Monday, October 27, 2008

Trieu Chau - Santa Ana

I was bummed when Noodle Avenue folded. For me, this restaurant -- which couldn't decide whether it wanted to be Pei Wei clone or a true noodle shop -- was my comfort-food place. It was my corner diner; my Monk's Cafe.

I never touched Noodle Avenue's stir-fried stuff -- too pedestrian, and frankly, not very good. In fact, I ordered nothing but the House Noodle. It was fast, cheap, slurpably dependable, and I didn't have to go far to get it.

Its proximity was everything. Everyone should have a noodle shop like this a few clicks from their place of work or domicile. To me, Noodle Avenue was both.

But if there's something good that came from Noodle Avenue's demise, it's that it lit the fire under my feet to try Trieu Chau -- the restaurant that Noodle Avenue owes its existence to.

And when I finally made the pilgrimage, I realized that it was like I had being going to California Adventure, while never having been to Disneyland -- a silly thing to do.

Noodle Avenue had nothing on the original.

I had read all about Trieu Chau going in; stories of its legendary noodle soups, coupled with horrifying tales of its divey-ness. One in particular comes to mind. It involves fellow food blogger Dylan (aka Noodle Whore) of Eat Drink & Be Merry and toenail clippings. He writes:

Trieu Chau Restaurant is so packed that the practice of joining 2 parties into 1 table is all too common. I once got hooked up with a grandpa and grandma. We didn't say a word to each other as we happily slurped our noodles and soup. Until... grandma busts out her NAILCLIPPERS. Ok, I thought, that's fine, she's going to clip her fingernails. Then without notice of me, she props her foot onto her chair and starts clipping away.... laying her finely incised TOENAILS onto a napkin which was already sharing real estate with a duck bone she had cleaned out.

But these details weren't what kept me way: It was the distance.

To me, instant gratification and noodles go hand-in-hand. My sentiments are echoed by Homer Simpson in this scene:

Moe: This baby can flash fry a buffalo in 30 seconds!

Homer: Awwww, but I want it now.

Trieu Chau, however, was worth the wait, and the drive.

The restaurant is exactly as I expected. The place is a little grimy; the scene, a bit chaotic. A few ceiling tiles are off-colored and the floor isn't always clean. In other words: It is authentic.

The service, however, is shockingly efficient and friendly. When fellow food blogger James Boo of The Eaten Path and I ate there together for the purpose of a joint review, we ordered and received our steaming bowls in less time than it takes for a Whopper to be assembled. And for some reason, the person serving it was wearing a latex glove.

Each table is supplied with more condiments than I knew what to do with. Sriracha. Sugar. White pepper. Two kinds of pickled chili pepper (red and green). Fresh Thai bird chilis. Salt. Dried chili flakes. Hoisin. Soy. Fish sauce. Chopped peanuts. Chili garlic sauce. All provide pathways to infinite customization.

Best of the group is a sweetish, savory chili paste swimming in oil. On this visit, I dabbed just a touch of it on top of each bite of meat. But on a previous noodle run, a pain-lovin' co-worker slopped spoonfuls of it directly into his broth. The result looked like shark chum or the receiving tray of a wood chipper after a terrible accident.

Even if he hadn't done this, the bowls Trieu Chau serves aren't for the faint of heart. You'll find liver in it -- big, inelegant chunks that tastes of, well...liver.

And don't expect cleanly sliced white breast meat. No, what I got were dark meat chicken and duck pieces, still on the bone, and hacked hapzardly with a cleaver. Both were chopped with a flagrant disregard to the location of the animal's actual joints. As an inevitable consequence, there were occasional fragments of bone in the soup. Spitting them out into a napkin is not frowned upon; it's expected.

The meat that clung to those bones, however, was perfect -- especially enjoyable when there's a scrap of its gelatinous skin attached.

