Sunday, March 30, 2008

Stonefire Grill - Irvine

Pizza isn't something you'll see very often on this blog. Don't get me wrong. I eat plenty of it. But this is Orange County, not Chicago or New York. Pho, tacos, and ramen we got in spades -- just as good as those served in in Vietnam, Mexico and Japan, some might say. But pizza? So far, what I've found fits into the lowest common denominator. Most are harmless, serviceable at best, but for me, not worth writing about**.

That is, until I saw a pizza topped with avocado. And I don't mean layered on top raw and after-the-fact a la California Pizza Kitchen. No, these were baked on the pie itself, along with the cheese and crust.

If you don't find this strange, consider this: The California Avocado Commission -- the marketing organization representing California's avocado growers -- has a recipe for California Avocado Pizza Pie that explicitly instructs the reader to leave out the avocado until the pizza is fully cooked.

Who would dare defy the CAC? Stonefire Grill that's who, although it is unclear if they pioneered the idea.

When it replaced the quietly fading Hof's Hut nearly two years ago, I barely blinked. Yet another bland, over-priced chain, I thought. Compounding my prejudice was the fact that I've been burned by the likes of it before -- upstart fast-casuals peddling to the overworked with the promise of "home-made food", but serving nothing more than boring barbecue, limp pizza and breadsticks.

Plus, the flyers I got in the mail were too slick and corporate. How could I possibly like the place?

The answer was in front of me: The "Stonefire Favorite" ($13.99), where wedges of California's homegrown fruit were laid out and baked on top of a thin disc of dough along with pesto, mozzarella, feta, red onions, and a garnish of snipped basil -- a creation that out-Wolfgang-Pucks Wolfgang Puck.

The avocado, shriveled slightly from the heat, were intensified versions of its raw self. Still creamy, but now doubly soft, it's the difference between a just-braised pork belly and one sitting at room temperature. An herby-green pesto paste highlighted its deep, bass notes with the shrill, piercing octaves of garlic and basil.

And the skinny crust was just as I liked it, playing to my belief that a pizza crust can't be too thin. If the laws of physics allowed for sauce, mozzarella, and cheese to be baked on a papadum, I'd order it.

But that wasn't all that pleasantly surprised me at Stonefire Grill. The tri tip and rib combo ($14.99) came with a salad that was refreshing despite using Fritos as croutons, and breadsticks that were nicely crusted with parmesan and garlic.

The meat, served on tin plate, I also liked. The tri tip was tender; the ribs lusciously porky. And both were slathered with a not-too-cloying barbecue glaze and possessed a personally coveted quality of burnt edges, where sauce and meat fuse into charred bits of flavor.

Good, reasonably priced ribs and pizza from a fast-casual -- in Orange County, no less. What next?

Stonefire Grill
(949) 777-1177
3966 Barranca Pkwy # A
Irvine, CA 92606

**If you've got a tip on what you think is the best pizza in O.C., please chime in. Although, I prefer thin crust, I'll take any species of pie. Unbiased recommendations only please.

Slowfish - Huntington Beach

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Manila Groove - Tustin

A few things happened to Manila Groove since I visited last.

First, about three months ago, Gustavo Arellano tipped readers about the little-known Tustin eatery and its constantly updated website menu in his This-Hole-in-the-Wall-Life column.

Second, they've expanded by taking over the store next door, effectively doubling the space with new tables and chairs. And when I say "new", I mean it -- the place was nothing more than a take-out counter before. Now, there's framed art, posters, and hanging plants. Though, sadly, no big wooden spoon and fork.

The third, and perhaps most awesome development, is that as of January, their Filipino breakfasts ($5.99 with a free can of soda or coffee) are cooked up all day long from 7:30 in the morning to 9 at night! Now, traditional silogs -- the gut-busting, cholesterol-spiked meals of fried rice, eggs, and Filipino breakfast meats -- can also be had for dinner.

No longer will your craving for longanisa and eggs be encumbered by what time you wake up. And let's face it, the last thing you want to do when you get out of bed hungry is to cook longanisa yourself. The sausage is notoriously time-consuming and messy to fry.

Instead, just mosey into Manila Groove (in your pajamas if necessary) where the plump, fatty, juicy, shiny, porky links will be waiting.

