Saturday, December 29, 2007

Asia Buffet - Buena Park

He was a wise man who said:
Choose from two, but only two below, for nothing exists that exhibits all three properties.

1. Good
2. Chinese
3. Buffet

It was with this nugget of wisdom that I cautiously approached Asia Buffet at a revitalized Buena Park Downtown. Nevermind that I've been burned by the likes of it before; Eateries seemingly named eponymously from the same phylum of restaurant. Replace "Asia" with the word "Grand", ""Dragon", "Phoenix", "China", or "Jade", and there's no doubt that you've seen one yourself.

No matter what it is called, there's a fatalistic certainty to it all. To walk into such a place is to expect gloppy, cornstarched-laden sauces, greasy fried rice, stock egg rolls, and enough MSG to send a giant into convulsions.

But I relented. Not only have I heard great things about the place, I was also being treated. So I ignored that other, well-known adage: "There's no such thing as a free lunch."

Sure there is.

And really, buffets are prime examples. There's a flat fee you pay before you enter ($13.98 for the "Sunday All Day Dinner", though prices are lower at other periods), but when you manage to consume your weight in shrimp and crab, it might as well be free. Of course, that's the whole point isn't it? The I'm-Going-To-Get-My-Money's-Worth mentality is what drives people to come.

And from what I observed at Asia Buffet, that's exactly the motive. I saw a guy -- who otherwise looked to be a sane man of reason -- grab bushels upon bushels of steamed crab legs from the trough. When he was done, his plate held a haul that reached from his belt to his neck. He had cleared out the inventory in a single swipe. And he did it without shame, without remorse.

Dutifully, someone came out from the kitchen to restock it. But within minutes, another man repeated the crime.

It was at that point that I wondered: What masochistic business person would open a buffet like this? It's a losing proposition to bet against human greed and gluttony.

As I saw Asia Buffet's profit margins dwindle, I became even more amazed at the variety of food they managed to offer. It was the kind of cuisine that blew away my "Panda Express" expectations and evaporated my prejudices.

There were deep fried frog legs with spicy salt, steamed crawfish, fried whole crab, crab meat with mayo baked in their shells, and sea snails. All of which were capably cooked and some, like the frog legs, quite tasty.

But that's not to say that there weren't items to please Joe-Buffet-Eater. There were mountains of peel-and-eat shrimp, dumped on a bed of ice. Next to it, a bucket of cocktail sauce. There was a whole section of fried things to keep cardiologists gainfully employed.

Wontons. Breaded shrimp. Battered shrimp. Chicken wings. Whole fried pieces of flounder. Sesame balls, oh my! That sound you hear? It's your arteries crying for mercy.

In round metal pots, three different kinds of soup simmered. One had floating fish balls bobbing in a clear chicken broth. It seemed to buzz with the yummy, lip-smackin' flavor of MSG.

Under a set of heat lamps, steamed fish fillets sat furtively, doused with oil, soy sauce, and scallions. Although it's far too pasty to be palatable, the thought was there.

And heaven forbid; there was sashimi, spicy tuna rolls, and unagi nigiri. But don't kid yourself into thinking that it's anywhere near sushi-joint quality. At buffets like this, sushi and sashimi aren't delicacies; they are commodities.

Asia Buffet's sashimi looked to be yellowtail and tuna, cut into chunks and piled in mounds. Some pieces are actually still frozen in the middle. But the lot is there for one purpose, and one purpose only: To serve as a challenge for the fearless soul who dares to eat raw fish from a buffet line.

I did. And I'm still alive. Although I didn't gorge on them as much as I did other items. I ate a half-dozen of the stuffed mushrooms, which oozed with a creamy filling of mayo, breadcrumbs and more crab. I pried out meat from my share of snow crab legs, and shucked a few of those iced shrimp. I went for seconds on the stuffed crab shells and even had room to pipe out a dessert of ice milk topped with a strawberry.

I enjoyed myself. And yes, I have to admit: Asia Buffet is a "Good Chinese Buffet"**.

Asia Buffet
(714) 828-5780
8360 La Palma Ave
Buena Park, CA 90620

**Note: I've only tried the buffet during the premiumly priced periods. Your mileage (and food selection) will vary if you try them during their discounted price periods.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Crablicious - Artesia

Unlike nukes, the continual proliferation of the Vietnamese-owned, Louisiana crawfish joint is a good thing. A few years ago, short of driving to the gulf states, you could only find them here clustered around actual Vietnamese neighborhoods. There's a particularly dense population of them in Little Saigon, where the trend all started. (See my post on Boiling Crab).

