Monday, November 28, 2005

Tao Asian Bistro at the Venetian - Las Vegas

This place is an overblown, in-your-face production. It's precisely what I would expect an American interior designer to boilerplate when given the assignment of decorating an Asian-themed restaurant and nightclub.

There are colorful, oversized National Geographic photos of Asian faces plastered all over the restaurant. Toothless old men grinning. Bald monks in orange sashes staring.

Over the sushi bar, a lifesized poster of Akebono, the sumo grand champion. He has nipples the size of saucers.

A two-story bronzed Buddha is the centerpoint of the room, "floating" over a bubbling pond.

A Buddha in a Vegas restaurant?

Sacrilegious? Maybe. Ironic? Absolutely.

There's also a glass display wall of opium pipes carved ornately from animal tusks.

Club music thumps and thumps in a continuous loop, usurping any and all conscious thought.

The crowd is predominately non-Asian. Young, and gleaming with designer jeans and shoes.

The wait staff wears pseudo-Chinese garb made of silk. The girls look like concubines and the guys look like kung-fu fighters.

Remember the scene from "Garden State" where Zach Braff's character waits at a "Vietnamese" restaurant? I think they might have filmed it here (or the New York sister restaurant). Whatever. The same vibe. The same crowd.

The food caters to this audience. The selections on the menu is vast and ambitious, covering not just Asia, but The Orient as the West would see it, in a way that isn't reverential. There's everything from pad thai, to sushi, to udon, to steak and potatoes. As with anything that tries to be so many things at once, it does no single thing well. Not surprised are you?

The tempura appetizer was heavy and thick with gummy batter. These things go down like a pile of bricks and finishes with a nasty greasy oil slick that tastes rather rank.

The egg rolls were better, but not much. The filling was mushy with veggies turned to a pulpy goo.

The chicken satay sticks were bland and dry. It's what you'd expect when you skewer a chicken breast and bake it in an oven with plain peanut butter.

Miso marinated sea bass looked pretty but the glaze was so salty I had to scrape it off to make the delicate flesh of the fish edible. The "wokked" vegetables that went with it? The cheapest produce available. There was on choy, some bean sprouts and carrot.

The best dish was the New York Steak, which (surprise) had no glaring Asian influences (except for the shitake mushrooms). Tender, perfectly grilled and sweet. Succulent.

The prices? Well, can't you already guess?

Tao Restaurant
(702) 388-8338
3355 Las Vegas Blvd S
Las Vegas, NV 89109

Saigon Grille - Irvine

Irvine is the "promised land" if you are a Vietnamese restauranteur. It's far enough from the frenzied competition of Little Saigon so that you don't have to compete solely on price.

Coupled with that, the audience of diners in Irvine aren't as finicky. You're not dealing with those ardent old timers, who spend all day reminiscing about how food used to taste in the old country.

Nope. Here in Irvine, all you have to do is serve some decent pho, spring rolls, a few rice dishes, and charge just enough to cover the sky-high rent. If the stars align, you can make a good profit catering to a market of affluent homeowners, the office-park lunch crowd, and discriminating college students.

If this sounds simple, it's not. Because for every success like Pho Bac Ky, there are casualties like Nam Viet.

Now a new contender enters the ring. Occupying a space that used to house a failed Asian eatery before it, Saigon Grille attempts to lure Irvine diners with an eclectic menu and a 20% discount off the total bill to mark its grand opening.

Their menu is stocked with big ticket items like baked catfish and crab noodle. These are ambitious dishes with prices to match. Perhaps they needed to pay off the interior designer, who from the look of things, must have run up quite a tab. They've built an elegant space which evokes a time of French colonialism and opulence.

Sumptous red paint and intricately framed artwork decorate a room with open-backed wooden chairs and swooping ceiling fans. The centerpiece of the restaurant is an angled window that looks into the kitchen where a fiery wok blazes as the chef tosses his food airborne and the flames lick the ceiling for maximum dramatic effect.

We started with the Grill Platter ($14.00), which are the Vietnamese equivalent to fajitas. Instead of tortillas, you are served a plate of cold, moistened rice paper, each sheet separated from the other with a plastic clam shell fan.

The objective is to take a round of the transculent rice paper sheet, pile on a mound of cold and fluffy bun (vermicelli noodle), some herbs like mint and cilantro, some pickled carrot, and finally, the grilled meats of shrimp, pork, and beef.

Then you wrap.

If you have great dexterity, you end up with a taut cigar-shaped object. But, if you're all thumbs like I am, you get something that resembles an exploded taco.

