Sunday, February 27, 2011

Ichiban Sushi - Downey

If you ever find yourself in Downey, the first thing you should do is go to Porto's. But if you ever find yourself in Porto's, and somehow still have a space in your gut after all gorging on the wonderful pastries and Cuban goodies, you should walk across the parking lot and locate the dilapidated-looking green building you see above, especially if it's around lunch time.

Ichiban offers a good bento box for $6.50--a bargain, if you ask me.

Of course, it goes without saying that if you're reading this from anywhere outside a 10-mile radius of the place, I wouldn't advise trekking out of your way for it. What Ichiban offers some other restaurant near you probably offers. Their prices may be low, but your effective savings will dwindle the more you have to burn precious gas to get here.

It still must be noted that a bento box of equivalent size would go for twice as much in Irvine. Believe me, I've paid for it.

In this $6.50 lunch, Ichiban gives you everything you need, and nothing you don't. The rice is hot, the shredded cabbage salad cooling. The California rolls are luscious and creamy, and the teriyaki chicken appropriately smoky even if it's slightly pedestrian.

The best part of the meal, in my opinion, are the panko-breaded planks of "fish". I use quotes around the "fish", because as thin as these swoops already are, the breading accounts for what I gather is almost the entire girth and thickness. There's only a mere suggestion of any sort of ocean-dwelling protein; but it's one that I'll buy into only on the strength of its slightly oily, but raucous crunchy crust. A drizzle of katsu further bolsters it with flavor.

Pure and simple, I liked this bento box and I liked what I paid for it. This, above all, is a lunch that starts paying out dividends the minute the obligatory bowl of soothing miso soup (not pictured) arrives. In the two times I've been to Ichiban (the first visit was years ago before Porto's even existed), I have not tried any of Ichiban's actual sushi, nor do I think I really need to.

Besides that, these days, if I'm ever in Downey, there's usually a stash of Porto's desserts in the car awaiting consumption.

Ichiban Sushi
11020 New Street
Downey, CA 90241-3715
(562) 869-3082

Taco Asylum - Costa Mesa

Monday, February 21, 2011

Gelato Paradiso - Newport Beach

Every time I'm at Fashion Island, I am aware of Gelato Paradiso's presence inside its food court like the chocolatey Tootsie Roll center of a Tootsie pop.

As the food court changes and evolves, Gelato Paradiso seems a constant, the Rock of Gibraltar if it were made out of milk and sugar. I'm of the belief that if there ever came a time that Gelato Paradiso fails at Fashion Island, Armaggedon is upon us. There always seems to be customers lining up at the stand at all hours.

And this is a good thing for gelato. The product thrives on turnover. It is imperative that it is never allowed to freeze fully, lest you want a solid block of inedible frozen milk.

If you've been enjoying the gelato here, or if you haven't, this is a good time to go. From now until the end of the week, as part of a gloomy day special (or something like that, I forget), they are offering their medium cups ($4.25) for the price of a small one ($3.75). And in Newport Beach, especially Fashion Island, such a discount is a rarity.

I took the opportunity, as the cheapskate in me is required to do, to take advantage. I had them scoop up for my dessert half of the Milk Chocolate Hazelnut and half of the Hazelnut.

And it was good, tiny spoon-licking good, smooth as velvet where there wasn't itty-bitty chunks of actual hazelnut. It only occurred to me afterward that I missed the chance to pair the Milk Chocolate Hazelnut with their Banana to create a Nutella-Banana thing that I've only imagined in my Willy Wonka dreams. But then I realized, there's still time.

Gelato Paradiso
952 Avocado Avenue
Newport Beach, CA 92660
(949) 640-9256

Roots Gourmet - Long Beach

Monday, February 14, 2011

Banh Mi Cho Cu Bakery - Westminster

If this were or Netflix, you'd see "People who like this also like Banh Mi Che Cali." This is true. If you are a Banh Mi Che Cali devotee like I am, you'll also like Banh Mi Cho Cu. If Banh Mi Che Cali was Pulp Fiction, I'd have to say Banh Mi Cho Cu is Reservoir Dogs, spare, lean and mean--the OG of banh mi. I can quote Pulp Fiction and have tried all of Banh Mi Che Cali's sandwiches, but once in a while I need to go back to pay my respects.

