Monday, May 30, 2005

Sushi Shibucho - Costa Mesa

First of all, let me say that I've been anticipating going to Sushi Shibucho for a long time. It has been on the top of my list for as long as I've been a Chowhound reader. Melanie Wong's essay "O Sushi Shibucho" was one of the first posts I've ever read on the board. It made me realize that there are a lot hidden treasures in O.C.

But even as Sushi Shibucho held the top spot of places I had to try, the formality that omakase entails and the bucks that it requires, made me procrastinate. I know, I'm cheap, but more than anything, I was afraid of finding that the enjoyment to price ratio was going to be low. After all, I'm a sushi novice. I wondered if I would really appreciate the differences between toro and regular tuna, and even worse, would I be able to then compare it to, say, Sushi Boy's sushi, and conclude that there was no difference? How's that for sushi blasphemy? That would be a shame, both for the skills of a master like Shibutani and for me as a food-lover.

That's when a serendipitous opportunity presented itself. A friend wanted to treat a few of us out, money-no-object, on his company's expense account. I jumped at the chance and blurted out "Sushi Shibucho!"

I had been talking this place up to my friends for a while now, and when we arrived, the first thing they said was "This is it?" Evidently, I had left out the fact that this was a tiny place; a hole-in-the-wall. They must have imagined something flashier, with a long line of silicone and botox enhanced babes, and a burly bouncer with a clipboard. Ultimately, I think they were actually relieved that it wasn't some trumped-up Newport Beach abomination. Anyone remember Aysia 101?

When we went in, the sushi bar was completely occupied, except for two seats, which were already reserved. I had called the day before to make a reservation for omakase, but the gentleman who answered (probably Shibutani's son) informed me to call back on the day of, or arrive at 5:30 when they opened. But silly me. I did neither, being the procrastinator that I am. We got there at 7:00 pm - no reservation. It was then that I realized; we would not be able to sit at the bar. No omakase tonight.

The nice woman, who was probably Shibutani's wife, got a table ready for us and we perused the menu. I checked off items from the sushi list. Two orders each. Toro. Uni. Salmon Skin. Ika. I can't even remember now how much we checked off, but I think we chose a good selection. Defintely not even close to what Shibutani himself would have served us "omakase" or what Melanie Wong experienced on her visit, but good enough for a couple of sushi newbies going at it alone.

The first to come out was the nigiri, all arranged artfully on a large plate. The toro was fatty and silky. The salmon, rich. The squid (ika), though, had an overpowering dose of wasabi. This one literally made us wince and cry. I pounded my fist on the table for mercy. Oh so painful! There were other nigiris on the plate that I could not remember, but all was sparkling fresh with perfectly packed rice. Sushi Boy's got nothin' on Shibucho! Duh!

Then the rolls came. By this time, one of my companions was already full. But the rolls looked too damn good to resist. On this equally large plate was salmon skin roll, unagi, tuna, and again, a few others I could not recall. This was where Shibutani relied more on textures and bolder flavors. Crunchy cucumber contrasted with salty smoked salmon. A thick, sweet, dark sauce complemented neutral rice. It made a lot of sense that he served the nigiri first, because it was subtler than the rolls and required the attention of virgin taste buds.

The total for the night was a little over $100 for our party of three.

We concluded that we had a good sampling of what omakase would have been like, but undoubtedly there remains uncharted territory that only Shibutani could show us. We will be back for omakase.

That night was only a primer, yet I still looked back fondly on everything I had, hours after the experience.

Sushi Shibucho
(949) 642-2677
590 W 19th St
Costa Mesa, CA 92627

Friday, May 27, 2005

Asian junk food

I picked up this addicting Thai snack from my recent trip to Bua Siam in North Hollywood. Displayed on cheap IKEA shelves, along with other take-away goodies like dried mango and Thai cookies, this was a package of, more or less, fried bait. It was beguilingly called "Fish Snack". Something to feed your koi perhaps? More descriptive, but still slightly ambiguous was the phrase "Crispy Seasoning Anchovies with Sesame." No matter. The worse the English, the more authentic, I always say.

Promising funky fishiness and breath-fouling deliciousness, I told the waiter to put it on my tab, for a pittance of $1.50.

Opening the package, I braced myself for the funky fishy fumes to emanate. But alas, my olfactory senses were left disappointed. This mass of fried anchovies was mysteriously bereft of that rotting rankness I've come to associate with anything containing dried fish.