Then you dunk it into the bowl of tart nouc cham (sweetened fish sauce), a sauce that emboldens the roll with a fishy pungency. Double dipping is allowed and necessary for every bite you take of your creation.

It's a fun, interactive meal which is relatively healthier than the ubiquitous Mexican restaurant staple it resembles. The cold noodles and herbs contrast the char-grilled meat making for a hearty dish that's also refreshing and light. The rubbery pull of the rice paper gives it a pleasant chew and bite.

The next dish was the Mien Xao Cua ($15.95) (Stir Fried Vermicelli Noodles with Crab Meat). We would have loved Saigon Grille's rendition more had we not already tried a far superior execution at Brodard a few weeks ago. While Brodard's Mien Xao Cua was bold, saucy, with jewel-like chunks of crabmeat, Saigon Grille's was muted and damp. The crabmeat was almost entirely invisible since it was overworked and pulverized into thin, hairlike strands. Though the inclusion of almost raw pieces of finely julienned snow peas kept the dish interesting with its fresh-from-the-garden crunch.

Although it remains to be seen whether these unorthodox dishes will be accepted by the Irvine crowds, Saigon Grille still wisely offers the requisite bowls of pho and com tam (Broken Rice with Meats) to please the city's demographic. In fact, the restaurant was bustling that night and just about everyone had steaming hot bowls of pho in front of them. This Irvinite will be back to try a bowl too.

Saigon Grille
(949) 733-3320
14021 Jeffrey Rd
Irvine, CA 92620

Sunday, November 20, 2005

The Hat - Lake Forest

If The Hat's original road side stand on the corner of Garfield and Valley in Alhambra looks like it's been there since the 50's, that's because it has.

It's nothing but a beaten-down shack, with a walk-up window. Behind the building, in the parking lot, there are a few worn tables where you can sit and stuff your face with pastrami.

The fact that it still remains in that same location to this very day is a testament to its endurance as the city and the whole San Gabriel Valley transforms itself into L.A.'s largest Chinese enclave.

That stand seems to be one of those unique, distinctly L.A. joints that have stood the test of time. In this club are places like Pink's Hot Dogs and Philippe's French Dip.

However, unlike Pink's and Philippe's, The Hat has apparently decided to expand and franchise itself beyond the L.A. County line. There are eight other outposts including one in Brea and Upland.

The newer stores are not mere walk-up windows though. The Lake Forest outlet's got a full-on dining room. But the menu board still has that distinctive white lettering over the ugly brown wood pattern; the kind they used to use on TVs and clock radios manufactured in the 70's.

Brown, it seems, is the predominant color scheme of the restaurant. And everyone orders the Pastrami Dip sandwich. Everyone.

The sandwich is a two-fisted affair. Served on food trays reconstituted from recycled newspaper pulp, a soft hoagie roll is stuffed, nay, crammed with heaps upon heaps of shredded pastrami; beefy red ribbons of stringy meat and fat. It's chewy, bordering on rubbery, but it's good and salty like pastrami should be. The plain old yellow mustard and lip-puckeringly sour slices of pickle help to cut through the richness.

Pastrami purists will probably say that it doesn't hold a candle to Langer's. And they're probably right.

But until Langer's decides to whore itself to the masses in O.C. and the Inland Empire, The Hat's here to fill the void.

The sandwich, by the way, ain't cheap. At exactly $7.00 with tax, it's not exactly as cost effective as the banh mi. But then, ask anyone eating at The Hat in Lake Forest what they think of banh mi, and they'll likely say "Ban you? Why? What'd you do wrong?"

The Hat
(949) 586-9200
23641 Rockfield Blvd
Lake Forest, CA 92630

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Nory's # 3 - Lake Forest

Peruvian is the truest form of "melting-pot" cuisine. Throughout its rich and troubled history, Peru has seen an influx of Chinese, Japanese, and European immigrants who have influenced its food. The result is a unique "fusion" of traditional preparation of indigineous ingredients spiced-up with European touches and Asian techniques, brewed and refined through time.

As with the first two Nory's Restaurants in Stanton and Anaheim, Nory's #3 in Lake Forest finally provides us South County residents with proper renditions of the food in a space typical of a good Peruvian joint. Hand-painted murals of Machu Picchu adorn the walls and a TV blares the evening news in Spanish.

And just like any other Peruvian restaurant, warm rolls are served with the requisite chilled plastic squeeze bottles of aji salsa.

