Monday, December 29, 2008

$30 8-Course Christmas Eve Dinner @ Cafe Hiro - Cypress

T'was the night before Christmas, when all through the county,
All the restaurants were offering a Christmas eve bounty.
But an arm and a leg, most of them would charge,
For prix-fixe menus, which wasn't that large.

At Marche Moderne, I spied a fine five-course dinner,
With a cost that'd make my wallet seventy-five bucks thinner.
Furthermore these prices were violating my rule;
Who'd want to pay money not to get full?

So off to Cypress, to Cafe Hiro we went,
Where I've always gotten the worth out of every penny and cent.
Here they offered an eight-course meal, a right merry feast,
Which combined the flavors of the West with that of the East.

And how much did they charge for the meal of a king?
Thirty dollars a head! A pauper's price; an affordable thing!
Choosing this package deal was almost a no-brainer.
Plus this way, I'd get dessert included with dinner!

So we ordered it and out courses came.
First was seared cubes of tuna on greens, called "poki" by name.
Then came mushrooms, sauteed and served with daikon.
A few mouthfuls of crunch and soon both were gone.

Next mozzarella, dribbled with miso sauce.
Along with cucumber, radish, and tomato shined to a gloss.
After that, it was beef tataki sliced thinly and pink.
Each bite was too chewy; it was undercooked, I think.

Uni spaghetti was the pasta to share.
Its egg-yolky presence seen here and there.
Later, it was some split-pea soup, colored jade green.
I had to be reminded not to lick my plate clean.

We each got our own entrees, that was always the plan.
I chose the roast beef, sliced as a thick as my hand,
And she took the scallops, all nicely sauteed.
Near them, roasted tomatoes and steamed asparagus were laid.

Dessert came last, but it was the thing we loved most.
Croissant bread pudding in a caramel sauce moat.
When all was done, we were full, ready to leave,
But not before we made reservations for this New Year's Eve.

Cafe Hiro
(714) 527-6090
10509 Valley View St
Cypress, CA 90630

Mariscos Puerto Esperanza - Orange

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Earthen Restaurant - Hacienda Heights

There are a few places outside the Orange Curtain that this food lover will brave freeway gridlock for. Actually, there are more than a few. Portos, Din Tai Fung, and Philippe French Dip come to mind.

But closest of all, just over the hill beyond North Orange County, is Earthen -- a Chinese restaurant so insanely popular and so insanely good, it must be the envy of all its competitors. Even in this recession, you will always, always, find yourself on a waiting list*.

The reason isn't surprising: The green onion pancakes ($3.25) and the pork pot stickers (10 for $6.50) are, for lack of a better term, the best. And that's just two specialties from a menu that honors the cuisine of Shandong province -- a Chinese cooking style that sees a lot of noodles, pancakes, dumplings, and other things wonderfully derived from wheat flour.

Those pancakes should be the first thing you order. It's richly buttery and layered like a fine French croissaint, as pliant as a freshly-pressed flour tortilla -- the lightest and crispiest onion pancakes I've ever tasted. To eat, you take a triangular slice and chomp down as if it were pizza. Dunking in a slurry of vinegar, soy, and chili paste is also recommended. Ordering two plates -- so that no one fights over the last piece -- is advised

And if you've never been a dumpling devotee, you will become one when you taste it here. With Earthen's perfect parcels of pork, you won't find any hidden air pockets -- it's filled end-to-end with meat. Every bite yields hog heaven.

The only difference between the pot stickers and their steamed cousins, the dumpling, is that they are crisped up on one side and presented with their browned bottoms facing up. Their doughy skins are thick enough to carry the cargo, yet thin enough that it disintegrates once your start chewing.

Also not to be missed is Appetizer #8 (no English translation, sorry) -- a block of chilled, silken tofu topped with quarter slices of thousand-year-old-egg, slathered with a salty sauce and garnished with scallions ($2.95).

Since there's no congee for them to hide behind, this is the closest and most personal encounter you'll ever have with the thousand-year-old-egg. Those fearful of its dark, alien appearance, shouldn't be. Apart from the slippery gelatin chew, its flavor is even milder than regular hard-boiled. The combo of it with tofu is indescribable and thrilling -- deliciously unlike anything you've ever put in your mouth (unless you've had it before).

The noodles at Earthen are almost as thick as udon, but not as chewy. And though the broth in the "Sea Food Noodle Hot Soup" ($6.50) needed a touch more salt, it is still the ultimate antidote for our recent cold snap. The orange-hued liquid scorched like it was mixed with kimchi juice. Just make sure you dab all the sweat off your brow before you step outside into the freezing breeze.

