Monday, August 28, 2006

Ramayani - Rowland Heights

Ask any Indonesian living in Southern California about Ramayani and chances are good that;

a) They've eaten there, or;
b) They know about it and where it is generally located. Somewhere in Westwood, they'll say.

Like DuPars and other institutions of that ilk, Ramayani seems to have carved itself permanently into the L.A. landscape. Even though I have yet to try it myself, I know it as the old standby; a place that's existed since seaborne creatures sprouted legs to walk on land, or at least since Michael Jackson topped the Billboard charts. Ramayani, for as long as I've known, was the default answer to: "So, are there any Indonesian restaurants in L.A.?"

Cashing in on this instant name recognition, the owners of the Westwood establishment recently opened a satellite branch in Rowland Heights inside a sprawling Chinese mini-mall, which also has New Capital Seafood as a tenant. But unlike New Capital -- which holds sway at the center spot in a position of power -- Ramayani is tucked away in the farthest corner, stuffed in a pseudo-food court with only a glass-pane fence marking its territory from that of its neighbor.

Regardless of the "Hot Dog on a Stick" environment, they dole out Indonesian cuisine like a real, honest-to-goodness restaurant. Sadly, I wasn't overly impressed with most of the dishes I ate.

Nasi Uduk ($9.99), a sampler plate with coconut rice as the centerpiece, was serviceable but uninspiring. The Rendang, beef simmered long and hard in a redolent spice paste, was more gristle than beef. The Lodeh, a spicy soup with cubed chayote, was thick with coconut cream but was decidedly timid and lackluster. Opor Ayam, a chicken leg cooked in a light curry, could've used a little more salt. And the tomato and chili paste that adorned the Sambal Telor, a deep-fried hard-boiled egg, was candy-sweet when it should have been fiery.

The Kering Tempeh, crunchy shards of dry-fried tempeh glazed in brown sugar and garlic, was the saving grace of the dish. It stood out so much, in fact, that I could have happily subsisted for weeks on a meal consisting of only it and rice.

Ideally, the noodles in Cui Mie ($6.49), should be made in-house. Instead, Ramayani's version relied on factory-made Chinese egg noodles, which caused the dish to wilt in comparison to those served at Jakarta's Bakmi Gajah Mada, Indonesia's most successful noodle restaurant.

Bakmi Gajah Mada's noodles are made-from-scratch, and it wiggles, crinkles, chews like no other pasta product in the world. Dressed in nothing but melted fat and salt, and then topped with stir fried chicken and button mushrooms, the dish epitomizes what magic can result when simple ingredients meet expert hands.

Ramayani's noodles were a pale facsimile to what it tries to emulate, but one can't expect a restaurant like this to do well at everything. Nevertheless, the crispy wontons provided on the side were raucous and crunchy -- Asia's deep fried ravioli.

Surpringly, Ramayani's Babat Goreng ($7.95) was wonderful. This is a peasant dish if ever there was one. Babat is the Indonesian word for honeycomb beef tripe -- yep, it's those nasty bits and rubbery floaters you see in bowls of menudo that most people do their best to avoid.

Here, there's nowhere to run or hide. Order Babat Goreng and you get a plate of tripe and only tripe -- naked and direct, wok-fried simply with sweet soy sauce and nuclear chili. Each spongy, slippery piece of offal chewed like tender calamari, and burned all the way down.

Now if only Ramayani embraced its mall-eatery setting and started selling "Tripe-on-a-Stick", they'd be on to something.

(626) 964-3590
1388 S. Fullerton Rd Unit #121
Rowland Heights, CA 91748

*UPDATE (January 1, 2007): Ramayani in Rowland Heights has closed for business.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Maki-Zushi - Tustin

"Cheap" and "sushi" -- two words in the English language that should never be uttered in the same breath. "Cheap" denotes low quality, low cost. It is an adjective that should never be applied to any food worth consuming, let alone sushi. But sushi lends itself special credence to this rule.

The very term "sushi-grade" reflects the high expectations we hold for this food. Anything less than the best that money can buy isn't worth risking your gastro-intestinal health, nay, your life for.

