Sunday, September 28, 2008

BBQ Chicken - Irvine

Ah, Diamond Jamboree. Nothing in recent memory has changed the Irvine dining scene like it has done, and in the way it has done: literally overnight. These past few weeks have seen a half dozen new Asian restaurants open there to flowery wreaths, balloon arches, and lots and lots of traffic. First, it was Tokyo Table and Chae Bahn. Then, this weekend, 85°C Bakery Café, Guppy Tea House and the return of BCD Tofu House.

And of course, there's BBQ Chicken, which marks the first time Korean fried chicken has made it into the city limits -- that is, if you don't count when its citizens smuggle it in from existing Korean fried chicken purveyors in Buena Park and Garden Grove.

Last night, after being refused entry to Tokyo Table (mental note for next time: secure reservations well in advance) we strolled over to BBQ Chicken to find that it, too, was crowded. Barely a week in and the place was already doing brisk business. Perhaps too brisk for us, who despite being fortunate enough to grab a table as soon as we walked in, had to wait a good half-hour for our orders to arrive.

Priority, it seems, is rightly given to its take-out customers. But also, there's this: When we ordered the Red Hot Drumsticks (5 pieces for $8.99), our server gave us two dire warnings. The first: "This is really spicy". The second: "This is going to take longer".

Only after thumb-twiddling, playing multiple rounds of cell phone games, and watching the sun go down, did we realize what "longer" meant. But when the Red Hot Drumsticks finally did come, our dour moods and growling stomachs were rewarded with what is possibly the best fried chicken in Irvine.

The drumsticks were wonderful, crusted over with a bubbled coat of batter and drenched in scorching red chili sauce that seemed to glow with radioactivity. Their raison d'être lies in that first quarter inch where skin, batter, and sauce gather to form a concentrated sucker punch of crunch and burn. Ralph Wiggum put it best when he said: “It tastes like burning!”

As your lips throb and your brow dampens, it will remind you of Buffalo wings, but much more memorable than that. In the sauce I tasted honey, kimchi juice and garlic. And even if you end up not liking them, you’ll still taste them over and over again, since long after your meal is over, the chicken will continue to produce burps more fragrant than CornNuts.

But as good as the sauce is, the chicken would be nothing without the crust. Like Kyochon's chicken, the skin is rendered of all of the subcutaneous fat -- so much so that it virtually disappears into the coating. But unlike Kyochon's chicken, BBQ Chicken touts a thicker batter and also the fact that their birds are cooked in olive oil. We did not, however, take that to mean that this was health food. Fried chicken is still fried chicken.

Their Teri-Q Gold Wings (10 pcs for $7.99) was battered with a lighter touch and soaked in a salty, soy-based glaze. And they were enormous, like they came from sort of gigantic, mutant hen. But somehow, they were less impressive than the drumsticks. “These are good,” I said to my friends, “but not Kyochon-good.”

But that was a minor complaint. As I mentioned, the service, during these formative weeks, is a bit uneven, and that’s being kind. They seemed to be struggling to figure out whether they want to be a quick-service fast-food take-out or a proper sit-down. Their biggest weakness is that their dine-in servers are also the cashiers, which is why no one offered us the pickled radishes until we asked. However, the fact that they were delicious and free was more than enough to make up for it.

The fried rice ($1.75) is another matter. It was, without question, the worst fried rice I’ve ever eaten. In fact, it tasted like bad Rice-A-Roni. Thank goodness for BBQ Chicken that their chicken drumsticks were light-years away from Shake n' Bake.

BBQ Chicken
2750 Alton Parkway #111
Irvine, CA 92614

Victory Bakery & Restaurant - Anaheim

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Ono Hawaiian BBQ* - Tustin

I love Hawaii for the same reasons everyone else loves Hawaii. But most of all, I love the food. Fresh poke from the fish counter at KTA on the Big Island. Guri guri from Tasaka on Maui. Saimin from Hamura on Kauai. And of course, the plate lunch, which should be anointed as the State's official dish, if it hasn't already.

When Hawaii's native son, Barack Obama, went to vacation there this summer, guess what was first on his mind. That's right: the plate lunch.

This is a meal specifically formulated to satisfy, consisting of two scoops of sticky rice, a scoop of macaroni salad and a massive mound of meat. Gut filling, unflinchingly fattening, the plate lunch represents what modern Hawaii is: a singular culture born from a whole bunch of others. But above all, it's uniquely American.

And although I still can't get a decent poke anywhere in O.C., the plate lunch has successfully crossed the Pacific to the mainland, where it has been embraced. Tustin, for instance, has at least two Hawaiian joints specializing in it.

One is Waikiki Hawaiian Grill, a tiny cubbyhole of a take-out place in the shadow of an Office Depot, which performs feats of wonder with its chicken katsu.

The latest is Ono Hawaiian BBQ at The District, which is arguably the most successful eatery at the center. Finding a free table there at lunchtime is just as tricky as snagging a parking spot near the place.