The green aji has the dull-green color of jade. It's bracingly herby and garlicky; a smooth puree of the aromatic and pungent. Constrastingly, the orange colored aji harbors a fruitier tang but burns hotter at the back of the throat. Errant rocoto chili pepper seeds sting like darts on the tongue, amping up the sauce's Scoville heat rating.

A liberal squirting of this salsa can make anything palatable. But squeeze on a healthy dollop of the sauce on the preferred delivery device, a torn piece of a lightly toasted roll, and prepare to sweat.

For one of the main entrees we chose the Arroz Chaufa con Pollo, Peruvian fried rice with chicken.

As those who are familiar with Chinese cuisine might have guessed, chaufa is derived from chow fun, which means "fried rice." Along with the name, the Peruvians have adopted the technique and perfected this dish using a blazing hot wok. Originally conceived as a method with which to reinvigorate day-old rice for consumption, just about every culture in Asia has a version. But what sets the Peruvian chaufa apart from any Asian fried rice is the added kick of spices and inclusion of the crusty-brown seared chicken morsels. The springy and well-marinated dark meat pieces transforms what is typically a side dish into a substantial meal.

Bistek a lo Pobre is dubbed "poor man's steak," but even Bill Gates himself would be sated for days after eating this hearty and hefty dish.

It starts with the steak, which has been pounded so mercilessly with a tenderizing mallet that the final product is delicate enough to be torn apart with two bare fingers. The thin, deeply-flavored and spiced slab of beef is seared quickly and served with a sunny-side up egg on top.

What would have been the ultimate Atkins meal is then flanked with a carbohydrate triple-threat.

Underneath the steak and egg lies a base of homemade fries and fried plantains. The potatoes were unfortunately limp and oily. But wait, remember that aji? Slather a good amount of that lip-burning sauce on the fries and "voila," it is saved!

The plantains were perfect by themselves. Its caramelized crust was the fitting compliment to the subtle and starchy banana sweetness of the flesh.

And then there's the spherical mound of rice formed by an upturned bowl. It's not just ordinary rice either. It is cooked with chicken broth and/or coconut milk which makes each grain emote an aromatic flavor and scent.

If you're hankering for Mexican, Chinese, or Italian food and can't decide on which to eat, Peruvian is the cuisine for you. It's the happy bastard child of everything that is good about food in these cultures.

Perhaps ex-president Alberto Fujimori was longing for a taste of it when he was recently arrested in Chile after a half-decade of exile in Japan. If only he'd known that he could've gotten his fix at Nory's in Lake Forest.

Nory's Restaurant
(949) 458-0318
23798 Mercury Rd
Lake Forest, CA 92630

Monday, November 07, 2005

Brodard - Garden Grove

Behind a 99-Cent-Only store, hidden in a dank alley-way, past the dumpsters, you will find one of Little Saigon's finest restaurants; Brodard.

The brightly lit dining room buzzes with activity. It is the size of a high school gymnasium, with giant Christmas ornaments inexplicably dangling over the entrance. The servers are quick and efficient as dishes fly out of the kitchen and diners slump over bowls of noodle soup, slurping with gusto.

We started with the signature item, the Nem Nuong Cuon ($6.00 for an order of 4); a spring roll to put others you've may have had cowering in shame. Nem Nuong, the thing that the restaurant is known for, is a ruddy and dense pork or shrimp concoction which isn't quite a sausage and not really a meatball, but a harmonious fusion of the two. Its springy texture offers the slightest resistance to the teeth, and the taste is close to SPAM without all that salt.

A slender piece of the Nem Noung is grilled until slightly charred. Then, it is wrapped tautly inside transculent rice paper. Also encased in suspended animation inside this tight tubular construct is; a sliver of crisp cucumber; torn leaves of butter lettuce; a crunchy stick of deep fried egg roll skin; and a sprig of scallion, which protrudes outside the bundle like a sprout reaching for the sun.

All the players of the spring roll peer out through the thin, luminous rice-paper membrane, waiting to leap when you take a bite.

On the side, for your dunking pleasure, a bowl of warm sauce awaits. It is sweet and murky thick with pureed garlic.

As soon as you plant your chompers into the tightly wound roll, it unfurls in your mouth with the smoky bite of the grilled Nem Noung playing front and center, while the fried egg roll skin provides an unexpected, teeth-jarring crunch. Then, the icy cold crispness of the cucumber and lettuce refreshes like an ice cold shower on a balmy day. Immediately afterwards the herbaceousness of the green onion and the warm sauce you've used to dunk, fill the sinuses with a garlicky and oniony burn.