In fact, the only thing scarier than "cheap sushi" is "free sushi", which reminds me of the following exchange between a patient and his doctors on the NBC show, Scrubs:

Mr. Strauss, I don't wanna tell you how to live your life, but maybe you should avoid eating sushi from the Gas 'n' Go.

It came free with the fill-up!
What am I supposed to do, just throw it away?

Dr. Cox:
Yes! Yes, you are!
So I cringe when I hear someone mention that they've found cheap sushi, as I suspect you would.

"Inexpensive" and "budget-conscious," on the other hand, is a more congruous description for the new sushi joint I recently discovered in Tustin called Maki-Zushi.

I've eaten at Maki-Zushi an unprecedented four times in the past four weeks, binging on the creations constructed by the three gentlemen you see smiling above.

On each visit I've tried something new, and each time I have been pleased at the quality, the presentation, the service, and most of all, the price -- especially because of their promotional 20% off dinner discount. The deal makes the already reasonable rates even more enticing for a discriminating cheapskate like myself.

If that weren't enough, beer and sake is B.O.G.O.F. (Buy One, Get One Free) after 5:30 pm. Although I don't normally drink, I couldn't resist ordering a small Sapporo ($2.95), especially since there'd be another bottle that I could offer to my dining companions.

The longnecks were iced in a bucket; the glass, frosted. A nice touch for a great deal.

But the real value was the food. Take for example the Tuna Roll ($3.95), which had more tuna than rice. With the discount, it was a mere $3.16 for the generous hunk of luscious ruby-red fish that took up the bulk of the roll's diameter.

More tuna equals more flavor, and this had it in spades -- a pure and unobstructed sample of the species. Had it not been for the snappy nori, it might as well have been sashimi.

Then there was the Salmon Skin Roll ($4.95) -- wheels of rice and nori packed around shards of wafer-crisp salmon skin, which crackled like salty sea-chicharons. Flecked with meaty bits of the salmon itself, and flanked by spears of cold cucumber, each roll was delectably savory down to the last grain.

They say that when you put a seashell up to your ear you can hear the ocean; eating the Scallop Roll ($3.95), I tasted the ocean. The sun, the waves, the sea breeze; this delicate, soft-as-satin bi-valve specimen harnessed it all.

Ironic that it sat on my plate, served in a restaurant just outside the protected "Green Zone" of Irvine, away from Tustin's restaurant thoroughfares, and mere blocks from industrial Santa Ana. It exists in a sort of city-limit purgatory.

The restaurant seems stuck in a complex that straddles the MetroLink tracks and neighbors a self-storage rental garage. No wonder then that they have to resort to discounts and coupons sent through local mailers to announce their existence.

For now, the result is a sushi consumer's "buyer's market". But even without the discounts, I would rank Maki-Zushi a notch above most of those cookie-cutter sushi joints in Irvine, where the words "cheap" and "inexpensive" doesn't even exist in anyone's vocabulary.

For a slideshow with more PHOTOS and lame POETRY:

--->>> CLICK HERE <<<---

1641 Edinger Ave #101
Tustin, CA 92780

*UPDATE (December 22, 2006): Maki-Zushi no longer offers their 20% off dinner special. The tables are now covered in white linens for dinner although the food selection remains largely unchanged.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Los Cotijas - Tustin

Where else but Orange County can a trio of long-haired, Asian-American surfer dudes build an empire selling Mexican food. But as much I admire the homegrown success of Wahoo's, I do not like their fish tacos because of one very simple reason: the fish must be fried.

Charbroiling the fish over flames may cut the fat content and increase its heart-health quotient, but it makes for flavorless, lifeless, dry-as-dust tacos. Deep-frying is the only path to righteousness for tacos de pescado.

The folks at Los Cotijas operate on this tried-and-true, time-tested principle. And the result? Well let's just say that your cardiologist likely won't approve. But damn if it ain't one tasty taco!