I promptly broke off a piece from the sticky, caramel-colored mass and shoved it in my mouth. The crunch was similar to a very dense Cheetoh, if it were made from fish and laced with a spicy caramel glaze. Headless and puffed like a Japanese rice cracker, these aren't your average fried anchovies (is there such a thing?).

The first flavor to hit was the cloying sweetness of honey, giving way immediately to both chili heat and salty fish. It was hard to stop munching them. Fish after fish, I was addicted. And after a few mouthfuls, and a swig of cold Thai beer, my breath reeked like the San Pedro Fish Market in July.

I'm almost done with the bag, and now I need to find a place in OC to get my fix.

In an attempt to de-anchovy my breath, I popped a few of these Lychee Jelly Snacks I picked up from 99 Ranch in Irvine. The topic of a recent discussion on Chowhound, these are the culprits of many choking deaths. Well, it wasn't exactly these snacks, but its predecessor that was banned by the FDA.

The chunk of coconut previously suspended in these jelly cups were larger single gobs of chewy gelatin caled "konjak", just the right size to slip right into a child's throat and get lodged in the windpipe. The ones produced now are harmless. The chunks of coconut konjak are now chopped into smaller, swallowable pieces.

But they are still just as tasty as before. The lychee flavor comes through fresh and sweet. The juices will dribble down your lips just as though you were biting into a real lychee, while the coconut konjak provides the contrast of chewiness to the soft jelly, again giving the sensation that you are eating the real thing.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Pho Bac Ky - Tustin

Pho Bac Ky has three outlets in Orange County. For Irvinites, the location on Barranca and the new one they erected on Jeffrey has become a reasonable and reliable destination for Vietnamese grub, without sacrificing life, limb, and the occasional dented fender battling through the traffic scourge and parking nightmare that is Westminster's Little Saigon. And I haven't even mentioned the 405 northbound during rush hour.

Maybe I'm exaggerating here, but hey, try to get some Pho for lunch on Saturday there on Bolsa, and tell me how it goes. I bet it's enough to swear a non-Chowhound off banh mi's and cha gio's for good. And as much as I love Little Saigon, most days I'd rather stay close to home and focus on the eating rather than the defensive driving and the fight for survival.

So with a hunger for Vietnamese one Friday night, we decided to try the third location of Pho Bac Ky; the one in Tustin on Redhill as recommended by Diamond Dog in his review.

Upon our arrival, we immediately noticed how tiny the place was. In a dilapidated strip mall, the store front barely registers in your peripheral vision. Like Waldo, you'd miss it if you weren't looking for it. A single word, "Pho" appears on the marquee in a thin font. Stenciled on the window in white, "$3.99 Special" - a ploy to get price sensitive consumers (like me!) in the door.

Mirrors lined opposite walls, a common trick to give the illusion that the restaurant is bigger than it is. And this place sure needed it. The dining room was grungy and grimy - exactly the kind of vibe you'd get at any of those joints in Little Saigon. It was more than apparent that this is the ugly sister to the two Irvine debutants, which don't feel like Vietnamese restaurants at all. The doors were kept wide open to let in a breeze; a vain attempt to compensate for the struggling A/C system. Oh did I mention that it was like a sauna in there? "Like a sauna." How's that for a tired cliche?

Sitting inside the restaurant gave me a vague sensation that I was *actually* in Vietnam. My skin slowly dampened and beads of moisture formed on my forehead from the humidity.

I opted for the $3.99 special of BBQ chicken skewers since a hot bowl of pho would have surely done me in for a heat stroke. The dish consisted of three generous skewers of grilled chicken, yellow rice, a small bowl of pho broth, sliced tomatoes, cool cucumber, and a small bowl of piquant nouc cham. The chicken skewers, flat and wide like a Thai satay were well-marinated. I could taste the herby lemongrass and a distinct, funky flavor and aroma that could only be fish sauce. Also pleasant was the slight grill charring on each morsel of meat. It was a damn good meal for $3.99.

I also tried the pho that my girlfriend ordered (also $3.99), and it tasted just as good as the other two Irvine Pho Bacs. The broth resonated with anise aroma and the unmistakable sweetness and presence of beef. It perhaps tasted better to me since it was $2.00 less than the same bowl in Irvine.

Little Saigon quality, at a Little Saigon price, in Tustin!