Along with them, my bowl of Chao Chow Rice Noodle ($5.25) contained shrimp, meat balls, fish cake, and an uncharacteriscally lean hunk of pork.

But it's the broth that tied it all together. And it was marvelous -- a hot, glorious, mouth-filling nectar wrung from the soul of bird and hog. I'm not sure if MSG was involved, but for sure there were fried garlic bits that exploded in bursts of flavor.

Each serving also came with a plate of blanched bean sprouts and wedges of lime. The sprouts were just about the only vegetable in the dish (save for the diced scallions). The lime juice brightened the brew.

If you come in the morning hours, Trieu Chau has fried Chinese doughnuts, served even if you didn't order it, and charged to your bill only if you consume it. I don't know what would happen if you decided to just leave it untouched.

But when it's offered to you, you might as well eat it; It's part of the Trieu Chau experience. Though the toe-nail incident isn't, you shouldn't rule that out either.

Trieu Chau
(714) 775-1536
4401 W 1st St
Santa Ana, CA 92703
To read James of The Eaten Path's review
Tommy Pastrami - Santa Ana

Before I Was A Food Blogger...

...I ate a lot of TV dinners and on a lark, I wrote a stupid letter to Con Agra Foods.

Obviously I was inspired by such humor books like Idiot Letters
and Letters from a Nut.This was the first and only one I sent out. I stumbled upon it recently and thought I'd share it with you, my readers.

Although after re-reading it, I'm glad I got into blogging.

A preface: The circumstances were all true, though the point of the letter was just to get a funny response back, not so much to complain.

I did get a reply from Con Agra a few weeks later, but it was a boring, boiler-plated letter that I have since misplaced. Included with it, however, was a coupon for a free Banquet frozen dinner!

ConAgra Foods
Consumer Affairs, Dept. B
P.O. Box 3768
Omaha, NE 68103-0768

April 3, 2002

Dear Sir or Madam:

I have been a Banquet Frozen Dinner consumer for quite a long time. Needless to say, I buy your product because of the value. That is to say, I expect that I will get what I pay for. However, when I recently purchased your Fish Stick meal, I discovered that there were only FOUR fish sticks in the package and not the FIVE that is shown on the box photo, which, coincidentally, has a prominent label proclaiming that the meal now contains “24% More Fish”. But because there were only four fish sticks when five was promised by the photo, this means that there is actually 20% LESS FISH in the meal! So your company should either:

- Put one more fish stick in the box to match the number of sticks in the box photo;


- Change the photograph on the box to show one less fish stick to match the number of fish sticks that are actually in the box;


- Change the label to say that there is 20% LESS FISH than the photo shows.

Also, how did you come up with such an odd statistic as “24% More Fish”? Why not a rounder number like 20% or 25%? It doesn’t seem that such a specific percentage could be something that an average consumer would be able to quantify or detect on an individual fish stick, especially since the sticks seem to shrink in size the longer it is cooked in the microwave.

E. Goei

P.S. This is an extra post for this week; amends for the fact that I was late in posting my regular review. Hope you enjoyed it.

*Special thanks to Monster Munching reader Julie. She e-mailed me today, just to check that I was okay when she didn't see a new post this week.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Porto's Bakery - Glendale

Their inventory: massive. Their reputation: legendary. The lines: long. The parking situation: road-ragy.

This, ladies and gentlemen, is Porto's Bakery.

I rarely go up to L.A., let alone Glendale, but when I do, it is always part of the itinerary. And in L.A. or O.C., I've never met its equal. Porto's is the mothership of all Southern Californian Cuban bakeries, which until recently, supplied Cafe Contigo in Anaheim with most of its baked goods.

Last week, Gustavo Arellano broke the news that Cafe Contigo has closed. So now, eventhough I actually never got a chance to visit Cafe Contigo, I'll have no choice but to make the pilgrimage to Glendale if I ever wanted to take a taste of their sublime cakes and pastries again.

