Monday, November 29, 2010

Chik-fil-A's Chicken Soup - Tustin

I've never been brought down by a flu like this. In between the skin-burning fevers, there are body shivers and inexplicable cold clammy sweats. My head feels like my brain is set on tumble-dry-low, a constant throbbing as if a nightclub has taken up residence in my cranium. I'm constantly thristy, but my appetite is shot. The past three days have been spent tossing and turning in bed thinking "WTF is this thing? This sucks!"

I write this in the lull that Advil provides and after having eaten dinner of Chik-Fil-A's chicken noodle soup, which I requested because, well, it seemed the kind of thing to eat in this condition. It's not the best soup in the world. But it didn't have to be. The carrots, celery, and noodles seem to have taken on the same consistency: mushy. But the soup is hot and thick; the chicken, actual meat from an actual chicken.

Now if you'll excuse me, my lovely caretaker and chicken soup deliverer has told me to get off the computer and get more rest.

2889 Park Ave
Tustin, CA 92782
(714) 258-1400

Liang's Kitchen - Irvine

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Dat Thanh - Westminster

A post by Dave Lieberman on OC Weekly's Stick a Fork In It food blog started it all. That was the fuse that led to an explosion of press coverage for Dat Thanh, a tiny Little Saigon restaurant that has emerged into the limelight as The One that challenged the monopoly of Brodard, the Goliath of nem nuong rolls. From there, subsequent articles by the LA Times and OC Register followed. It was a lot of attention fast—a white hot fire of free and deserved publicity that begat building-wrapping lines for a postage-stamp-size of a place that only has, at most, four tables.

Its owner, Hai Nguyen, of course, has been ecstatic for all that’s happened to his family’s little eatery, though, quite honestly, it's hard to tell when the guy isn't happy. Come to his store these days (don't worry the fervor has calmed down a bit since those articles published) and you'll get to chat with him. He’ll tell you the past month has been insane. He’ll tell you that he’s honored, humbled and hopeful that his family’s diligence and hard work seemed to finally pay off literally overnight. He even told us that he’s now considering opening another restaurant.

If you’ve read all the press yourself, you won’t see any new info about the food here: only a reaffirmation of what everyone else has said. Dat Thanh’s nem nuong rolls are wonderful—every bit the worthy challenger to Brodard’s.

First, there’s the nem nuong itself. They make it in-house, of course. The chewy, ruddy, half-cylinder cut lengthwise can be compared to a sausage, though it isn’t one. It can also be said it’s kind of like luncheon meat, though it isn’t that either. It sports a peppery bite, a tactile and playful texture that bounces back up like a spring-loaded hot dog if it had this kind of personality. But above all you taste the honest, hand-made care behind each porky construct; how the Zen-simplicity and see-through translucency of the skin-tight wetted rice paper holds back such wonders.

Inside the roll, it is the heartiness of their nem nuong that sings more soulfully than Brodard’s.

There are other noted differences to the Brodard roll, as has been said. The tucked-in twirled cigar of deep fried egg roll skin is thinner here, resulting in a less skull-rattling crunch than its cross-town rival. And cilantro-averse people should be aware that Dat Thanh’s rolls contain chopped bits of the herb mixed in with the lettuce.

And then there’s the warm, pinkish, thick dipping medium; the nem nuong roll’s life-force; the ambrosial liquid that has become, at least in Little Saigon, the secret-sauce of secret-sauces. Brodard’s nem nuong sauce has intrigued and beguiled the masses more than anything else, a recipe more guarded than nuclear launch codes. And here it is cracked: Dat Thanh’s is everything Brodard’s formula is, except spicier, tangier and less sugary, with all of the magic.

Yes, the sauce and the rolls are great here. Your first pilgrimage should and will be made in sole search of them, but every subsequent trip should be for everything else on the menu. Though a few pages long, their roster is deceptively made up of just the basics you know, done well. The BBQ pork is luscious and a tofu-skin-wrapped shrimp mousse sheds its crispy shards like a flaky croissant— as good as any I’ve ever had. All these proteins are rearranged and combined with others on top of rice or a wispy cold noodle called bun an doused with an equally lip-smacking, if basic, golden fish sauce.

But that’s not all: the nem noung that filled the rolls can also be had on top of rice, basted with a sticky, sugary glaze and grilled till slightly smoky. As Hai will tell you, it’s the same meat, but it tastes completely different when you eat it this way. He’s right.

Drizzle the whole plate with a generous pour of their aforementioned nuoc mam from a carafe, a brew that Hai revealed they make by boiling down the best caliber of fish sauce to concentrate the sweetness.