But now, they're likely to pop up anywhere within earshot of a growling Asian stomach. Like mushrooms, they thrive under the shade of other Asian businesses and restaurants. Such is the case in Artesia/Cerritos, where the burgeoning boom of Asian mini-malls has cultivated at least two crawfish joints on a single block of South Street alone.

I went to one last night* -- a place with a name so contrived and gimmicky, it's gag-inducing. When I saw Zach Efron's autograph scribbled on the walls in permanent marker (along with other customer-created graffiti), I became even more suspicious.

You see, in my experience (ahem, Crustacean), the deliciousness of the food is inversely related to the number of celebrity endorsements touted. And if the word "delicious" is somehow worked into the name, well, you also have to take two or three points away, just as a rule.

But oh, was I ever glad to be wrong on this one. Crablicious turned out to be the best Vietnamese Cajun crawfish boil restaurant yet. And actually, it's not Vietnamese-owned.

I saw Korean soft tofu soup, Singapore rice noodle, teriyaki bowls, even fish and chips. I heard Cantonese spoken in the kitchen but our server looked Korean**. Adding to the mystery of its origins, Crablicious also repatriated some dishes from Macau Street, the Chinese-Macanese restaurant that previously occupied the space before it folded. Fitting right in with the new decor of hastily hung fish nets, port holes, and sailboat-print wallpaper is Macau Street's fried crab with chili. Almost every table ordered it. Mallets were provided.

New to my eyes was the Crablicious Noodle Soup ($9.99) -- a simple, chicken broth brew full of shrimp, scallop, thinly-shaved beef, squid, beef and fish meatballs. It's served family-style in pumpkin-shaped ceramic vessel with a choice of ramen, udon, or vermicelli. We took the ramen, ladled the boiling broth into soup bowls, and slurped our way to a warm gut.

The deep fried flounder ($8.99/lb) came next, all covered in bubbled batter. The flesh was creamy, the crispy bones crackled with an oily crunch. First, we went in with forks, but soon ditched them to go primitive, licking our fingers and smacking our chops.

But our digits hadn't seen the best of it yet. The main event had yet to arrive. To prepare for it, butcher paper was laid out. Its purpose: to contain the carnage that was about to occur. Around our necks plastic bibs were tied, intended to protect our shirts.

Then, with the blare of trumpets, they came. Steamed in plastic bags, and served in them, these were the crawfish ($8.99/lb), the shrimp ($8.99/lb) and the clams ($8.99/lb). Each was steeped in its own customizable, lip-throbbing, grease-slicked, cadre of seasonings. We opted for a mix of Cajun and garlic butter for the mudbugs; plain garlic butter for the shrimp; and basil lime for the clams.

Immediately, we took to the crawdads like a marauding medieval army to battle. We twisted off heads, tore bodies apart. We sucked out juices, licked off sauce and gnashed our teeth on flesh with a wanton bloodlust worthy of a Spartan.

To fish out the pasty green tomalley from the crawfish, I shoved an index finger into the upper thorax and wiggled it around. Later, I devolved even further. I held the decapitated heads captive underneath my teeth and bit down with my molars. And like a vice, it squeezed out even more fat from their skulls. The tiny amount of tail meat I savored slowly, noting its sweetness against the backdrop of lethal Cajun spice.

The shrimp -- after it was ripped clean of its tiny feet, its antennaed head and its papery armor -- I dunked back into the shimmering pool of sauce which had the sheen of pizza grease. After that, it came out shinier than an oiled bodybuilder, ready to be consumed. A salty, buttery, garlicky mess of dribbles dripped from my lips; a smile of keen satisfaction cut across my face.

The clams took less effort to conquer. Each quivering morsel was defenseless, nude and beautifully erotic on an open shell like Botticelli's Venus.

For dessert, our victorious palates celebrated with the "Crabzy Icy" ($7.99). A fruit-laced, red-bean-sweetened, ice-cream-topped slush of shaved frozen milk. Sure it's a little girly, thick with irony next to the mound of shellfish and crustacean carcasses that now lay defeated in a pile.

But it tamed our burning gullets and eased us into a more civilized form of eating. That is, until we go back to Crablicious to repeat it all over again. Maybe next week!

11612 South St.
Artesia, CA 90701

*Special Thanks to Monster Munching reader Cecile for this tip.

**According to Monster Munching reader Bubo, our server (and restaurant manager) was none other than Turbo Kong, a character actor originally from Hong Kong (not Korea, as I incorrectly assumed), who fought Bruce Wayne at the start of
Batman Begins and has appeared in many other martial arts flicks. Check out his showreel here.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Zion Market - Irvine

Where once there were jars of pickles, there are jugs of kimchi. There aren't anymore blocks of cheese, just blocks of tofu.