The bakery, as with most things noteworthy in Little Saigon, is crammed between a seedy liquor store and a laundromat. Every inch of counter space looks as if a cornucopia of foodstuffs exploded and what you see is the shrapnel. There are Vietnamese food-to-go products of every imaginable permutation--rice and meat wrapped in cellophane, banh cuon rice-noodle sheets wound around meat, sticky rice this and that--all stacked on top of each other in a chaotic tangle of colors and textures. On the side next to the register, cha gio (egg rolls) and pate chaud (Vietnamese flaky meat pies) heat inside hot boxes.

But raison d'être, of course, is the banh mi ($2.50 each; or buy two, get the third free). The dac biet, or house special, called to me: a combo of meats (mostly pork) stuffed inside a crusty baguette. Though it is like Banh Mi Che Cali's sandwich in many ways, the banh mi scholar will detect a few differences. The cucumbers are cut crosswise rather than lengthwise. The jalapenos and the usual carrot and daikon pickles are applied with a lighter touch. Also, no measurable amount of mayo is used.

What you taste is predominately the bread and the meat. You chew the gelatin jiggle of the pork fat from the slice of roast pig. You perk up at the salty funk of liver pâté. And you relish the smoothness of the white Vietnamese ham called cha lua. These are layers of pork-on-pork action, hugged by the pillow of what could be one of the best baguettes in Little Saigon--a bread with the lightness of helium, a crusty crumb that shed itself all over my shirt, and a refinement that plays against the rustic, uncensored personality of the cold cuts.

If you're a banh mi lover, I quote Vincent Vega when he said, "Yeah baby, you'd dig it the most!"

Banh Mi Cho Cu Bakery
14520 Magnolia St. Ste B
Westminster, CA 92683
(714) 891-3718

Clearman's North Woods Inn - La Mirada

Monday, February 07, 2011

Hashigo - Costa Mesa

The subject of Kogi came up while I was chatting with a co-worker last week, which was odd because I hadn't thought about Kogi for quite a while. It seems a quaint subject now, like talking about a once-popular movie that's since been relegated to the DVD bargain pile at Target.

In any case, I asked a co-worker if he'd ever had it. "Don't have to," he replied, rather sure of himself, "I've had a Korean taco at Hashigo down the street. Don't have to wait. Don't have to go chasing after a truck."

I nodded in agreement, and made a note to visit the place, which I've known about for years but shunned simply because of laziness. Fortuitously, a few days later, Derrick and Jeff, a couple of readers of this humble blog, invited me to lunch there. I didn't have the tacos, but saw almost immediately that they do even more than that.

In particular, there was this Korean wet burrito, which Jeff ordered. Humorously named "The Korrito", it starts with bulgogi, kimchi fried rice and cheese stuffed inside a rolled tortilla. The whole boulder-sized lump is then doused with what looked and tasted like reduced soondubu (soft tofu soup). This, I thought, was beyond weird and weird-looking. Weird, but good--a Korean-Mexican mash up that easily trumps Kogi's own burrito on sheer cojones. I just wished the picture I took of it wasn't so blurry.

I opted for something I'd never get at the Kogi truck, the $8.95, 2-item lunch special that included a main dish (a ridiculously large kalbi bowl, a gurgling soondubu pot with seafood, or a shrimp tempura udon) and a side (kimchi fried rice, California rolls, or fried gyoza).

This trip, I chose the shrimp tempura udon, and it came in a bowl as wide as a sink. The usual squiggly-slippery chew of udon were submerged beneath an amber-colored broth both peppy and hot. As with most noodle soups, success begins and ends here, and this one had a lip-smacking umami sweetness leeching out of the toasted nori that made every sip invigorating. The hot elixir comforts the same time its subtle spiciness titillates. It didn't matter that the two criss-crossed spears of once-lacy tempura were now slowly dissolving into the liquid, turning into flavor-soaked and mushy broth sponge.

The gyoza that accompanied added nothing particularly noteworthy, except for a crunchy fried counterpoint to the hot, wet slurps of soup. Truth is, I think the kimchi fried rice would've been a better side; but starch followed by starch does not a balanced lunch make.

What was essential to the meal actually came for free: three capably prepared and flavorful banchan came as a complimentary appetizer. There was enough that it could've conceivably constituted a meal unto themselves, say, if you had a bowl of rice. The gamja jorim, a stewed potato side-dish so melting and sweet, might as well be labeled as a confection.

Hmm...there's an idea hasn't yet been embraced: an all banchan food truck! They could serve it inside tortillas and call them "tacos". Why not? That's what everyone seems to be doing these days.

Hashigo Korean Kitchen
3033 Bristol St., Suite M
Costa Mesa, CA 92626
(714) 557-4911

The Kickin' Crab - Santa Ana