Saturday, September 29, 2012

How to Make Gado-Gado With Trader Joe's Spicy Peanut Vinaigrette

Have you ever heard of the Indonesian dish called gado-gado?

It's pronounced "gah-doe gah-doe" and it is, by definition, a salad. At least that's the closest English translation I can offer. In a culture where everything is eaten with rice, "gado" means to eat something without it. And since gado-gado is mostly vegetables, served at room temp, and dressed with peanut sauce, most menus will translate it as a salad; but it's regarded as a full meal. It's salad the same way a Cobb salad is a salad.

But also, there's this: the majority of the vegetables--like bean sprouts, Chinese string beans, cabbage and kang kung (Chinese watercress)--have been boiled. There may be some tomato, cucumber, even lettuce if someone's trying to take the salad thing literally; but a properly done gado-gado will usually contain the boiled ingredients before resorting to the raw stuff.

Most importantly, a gado-gado must have pieces of a boiled potato, some fried tofu, and quarters of hard boiled egg. It will also have compressed rice cakes called lontong, which is the loophole that allows this to be considered a meal, since it technically does have rice, after all.

But it's the sauce that makes a gado-gado a gado-gado. It has shades of coconut milk, kaffir lime leaves, and most often, chilies, ground and mixed together by mortar and pestle. A sprinkle of crispy fried shallots, some prawn crackers called krupuk and melinjo crackers called emping is added at the end--yes, even Indonesian salads require its croutons.

If you've read this far, you might have realized that the picture you see above has none of these things. Furthermore, you'll notice that the components I also show do not a proper gado-gado make.

The bottled dressing is from Trader Joe's, which may not even realize that it's inspired from gado-gado. But it is, in my opinion, a great approximation of it, which has, in turn, allowed me to be inspired in creating a gado-gado-like salad.

So we went and bought some Trader Joe's herb salad pack, a few cashews, and at home, we hard boiled an egg (we splurge with quail eggs if we can find it).

Then, from 99 Ranch, we picked up some Dong Phoung Tofu fried tofu packs for $2, as well as some Marco Polo brand shrimp chips, which is unadulterated, honest-to-goodness krupuk made in Chino, California by an honest-to-goodness Indonesian.

Put together, what we've created here isn't a substitute for the real thing; but for attempting a pseudo-gado, as we'd like to call it, it does quite well.

The tofu, egg and krupuk with this peanut sauce help to bring it home, literally, as is the absence of any sort of rice. This gado-gado is as much a meal without rice as this recipe is a recipe without instructions.

Pieology vs. The Pizza Press vs. Blaze Pizza

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Savoy at The Hotel Hanford - Costa Mesa

A Holiday Inn will always be a Holiday Inn no matter how much paint and fancy pants carpeting or upholstery tries to cover it all up. Both the Hotel Menage in Anaheim and the Hotel Hanford in Costa Mesa, which were both Holiday Inn's in its previous life, went through extensive renovations to class up the joint--justification, of course, to charge higher room rates, and be different from the corporate stuff for the sake of being different from the corporate stuff.

But aside from the cosmetic and that the word "Hotel" precedes the name of the place (which somehow lends them their immediate boutique credentials), locals like me will always know it as the Holiday Inn. It's almost the same as how car buffs know that the Lexus ES 300 is really just a Toyota Camry underneath the leather and polished wood trim.

Yet these hotels do have a differentiator that matters more to me than the posh furniture--they have restaurants that are marketed as destinations in and of themselves.

The Hotel Menage's eatery, k'Ya, I reviewed a few years ago and then again on this blog when they decided to revamp their menu to "street food". And it is a good and decent restaurant that I visit every year for their cheap-but-surprisingly-good Thanksgiving turkey dinner.

Recently, I tried Hotel Hanford's Savoy not to necessarily compare it to k'Ya, but rather to propel our Open Table point count over the 2,000 mark. 2,000 points, of course, is the magic number where you get a $20 voucher from the reservation site. Ours had been stagnating at 1,200 points, even as we were putting down major coin at Mastro's to celebrate birthdays and such.

So when we saw that Savoy was a 1,000 point restaurant, we made the reservation (although the place is always empty). It's the oddball out of a list that includes more expensive restaurants. Compared to those, Savoy is a 1,000 point restaurant that almost can pay for itself. A dinner for two with the two entrees you see above (which included a salad or a soup and one dessert) amounted to somewhere around $60 with tax and tip.

Even without the earned OpenTable points, I thought the entrees themselves were reason enough to go. The chicken was a Frenched breast, cooked well with skin rendered down to crispy flecks. The pan-seared sea bass was large, easily twice the size you'd normally expect at places that does sea bass. There may have been a squishy asparagus here, and an over-reduced tortilla soup there, and the place was deserted save for the occasional out-of-town guest saddled up at the bar; but overall, it has proven to me that in former Holiday Inn's there are some decent restaurants.

Savoy at The Hotel Hanford
3131 Bristol Street
Costa Mesa, CA 92626
(714) 557-3000

Early Bird Cafe - Fullerton

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Carnitas Nachos at Alberto's - Santa Ana

I must sound like a broken record sometimes: when you order nachos at Alberto's or any of the -ertos, you must never, ever ask for the full order. Get, instead, the half order. Here's the broken record part: the only difference between the full order and the half order is the price; you get the same amount no matter what you pay.


Now that we've covered that part for about the fifteenth time here on this blog, let me tell you what else you should do when ordering the nachos: go beyond the carne asada. As I've mentioned before, you can have chicken. Yes, the same shredded-steeped-in-red-sauce bird they stuff into the enchiladas is a good alternative to those who want to kid themselves that they're eating healthy.