The sacks of kibble are gone, replaced by sacks of rice. The deli section is now a kimbap prep station. And the cartons of Häagen-Dazs? Well they're still there, but next to it are boxes of mochi ice cream.

What was the only Vons in Irvine is history. Taking over its expansive digs is a spanking new Korean supermarket called Zion, which can rightly claim the crown as the biggest Asian grocer in town.

Step aside 99 Ranch on Culver.

However, from the looks of things, the Zion Market folks haven't quite figured out what to do with all that room. Yes, the aisles are overstocked with everything a Korean housewife could ever want. Yes, the freezers are crammed with more varieties of dumplings than a Korean college student will ever know what to do with.

But the prepared foods department is still struggling to think of items to cook up to line its shelves or showcase in the sparsely populated island refrigerators. It's a futile effort though, since so far there aren't enough customers, and yup, too much excess space. Methinks it might be easier to fill up a swimming pool with a soda straw.

What was present did look good. There were squid, octopus, and other sea creatures covered in a deadly red chili paste. Fried anchovies glistened with a caramel glaze. In plastic boxes were steamed veggies exotic and familiar; some as black as tar; others greener than emeralds.

I picked up a few other items for dinner. First there was mung bean pancakes ($3.59) which looked tasty enough under the heat lamps, but were in need of salt when I got home to eat it. Inside its chewy, dense batter was rebar in the form of bean sprouts and roughly julienned stalks of scallion.

Zion's vermicelli noodles ($3.74) were greasy with too much sesame oil. As I felt the nutty lube coat my mouth, I bet even a sesame-oil-loving-Korean would think this was too heavy-handed to enjoy. It distracted from the salty bits of beef and the jelly jiggle of the clear noodles.

Just right were the soy-seasoned hard-boiled eggs ($1.54). Permeated to the yolk with soy sauce, it was good enough to eat by itself. And of course, Vons never dreamed of stocking anything like it.

Zion Market
4800 Irvine Blvd.
Irvine, CA 92620

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Sakura Saku - Huntington Beach

Taco rice.

Upon hearing that phrase, I shuddered as my culinary senses prickled, detecting a disturbance in The Force. Somewhere out there, in Huntington Beach, there was a Japanese restaurant that dared to create this aberration of nature, this unholy Frankenstein monster of dish that...combined taco meat and grated cheese with Japanese rice.

I read about it on Mmm-yoso. Kirk, its creator, was minding his own business, ordering lunch at a joint in HB, when he got a whiff and caught sight of the thing.

He writes:

" of the young men on a nearby table was eating the strangest smelled like taco meat.....and when I inquired, I was told, it was something called "Taco Rice", which was taco meat topped with cheese, tomato, and lettuce on a bowl of rice! I was told that the "young people like it."

Immediately, I was intrigued, but also afraid -- the kind of fear that drives a man closer to his destiny. I was going to try this "taco rice", even as a small part of me said "No!"

Thankfully, the whole of my soul would not be swayed and yelled back with a defiant "Why not?!"

An officemate, seeing determination in my step as I marched out of my cube clutching my car keys, asked, "Hey, where are you going?" I told him of my quest, and he reacted as I expected anyone would -- with a scrunched face and one word: "Ugh!"

At the same moment, another co-worker, who was a Marine, overheard the conversation and said to us matter-of-factly, "Why...I haven't had taco rice since I was stationed in Okinawa."


This was starting to make a lot of sense. A U.S. military base abroad is always bound to influence local food. Think of Hawaii and SPAM. All it takes is one homesick Marine and an enterprising indigenous cook and BAM! A dish like taco rice (or takoraisu) is born.

Inevitably, the invention becomes loved by the locals too. After that, it's only a matter of time before it appears stateside, in a West-to-East-to-West feedback loop.

So with this new-found knowledge (a fact later confirmed by Wikipedia), my two intrepid comrades and I set off and found Sakura Saku, whereupon we ordered the dish. I took mine as the restaurant offered it, with lettuce and tomato, but my ex-Marine friend opted for no veggies**.

When it arrived, it was exactly as I imagined. Ground beef -- seasoned not unlike Taco Bell's or any other all-American Tex-Mex taco -- is heaped on top of Japanese sticky rice. On the side, there's even a small bowl of Pace Picante Sauce, along with a pair of chopsticks.

I used the chopsticks not without appreciating the irony.

