Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Red Pot - Garden Grove

As soon as you open the door, the aromas will hit you like an invisible wall. You don't walk into The Red Pot, you wade in, like you're swimming through a sea of smells. If there were such a thing as smell-imaging, waving your arms would show the turbulence your presence has on the environment--a room filled with the thick, delicious odors produced by dozens of steaming, gurgling pots that might as well be cooking up potpourri.

Customers leave reeking, ripe of curry, spices, dried fruit and herbs. The dew that dots their brow either perspiration or condensate from the billowing steam of whatever they were boiling. Everyone exits rubbing their stomachs from a meal well eaten and slurped.

The Red Pot is the very new Mongolian hot pot restaurant that replaced the old hot pot restaurant called Four Seasons.

The new entrant and the recently departed served essentially the same food, but they couldn't be more different. The service at Four Seasons barely existed because the owner was practically deaf in one ear. The Red Pot is staffed by the second generation--youthful faces who are attentive and are fluent in English as they are on customer service. Of course, they're on Facebook.

Also The Red Pot is an all-you-can-eat for $19.99. This frees the individual to try new things one might be hesitant to spend money on otherwise. AYCE here is a license to explore. And there's a lot for the itinerant explorer to discover beyond just chicken. There's pork blood cubes, tripe, intestines, even tendon, which cooks down to chewy Jell-O.

You order the things you'll boil from a list of meats and veggies that has the check boxes in three columns for each "round". You check off what you want and servers bring it out nicely presented, ready for boiling in a flavored broth of your choice. No one I know has made it to that third column. My dining partner (the esteemed C. Thi Nguyen from The Los Angeles Times) and I barely made it past our second round of meats and before we tapped out. Imagine if I asked for rice.

Key to the experience is the broths. Those who would pooh-pooh shabu shabu for plainness will be forced to reevaluate their positions here. Mongolian hot pot is anything but plain. The cooking liquid is often spicier than most ready-made soups, some with a red oil slick that finds and clings to meat like pieces of metal to a magnet. And then there's the sauce station, where a virtual painter's palette of chili paste, oil, and soy begs to be blended into unique dipping concoctions.

The beef isn't as meltingly tender here, but the lamb is immaculate. Squid balls puff up in the heat to the fluffiness of cotton. Inside the springy spheres hides a chewy cube of real squid. Ton ho, the snappy green that looks like a common garden weed, bites with a refreshing peppery note, swabbing the decks so that the palate is cleansed for the next mouthful. And since this is an AYCE, you will have many more mouthfuls. Budget at least two hours worth of time in this steamy, sweet-and-spicy smelling sauna. Save the shower for after your dinner.

The Red Pot
12119 Brookhurst St.
Garden Grove, CA 92840
(714) 636-7168

*To read Brekkie Fan's review of The Red Pot, click here.

St. Roy Chef's Pub - San Clemente

Monday, May 23, 2011

Cream Pan's Korokke Pan - Tustin

We literally buy our daily bread from Cream Pan. It makes great toast, which leads to even better sandwiches. And then, there's Cream Pan's strawberry croissants, which have become the thing people expect us to bring to potlucks. And since I wrote a blog entry about the salmon onigiri, I now have to get there extra early to claim those rice triangles before they disappear--not because my post has created any sort of awareness, but because I think everyone who has tasted them have also realized how very good they are.

So if you're already tired of me talking, yet again, about another Cream Pan product, stop reading now. This is my ode to a recent find: their korokke pan. This, as you can see by the picture, is a potato croquette sandwich--a simple thing really. A panko-breaded, deep-fried mashed potato patty is stuffed inside a roll of their own making, along with leaf lettuce, tomato, a slice of cucumber, a smear of Thousand Island and a drizzle of tonkatsu sauce.

From the recitation of the ingredients alone, you'd expect that this would be a dull sandwich, or at the very least, one that defies the rule that you don't put starch inside another starch. But you'd be wrong. This is a great sandwich. Flavorful, filling, and rich, not to mention vegetarian (though not vegan because of the mayo). This is a sandwich that easily surpasses their egg salad and their katsu, which are merely okay by comparison.

