Monday, September 26, 2011

Don Don Tei - Costa Mesa

If you've not been into the Mitsuwa Marketplace lately, you'll hardly recognize the place. Santoka is still there, serving what is still arguably the best bowl of ramen outside of Japan, but more than half the food court surrounding it has been remodeled to make way for three new purveyors. The Loft Hawaiian took over the spot previously occupied by Sanuki Udon. And where Maestro used to serve curry, now there is Sanukiseimen Mugimaru, which seems like it's an even better udon restaurant set on bionic overdrive.

Next to that, and possibly employing workers on the same payroll, is Don Don Tei, which takes the spot where Italian Tomato used to be. It serves donburi, and it does it reasonably well. I say "reasonably" because while I've slurped many a bowl of ramen, I've not exactly been searching for or given much thought about what constitutes the best donburi. Donburi is simply just a rice bowl. If you've been to Yoshinoya or The Flame Broiler, you've technically had donburi.

But there's more to the classification than just that. When I have donburi, it's usually an oyakodon (a chicken and egg rice bowl of comfort), or a katsudon (a deep fried pork cutlet over rice). I've tried the latter here and it's good, dutiful, even if it is kind of forgettable like all other katsudons I've had in my life.

For me, the revelation is the tendon . No, not cartilage (think of the Japanese pronunciation). It is a bowl of rice with tempura'd veggies and seafood laid on top. Simple, yes. But also unexpectedly great and I would argue, better than anything else they've got on offer.

The tempura that coats the fish, shrimp, squid, eggplant, squash and bell pepper straddles the line between crisp and soggy as the whole thing is doused and pre-soaked in the dashi-based sauce you normally dip your pieces in. Pre-assembled and resting on pristine pile of rice like this, the bowl takes on a special resonance I can't put my finger on.

It must be the way the richness and decadence of the deep fried foods edges itself closer and closer to cloying. But then, when it is just about to get sickening, it gets pulled back by a mouthful of rice.

It's kind of like a relationship between opposites. One person might be impetuous but fun; the other conservative but grounded. That's what I equate this bowl as. And I hope it will be just as good the next time I have it.

Don Don Tei
665 Paularino Ave. Ste. 150
Costa Mesa, CA 92626
(714) 557-1145

2nd Floor - Huntington Beach

Monday, September 19, 2011

$1.99 Chicken Meal at Ikea - Costa Mesa

IKEA has never been more blatant than now in recognizing that their cafeteria is basically their loss leader. A few weeks ago they effectively said, “To heck with the 99-cents for breakfast. On Mondays, it’s freakin’ free!”

As part of their embrace of the idea that cheap food brings in cheap people who buy cheap furniture, they’ve also discounted their roast chicken and mashed potato plate on Thursdays to $1.99. It must be said that I’ve never been compelled to try their chicken meal until now. But then it must also be said that before they started discounting the breakfast from $1.99 to 99-cents, I never gave IKEA’s food much credence to be edible.

The breakfast is, for the record, edible. While the eggs aren’t great (kind of curdled with a processed flavor), the potatoes are a good example of home fries and the bacon, well, it’s bacon.

And the chicken and mashed potato dish? I can honestly report that it is the best $1.99 chicken and mashed potatoes meal I’ve ever had that isn’t deep-fried and doled out of a fast-food drive-thru. The chicken is remarkably moist and remarkably flavorful, even if the predominant flavor is salt (cue Marge Simpson’s classic line of “You might say the secret ingredient is salt!”).

Before I came I actually brought a packet of Tapatio as insurance, but I never needed it. Besides, the sauce would’ve clashed with the mashed potato, which was everything mashed potato needed to be, creamy and hot, and made from what I believe are actual potatoes with bits of skin in it.

It’s also nice that you can request for any cut you like (white’s the way to go here) without an up-charge. It makes you almost forget that a whole rotisserie bird at Costco, which has always retailed at around 5 bucks, is probably the better deal. Cheapness is a trait that renders you blind sometimes.

(714) 444-4532
1475 S Coast Dr
Costa Mesa, CA 92626

Nhu Y Ca 8 Mon - Fountain Valley

Monday, September 12, 2011

Kogi's Sweet Chili Chicken Quesadilla - Orange County

I'd been doing it all wrong. Every time I found myself in line at a Kogi truck stop, I become risk-averse. I always settled for the tried and true: one of their burritos. Granted it's only been three or four instances where I've actually stood in line for Kogi; but since most of these visits were made during the height of the craze, I wasn't ready to gamble with any of their other experimental stuff then. When you've already invested an hour or more of your time waiting, you play it safe and order what you know.