Pho Bac Ky
14207 Red Hill Ave.
Tustin, Ca 92780

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Bua Siam - North Hollywood

So it was with high expectations that we tried Bua Siam in North Hollywood. I've heard so many raves, from Jet Tila on KCRW's Good Food, to Barbara Hansen of the LA Times, and of course, my fellow Chowhounds on And with all things that you have high hopes for, Bua Siam didn't quite live up to it. Although, it wasn't disappointing on the scale that "Episode I - The Phantom Menace" was.

So we still thought it was a good meal. Just not great.

We started with the Pad Thai. I thought it tasted fine. Saucy, and assertively flavored, it had generous chunks of chicken meat and shrimp which were cooked perfectly. But my friend noted that it wasn't as good as Lotus of Siam's in Las Vegas. Although he was right, it was still a good plate of noodles.

The second dish was rice with sliced BBQ pork (cha su), Chinese sausage, and fried pork. The rice, which was doused with a sweet red sauce, was a little overcooked and a bit on the mushy side. The BBQ pork was lacking in sweetness and flavor. The fried pork, with bits of fat and skin was not hot off the fryer, so it wasn't crispy. The Chinese sausage however, had a robust flavor that gave the dish its redemption. The small saucer of sweetened soy and diced chili was also amazing.

Then came the two dishes we picked out of the $2.50 menu.

They were; mussels fried in egg and batter, and Thai spaghetti with chicken curry.

The mussels, served on top of bean sprouts, were nice and plump, a perfect match with the egg. A liberal spoonful of the sweet and sour sauce that came with it punched up the volume. The sauce had a peculiar characteristic of what I call "delayed heat". Four seconds will pass before the heat registers in your mouth. "Quite sneaky," I remarked.

The spaghetti with chicken curry was made of thin rice noodles, doused with a light chicken curry flecked with coconut and pickled greens. The taste of this dish was too subtle. You know the flavor was there, but because of the boiled rice noodles, the curry hid in the background and stayed there. Overall, we were more fond of the pad thai than this dish.

Then we tried the omelette with ground pork and veggies. This dish was interesting. Not quite an omelette, and more of a ground pork stir fry wrapped with an omelette. So it wasn't a singular entity, although we managed to get a bite of egg with every spoonful of pork that we ate.

Our final dish was fried tofu. This was a simple as it gets. Triangular pieces of tofu is deep fried until crisp and served with a saucer of sweet and sour sauce and ground peanut. I liked it, but again, this is something I make often. It's not something that anyone, or any restaurant can screw up. We treated it like a palate cleanser.

The tab for our meal was around $35. We felt that it wasn't bad for the variety of dishes that we got. We were pleased and sated, even if it didn't live up to our high expectations. Thai Nakorn in Garden Grove and Lotus of Siam in Vegas still remains our favorite Thai places.

But we were delighted that the restaurant interior was clean and spotless. The furniture and decor: IKEA all the way through, from the shelves, down to the chopstick trays.

Bua Siam Restaurant
12924 Sherman Way
North Hollywood, CA 91605

Monday, May 23, 2005

Mid-afternoon snacks at Chowking - Cerritos

On our way to visit a friend last Saturday, we stopped by Chowking to grab a quick bite to eat. Since it was shaping up to be a scorcher of a day, I was also craving something cold to cool my gullet. I got a Buko Pandan shake ($2.95). This chilly green concoction was made with ice blended into a slush with coconut milk and pandan extract, some green pandan jelly and a sprinkling of pinipig.


What a fun word to say.

Pinipig is simply pieces of crisped rice, with a toasted, nutty flavor. It brought this slushy drink an added dimension of texture. However, it was the pandan, which has a creamy vanilla-like flavor and aroma, that was the star of the drink.

We also got the Gulaman drink ($1.75). A simple mix of cooling black grass jelly, brown sugar syrup, ice, and white sago (tapioca pearls). Refreshing!

To munch on, we ordered some siopao ($1.65 each). The chicken siopao, was a steamed bun filled with a firm chicken mousse. The mousse contained a piece of sweet Chinese sausage and a quail egg. Biting into these hidden morsels was like finding the prize in a Cracker Jack box. The pork siopao had shredded pork in sweet dark sauce. A dollop of asado sauce per bite made the experience complete.

We also ordered some egg rolls (3 pieces for $1.95). They were good. Slender and long in shape, they were served crisp and hot, fresh from the fryer. Perfect with a dip in the Filipino sweet and sour sauce.