It's a good first start to this, or any meal, for that matter. A salad and an appetizer in one.

Next was the Com Tam Bi Cha Thit Nuong ($5.95). It's a pork-a-palooza on an oblong dish with a mound of broken rice as the stage. The performers are three distinctly different preparations of pork.

The headliner is the grilled slices of marinated pork, sweet and tender, in a fairly straightforward preparation . The second act which looks like pork confetti, is moist and wispy; a light touch on the tongue. If they could make a slurpable noodle from pork, this would be it. The final act is a wedge of Vietnamese egg quiche which has in eggy suspension, ground pork and diced wood ear mushroom. It has a bright, pumpkin-colored rind made from egg yolk and tastes like Vietnamese comfort food.

The three provide a rounded and satisfying sample of the pig. But all would not be complete without requisite bowl of Nuoc Cham (sweetened fish sauce), which ties everything together. Also present is some roughage in the form of lettuce, sliced cucumber, tomato, and housemade pickles. Its function is to cleanse the palate between the spoonfuls of meat and rice you're going to stuff your face with.

Our last dish was Mien Xao Cua ($9.25), stir fried glass noodle with crab. Listed as one of Brodard's specialties, it reminded me of a similar Korean dish called "chap chae", except that this one was more deeply flavored with fish sauce and spiked with barely wilted scallions and red onion.

Another distinguishing factor of the dish was the abundance of crab meat that is generously strewn about. Pleasantly flaky, these fresh morsels weren't the least bit fishy and made me wonder how they could charge so little for this dish when Joe's Crab Shack could charge upwards to $20 for a just few ounces of crabmeat.

Brodard Restaurant
(714) 530-1744
9892 Westminster Ave
Garden Grove, CA 92844

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Claro's Italian Market - Tustin

Irvine is Felix Unger to Tustin's Oscar Madison.

Irvine is the buttoned-down, double-windsor-knot kind of a city, while Tustin, it's neighbor to the North, wears Bermuda shorts and a bucket cap.

You can just tell by driving through Tustin that it's a little rougher around the edges; but it's happy being Irvine's sloppier sibling. Not being master-planned lends the city its character and its businesses a certain quaint quirkiness.

Take for example Claro's Italian Market. Its storefront is nondescript. If you didn't know any better you'd guess by the plain windows and signage that they sold drill bits or lawnmower parts. And there'd be no chance it would catch your eye as you were driving by, since it's tucked away inside a rambling small-business complex.

Once inside though, you'll be immediately impressed. You get dizzy with excitement at the unbridled unorganization of it all. Something about is so salt-of-the-earth, very anti-chain; completely un-Irvine.

Shelves upon creaking shelves of imported Italian goods on one side threaten to topple over and kill you in an avalanche of dried pasta and cans of tomato. A refrigerated section is stocked to the brim with olives packed in tubs, fresh mozzarella, and plastic bags of raw pizza dough the size of saline implants. Over at the deli counter, sausages tied in twine dangle overhead, while hunks of cheese and deli meats glisten behind a glass case.

It's here at the deli that the customers gather, taking a number from an old rusty ticket machine. Behind the counter, there's a flurry of activity, as the workers lean over shiny meat slicers and assemble cold cut sandwiches.

We order a "Large Custom Sandwich" for $4.99, but leave it up to our deli guy to put whatever he wants into it. He asks us if we'd like something Italian or American. We tell him, "One of each."

With this, he extracts a loaf of mortadella, an Italian bologna, and slices a paper-thin sample. He hands it to us to try.

"What do you think?" he smiles.

"Excellent!" we tell him, "put that stuff on the sandwich!"

With a tip of his cap, he continues to split a ten inch long roll, and layers on the mortadella, salami, and other cold cuts onto it. Then he piles on some sliced tomato, thinly sliced onion, shredded lettuce, pepperoncini and some dry aged cheese. A squirt or two of Italian dressing and mayo goes on for flavor.

The "American" sandwich gets a similar treatment. The meats are turkey, rare roast beef, and ham; a gastronomic rundown of Old McDonald's farm animal roster, wrapped in plastic.

And, with a "gobble, gobble here, and a gobble, gobble there," the sandwiches were consumed in a scarfing session back at the office. I never knew I could finish a ten inch sandwich, until that day I went to Claro's in Tustin.

Claro's Italian Market
(714) 832-3081
1095 E Main St
Tustin, CA 92780