Friday, February 11, 2005

Tan Huong, Vietnamese in Orange

My friends tried Tan Huong in Orange recently. It's located in a non-descript strip mall, sharing a parking lot with a Papa John's and a decidedly curiousity inducing tanning parlor called "$3 Tan". We were all wondering what the proprietors would say if you just went in there and said "Here's $3. Tan me."

Anyway, I digress. It was almost 8:15 pm, and the restaurant was dead. I mean it was so dead, the waiters we just sitting around one of the empty tables, reading newspapers, barely looking up at us as we came in. The small TV where KCAL news was broadcasting the latest LA freeway chase. The owner, I think it was, greeted us. He was a young Asian guy, dare I say dude, and who spoke in staccato, without a spot of an accent.

"How many?" he said


"Please sit."

We sat down in one of the empty fake leather booths. On our table, your standard set of condiment bottles and ramekins. Hoisin sauce, chili sauce, chili oil, soy, fish sauce. Chopsticks, knifes, forks, and spoons stacked in bunches. You took whatever you needed from it. A typical Vietnamese restaurant setup. Big photos of Vietnamese scenes were hung sparsely around the walls of the restaurant. On one corner of the restaurant was a brightly lit boba and smoothie counter, with a separate door than the restaurant itself.

We looked at the menu and decided to order by looking at the pictures of the dishes. The owner came over.

Owner: "Order?"

Friend 1: "I'll have this one." (pointing at the picture of BBQ Pork Chops with two fried eggs)

Owner: "One egg or two?"

Friend 1: "Two"

Friend 2: "I'll have the same."

Me: "I've have this one." (ponting at the noodle soup with wontons and sliced cha su).

Owner: "Rice noodle or egg noodle?"

Me: "Rice."

Owner: "Regular or large?"

Me: "Regular."

A no-nonsense guy, right to the point. I liked that, I thought.

The food was brought shortly. My soup noodles came out first. There was about four of five fat little yellow wontons, and a few slices of red rimmed cha su. The soup itself was garnished with green onions, fried crispy shallots, with the cutomary side of bean sprouts, cilantro, sliced jalapenos, and a wedge of lime. I dumped the bean sprouts and cilantro in. Squeezed some lime. Left out the jalapenos. The noodles were in a semi solid clump on the bottom of the bowl. I prodded it with my chopstick to loosen it in the soup. Within a few seconds, it did, becoming alive in the broth. I slurped a chopstick's full of the noodles. Not bad. The soup was nicely flavored, light and slightly sweet with a pork and chicken undertone, and still steamy hot. This wasn't the pho broth, so there was no anise flavor. I liked it. The chubby wontons gave way to a ground pork and chunky shrimp filling when bitten. Tender, and quite meatier than I had expected. It was bit like a shu mai at a dim sum joint, but less fatty. The cha su however was very lean, and as a result kind of tough and dry. A long soak in the soup didn't really make them anymore tender. All in all, for $4.75, it was a good bowl of soup.

The Pork Chop and Egg with rice looked good too. Very generous serving for $6.50. It looked like there were about two and a half pork chops per plate. Each one about a quarter of an inch thick. Although not as dark brown as I'm used to, it was tender and had a nice marinated flavor. The eggs were nicely lacey and crispy on the edges, just like mom makes. The dish came with a small bowl of pho broth and sides of sliced cucumber and cabbage pickles. Also, there was the usual bowl of seasoned fish sauce you used to spoon over the rice with.

It was a good meal. The only thing that kind of bugged me was when the smell of Lysol wafted in from the kitchen. I knew they were closing up, but that scent just kind of kills your appetite. I wished they waited until we left to wipe down.

And like a typical Vietnamese restaurant, you walk up to the counter to pay your bill.

When I got up there, the owner said "Dinner good?"

"Yes," I said, "thank you."

As we left, they waved goodbye. Even the guy reading the newspaper.

So that was it. A pretty good Vietnamese restaurant, nowhere near the bustle of Little Saigon. Would I go back? Definitely, but only if I'm in the area. It was quite a schlep from Irvine. And the food was, in my opinion, on par, albeit cheaper than Pho Bac in Irvine (my standard Vietnamese choice around these parts). I know, most Vietnamese would scoff at my choice, but, hey, I like it.

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Boba Smoothie - Costa Mesa

I wanted something to drink on Saturday and we were in the Costa Mesa area. We also were a little bit hungry, so we decided on Boba Smoothie and tried the lunch special. We tried the Meatball Spaghetti and the Turkey Croissant. Both came with a drink, I opted for a Honeydew Smoothie while my girlfriend went for the Strawberry Smoothie.

Both the Meatball Spaghetti and the Turkey Croissant exceeded my expectations for food served at a boba shop.

First the Turkey Croissant. It was served with a choice of fruit salad or french fries. We chose the fruit salad. It consisted of chunked, chilled fruits, such as pineapple, apple, honeydew, banana and strawberry in a dressing of, check this out, peach yogurt! I expected mayo, but was pleasantly surprised when I saw that it was cool creamy yogurt. Definitely refreshing. Now the Croissant. It had a fried egg, melted cheese and some processed turkey cold cuts. Normal ingredients, but together with the warm flaky croissant, it made for a satisfying sandwich.

The Meatball Spaghetti was also quite surprising. The portion was served on a nice big plate. Quite a hefty portion too. The meatballs were really tasty, with a little bit of an herby flavor. They reminded me of IKEA meatballs, but with a better texture and flavor. The noodles were a bit limp, not al dente, but I didn't mind. Come on, this is a boba shop. The sauce was also quite good, a little bit sweetish, and contained bits of fried egg. I really enjoyed it.