And oh, that bun. Made in-store, it's a soft roll that any other sandwich shop would kill to have as their own. You could imagine it elevating pastrami, corned beef, chicken salad. But here, it fulfills its truest purpose, hugging the at-once crisp-mushy korokke and everything that surrounds it.

The only way it could get even better is if it can be had when the korokke has just come off the fryer. If that ever happens, expect another post.

Cream Pan
602 El Camino Real
Tustin, CA 92780-4310
(714) 665-8239

Song Long Restaurant - Westminster

Monday, May 16, 2011

Hong Kong Fishball House's Fishballs on a Stick - Rowland Heights

We don't nearly have enough foods on sticks in American cuisine. The corn dog, sure. Ice cream bars, yes. But apart from carnivals and county fairs, there isn't much of an impetus to impale or thread things onto wooden dowels or bamboo skewers for easy consumption.

There are even fewer foods with the word "ball" in it. Yes, there is the "meatball" you're apt to find tangled up on a plate of spaghetti or served with lingonberry jam at your local Swedish furniture retailer, but put the word "fish" or "squid" in front of the word and you get snickers as if you uttered an obscenity.

To find the two food styles together, you have to go ethnic, to Asian joints like this, Hong Kong Fish Ball House, a walk-up counter which specializes in fish balls with noodles in soup, or straight up, skewered and coated in flavorful goo (sate, spicy or sweet-n-sour).

Opt for the sticks and you get a snack, the kind common to night markets in Asia and street vendors in Manila. Two skewers come to an order, with a string of ping-pong sized spheres. A mess of pickled cabbage rests beneath, the crunchy accompaniment to the fish ball's squishy, springy, squeaky, soft orb of vague fishiness.

The toll you fork over is $2.50, measly compared to the real price you pay: to order it, you have to stand in an alleyway that reeks of stinky tofu, a sour stench emanating from the kitchen belonging to the next restaurant over. The smell is an assault on your olfactory senses as if you're repeatedly being slapped in the face with dirty gym socks after they've festered in an open sewer.

Now "stinky" and "tofu", two more words you rarely find in American cuisine; but that's another post.

Hong Kong Fishball House
18414 Colima Rd #Q
Rowland Heights, CA 91748

G Burger - La Habra

Monday, May 09, 2011

Tapa Boy - Orange County

It's with sadness that I review Tapa Boy. No, don't get me wrong. I loved it. It's just I had hoped to have tried Manila Machine first before it retired to do just private catering events.

You see, I've long been a fan of Manila Machine's owner and chef, Marvin Galputos (a.k.a. Burnt Lumpia), whom I regard as one of the funniest food bloggers in the country. As a reader, I witnessed his growth from an assimilated Pinoy with a "retarded appreciation of Filipino food" to a well-rounded Filipino food scholar, chef, and upcoming cookbook author, who passionately chronicled his efforts in an often hilarious blog.

Manila Machine was a culmination of his journey, and I was proud to be one of the first members of the press to report on the roll out, the first Filipino food truck in L.A. But then I was bummed when it announced it would stop prowling the streets last month after garnering much kudos from the likes of Jonathan Gold.

It leaves behind at least three other Filipino food truck to pick up the slack in LA County. One of them is this truck, Tapa Boy, which actually made the trek to Irvine and parked right where I just happened to be during my lunch hour.

Tapa Boy is a silog specialist. The Filipino answer to the American bacon and egg breakfast, "silog" is a concatenation of two words: sinangag (fried rice) and itlog (fried egg). Together they form the suffix and anchor for things like the tocilog, which features tocino, a cured pork product cut from the fattiest parts of the pig.

Tocino is a breakfast meat that glistens like no other. It beams with a ruddy color almost akin to Chinese char siu, but thanks to annatto it's even brighter, as if it's been dipped in Maraschino cherry syrup. Once its cooked, tocino takes on a candy-like sheen and wiggles in your mouth before melting like an unctuous piece of pork belly.