A slender fillet of white-fleshed fish is dunked in batter, dropped into hot grease, and fried until it attains a golden brown crunch. Stop here and you'd have half of what the British serve in their pubs as fish and chips. But wrap it around warm corn tortillas, top with crunchy shredded cabbage, mound on a spoonful of spicy pico de gallo, squirt some tangy, milky-white mayo-sauce and you have the best invention to come out of our Southern neighbors since tequila.

Los Cotijas charges you a paltry two bucks for each. And even if the Rubio's chain might charge less per taco, theirs is also smaller in size and lacks the soulfulness of these beauties. And if you think you'll miss the faux thatched roof over Rubio's salsa bar, or the signs pointing south with the distance in miles to Ensanada and Los Cabos, take comfort in this: Los Cotijas' grimy and worn interior is more accurate to what a fish taco joint would actually look like in Mexico.

Los Cotijas Taco Shop
(714) 832-7681
642 E 1st St
Tustin, CA 92780

Sunday, August 06, 2006

The Cravery - Irvine

"There's no 'I' in 'team', but there's an 'I' in 'pie.' And there's an 'I' in 'meat pie.' The anagram of 'meat' is 'team'..."

- Shaun in Shaun Of The Dead

If I told you that I had an idea for a restaurant that specialized in meat pies, would you tell me it sounded as gimmicky as joints who do low-carb wraps or food served in Crispy Cones? Would you tell me that meat pies might sell in Great Britain but never in health-conscious California? Would you ask me, "Who'd pay $5 for a glorified Hot Pocket?"

What if I told you that I'd design my meat pies so that it can be eaten on-the-go, handheld like so many sandwiches, made with gourmet ingredients? What if I told you that I'd spruce up the place with professionally shot glossies of preening models with Colgate smiles eating my pies? What if I told you I'd offer a range of garden salads, soups, and more than a dozen varieties of fillings, some with globe-trekking appeal and jazzy names like Chipotle Chicken Fajita and Spicy Chicken Kung Pao Wow? What if I told you my target market was upwardly mobile professionals looking for an alternative to the usual fast-food vittles? Then what if I showed you a business plan which detailed how my meat pie empire would franchise, ready and poised to entice the burger and fries crowd away from the Golden Arches?

The Cravery was undoubtedly borne out of such a pitch.

Founded by a USC MBA and his uncle, a professional baker with years of experience in the food business, the restaurant reeks of careful thought and planning. The corporate touch is evident from the cute little name tags pinned on top of each pie, to the immaculately designed logo carved out on each seatback.

Usually, with high concept places like this, the food takes a back seat to the design and marketing. But surprisingly, the pies were actually quite tasty, eventhough they were plucked out from under a display case equipped with heat lamps.

Although it didn't taste like any Thai curry I've ever had, the Kickin' Thai Curry Chicken pie ($5.25) was still vaguely Asian, with chunks of white chicken, wilted red bell pepper, button mushrooms, and a sauce accented with garlic, lemon, and ginger.

The pie crust that held it in was a sturdy construct. Flaky, buttery, like a good Spanish empanada, I ate it on a plate with a fork and knife. I didn't test out how the pie would fare if I held it aloft like a sandwich, but judging by the crumbs accumulating on my plate, I'd sooner eat a Sloppy Joe in my car, unless I had a dustbuster at the ready.

For a few bucks more ($7.50), you can pair the pie with a salad or soup. I chose the Apple Gorgonzola Salad, from a refrigerated shelf. Dried cranberries, three thin slices of sour green apple, and cubed crumbles of the tangy cheese topped a bowl of field greens. A plastic satchel of creamy raspberry dressing and a packet of crushed pecans came on the side.

Assembly was required, but the result of my efforts was a salad that was quite refreshing. The tart apple nicely contrasted the rich and heady gorgonzola, and the bitterness of the baby spinach in particular, tamed the cloying sweetness of the dressing.

Still not sold on the concept of a meat pie restaurant? Well, I can tell you it's a better idea than a shop that only sells muffin tops.

The Cravery
(949) 727-3663
6638 Irvine Center Dr
Irvine, CA 92618