11900 South St
Cerritos, CA 90703

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

El Rocoto - Cerritos

What a disappointment! I expected a lot from this place given that Jonathan Gold gave it a rave review in LA Weekly a few weeks back. But then, I didn't try the jalea he suggested. I opted for the staple on which I judge all Peruvian restaurants; saltado de pollo.

This is a simple dish, one that I make myself on a regular basis. In fact, if you look at the photo in my blog profile, you will see saltado as prepared by yours truly. Saltado is not a complicated dish. It does not require very exotic ingredients. Cumin, soy, vinegar, a few julienned veggies, chicken and french fries...that's really all there is to it. If you're curious on making this on your own here's my recipe which I posted with photos.

What *IS* important, however, is that everything is cooked to order. Sadly, El Rocoto misses this one essential detail.

I should have suspected something was wrong when they brought out the dish of saltado scarcely five minutes after we placed the order. I know what you're thinking, "What's wrong with that? The sooner the food is brought out, the better! Right?"


At least that's not what I've observed with all the restaurant-made saltados I've ever had. My favorite joints for saltado (El Pollo Inka in Lawndale and Inka Anaheim in Anaheim) take at least fifteen minutes or longer to prepare their saltados. At both of these restaurants, what I get is juicy, plump chicken pieces, with a good brown sear on the meat. You know the minute you taste it that moments ago, this chicken started out raw and was seared on a blazing hot wok. Popping this juicy, hot morsel into your mouth, you should also detect "wok-hey", that elusive flavor you get only from proper wok cooking.

At El Rocoto (and also in the sad chain called Inka Grill), I surmised immediately that this was not the case. As soon as I saw the dish, I knew. The chicken pieces looked stringy and pale, with no visible caramelization or searing. Although they were generous with their serving of it, once I tasted the meat, I found it ropy and dry. Even the dark meat pieces were chewy and spongy.

The verdict was clear. They had pre-cooked the chicken to save time.

The vegetable components of onions, tomatoes, and fries did get stir fried to order, but only then did the pre-cooked chicken pieces get added. The resulting dish was flat and tasted stewed, when it should be lively, fresh, and hot.

This to me is inexcusable since I would have gladly waited a few minutes more to get a properly cooked saltado.

There were also other misses with the food they served. They did badly on the fried plantains, which is again as simple a dish as you can make it. Their mistake here was that the plantains were sliced too thinly and then fried in oil that wasn't hot enough to avoid greasiness. Adding to the comedy of blunders, some pieces were still raw.

Even the sauces provided with the bread was subpar. The green aji and the orange aji sauces had little flavor and lacked heat. It seemed as if every flavor on these sauces were muted, like it had been sitting too long in the fridge. No herby kick, no fruitiness, nothing. Only in aftertaste did a little of the chili heat kick in. But by then, I just didn't care.

The one redeeming aspect of the meal was dessert. It was lucuma ice cream. Lucuma, for those of you unfamiliar with Peruvian food, is the most popular ice cream flavor in Peru. It is made from a native fruit and is adobe red in color. The flavor is slightly sweet, rich and earthy like taro but bolder, and without the starchiness. The ice cream also has pleasant gritty mouth feel to it. It is one of my favorite ice cream flavors. Obviously though, El Rocoto did not make this ice cream. It is, in fact, the same ice cream they serve at all the Peruvian restaurants in L.A.

Now, if only I can find a store that sells it, I can make a complete three course Peruvian dinner at home!

El Rocoto
11433 South Street
Cerritos, CA 90703

Monday, May 16, 2005

Uptown Kabob - Whittier

In the area for a visit, we decided to check out Uptown Kabob in Whittier. Directly adjacent to Rocky Cola Cafe, this family run "Mediterranean Grill" has that small town joint feel to it. You can tell they spent very little on the decor of the place since the walls are bare white, and what little color there was came from stock pre-framed pictures, the kind you'd usually find at swap meets.

The tables are set with white linen, but you soon notice that it's protected with a thin sheet of glass. Nevertheless, I was still pleasantly surprised at what I saw since what I was expecting was a takeout gyro joint, replete with a rotating spit of shwarma and an unshaven guy with a oil stained shirt carving meat from said spit. Instead we were greeted warmly by a waitress and given menus.