To beat back the richness, Tapa Boy supplies a spicy vinegar of its own making that it thickens to the consistency of bottled Italian dressing. Also there to temper and contrast: plain-diced tomato, cucumber, and achara, pickled shreds of green papaya. The latter does it best of all, pairing with the pork more naturally than sauerkraut to a hot dog.

Together, it's a breakfast that I'd gladly have for lunch, dinner, or any meal in between. The egg is cooked in a ring mold, like McDonald's does with its McMuffins, but the yolk is left runny to bleed its nectar onto the rice below. The starch then accepts. The grains moisten slightly, each forkful not sticky, not gummy, still loose and flowing like basmati. Strewn bits of golden fried shards of garlic burst from microscopic granules.

Turon, crispy egg rolls filled with sweet plantains, were dessert. I washed it down with a drink made with shredded melon suspended in a sugar-sweetened mix of water and its juices. A boba straw is supplied to suck it all up.

And I even like the truck's exterior design, which is dolled up to look like a ultra-pimped out Jeepney, the highly stylized and colorful form of public transportation that patrols the Philippines.

You can find the Tapa Boy truck in Orange County this week, before it retreats to L.A. It will appear Wednesday night, May 11, from 5:30 p.m. - 9 p.m. at Irvine Lanes (3415 Michelson Dr, Irvine, CA) and Friday, May 13, from 5 p.m. - 9 p.m. for a fundraiser at Fullerton High School (201 East Chapman Avenue, Fullerton, CA).

So to both Manila Machine and Tapa Boy, I say, "Mabuhay!"

Tapa Boy

Tilted Kilt - Long Beach

Monday, May 02, 2011

Crepes Bonaparte - Orange County

It has been a year since Crepes Bonaparte rolled out to prove that you can, indeed, do crepes out of a truck and make it a viable business. Of course, some of it has to do with the instant celebrity status that comes from being a contestant on The Great Food Truck Race.

That they were eliminated somewhere in the middle of the Food Network series doesn't matter. The fact that the show did wonders to their concept is obvious. When I finally ran into the truck today in Irvine, owners Christian or Danielle Murcia weren't in it. Their signature berets were now worn by two dudes who I assume were employees they've hired.

Their formula, however, remains the same, and it is one that is identical to any crepe maker, and I don't mean the batter. Crepes Bonaparte knows the most essential part of a crepe is that the customer must bear witness to the creation. You can gild your end product in white truffles and fairy dust, but if the customer isn't seeing it, the customer isn't buying it.

Crepes Bonaparte's truck, unlike others, has low slung windows that you can see the whole process: batter being squeezed out of squirt bottles, wooden squeegees twirling in Zamboni circles to spread, skinny spatulas flipping the thin mottled membrane of pancakes over into half moons. Grated cheese finally goes on. Then meat, egg, or what ever must be laid on top before the two corners are brought together to hug the filling in an embrace of the crispy and the browned. You see your crepes from conception to consumption.

We took the Ranchero, an egg, cheddar, grilled onion and bell pepper filling goosed by a tart chipotle, and the Baby Bleu, a crepe filled with white meat chicken in snowy chunks, crumbles of bleu cheese, spinach and a squirt or two of raspberry vinaigrette. The structural integrity of both, um, sandwiches, succumbed to the weight and dampening might of their cargo.

The Baby Bleu, with its heavier load, was more than too much for the pliant pancake to contain. Picking it up meant losing some of the filling. The Ranchero was better able to be hand-held but not by much. We resorted to a knife and fork on both. Crepes, as it turns out, is kind of a wuss when it comes to being used as a wrapping medium.

But it is this delicateness that makes Crepes Bonaparte's classic Nutella and banana a better application for the crepe. The triangle tears easier than wetted tissue, apt to be drug across whipped cream. The supple nature of the pancake covering the mating of chocolate hazelnut spread and bananas like a blanket over two lovers.

Crepes Bonaparte
(714) 595-9995

Renzo's A Taste of Peru - Irvine