And Kogi's burritos has always been dependable, even if every successive taste seems less exciting and more predictable. It's like an awesome song that you once thought was revolutionary and groundbreaking. Now that you hear it being used for every TV commercial, you count the minutes before it's covered by Muzak.

What I should've been trying all along was everything else. I seemed to have forgotten that the whole Kogi business model is to go for the unexplored and unusual. Roy Choi's crazy drug-inspired mixups shouldn't work, but they do. Their Blue Moon mulitas look like UFO discs of strangeness, ugly but endearingly addicting--the best greasy, griddle-crisped tortilla/taco/sandwich thing that's shellacked in an unidentifiable purple-ish substance that might as well be made of delicious alien blood.

I loved it just as much as the sweet chili chicken quesadilla, which seems to inhabit not just Korean flavors with an omnipresent flavor of kimchi; but also Thai with the spicy/sweet/sour sauce restaurants typically use on egg rolls and Thai BBQ chicken. And I'll be damned if all of it isn't perfect with the Mexi components of oozing jack and cheddar cheese, chicken and an enveloping tortilla that's been properly seared to a crisp golden brown.

And thank goodness the Kogi hype has died down enough that I can now get it anytime without standing in an hour-long queue. Kogi's OC-based Naranja truck has settled into a comfortable groove. They prowl Irvine Company apartment complexes during some weeknights and when they do, there will hardly ever be more than two or three people in front of you. Now that's the kind of normal I can get used to.

Kogi's Naranja Truck

Kentro Greek Kitchen - Fullerton

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Orochon Ramen - Los Angeles

There I was in Little Tokyo, at the Weller Center and in front of Orochon Ramen, arguably the busiest storefront in the entire plaza. So busy was it that the seats overflowed out into the outer walkway.

No one there was older than 35. There was a good ratio of Asian faces to downtown hipsters (I saw a twenty-something mustachioed man with a skull cap and an ironic purse). Everyone slurped wash basin-sized bowls of soup with gusto, a few dabbing themselves with napkins since Orochon, if you don't already know, is known for the spiciest ramen on this hemisphere.

Rameniac calls it a "gimmick ramen", and I would have to agree. There is a so-called "Wall of Bravery" where Polaroids of past victors (presumably with led-lined stomachs) are holding up their licked-clean bowls of lava. A better photo would be what they looked like the morning after. A sound clip that records their bathroom agony would be worth a listen.

If he hasn't been here already, this is fodder for one Adam Richman (UPDATE: He has been here, CLICK HERE FOR VIDEO). Orochon actually sells milk as some sort of futile antidote for those who attempt to finish the bowl in 30 minutes.

I am not such a man. Though I can handle my share of spice, on the mention of a hot spicy soup that attacks on both fronts (Fahrenheit and Scoville) I squeal in fear. My insides might as well be made of cheap tissue paper. I envision all sorts of medical calamities that my insurer would surely not cover citing a stupidity clause.

Instead I chose the miso ramen at two notches above "no spice", and it was enough. It stung pleasantly, but I could still taste the slightly nutty, slightly milky rich broth. At this level of hotness, the soup is a thrilling suspense movie instead of an all-out gruesome slasher picture.

The noodles were surprisingly unlike ramen and more like spaghetti. The usual extras like egg (nicely boiled to a still creamy orange yolk) are literally extras here: you have to order them separately. Meat consisted of thin shavings of pork, not the usual thick cuts of chashu (which is another nominal extra), but I enjoyed the bell peppers, the kikurage (wood ear fungus) and the bamboo shoots, which crunched fresh and clean.

But the best of all were their gyoza, which looked more like they cross-bred it with a Chinese shumai. They had open tops like one, but browned crispy bottoms like a typical potsticker. A dip in a slurry of vinegar, shoyu and chili oil weren't required but did well to contrast the pork and onion sweetness that burst forth from each morsel. If the restaurant served this and only this, I'd still recommend the place. And if they ever held an eating contest centered around them, I'll put down my gauntlet and say I can eat about a hundred.

Orochon Ramen
123 S Onizuka St
Los Angeles, CA 90012
(213) 617-1766

The Sky Room - Long Beach