And because of this news, I'm craving their good, rich, and chocolatey desserts more than ever. But it's their savory items that I'm dreaming of most.

They have this mashed potato ball that's filled with seasoned ground beef and then deep fried to golden brown orbs. And oh, their empanadas! It's flaky, warm and bursting with raisins, chicken, and a flavor I haven't encountered since a trip to Miami. There's also the Cuban version of the tamale, which is a gentler, smoother, milder and more subtle version than the Mexican ones I'm usually used to.

All was worth the drive and the threat of violence from the motorist who claimed that he saw a parking space before I did.

Since my last trip was sometime in February, I guess it's due time to put gas in the old Honda and set civility aside.

Porto's Bakery
(818) 956-5996
315 N Brand Blvd
Glendale, CA 91203

Tokyo Table - Irvine

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Baja Fish Tacos - Santa Ana

Contrary to what you may think, fish tacos are to be avoided at Baja Fish Tacos. Despite actually being deep-fried, they are inexplicably non-greasy and desperately lacking in flavor exactly because of it. To top it off, they're dry, lifeless. No amount of the restaurant's pico de gallo will ever hope to revive the sorry things.

The pico de gallo should be saved for a nobler purpose: as the amigo to the hot chips. For $2.25, you get a basket of chips scooped from heated receptacle by your cashier, and an empty Styrofoam bowl. The bowl is your license to go loco at the salsa bar.

If you don't pay the premium, the salsa bar is free, but then you're relegated to those little thimbles they provide. And for the chips -- they're the thin and homemade kind -- you'll need as much as two heaping bowls. You'll savor every chunk of fresh tomato, every bit of spicy onion, and every fleck of cilantro, which may or may not get stuck in your teeth for hours of unintended embarrassment.

Besides the chips and salsa, I always get the Enchilada Combo ($7.60), wherein two rolled corn tortillas get stuffed with your choice of fish, shrimp, chicken, carne asada, or if you're into it, cheese. The pair gets draped in red chile sauce and smothered under a thin veneer of more cheese which is melted under a broiler until all is bubbly and oozy.

Carne asada is my protein of choice most of the time. And why not? It's essentially fire grilled steak, hacked to itty bitty chunks, with some of the edges burnt crisp almost to ember.

Its gritty char, the velvet of the cheese and the acid tang of the enchilada sauce meld into something worthy of a telenovela -- cheesy, sultry, and full of scene-stealing actors.

Flanking it on both sides, the rice and beans aren't just mere supporting players. The beans are so blubbery it's almost soup; but as soon as you rake it up with a fork, it seems to congeal at the cooling touch of the metal -- a sign that lard is probably the secret ingredient. Then there's the rice. It's as fluffy as cotton, almost as flavorful as the rice they serve with Hainan chicken.

These two sides, in my opinion, are the best rice and beans north of the Rio Grande and west of the Mississippi. When I'm not particularly hungry, I just order a bowl of it, scarf it in spoonfuls with plenty of the pico de gallo and call it a meal.

But try to come when you're famished enough to finish a whole combo enchilada plate, if only so that you can waddle out of the restaurant picking your teeth and groaning "Ay, mi estomago!"

Baja Fish Tacos
3664 South Bristol St.
Santa Ana, CA 92704

*Special Thanks (and apologies) to Monster Munching champion and reader JB for reminding me to do a review on this place -- one of my faves!

Best of OC - Foodstuffs & Restaurants
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Sunday, October 05, 2008

Topz - Santa Ana

There is a burger joint in Arizona that calls itself the Heart Attack Grill. It is a place where you can get a towering four-stack of meat and cheese dubbed "The Quadruple Bypass". The fries are proudly cooked in “pure lard”, the owner refers to himself as a "Doctor", the waitresses dress like sexy nurses, orders are called "prescriptions", and when you're finished, you are rolled out to your car in a wheelchair. Oh yeah, they also sell cigarettes.

