally summer. And ramen. Well ramen isn't a summery dish just by the virtue of its design. But that's what happens when the weather catches up with a food blog backlog.

Not too many weeks ago, it was cool enough to enjoy a hot, steaming bowl of the good stuff; the Japanese antidote to the June gloom. And during two particularly chilly, cloud-covered days, I decided to explore Baker street in Costa Mesa, where there exists not one, but two ramen joints, separated from each other by mere blocks and competing for the same noodle dollar with heavyweight Santoka and Oki Doki (which are also in the neighborhood).

The first of which was a joint called Kohryu. Found on the corner of Baker and Bear, it occupies a seemingly cramped corner of a quiet strip mall. But once I stepped inside, I was surprised to see that the space opened up to a wider footprint, with more seats than the unassumingly tiny entrance led me to believe was possible.

I saddled up to the bar and ordered a Koi Ramen, which turned out to be just what I needed. The soup was murky white, like diluted milk, and harbored a savory pork flavor similar to the Hakata style of broth (where pork bones are vigorously boiled to give up their essence). But it was unlike it in two ways. First, it wasn't as sweet, exhibiting a slight bitterness which I found pleasant. Second, it was lighter on the tongue and not as fatty-rich, almost to the point of being watered down.

The noodles were also different. And on this end, I wasn't overly impressed. What was used were egg noodles; bright canary yellow ones, which were thick like linguini. And paradoxically, the strands got harder the longer it stayed in the soup.

The toppings were from the list of usual suspects. There was a pleasantly unctuous, fatty piece of pork; a half of a boiled egg, with a yolk that was just shy of set; and some crunchy strips of bamboo shoots.

What wasn't expected was the two variations of green onion. Some were freshly cut and others were purposely burnt black to embers. I liked the contrast, but figured out that it was probably these charred bits which contributed to the slight bitterness of the broth.

Down the street, hidden behind the Wahoo's on Baker and Bristol, is Mentatsu. This location has been home to many a ramen house. But its current incarnation is by far the cleanest and most hospitable of the lot. In other words, Mentatsu is spotless and bright, where before, under another name I can't remember, it was grimy and dark.

What I decided to try was the plain ol' Shio Ramen; a standby when you can't think of anything else to order. And the broth was clear, with a dark brown tint and a soy-sauce tang. Bubbles of sweet pork fat skittered across the top -- an indication that this elixir was full of flavor.

The noodle was nicely chewy, becoming more supple as I continued slurping, but the pork was lean; too lean. But bamboo shoots, green onion, the hard boiled egg were all present an accounted for, along with some of those pink-rimmed fish cakes. These exist merely for color, but one can't complain about its resilient texture, which playfully bounced between my teeth.

Both ramen houses have their unique qualities, but I will wait until the mercury drops before I revisit either one. But who's to say I can't have it, say, for a late summer supper when the sun has gone down.

(714) 556-9212
891 Baker St
Costa Mesa, CA 92626

(714) 979-2755
688 Baker St # 7
Costa Mesa, CA 92626