There is no such thing as a healthy nacho, by the way, just as there is no such thing as polite Internet discourse, cheap Rolex watches, or a likeable Kardashian.

Since you're ordering nachos already, why not go whole hog, literally? Ask for the carnitas nachos. It isn't as sopping wet as the chicken, not chewy like the carne asada, and occasionally you get those crisp-edged parts that's sizzled too long on the griddle. It is, by far, my favorite species of nachos at Alberto's (which isn't even my favorite of these kinds of joints...just the most convenient).

Just look at that picture, will ya? Whenever the object inside a styrofoam container of that size takes the shape of said container--meat, cheese in one melting solid mass, suffused with bits of onion, tomato, avocado and sour cream--you know you're in for it. This is a meal best eaten late at night when no one's judging, or when everyone's too drunk to care.

If you do decide to order it, you know what to do. Or do I have to tell you again?

1425 E Edinger Ave
Santa Ana, CA 92705
(714) 834-9680

Peking Gourmet - Garden Grove

Saturday, September 08, 2012

Marrakesh - Costa Mesa

How has it taken me this long to visit Marrakesh--to eat under the cascading Bedouin tents, to be mesmerized by the shimmying belly dancer, and to lounge around after a filling dinner with a glass of hot, sweetened mint tea served from an ornate, long-necked pot?

If I wanted a more transportive Moroccan experience, I think I'd need a passport and a caravan of camels.

It begins with a wash basin brought to your table. The server then pours warm water as you hold your hands out so that you can cleanse your icky fingers before feasting.

I went to Marrakesh during Costa Mesa Restaurant Week, which entitled me to a 3-course meal for $20 that started with either the hummus, a soup or salad, then a choice of entree, and finally a dessert and that mint tea.

The hummus wasn't overly acidic as most other hummuses tend to be, but rather tasted of the pure smoothness of chickpea, the paste to be lapped up with pillows of pita as puffy as baseball mitts.

The soup you sip not unlike at Medieval Times, served with no spoons, but a heck of a lot more complex than the tomato water the dinner tournament cooks.

There was a leg of chicken roasted with olives, preserved lemon and thinly sliced fried potatoes served in a tagine, those funnel-shaped vessels that look like ceramic bullhorns.

The best main course was the couscous, the fluffiest I've ever had, with hunks of pumpkin, a skewer of chicken and a lamb sausage that tasted like a spicy cross between a Slim Jim and chorizo.

A flaky, honey-drenched baklava came last and as I licked my fingers, my glass was refilled, over and over, with that intoxicating tea. I sat back, sinking slowly into that cushy couch.

And yes, at the urging of my friends, I tipped the belly dancer when she came around, and it embarrassed me more than it was worth, but then that's the whole point, I think.

1976 Newport Blvd
Costa Mesa, CA 92627
(949) 645-8384

Pandor Artisan Boulangerie & Café - Newport Beach

Saturday, September 01, 2012

Chicken Salad at Chaya - Costa Mesa

The last time a salad surprised me it was at Pizzeria Mozza. How can a salad surprise someone? Well, by being better than the usual. If I may indulge you in an analogy: Salads are like Adam Sandler movies. You expect them to be mediocre, even disappointing. Most of the time, you'd do better avoiding them altogether. I knew better than to order the House Salad at a steakhouse I went to recently for the same reason I wouldn't commit a minute or a cent to Jack and Jill: Because I already made the mistake with Little Nicky and so many others.

But occasionally, there's a Punch Drunk Love, which bucks the genre. Much like that movie, Pizzeria Mozza's tricolore salad looked at first to be like the rest; but then BAM!, your expectations are upended by the depth and the thought that went into it. In that movie, Sandler's usual, simmering under-the-surface rage was finally capitalized for a major plot point. In the same way, Mozza's salad had greens that weren't just there for roughage. You actually cherished every single, wonderfully-dressed frilly leaf. The whole thing stood on its own without any crouton distractions, which in a Sandler movie equates to the obligatory Rob Schneider running gag where he says "youcundoooeeet!"

No salad since then has compared, but then I went to Chaya. I ordered the chicken salad not because I thought it was going to be good; I ordered it because I needed something to balance the fried gyoza and the fried tofu I intended to make as my meal.

The gyoza turned out to be a bust, literally. A few were already torn open, and the rest tasted as if it were just cooked from frozen, with the lacy browned crisped bottoms coming from added flour--an obvious shortcut. The agedashi tofu? Well, it was just as it was--good but not memorable.

But that salad. Everything about the components told my brain it was going to be a That's My Boy. There was iceberg, a few tomatoes, a few shreds of carrot and red cabbage. On top, crisp-edged morsels of just-griddled dark meat chicken was dumped and threatened to smoosh the thing flat.

Then came the dressing. This was a miso and sesame magic blend poured from a maple syrup pitcher that did the impossible: transforming what at first appeared to be as insipid as The Waterboy into something unexpectedly great, like 50 First Dates, where the ensemble cast was predictable, but the results were surprisingly charming. Like a good director, the dressing made every single ingredient be the best version of themselves. I wanted to lick that bowl clean the same way I wanted to buy the DVD for 50 First Dates after I saw it in the theater.

The question remains: does this review want to make you rent Punch Drunk Love and 50 First Dates or eat Mozza's tricolore and Chaya's chicken salad?

Chaya Japanese Grill
3030 Bristol St
Costa Mesa, CA 92626
(714) 436-5798

Food Issue 2012 - OC's Best Noodles
Urban Kitchen - Foothill Ranch