Three come to a meal, which, because of their size (I'll spare you the obvious jokes), is somewhat overkill. Two fresh eggs are cooked over-easy and plopped over yellow rice into which the yolk will eventually burst and bleed. Diced tomatoes and liberal squirts of Datu Puti vinegar are required side items -- the antidotes to the overwhelming doses of protein and fat.

But it's not just about the longanisa. Manila Groove's silog's include other worthy meats like tapa -- the unholy union of beef jerky and a Jelly-Belly jelly bean. It's as black as licorice, dense, crumbly, chewy, swimming in grease, and so sugary it'll put you that much closer to diabetes.

Healthier-minded folks should opt for the baby bangus instead. In it you will get a fried fish, splayed open, head intact, skin attached, with a flaky flesh that has the yummy tang of yogurt.

Balk if you must that fish is served for breakfast. But who are you kidding? By the time you'll get to Manila Groove, it'll be well past noon...and you still wouldn't have taken a shower.

Manila Groove
678 El Camino Real
Tustin, CA 92780

Boneheads - Lake Forest

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Discounted Bentos at Mitsuwa - Costa Mesa

It's Thursday. I'm standing near the boxed sushi section at the Mitsuwa Marketplace. I look at my watch. It's about a quarter after five. He should be coming out of that door any second now -- the man with the red Sharpie.

There are others like me waiting for him, milling around, trying to not look like obvious cheapskates. But as we attempt to blend in, we are still coiled like sprinters waiting for the gun.

Finally, the door swings open, and the man with the red Sharpie strolls out casually, oblivious that his entrance has been anticipated for the past ten minutes.

He removes the cap to his marker, hunches down to the remaining supply of boxed lunches and slashes away. He marks every container, one by one. He subtracts a whole dollar there. Fifty cents here.

What was $4.99 a few minutes ago is now $3.99. In most cases, his discounts amount to about a 20% reduction. His job is done to spur movement of the inventory. He is the Ben Bernanke of bento boxes.

I spring to action as he finishes one section and moves on to the next. Usually, there isn't too many to choose from. It's like a Soviet-era selection of barren shelves compared to the bounty seen at lunch. But today, I'm lucky. There's enough food left over. Chicken karaage with rice and trimmings. Panko-crusted fish. Even a boxed unagi rice and bulgogi. Plenty for my fellow cheapskates and I to share.

Before I leave the store at a quarter to six with my three boxes of karaage, the refrigerated shelves will be cleaned out, ready for the next morning's batch of bentos. The man with the red Sharpie would have done his job.

Dinner for me will be deep-fried morsels of fried chicken, which like its American counterpart, tastes great cold. As such, I don't bother heating it up. But unlike KFC, this is a healthy meal. Things like green beans, marinated bamboo shoots, stewed carrot, mushroom and seaweed balances the protein. Rice comprises half the bulk.

In these recessionary times, it's nice to know there are ways to shave off a few bucks, short of cooking, TV dinners or the drive-thru. Just wait for the man with the red Sharpie.

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

Pelican Grill - Newport Coast

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Pastagina - Irvine

A robot vacuums our carpet when we aren't home. With a button push, a metal box in our kitchen turns a frozen, inedible block into a hot meal. We don't go bowling anymore. Instead, we mimic the motion with a handheld remote that sends a virtual ball hurtling towards virtual pins. And last night, I went to a restaurant called Pastagina where my pasta dinner was cooked by a machine.

That's right. A machine. One that was designed and built specifically for a single purpose: To transform dry pasta into perfectly al dente in the time it takes for a Cup Noodle to steep.

When I ordered, a chef (I use the term loosely) took a pre-measured fistful of uncooked spaghetti and dropped it down a funnel. The funnel was on top of a metal box that could be easily mistaken for a soft-serve ice cream dispenser. As if acknowledging its payload, a circular light on the machine turned on, not unlike HAL 9000 before it turned murderous.

What occurs inside this contraption then is a mystery. My friend thinks pressure cooking is involved. But I hold on to the fantasy that within its confines, an army of Oompa Loompas toils over tiny boiling pasta pots while singing a merry tune.