Maybe I had my expectations low about boba shop food, especially one that isn't evidently run by Asians, which could explain why I was so surprised at how much I liked the food.

BTW, the Honeydew Smoothie was excellent. Real honeydew flavor and not too sweet. The Strawberry Smoothie was also good. Better than Jamba Juice can ever produce.

The meals which includes a drink costs $7.00.

Boba Smoothie
1460 Baker St. Suite D
Costa Mesa, CA

Friday, February 04, 2005

Irvine Tofu House

My personal favorite Korean Tofu Restaurant has to be Irvine Tofu House. It is hidden away behind the Weinerschitznel on Walnut and Jeffrey, in the same plaza as Taiko.

The food is always dependable and the service has always been warm and accommodating. I usually order just a dinner combo (I think around $13.99) and an extra stone pot rice ($2.00). This is enough for my girlfriend and I (but we are light eaters). The one I usually order consists of one small tofu soup in a stone pot and a small dish of Korean BBQ Ribs. It comes out to a little over $20.00 with tip.

You have your choice of different tofu soups, but we always opt for the combination soup, which has shrimp, clams, and small chunks of beef. Once you order, you are served about a half dozen banchan dishes. Some to eat on the spot, others to eat along with rice and your main dish.

The banchan offered at Irvine Tofu House last Friday was; iceberg lettuce salad with a tart soy dressing (I ate this right away to prime my tastebuds); a white jello-like thing that is topped with scallions and chili; seaweed in a sweet chili paste; stir fried clear noodles with veggies; stewed potatoes; napa cabbage kimchi; and my favorite of all, a deep fried yellow croaker (a small salt-water fish). A raw egg is also brought to the table, for you to crack into the boiling tofu soup later.

When the bubbling stone cauldron of tofu soup does come to your table, quickly drop the egg deep into the soup so that it may cook. I like to keep the yolk whole so that I can enjoy it later by itself with rice.

Next the dish of BBQ ribs came, sizzling on top of sliced onions on a hot plate. The ribs were tender, sweet, and fatty -- perfect with a mouthful of rice, followed by a chaser of kimchi. Sipping a spoonful of the custardy soft tofu only heightens the experience. I love alternating between the different textures and flavors of the main dish and the panchan. Hot to cool, spicy to neutral, chewy to soft.

At the end, the customary thing to do is try to scrape as much crispy rice that is left on the bottom of your stone pot with a spoon, and enjoy its crunch. It's like rice krispies. And depending on how much of the grease and hot sauce you managed to drip into your bowl, it will be a tasty rice krispie.

Well, that's my take on Irvine Tofu House. It's again my personal favorite (close to home, warm and familiar), although I really haven't been to a tofu house I didn't like.

Irvine Tofu Restaurant
(949) 786-2412
14775 Jeffrey Rd
Irvine, CA 92618

Yakisoba bento at Mitsuwa Marketplace - Costa Mesa

So I decided to get some yakisoba from Mitsuwa today. It's about the cheapest thing at the Mitsuwa bento box section at the back of the store. $2.25 plus tax for a pretty filling lunch (at least for me)

Here it is. The yakisoba was good, although the onions in it were a bit strong as they were still almost raw.

These are called takoyaki. Essentially small octopus tentacles wrapped in a pancake-like batter which is then deep fried and dusted with bonito flakes and squirted with soy. It's probably my favorite thing in this bento. Here I've dissected it. You can see a little bit of the octopus.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Santoka Ramen - Costa Mesa

Finally tried Santoka Ramen today at the Mitsuwa Marketplace in Costa Mesa. I ordered the #1, since I really had no clue in the difference between the other choices. The #1 ($6.49) turned out to be Shio (Salt) Ramen, a bowl of ramen in a milky broth (exactly what I was hoping for), topped with a slice of thick fatty pork (looked like pork belly), some finely diced scallions, julienned black wood ear mushrooms (I think), a few strands of bamboo shoots, and the requisite piece of fish cake with a pink spiral design.

First the noodles. These were excellent and perfectly cooked. It was supple but still firm, with a nice texture and appealing bright color (not a pale white like I'm usually used to).

Next the toppings. One word: awesome. The fatty slice of pork practically melts as soon as you bite into it. The fat enveloping your tongue like a warm sinful blanket. The bamboo shoots were still crunchy, but, this is important, not fibrous. The scallions and mushrooms added additional flavor, texture, and color. The fish cake? Well, it's just a fish cake. Nothing special there. Later on, I found a chunk of meaty pork hiding on the bottom of the bowl. A nice surprise.

Now the star of the dish. The soup. It was as I imagined it should be. Now, granted, I am not a ramen expert. In fact, this is the first time I have ever tried a ramen with a rich, milky, murky broth like this. I know someone will remind me what this style is called. Whatever it may be, I am now a convert. The hot milky soup simply filled my mouth with so many complex flavors. It is sweet, porky, salty, savory, peppery and creamy, all at once. Creamy you ask? Yes. But not overwhelming so. If I shut my eyes, and clear my thoughts of what the soup actually looked like, my taste buds would still register the creaminess and the body of this soup. You truly get the essense of everything that went into the soup.

I did not leave a single drop.

Now, at $6.49 ($6.99 with tax), which was just about the cheapest item on the Santoka menu, I can understand why it wasn't the most crowded stall there. That distinction went to the Miyabi stall next door. There was an actual line going up the Miyabi window while Santoka was practically deserted. Santoka definitely sells a pretty expensive bowl of noodles when compared to what the other stalls were offering. But for today, and for my money, I felt it was worth it.

Santoka Ramen
665 Paularino Ave.,
Costa Mesa CA 92626