I opted for the Lamb Kabob dish for around $8. We shared an appetizer of hummus ($4) which was served with cold pita bread. The hummus was good, drizzled with olive oil and dusted with paprika, but I wished they toasted the pita bread or better yet, given us pita chips instead.

The Lamb Kabob came in a large dish with generous serving of white basmati rice accented with a streak of yellow rice down the middle of it. The basmati rice was fragrant and fluffy. Placed around the edges of the plate, framing the rice, were sliced white onions, a grilled tomato, a grilled jalapeno pepper, and about a half dozen cubes of de-skewered roasted lamb. The lamb was slightly charred on the outside, and brown all the way through. I could taste the marinade, but it was the slight gamey lamb flavor that I enjoyed. While the meat was not fork tender, I still savored it. But it could've been prepared a little more on the rare side. Next time I think I'll request it that way. The surprising kick of the dish came from the charred jalapeno and tomato. These provided a tart and spicy counterpoint to the gamey meat. Since no sauce came with the dish, I quite enjoyed this interplay of flavors from these simple ingredients.

This is not a destination restaurant, but if I were in the area again, I am certainly stopping by.

Uptown Kabob Family Restaurant
(562) 698-5553
6749 Greenleaf Ave
Whittier, CA 90601

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Fish Burritos from Alertos - Fountain Valley

Ugh! I'm soooo full! I just finished the fish burrito I brought back from Alertos in Fountain Valley, which happens to be my favorite Mexican food joint. Alertos is kind of the bastard child of the slowly disappearing Albertos chain from San Diego. Both are known for their carne asada burrito, a carnivore's wet dream. A huge soft flour tortilla made with lard, wrapped around a pound of seasoned carne asada steak "cubes" and guacamole with a little onion, tomatoes, and cilantro. This primal feast is the sort of thing we used to scarf down as undergrads at UC Irvine. I remember spending many a late night studying with a belly full of carne asada burritos. It has remained a staple of my diet ever since.

There are a triad of things that I order from Alertos. They are:

1. The carne asada burrito.

2. The "1/2 order carne asada nachos" - a hefty mound of fresh fried corn tortilla chips smothered in cheese, cubed steak, guac, pico de gallo, refried beans and sour cream.

3. The fish burrito I just devoured.

None of these ticks above $5. The fish burrito I ate today was $3.01, tax included. Another thing I never miss is the pickled carrots and jalapenos. They are free for the asking if you do a drive-up order, and if you are eating in, you can practically make a side dish of it from the self serve salsa bar. Pop these in your mouth and a burst of tartness and jalapeno heat snaps your synapses to attention.

I rarely venture from these staples, but they do a decent chicken enchilada and breakfast burrito too.

Now on to my fish burrito. Except for the fact that it is wrapped in bigger tortilla, the components of this simple burrito are probably the same as a stereotypical Ensanada style fish taco. First there's the tortilla, supple and fragrant, which was lightly grilled before the fillings went in. There's the crunchy fish; crispy battered nibblets from a species of unknown origin. Then there's the shredded green and purple cabbage, providing the fresh veggie crunch. Along for the ride for flavor is some pico de gallo (diced tomatoes, onion, cilantro), and crema fresca, which has the slight zing of tartar sauce without the mayo richness.

What I like best about the fish burrito is its marriage of textures and tastes. The cabbage and pico de gallo simply screams "salad!" but the crispy battered fish brings keeps it from being boring, giving it that requisite heartiness.

For optimum enjoyment, it is best to eat your burrito on the spot as the fried battered fish does tend to get soggy the longer it stays wrapped. Eat it in store and you will enjoy this work-a-day food along with famished gardeners, Asian students, and nurses in their teddy bear accented garb.

Alertos Mexican Food
17225 Brookhurst Street
Fountain Valley, CA 92708

Friday, May 06, 2005

Chicago's Best - Irvine

Another entry amongst the food court denizens of Irvine is Chicago's Best. It's counter has been scarcely open for more than a few weeks, yet it has garnered some pretty enthused posts here on Chowhound. And this was even before it officially opened.

I tried it today, for the first time. I ordered the first thing listed on the menu: The Italian Beef Sandwich, with both mild and hot peppers. The guy behind the counter, after handling my money, proceeded to assemble my sandwich. He first split open a six inch french roll, then with tongs, stuffed it full of what looked like shredded beef, which was pallid white. He then took the whole thing and dunked it into the "jus". After spooning some sliced pickled jalapenos and some brownish, cooked bell peppers, he double wrapped it in butcher paper. And there it was, my $6.63 "Italian Beef Sandwich".