It's all very tongue-in-cheek (their catchphrase: "Taste Worth Dying For") and it's shamelessly targeted towards chest-thumping alpha males. And although I’ve never tasted their food, I admire the humor and the honesty –- here’s a restaurant that not only acknowledges that burgers and fries aren’t healthy, they have a litle fun with it.

But in doing so, it actually (even if somewhat inadvertently) credits their customers for being smart, rational people who are responsible for their own choices. No one who walks in there is under any illusion that what they’re about to consume is good for them.

Which brings me to Topz; a recent entrant in the O.C. dining scene with already outpost in Orange, and a new one in Santa Ana. They go in the opposite direction, billing themselves as the "Healthier Burger Grill" and proclaiming that theirs is a "guilt-free" experience compared to the "other guys".

But before I go into how the burgers taste, let's first do the numbers. Herewith are the nutrional facts for their base model of burger (with everything), which was easily procured from Topz's own website:

1/4 lb. Black Angus Burger
Weight: 301 g
Calories: 507
Calories from fat: 230
Total Fat: 25 g

And for comparison, here are the nutrional facts from you-know-who:

Big Mac®
Weight: 214 g
Calories: 540
Calories from fat: 260
Total Fat: 29 g

Quarter Pounder®
Weight: 169 g
Calories: 410
Calories from fat: 170
Total Fat: 19 g

From an initial glance, it seems that while it contains less fat than a Big Mac, you'd ingest more fat eating a Topz's burger than if you downed a Quarter Pounder.

Though to be fair, you must account for the fact that the Quarter Pounder is almost half the weight of a Topz burger. So, if you calculate what percentage of its weight is fat, the Topz burger does come out ahead. Of its reported total weight, their burger is 8.3% fat. The Big Mac is 13.6% fat. The Quarter Pounder, 11.2%.

So which is it? Is it really "healthier" or isn't it? Well, I'll leave it up for you to decide.

Frankly, I'm indifferent. Truth is, if the Heart Attack Grill were open next door, I'd be reviewing it, not Topz.

But with that said, Topz's burger wasn't as bad as I had heard, though perhaps it's because I was expecting a lot worse after reading reviews by fellow bloggers Kat from Gluttonista and Dan Garion of Eat in OC.

While it was decently tasty, the burger I had could've done better with a white bread bun instead of whole wheat (which had the mouth feel of sawdust). All in all, it's still better than a McDonald's sandwich.

However, I wouldn't go so far as to say that I'd buy it again. It's been a week since I had it, and the only really memorable thing about it was the price: The 1/4 lb. Black Angus Burger cost me $4.60 (before tax).

Topz's Aero Fries ($1.80), on the other hand, were memorable for the wrong reasons. As the name subtly suggests, it's baked, not fried. In fact, Topz is proud to proclaim that they own no deep fryers.

Because of it, the fries suffer from a personal axiom of mine that states:

"An incremental increase in nutrition will result in an exponential decrease in flavor."

The Aero Fries were more stiff than crispy, with its dryness accounting for its texture. And while most were slightly crunchy, some were limp, and all had the same presence on the palate as a Baked Lays -- my mouth was never fooled into thinking that it was eating a French fry.

Anyone like me, who orders their In-N-Out fries "well-done" -- where the potatoes are practically wicked of all moisture and replaced with an oily crunch -- will be similarly disappointed.

However, it must be noted that the Aero Fries were dramatically lower in fat compared to McDonald's.

Aero Fries
Weight: 158 g
Calories: 380
Calories from fat: 120
Total Fat: 14 g

McDonald's Fries
Weight: 154 g
Calories: 500
Calories from fat: 220
Total Fat: 25 g

But I know what you're thinking. What would fries cooked in "pure lard" register? And more importantly, how great would it taste?

(714) 979-0999
2 Hutton Centre Dr
Santa Ana, CA 92707

The Retreat - Costa Mesa