Though Ono is part of a larger chain that spans two states, it's still relatively small compared to the L&L empire. If L&L is KFC, Ono is Popeyes. And like I prefer Popeyes over KFC, I prefer Ono over L&L.

Their plate lunches are formidable. The one that would've sated even Iz Kamakawiwo'ole is the Hawaiian BBQ Mix ($7.69). It should speak volumes when I say that the picture the restaurant uses on its menu marquee doesn't do the actual dish justice. What you get is significantly more insane, like the cooks intended to feed zoo lions.

But if quantity was the only thing going for it, I wouldn't have bothered writing this post. The kalbi is tender and luscious, the deeply-flavored chicken comes in two thick slabs (dark meat, of course); but the coup de grâce is their BBQ beef, which seems like its chipped off from the best parts of the cow -- a sweetly carnivorous meat treat.

They do their surf as well as their turf. Mahi Mahi ($7.19) is served up in more manageable, easy to eat portions, but done perfectly. Though the pieces are most likely from frozen, they're still great. The Panko-breaded fish are fried to a greaseless crisp on the outside and moist flakiness inside. They go remarkably well with rice and mac salad, especially doused in their pineapple-y katsu sauce and squirted with liberal amounts of Sriracha.

However, there are two items at Ono that I found lacking, but only because Waikiki Hawaiian does it better.

While Waikiki's chicken katsu exists on its own ethereal plane, Ono's katsu ($6.59) is just fried chicken. To put it another way, Waikiki's dances the hula; Ono's just sits there.

And while Ono's loco moco ($7.19) dutifully fills up my stomach, Waikiki's loco moco actually does the impossible: I actually crave more than what's served. That's something when you realize that loco moco is a hamburger patty topped with a fried egg, doused in gloppy gravy and served over rice -- a dish that is ten times as heavy and fattening as it sounds.

John McCain would be well advised by his doctors to stay away from it.

Ono Hawaiian BBQ
(714) 258-1888
2336 Park Ave
Tustin, CA 92782

Hungry Bear - Fullerton**

*Update 9/23/08: I confirmed today that this week, Ono Hawaiian BBQ at The District changed its name to Aloha Hawaiian BBQ. Thanks to Johnny Automatic for the breaking news!

**Special Thanks to Monster Munching location scout Cecile for the tip on Hungry Bear.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Sushi Wasabi - Tustin

When foodies talk about who does the best traditional sushi in Orange County, three names will inevitably rise to the top: Shibucho in Costa Mesa, Kasen in Fountain Valley, and Sushi Wasabi in Tustin.

Among those, the one that usually floats above the cream is Sushi Wasabi. Whether it is the best or not, Chowhounds, Yelpers, and food critics agree on one thing: the owner and chef is a die-hard stalwart of tradition -- a lone samurai standing in defense of an artform under attack from all sides. After all, everyone does sushi these days, or some form of it, but not everyone can be called an itamae.

Sushi Wasabi's Katsu Aoyagi is, in the truest sense of the word. And he's as serious as one gets.

In fact, he is so rigorously old-school, his reputation precedes him.

How so? Both he and Shibutani-san of Sushi Shibucho will refuse to make you a California roll, but only Katsu-san puts it in writing.

His mission statement -- scrawled in calligraphy and framed next to his sushi bar -- reads:


We follow the art of traditional sushi practice. Sushi bar is limited to the fresh catch of the day - continually served. No need to place an order. We offer sushi and hand rolls of Japanese tradition. (No California rolls. If self selection is preferred, please be seated at a table.)


And trust him we did.

We sat and almost automatically, our "omakase" dinner began.

With his face hidden beneath a baseball cap, he toiled with quiet concentration and made eye contact only when he presented each course. When he did, he uttered a few proud words to tell us about what the item was and where it came from.

Chilled Canadian albacore steaks was his first offering, soaking in a puddle of tart ponzu and sliced scallions. This was followed by big eye tuna from Tahiti -- a cut of soothing coolness that made me shiver. Any fresher and he'd need a spear and scuba gear.

After that, it was a creamy New Zealand red snapper, served with spritz of ponzu. The piece, like the tuna that came before, featured loosely-packed and smaller-than-normal balls of rice. This was deliberate, since the rice was meant to function as a chaser to the fish, not the other way around.

Next was the item for which he is most well-known: the blue crab hand roll. It's from Texas, he told us, and there were gobs of it -- enough to fill a cup -- dressed in mayo and wrapped with rice inside crispy nori. Sweet and unbelievably succulent, it was worth its weight in gold.

About now, more customers trickled in. Soon, there would be no empty bar seats left. But Katsu-san's pace and output was not slowed. We watched in slack-jawed amazement as this sushi dynamo served ten people, by himself, remaining as cool as his cucumber rolls.

His method wasted no movement, and employed fish he'd pre-cut beforehand. It is this fact, however, that provides the few Sushi Wasabi detractors ammunition against him.

But pre-cut or not, the next piece he gave us was dreamy. It was the back and stomach of a yellowtail from Japan; a slab of flesh so rich and fatty, it filled my mouth like Häagen-Dazs. He followed this with a hot dish; tender scallops baked with onion strands and mayo, splashed with ponzu.

