Monday, October 24, 2011

Sky Express - Costa Mesa

At Sky Express, the lone Chinese food stall at the predominately Japanese Mitsuwa Marketplace, stick with the simple and starchy. No matter how tempting the plastic dim sum mockups appear to look, you’re better off saving your cravings until you can get to Arcadia for Din Tai Fung or the San Gabriel Valley in general. They simply don’t have enough turnover on the dim sum to make it the way it should be made.

What you want here is whatever’s on special, a bowl of noodle soup, or anything that comes with rice.

For dinner one night, I took the dish you see above: fried swoops of battered pork chop, smothered in a cornstarch-thickened black bean sauce, the whole thing dumped over a mound of steamed white rice and framed by ring of baby bok choy—a work-a-day meal that works.

On the plate is everything that fits in my definition of comfort food: it starts with rice and involves something pork, something gravy and something green. What I loved about it is how positively homey it was, how accessible it would be to all palates; but at the same time, slightly funky thanks to the presence of fermented black beans.

With all due respect to the thickening powers of roux, for me, there’s no better mouth feel than when a cornstarch-silkened sauce mingles with rice to form spoonfuls of what I call “yum.”

Sky Express
665 Paularino Ave
Costa Mesa, CA 92626
(714) 437-7198

Tavern On 2 - Long Beach

Monday, October 17, 2011

Lobsta Truck - Orange County

You needn’t look further than The Lobsta Truck to realize that this whole food truck thing isn’t about pinching pennies or getting a lot of food for your buck. Until a Foie Gras Truck debuts, The Lobsta Truck is probably the most premium of all the premium-priced, new-age luxe loncheras.

The lobster roll toll is $12. You know how many tacos acorazados from the decidedly old-school Alebrije’s Grill that buys? Three. Three tacos that could feed three healthy-sized people until they slap the table for mercy on how full they are.

But I digress. Look at the thing! There is what I estimate to be a half-pound of the costly crustacean stuffed in that bun. To expect them to charge any less is to be ignorant on how business works.

Is it good? Well, yes. It’s lobster, after all, soaked in butter, shoved into a griddle toasted torpedo-shaped roll-—a vessel that does its due diligence as a transport device to get the meat into your mouth and nothing more.

I much prefer the crab roll though, not because it’s that much cheaper at $11, but because I’ve always liked crab more than I’ve liked lobster. In those strands is a uniform sweetness egged onwards by a subtle seawater brine. The lobster, by comparison, has a bitterness hiding behind its firmer flesh.

And then I think about all the labor and effort involved in extracting crab meat. By comparison, disrobing a lobster is child’s play. Also, since the crab has a finer grain meat, it's able to fill every available nook-and-cranny with a suffusion of flavor.

Even with an expensive and decadent treat like this, I’m always thinking about how to maximize my investment. But that’s just how I am.

Lobsta Truck

Broadway by Amar Santana - Laguna Beach
Best of 2011
Winner's Circle - Dee Nguyen

Monday, October 10, 2011

Takoyaki Tanota - Orange County

If there was one Japanese food that I would've expected to be instantly adaptable to the current food truck phenomenon, it wouldn't be sushi; it would be takoyaki, which are the pancake-like, ping-pong-shaped delicacies native to Osaka—the perfect street food with the unfortunate stateside translation of “octopus balls”.

The most memorable moments I’ve had eating takoyaki has been from street vendors and other non-permanent sources, never a brick-and-mortar. Yet there are at least two sushi trucks rolling the streets; but only one (correct me if I'm wrong) takoyaki truck, which occasionally makes an appearance at the Tuesday night Din-Din-A-Go-Go food truck gathering at Irvine Lanes.

Actually, calling Takoyaki Tanota a truck is too generous. It is a cart—nothing more than a propane powered griddle on wheels with a trailer hitch. But in its stripped down existence lies the hook. Essential to the experience is watching your takoyaki being prepared. If it were a truck, this wouldn't be possible.

On the cart, you see its birth from the beginning, starting from the batter. You witness the liquid being poured into the greased dimples, a nugget of cooked octopus meat dropped into the middle. And then you see them being coaxed and teased by an attendant equipped with nothing more than a sharp stick until they miraculously transform into perfect spheres.

The popovers are then drenched in a sticky-sweet glaze, showered with pulverized aonori (seaweed), squiggled with drizzles of Kewpie mayo and a fistful of chopped green onions.

You eat it right there, standing, within seconds of cooking, because the crispness of the outer layer is tenuous. If you’re not huffing and puffing at how insanely scorching the custard-like interior is, then you’ve waited too long to let them cool. To eat them any other way than scalding is to miss the point of takoyaki.

Read Chubbypanda's review of Takoyaki Tanota here!

Takoyaki Tanota

Red Table - Huntington Beach

Monday, October 03, 2011

Sticky Fingers - Irvine

It would seem like a shooting fish in the proverbial barrel to open a candy shop at Woodbridge Village Center, arguably the most kid-friendly of all of Irvine Company's many properties. It boasts a dance studio where aspiring ballerinas practice their pirouettes; a Kumon tutoring office where multiplication tables are memorized; and a music center where the talents of the next Lang Lang are nurtured. There’s even a children’s dentist called Tiny Teeth. But with every yin, there is a yang, and Sticky Fingers is the yang. It sings the siren song of sweets and junk food.

But rather than a temptress in a sea of virtue, I can see it being used by parents as a motivator: "Johnny, be a good boy, and I’ll take you Sticky Fingers."

Sticky Fingers is not a faceless corporate outfit. From what I can tell, it is owned and operated by a middle aged Korean couple, who couldn’t be warmer to you if you were their own children. If you come in with anyone under 12, they’ll coo like a grandparent and coddle your tyke like he/she is part of their extended family.

The store is a cross between Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium (did anyone see that movie?) and a neighborhood convenience store. Shelves are stocked with sugary treats of every teeth-rotting persuasion. There’s ice cream, and most popular of all, shave ice packed into a dome on a plastic flower cone and drizzled with up to three syrups of your choosing.

I was pulled in by a poster they put up in front of the Woodbridge theater, which features dollar movies on Tuesdays. It advertised two snow cones for $5: the right price for a hot afternoon treat. The ice isn’t milled as finely as I’ve had at Tropical Shave Ice Truck, but this is a good and honest snow cone all the same. The syrups are never too cloying and if I wanted, I could've asked for red beans and ice cream to be added for a nominal fee, just like they do it in Hawaii.

The best syrup is the coconut, which seems to be homemade from actual coconut milk. It is thick, white, and creamy, almost like it was just squeezed from the freshly grated pulp. The result is a icy-milkshake like amalgam that comforts like milk and cookies and, yes, made me feel like a kid again.

Sticky Fingers
4612 Barranca Pkwy
Irvine, CA 92604
(949) 651-1137

Luigi's D'Italia - Anaheim