Upon unwrapping and sinking my first bite into this thing, I was puzzled to why this was called an "Italian" beef sandwich. What makes it Italian? It certainly couldn't have been the hot pickled jalapenos and the tiny cubes of carrots. Those gave it a distinctly Mexican zing. It certainly couldn't have been the beef or the "jus" itself. It tasted similar to Philippe's french dip jus, but with less body and flavor. The beef itself was tender. These greyish white ribbons of meat quite easily fell apart in your mouth, but to me, had a "boiled" taste to them. I'm not saying that that's a bad thing, but if it's described as "roast beef", shouldn't it look and taste like roast beef? And Italian? I wouldn't have guessed it.

And the bread, being a soft roll to begin with, easily succumbed to the moisture after being completely submerged in the jus. It quickly turned into a soft, mushy, salty bread pudding. The beef, already dripping with broth, soaked through the bread from the inside, but the dunk finished the job on the outer crust. The bread never had a chance!

Even before the first bite, the whole sandwich had already fallen apart, gobs of beef and jalapenos dropped onto the paper, like drunken sailors jumping off a sinking ship. After a short bit of time, the whole thing became a sopping wet mess. It was then I understood why some people were eating their sandwiches with a knife and fork.

You might think that from my review that I didn't like the sandwich, but I did (sort of). Although I did not care for the flavorless pieces of cooked bell peppers they put on it, it was a decent sandwich. I still think they should rethink the name though. How's "shredded beef with bread pudding" sound?

Admittedly, I'm not from Chicago. The closest I came to even visiting the city was a half hour stopover at O'Hare. I wonder though, is this a true Chicago Italian Beef Sandwich?

Chicago's Best
2540 Main St
Irvine, CA 92614

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Niki's Indian Food - Santa Ana

Here's a place that I was bound to try sooner or later. It is after all, just a block away from work for me and perhaps the nearest Indian food place in the South Coast area that isn't Royal Khyber (not that I have a problem with Royal Khyber...just that it's a little too expensive and fancy for a workaday lunch). I could be wrong here, there is probably another Indian joint somewhere around the Santa Ana and Costa Mesa border. In any case, I wasn't expecting greatness from this place, just good, cheap grub. Maybe some basmati rice, some tandoori chicken, for no more than a few bucks.

I got what I expected, no more, no less. The restaurant itself is surprisingly large, with a dining room that was easily the same size as India Cook House in Irvine, except with cheap white plastic lawn chairs, equally cheap vinyl tablecloths, minimal lighting, stark white walls, and the weirdly noticeable absence of Indian mood music.

As soon as I entered, I was in a small line with other South Coast office drones, each of us still wearing our dangling ID badges. This line led up to counter with a small row of steam tables which were attended to by a pair of hispanic ladies. As each docker-wearing patron's turn was up, one of two of the servers would ask "For here or to go?" If you said "to go", your food will be put into styrofoam containers, the kind with a flip-top. Say "for here" and it's a styrofoam plate for you. Each lunch meal consisted of a scoop or two of yellow basmati rice. Actually, it seemed as though the rice wasn't basmati at all, but regular jasmine rice rendered yellow with turmeric. The rice was clumpy, which wouldn't happen had it been actual basmati. Then it's up to you what you wanted as the entree to go with it.

I opted for the Express Meal #1 ($3.50), which turned out to be a single leg of tandoori chicken, the rice, salad or raita, and a piece of naan. The salad was really just a heap of shredded cabbage marinated in vinegar. The naan wasn't crispy since it came out of a heap from steam table tray. And the rice was clumpy, as I previously mentioned. But the chicken leg was surprisingly tasty. With burnt edges and the marinade penetrating deep into the flesh, I looked like a primal beast, gnawing it while my fellow cubicle brethren dunked naan into styrofoam cups of curry.

There's nothing particularly special about Niki's, but as far as an alternative to Jack-in-the-Box and Subway, it ain't bad.

Niki's Indian Food
(714) 850-0595
3705 S Bristol St
Santa Ana, CA 92704

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Greek Island Grille - Santa Ana

My craving for gyro or doner kebap had to be satisfied. So today I drove to the nearest place I could get it that wasn't Daphne's. I first heard of Greek Island Grill on Chowhound of course and OC Weekly. And being that it was a stone's throw from my office, it wasn't a hard choice.