But whatever the machine does, it did it in three minutes. Afterwards, the cooked noodles were shot out the bottom chute, violently expelled like shotgun blast. It's caught by a sieve and then dumped onto a saute pan, where simmering sauces await.

After a quick toss with tongs to lubricate, the pasta is plated and served.

I approached my steaming dish of noodles with skepticism, as I do with all foods that starts with a gimmick. But with one slurp, I saw a glimpse of a bright future where all pastas are precisely cooked to "al dente" by machines.

It's a future where no single strand is limp or lifeless; where the spaghetti is springy and full of personality. And the sauce I chose -- a bright mix of cheese, garlic and tomato ($4.90) -- worked to highlight the bounce.

Penne and fusilli were also available as choices, both similarly processed to the correct degree of doneness. Morsels of smoky Italian sausage and mushroom ($6.90) paired well with the penne, which wasn't surprising.

What was surprising were the mini-baguettes that come free with every dish. It possessed a crackly crust and airy crumb to rival the best Little Saigon banh mi -- the kind of bread ideal for mopping up sauce, or saved for later when you can get a hold of some butter.

Just as it's trying to start a trend, Pastagina also kowtows to one by offering Pinkberry-style frozen yogurt for dessert. Theirs is a delicate balance of the milky and the tart -- perfect with, yes, berries.

Coincidentally, the yogurt is also piped out of a machine. But that's just as well. The longer we can keep them to food preparation, the longer it will be before the machines conquer our world and turn us into human batteries.

(949) 451-9230
6368 Irvine Blvd.
Irvine, CA 92620

Harubang - Buena Park

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Ken Morrone's Hot Dog Stand @ REI - Santa Ana

Amid the sad news that owners of L.A.'s hot dog carts were being hauled off to jail for wrapping bacon around their wieners (that sounded wrong...), eating food from a street vendor has never been more exciting. Perhaps it's because the anti-establishment rebelliousness, the perceived covertness, and the fleeting nature of it all has always been a tastier condiment than bacon itself. Leave it to prohibition to make something even more appealing.

Above all, it's the absence of formalties and pretense, where ambience, waiters, and silverware go out the door. In fact, there is no door. There is just food -- you won't get closer to what you consume and to the person preparing it than when you order from a street vendor.

But to call Ken Morrone a street vendor is inaccurate. His sausage and hot dog stand is more like your neighbor's backyard BBQ, brought out to the public. You only wish you had a neighbor like him. Friendly and energetic, he is called simply "Kenny" by the employees at the REI sporting goods store in Santa Ana, where you will find him on weekends.

Before the store's doors open for business, he sets up his monster grill outside, under the canopy of a bright blue tent. Throughout the day, until the store closes in the early evening, his hot grates will roast five kinds of sausages for a seemingly never-ending supply of patrons.

As such, the relationship Kenny has with REI is mutually beneficial. He attracts as many customers for the store as the store gives him in hungry mouths. In fact, Kenny's food has become so much a part of the REI weekend shopping experience that you aren't just allowed to browse the aisles with one of Kenny's sandwiches in hand, you're expected.

I find it best, however, to park my butt on one of the plastic chairs Kenny sets up in front of his stand. There's no better place to soak in the sun and catch a whiff of his grill smoke while my teeth sinks into one of his freshly cooked dogs.

All the foot-long sausages he offers are beautifully charred, but the Italian ($5), in particular, is burned black in spots, glistening in others -- the poster child of cooking by flame. The bite is snappy, thanks to a natural casing, and the meat is full of fennel flavor and general porkiness.

Bratwursts ($5) are equally perky, if only slightly less flavorful. But that's just a good excuse to ask for sauerkraut, which Kenny heats up for free by request on the same grill.

For those who might balk at the prices, remember this: It's actually less expensive than Jerry's Dogs (which I also love) where similar dogs retail for $5.15 (before tax). But unlike traditional establishments like Jerry's, Kenny has to lug his entire kitchen to work and tear it down at the end of the day.

So give him a break, will ya? The next time you hanker for a dog, don't "think outside the bun", just think "outside".

Ken & Mary Morrone's "The Walkin' Dog" @ REI
1411 Village Way
Santa Ana, CA 92705
Saturday: 10 am - 7 pm
Sunday: 10 am - 6 pm

Soka Bistro - Aliso Viejo