Then, it was chopped toro nigiri, which reminded me of Hawaiian shaved ice since it melted cooly on my tongue like a snow cone. Afterwards, there was Santa Barbara uni. Jiggly and blubbery, the warmth of the rice hastened its transformation into a custardy mouthful of liquid.

He hand-formed Scottish salmon into aerodynamic bullets, topping it with sweet sea kelp and toasted sesame seeds. Its oily unctuousness prepared us for what was to come: bulbous Kumamoto oysters from Seattle that burst like a sea-water-filled balloons.

The next course that came was albacore stomach sack, which I ate without remembering to take a picture. But it, too, was doused in ponzu sauce, like the oysters.

By then, I realized I'd discovered my only problem with the meal: his repetitive use of ponzu was beginning to fatigue my palate.

He didn't relent with the final course, either. A thick and firm Japanese scallop was also brushed with the same, citrusy brew.

We threw in the towel at that point -- not because I was afraid there would be more ponzu, but because our bellies were close to exploding.

The total per person was $71.33 before tip, which was just about what we expected for a meal we expected to love. And we did love it...though not as much as Katsu-san seemed to love ponzu.

Sushi Wasabi
14460 Newport Ave # E
Tustin, CA 92780
(714) 505-3496

*Want other perpectives? Read reviews by Gustavo Arellano, KevinEats, and Julian Hsu.
Sea Smoke - San Clemente

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Warung Ibu Oka - Ubud, Bali

Anthony Bourdain is not The Dark Knight or Iron Man, but as far as foodies like me are concerned, he's a superhero. A respected chef, best-selling author, and host of Travel Channel's No Reservations, he does what all foodies aspire to do: get paid to eat and travel. I'd hate his guts for having the best job in the world if he weren't so damned good at it.

Both this program and its predecessor -- Food Network's A Cook's Tour -- are literate, well-produced shows with Bourdain as its omnipresent voice. His wit is as sharp as a Henckles, but he also gets my respect for another reason: the guy loves durian!

Like many others, my dream (other than to be him) is to follow in his footsteps. No, not the TV career thing. I'm neither photogenic nor interesting enough to do that. Rather, I want to try everything he's tried: from slurping noodles at divey Southeast Asian hawker stalls, to tasting Ferran Adria's latest molecular gastronomic experiments at El Bulli in Spain.

But if there was a single thing I saw on the show that made me salivate most, it was on the Indonesia episode. In Bali (see clip below), he visited a warung (see last week's post for a definition) that specialized in Balinese roasted pig or babi guling, wherein a whole hog is twirled by hand crank over an open pit of fire and basted with coconut water until the skin attains a brown, glass-like shine.

Upon taking a bite of it, Bourdain proclaimed:

"OK. No question about it. This is the best pig I've ever had. Absolutely, the best. I mean is there anything more beautiful? Do you think that even the finest French chef could ever come up with anything as delicious or as beautiful as this? I think not. It's the mountain-top of pork. And I am there."

So on my trip to Indonesia a few months ago, guess what was on the top of my itinerary?

Yep. Babi guling at Ibu Oka.

When we arrived, it was crowded with a good blend of locals and tourists, which was odd because the restaurant is in Ubud, an artsy mountain village nowhere near the busy beach resort town of Kuta, where Hard Rock Cafe still packs 'em in.

Once we found an empty table, we took our shoes off, and sat cross-legged on the floor. Lunch was easy to order, since there was really only one thing on the menu: babi guling with rice. By local standards, it was expensive. One plate? A whopping 25,000 rupiah. That's $2.73.

And it was everything Bourdain said it would be. The skin shattered when I bit into it, like a brittle sheet of caramelized sugar. The pork meat itself was more neutrally flavored. Stripped into thin slabs from the carcass of the animal, I tore it up into smaller strands with my fork, and relished the pieces that was covered in their spicy potpourri of herbs and spices.

The best part of the meal was something Bourdain didn't talk about -- an object I couldn't readily identify (see it on the foreground of my first photo). It was a fritter, deep-fried to a ruddy and gnarly hunk resembling porous lava rock. I don't know exactly what was in it, but there was pig involved. This I'm sure of, because it was delicious and vaguely bacon-y.

So there. I finally ate where Tony Bourdain ate.

One episode down. Fifty some more to go.

Warung Ibu Oka
Jln. Suweta, Ubud
Bali, Indonesia

Casa Inka - Fountain Valley

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Stick a Fork In It

Ladies and gentlemen, damas y caballeros, please allow me to interrupt our regularly scheduled programming to present another new food blog.

No, no, I promise, this will be a good one (crossing fingers). It's called "Stick a Fork In It" -- OC Weekly's first food blog -- which will be primarily written by me and Gustavo Arellano, Mr. "This Hole-in-the-Wall Life" himself.

On the "Stick a Fork In It" blog, I hope to chronicle stuff and food-related subjects that doesn't fit into this one, which will continue to do proper restaurant reviews you are familiar with.

Read it, won't you?