Other dishes, like the kung pao beef ($6.25), bean curd with pork ($6.25), sauteed ong-choy ($6.25) and fried shrimp with hot garlic sauce ($15.95) were pitch-perfect recitals. The ong-choy crunched with a snap and came studded with green onions; the batter-encased shrimp had a heat that snuck in with the sweet and vinegary punch of the soaked-in glaze.

All are to be heaped over a bowl of rice, shoved by chopsticks directly into the gullet, chased by plenty of hot tea, and paid for by cash.

Earthen Restaurant
(626) 964-1570‎
1639 S Azusa Ave.
Hacienda Heights, CA 91745

*Above picture was taken close to 3 P.M., after the lunch rush.

Ellen's Pinoy Grille - La Palma**

**Special Thanks to Monster Munching location scout Cecile for the tip on Ellen's Pinoy Grille.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Pizza Shack - Tustin

Last week I wrote about Taco Tuesdays, which has proven to be a taco purveyors' boon. But if there's a day of the week that calls for better food bargains, it's Monday. Why? Monday is the slowest day of the week for restaurants. Rather than sitting out the night idly, some restaurants choose to be closed. Others, like Pizza Shack in Tustin, incentivize customers with unbeatable deals.

Their discounted pie offer is so good, in fact, that it even bests Costco's pizza on value. Pizza Shack's medium, one-topping pizza is $7.85 (tax included) on Mondays (5 P.M.-9 P.M., take-out only). No coupon is necessary, and it feeds three hungry mouths amply with four slices each.

So yes, for almost every Monday since I found out about the special, I've been having pizza -- and it's a pretty satisfying one at that.

Its dough is a yeasty, springy specimen with a toothsome pull and an edge crust that's good for sopping up the pepperoni grease.

And if you do get the pepperoni as topping, there will be lots of it to soak up. The red, oily ooze seems to sweat out of the pepperoni like its been squeezed out by a vice. The grease will gloss the pie in a thin, rose-colored veneer. Inevitably, it'll dribble out the sides, slicking your lips and drenching your napkin.

If the extra fat is not your cup-o-tea, get the sausage. It's got the same peppery overtones and porky underpinnings of the pepperoni, but is far leaner and not as sloppy. Added to that, in every other chewy morsel, there's that occasional burst of fennel that the pepperoni hasn't got.

Some have also noted the sauce's inherent spicy kick. I attribute that to the pizzeria's Asian owners, Frank and Susan, who, by the way, are always in cheery mood eventhough it's Monday.

Pizza Shack
14201 Red Hill
Tustin, Ca. 92780

Thien An - Garden Grove

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Taco Mesa - Orange

Even before I write this post, my colleague Gustavo Arellano has me beat. He's found 50-cent tacos at El Bukanas in Santa Ana. So if you've already jumped at that tip, you might as well stop reading here. You'll have to pay twice that for the tacos I'm about to write about, at Taco Mesa's Taco Tuesday. And of course, the deal's only available one evening a week.

Besides that, the Taco Tuesday at Taco Mesa isn't news. The fact is that this Orange County-born chain has been doing it for ages like all other taco joints who have used the catchy alliteration to their advantage*. The term is a taco purveyor's gold mine. Think about it: Are there any other foods that has a day of the week so readily associated to it?

If "Manicotti Mondays" or "Weiner Wednesdays" has been coined, it hasn't caught on.

So while I wait for some enterprising restaurant industry marketer to introduce "Sushi Saturdays" into the lexicon, the crowd of people I encountered at the Orange branch of the chain knew exactly what they were there for: dollar tacos and all the free escabeche they can eat.

The latter has always been the one thing that I loved about the Taco Mesa and Taco Rosa chain -- razor wire-sharp, explosively colorful, and the best application of cauliflower that I've ever seen.

Taco fillings range from chicken, to al pastor, to shredded beef. Patrons range from Chapman University hipsters, to other bargain-hunting non-cooks like myself.

Chicken tacos are wrapped in two kinds of colored tortilla and taste half-way between a deep-fried tacos dorado and one that uses comal-warmed tortillas. I can't tell which one it is, but I can tell you that they're greasy, slightly crunchy, and sprinkled with the mild feta tang of crumbled queso fresco. It's that grease that fills you up.

The al pastor is lean, well-seasoned, tinged to an angry shade of red. And in it I found something I've never found in an al pastor: tiny cubes of pineapple. I loved its addition. Fruit, especially acidic ones like apples and pineapples, always work well with pork, and it's especially welcome in these tacos.

However, I cannot say that it is the best al pastor that I've ever had. That title still belongs to the al pastors sold by a Bellflower hole-in-the-wall called Tacos Jalisco #2, which, to my knowledge, does not offer a Taco Tuesday.

Taco Mesa
(714) 633-3922
3533 E Chapman Ave # E
Orange, CA 92869

*For more Taco Tuesday deals, check out my buddy Christian's blog post here.

Veggie Grill - Irvine