After every bite and minute spent of your visit chatting with Hai, you realize you are no longer just at the hole-in-the-wall restaurant that dared to challenge Brodard. In fact, before long you forget all the articles, the hype, and the hoopla. You’re just at a good, decent Vietnamese restaurant, with a good, decent man taking care of you.

Dat Thanh
10032 McFadden Ave.
Westminster, CA 92683
(714) 650-0910

Les Amis - Fullerton

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Trader Joe's Hickory Barbeque Potato Chips

They're the greasiest, crunchiest, saltiest potato chip I have ever encountered. They are also the greatest potato chip ever created. In my opinion, there is no better chip on this planet than these. Hold one up to inspect it closely and you see that the chip has pockets of oil trapped in every pore. Light shines through it as though it were stained glass.

The sugary/smoky/salty powdered BBQ seasoning is caked on, seemingly applied with no regard to its excess. Since it's Hawaiian-style (which really just means kettle-cooked), the slices are thick, sturdy, and have a raucous crunch and an intense potato-ness.

When the chips are gone, the bottom of the bag is speckled with the leavings, a greasy, salty, clumpy concentrate of crumbs, oil and seasoning that you can literally scoop up with a spoon.

If you're even a little bit squeamish on fat, do not buy these chips. If your doctor has curtailed your salt intake, do not buy these chips. If you're disgusted by anything I've said so far, do not buy these chips. If you're at Trader Joe's in Santa Ana and you see that there's only one bag left, do not buy these chips. Save it for me!

My cube mates and I have lost count of how many of these $2 bags we've bought over the last couple of months. We take turns buying the week's supply. At any given time, one is ready to go in our file cabinets. When the inevitable afternoon hunger pangs hits between two thirty and four, we look at each other and ask "Is it chip time?"

Then and only then do we tear open a bag and share.

We don't necessarily have to do this. Any one of us is capable of finishing an entire bag by himself in one afternoon. We eat it together as a sort of chip support group so that no one person goes on a potato chip bender he'll later regret. We also eat it together to confirm our shared belief in the greatness of these chips with intonations of "These...*CRUNCH*...are the greatest...*CRUNCH*...potato chips...*CRUNCH*...ever!"

O Fine Japanese Cuisine - Laguna Beach

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Wraps Xpress - Irvine

Wraps Xpress might just be the most ambiguous restaurant name to have appeared in Irvine since Asian Tapas. It does not foretell of what's actually made inside the store in this innocuous Albertsons-anchored neighborhood shopping center called Quail Hill.

Every customer who strolled in from the cold had no idea that this place is, in fact, a lahmajoun specialist. Lahmajoun (also spelled lahmacun) is a Turkish pizza of sorts: dough stretched to a thinness of a crepe, baked with minced meat.

Greeted by a jolly, bald man with the pent-up enthusiasm of a car salesman, these customers come in meekly, not knowing exactly what they will be eating. The man explains, quite joyfully, that when you choose your "pizza", it's baked to order with either meat (beef or chicken), cheese, spinach or zaatar (herbs). After the oven, it's topped with a variety of veggies, sauces and condiments before being rolled up and eaten like a burrito, or yes, a wrap.

Behind him, you see a sparse and streamlined operation with two employees. The process is quite mesmerizing to observe. The first employee feeds a ball of dough through an upright contraption that flattens it thinner and thinner under a series of motor-driven rollers.

Once the overgrown pasta machine is done, she dots the now tortilla-flat dough disk to prevent puffing. A spiced minced meat, onion and tomato mixture is applied by an ice cream scoop and summarily spread thin across the surface. The "pizza" is then sent down a conveyor-belted oven to bake, fusing the meat onto the dough and blistering the edges.

When it comes out, the second employee intercepts it at the exit, whereupon he will ask what toppings you want added before it is folded, and yes, wrapped.

I chose parsley, olives, a bit more shredded cheese, yogurt, a special sauce he said would taste like chipotle mayo (he was right), some lettuce, and a side of hummus. From start to finish, the whole thing took about five minutes.

Eating the burrito-cum-pizza-cum-calzone took less than ten. The crispy crust is akin to, well, a thin-crusted pizza. The subtly spicy ground beef topping had hints of cumin. The yogurt was as coolly refreshing as the leaves of parsley was cleansing. Like its catch phrase says "It is more than a wrap". It is lahmajoun.

On second thought, perhaps the generic title of "wrap" is perfect. "Lahmajoun Xpress" would have those Irvine heads scratching, never daring to step even a foot inside. A little ambiguity works once in a while.

Wraps Xpress
6779 Quail Hill Pkwy
Irvine, CA 92603
(949) 464-8448

The Capital Grille - Costa Mesa