Thursday, February 28, 2013

Pidan Doufu at I-Tea Cafe - Irvine

A lot of people might find the majority of the ingredients in the dish you see above a little out of the ordinary. If you're one of these folks, stay with me, even if the only thing you recognize is the chopped green onion.

Yes, there is silken tofu, which exists in a white, pristine, Jell-O like cube that wiggles. There is pork sung, those furry brown things that look like the floor after a very shaggy dog gets a trim. And there is perhaps the scariest item of all, a thousand-year-old egg, a chicken ovum that has been buried in ash until its albumen turns coffee black and the yolk a not-of-this-Earth blue.

Together they form pidan doufu, as classic a combination as PB and J, but way better than that. It's served chilled, so it's cooling, almost spine-tinglingly so. It's also refreshing, the kind of snack that you want during a heat wave.

Key to the experience is that weird-wonderful egg--and you savor it and relish it as if it were the last piece of bacon on your BLT. Don't squander even a morsel of it. A perfect spoonful will have every melting piece of soft soy curd paired with little bit of it, some of the sweet brown sauce, a few clumps of that furry stuff, and the scallions for that herby kick at the end.

I've not found a place that doesn't do this well, but I-Tea Cafe was a surprise because:

1) They offered it to begin with since I was operating with the (incorrect) assumption it was just a boba joint.

2) It turned out to be one of the best renditions I've had in a while.

So eat one for yourself and tell me it isn't the best one of these you've had, which, yes, admittedly would be easy to say if you hadn't had it before.

I-Tea Cafe
15435 Jeffrey Rd.
Irvine, CA 92618
(949) 551-4832

Taverna Blu - Irvine

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Tofu Soup at Tasty Thai - Lake Forest

Thank God for Indo Ranch in Lake Forest...not only has it single handedly cured South Orange County from a severe deficiency of Indonesian food (if you're reading my blog for the first time, yes, I am Indonesian), it also indirectly introduced me to perhaps the best Thai discovery since Sutha Thai in Tustin.

Tasty Thai is located just two doors down from Indo Ranch, and might just be its polar opposite. It's small while Indo Ranch is big; it's a dimly lit and romantic restaurant while Indo Ranch is a utilitarian grocer lit by CFL's.

Tasty Thai has but one cook and one server. I know this because said hi to the guy when I had to go through the kitchen on my way to the restroom.

It's nothing short of a magic trick what this guy manages to do in that cramped kitchen, by himself. His menu is insane: at least 20 appetizers, more than 10 salads, a dozen soups, every variety of pan fried noodle imaginable, two dozen kinds of fried rice, grilled Thai BBQ meats, house special dishes that include duck, at least three kinds of fish, and yes, even a fried banana dessert with three distinct preparations of the fruit served with two scoops of coconut ice cream and a plate they set on fire just for the hell of it...phew...

I got tired just writing that.

I've not even begun to crack a fraction of his menu, but his simple tofu soup is a dish that makes the place essential, even if that was the only thing he served. The broth is the kind that at first glance, doesn't appear to be anything special, but you'd be dead wrong to assume so. It is, in fact, a nectar so unbelievably good, it trumps their Tom Yum Goong or Tom Kha Gai. Unlike those soups, which relies on a souring agent and coconut milk, this broth is pure in its clearness and intent: to animate the silken cubes of tofu and invigorate the boiled greens and carrots.

So thanks, Indo Ranch, for without you I would not have a reliable supplier of sambal and I never would have stumbled on Tasty Thai to taste this soup...this wonderful, soul-warming, delicious soup!

Tasty Thai
22722 Lambert St.
Lake Forest, CA 92630
(949) 461-7888

Thanh Ha - Westminster

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Bittermelon at Tasty Noodle House - Irvine

There are few foods on Earth that does what it says and means what it does more honestly than bittermelon. Bittermelon is bitter. No bones about it. It’s in the name, for gosh sakes. And it's not just bitter, but astringent. If the flavor had a color, it would be whatever the opposite of sunlight would be. It has a negative presence on your palate, overpowering your tongue like a chemical warfare attack. It's the anti-matter of ice cream. Some have argued that bittermelon tastes that way because it's a deterrent—this is a plant that does NOT want to be eaten.

Yet, I love it. And so do millions of Filipinos, Indians, Chinese, and Okinawans.

I do not know where or when I acquired the taste for it. I’m glad that my parents never fed it to me as a child. Bittermelon is the sort of thing that can traumatize young, impressionable tastebuds. People I know who revile the stuff are results of the false assumption that if you feed a kid something they hate long enough, they’ll grow to like it. Bittermelon doesn’t work like that.

To me, bittermelon is like Terrence Malick movies; you have to be a grownup to endure it, and eventually, enjoy it.

The best I’ve had recently is from Tasty Noodle House in Irvine, which isn’t even known for the dish. But its bittermelon with crumbled salted egg and scrambled egg is kind of amazing. It’s as greasy a stir fry as it can get, but the bitterness answers the grease, and the two kinds of egg balance the bitterness. Also, the more you reheat the leftovers, the better the bittermelon tastes, which is not to say it becomes less bitter or more mellow, just softer.

As for the films of Terrence Malick? Blech!

Tasty Noodle House
15333 Culver Dr
Ste 320
Irvine, CA 92604
(949) 654-3770

Rebel Bite - Long Beach

Sunday, February 03, 2013

Fish for Breakfast (or Dinner) at Chowking - Anaheim

We Americans are finicky about what we eat the first thing in the morning.

Bacon? Yes, absolutely.

Pepperoni? Hell no!

Fish? Are you insane?!

Filipinos, though, have no qualms about having a big old stinky fish--with the head still attached even--as breakfast, paired with fried rice and a fried egg. The fish is usually bangus, a.k.a, milkfish, a species beloved by Pinoys and Indonesians alike for its inherent yogurt-like tang.

This is not a mild fish. It's, well, fishy. Bangus is a fish that tastes like fish should, less oily than mackerel, but richer in flavor than salmon, and with a thousand comb-like bones if you eat it straight out of the water unprocessed.

When you have it at a Filipino restaurant, it won't have any bones. Called daing na bangus, it will be bifurcated lengthwise, marinated in vinegar and garlic, and deep fried golden brown so that the flesh can be easily scooped up with a spoon.

And at the new Chowking in Anaheim, part of the Jollibee conglomerate, a silog (egg and fried rice) breakfast plate combo containing it and another meat, say pork tocino, can be had at any time of the day...which automatically makes it more palatable for those who shudder at eating fish for breakfast but yet have no problems with eating eggs for dinner.

601 N Euclid St.
Anaheim, CA 92801

The Globe Dine Bar - Garden Grove