How did it taste? Well, in a word: good. The neutrality of Japanese rice plays well with the strong flavors of taco meat and cheese -- not at all the disaster I thought it would be, but also, decidedly ordinary.

It's neither scary nor freakish nor particularly life-changing, like finding Bigfoot only to discover that he's just a really hairy homeless man.

Takoraisu doesn't aspire to be more than the sum of its parts -- and still, it works. But it's nothing that you can't make at home with a skillet and a packet of Lawry's seasoning.

Perhaps the only thing surprising about it is the price: $6.50, which is a hard sell for this Southern Californian who was raised on rice and 49-cent tacos (eaten separately, of course). But to the Okinawan, I suppose it will be a taste of home. How's that for irony?

Though I do wonder if somewhere in Japan, there is a Japanese food blogger who has written a post like this about seeing a California Roll at his neighborhood McDonalds.

Sakura Saku
(714) 848-3838
7572 Edinger Ave
Huntington Beach, CA 92647

**NOTE: My other friend took the chicken karaage combo as his lunch. And it was just as good as Kirk described. Juicy, crispy, gigantic hunks of fried, sake-marinated goodness. A bargain at $6.00 since it also includes rice, salad, yakisoba, and a soft-drink. The owner is exceedingly nice, twice as cheerful as the Hello-Kitty posters and glitter he's strewn all around his place.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

The Counter - Irvine

When The Counter announced that their first O.C. franchise was debuting in Irvine, the anticipation was thicker than those beef patties I had already heard so much about. To the chowhound, its notoriety was familiar long before the ink dried on their Irvine Company lease. After all, the L.A. success story has been written-to-death on bulletin boards, gabbed about on Good Morning America, hip-checked on GQ.

It was even on friggin' Oprah fer cryin' out loud!

Short of butchering your own cow, The Counter's claim to fame is customer empowerment. Their burger is endlessly customizable. I'm talkin' the kind of control you didn't know you always wanted. Their website purports at least 312,120 different combinations. Want to verify this? Better use factorials. Remember factorials?

A clipboard with a checklist is presented in lieu of a menu. On it you mark your choice of meat, cheese, toppings, sauce and bun. Aside from the junior high Scantron pop-quiz flashbacks you'll get (remember Scantrons?) it's an efficient way to order.

Want horseradish cheddar and goat cheese? Check it!

A topping of roasted corn and black bean salsa? Mark away.

How about dried cranberries, peanut sauce, all on an English muffin? Go for it.

Pepto? Alka Seltzer? You're on your own.

So, with bated breath, I waited, not unlike that Mervyns lady. "Open, open, open."

"Coming Summer 2007," its white stenciled windows said. But June came and went. So did July, August, September and October.

By November, I had lost patience. In the meantime I rediscovered The Royal Robin Burger at Red Robin. It came with bottomless steak fries. Life was good.

Then it finally happened: The Counter's Irvine outpost was open for business. Although going there was like forgiving a long lost friend who had struck it rich and forgot all about you, it's easy to welcome someone who brings food.

Scarcely a week and the place was packed. My friends and I were in a sea of heads, crowded inside an octagon enclosure that looked like the Ultimate Fighting cage.

A wide window rolls up like a garage door. The bar is lined with rows of wine bottles and beer flows from taps. Flitting about, squeezing themselves between the aluminum tables, was a crew of Abercrombie hopefuls. They're trained to be helpful and happy. But everyone's still a little green, especially in the kitchen.

Our order of fries and onion strings ($3.95)-- limp and crunchy, respectively -- was polished off even before the burgers showed up, dipped in thimbles of sugary apricot, tangy BBQ, and watery ranch sauces. But the deep fried pickles ($4.00) don't need no sauce, unlike its cousin: the deep fried zucchini.

Twenty minutes later, the burgers ($7.95) arrived, built as a precarious stack; the sandwich equivalent of a seal balancing a ball on its nose, teetering with flailing flippers on top of another ball. It's twice as tall as it is wide, so it's tricky to grasp. One wrong move and the tower tumbles like Jenga.

The toasted buns have the sturdy crust of ciabatta. The grilled onions are past the point of cooked to become a spreadable onion paste. The patty, two fingers thick, tastes almost like meatloaf. It's densely packed and grilled to a uniform degree of doneness.

It's about time The Counter opened. But why then am I still craving that Red Robin burger?

The Counter
6416 Irvine Boulevard
Irvine, CA 92620

To read Christian's post on OC Food Blogs, CLICK HERE.
To read an updated review on a second visit, CLICK HERE.