The restaurant interior itself is impressive. Despite being sandwiched between a Carl's Jr. and a sushi joint, the atmosphere of the restaurant is very cozy and homey. It looks as though this place has been here for ages. Beautifully oil-painted murals of countryside scenes on the wall, framed pictures hung with care, green rimmed table cloths. I thought that it felt very out of place in this stark, somewhat depressing minimall in, what I would call, the hinterlands of South Coast Plaza. After all, in the same parking lot exists a tired old sporting goods outlet and a Red Robin.

So I ordered a Lamb Souvlaki Pita for $4.99. A big sandwich, served with a side of tzaziki, a yogurt sauce. The first thing I noticed was the heftiness of this thing. "Would I be able to finish this by myself?" I wonder. I shouldn't have worried. The volume of the sandwich, as it turns out, was made up of 80% shredded green leaf lettuce. There were about four, one-inch cubes of grilled lamb chunks at the bottom of the sandwich, but really, this is basically a salad wrapped inside a pita. The toppings also included diced tomatoes, parsley, a few pieces of chopped red onion, and slivers of green onion. Unfortunately though, this sandwich wasn't very tasty. The chunks of lamb were really chewy and had no flavor. It took a good minute and a half for me to masticate each piece. It became quite annoying after a while. The tzaziki provided all of the flavor to the sandwich. Too bad there was so little of it.

So after I finished the sandwich, I was still hungry. At $5.33 after tax, I would've expected to be full, or at least, satisfied that I had something unique and chow-worthy. I was neither. For two bucks more, I could've added two sides. Maybe next time. Or then again, maybe not.

Not to be nitpicky about price, but for the same amount of money, I could've gotten four decently sized baguette banh mi's from Banh Mi Che Cali. Okay, unfair comparison. There isn't a lot of things that can beat that deal.

The Whole Pita Greek Island Grille
3940 S. Bristol Street. #113
Santa Ana, CA 92704

Super Corokke - Costa Mesa

This hole-in-the-wall is one of those places where pretentiousness is non-existent, and the food speaks for itself. The lady that owns it operates it. She's taking orders up front and giving them to a few hispanic women in the back who, in turn, faithfully churn out good grub to the steady stream of loyal patrons. Make no bones about it, it's no Shinsengumi. Expect no flash or pizazz. Instead, you will get consistency and comfort food.

The restaurant itself barely seats 10. Stacks of tattered Japanese magazines leans precariously on one corner. Condiments of various bottled sauces are grouped together in bundles on each table. Pepper, hot chili paste, salt, soy...the usual suspects, but most importantly, tonkatsu sauce. This vaguely sweet, sour and pungent sauce has the tang of Lea and Perrins, the depth of soy, and the consistency of syrup. You use it for Super Corokke's namesake dish, corokke. Corokke, is a breaded potato patty which is filled with all kinds of goodness, which is then deep fried.

I got the Corokke Combination to go recently. Simply a mound of hot rice, a salad consisting of iceberg lettuce and citrusy soy dressing, a macaroni salad laced with a tangy mayonnaise and corn nibblets, and a choice of two corokkes. I chose the Popeye, which had a filling of spinach and bacon, and the Curry, which had ground beef with curry. The corokkes were plucked out of the heat lamp case by the owner as soon as the kitchen staff got my rice and fixings ready. A bowl of miso soup also got packed with the meal. Total? $4.80 plus tax. Some tonkatsu sauce and chili paste came packaged with my order.

Now, it's not a spectacular meal mind you. This is definitely not going to blow your socks off. The corokkes are admittedly bland until you dunk it in hot sauce and squirt a little of the tonkatsu sauce. But with every bite, you kind of get addicted and suddenly you want more. One of these days, I'm going to take advantage of their "After 8 pm, 50% off offer", where every corokke is half price 30 minutes before they close up. That amounts to 50 cents per corokke.

They have other items I still need to try. I was drooling over superb looking rice bowls and noodles that other diners were noshing.

Super Corokke
(714) 444-3418
675 Paularino Ave
Costa Mesa, CA 92626

UPDATE: Sometime in the Spring of 2006, the owner of Super Corokke, the nice woman I spoke of in this post, passed away. The space has since been occupied by a new Japanese take-out place called Bentoss.