Sunday, November 26, 2006

Little Red Wagon - Disneyland

Inside the Happiest Place on Earth, there exists the "Smallest Place on Earth to Work": the Little Red Wagon at the end of Main Street, U.S.A..

There, in a parked truck, inside a compartment the size of a janitor's broom closet, two Disney Cast Members toil in what I imagine is the worst job at Disneyland. But the problem isn't just the cramped quarters; it's the sputtering deep fryer crammed in there with 'em.

In August, when the mercury can easily climb past ninety in Anaheim, the closest thing to hell I can think of would be an eight-hour shift hunched over a smelly vat of boiling grease inside a sweltering sweat box made of metal. Whatever type of cooling or exhaust system they are provided can't be enough.

All this in the name of cooking hundreds of hand-dipped wieners for tourists in floppy Goofy hats.

In the first two summers after high school, I passed by the Little Red Wagon every morning to walk to a relatively cushier job as a cashier in the Adventureland gift shops. And before I would spend my workday in an air-conditioned store, I used to say a little prayer for my comrades who were stuck with corn dog duty.

Even today, as an Annual Passport holder, I still feel the prickly pangs of pity when I line up to order a corn dog, knowing that those sorry souls suffered to make my lunch.

But despite it, the products of their labor is recognized by many as the best thing to eat in the park. In fact, it is my opinion that these corn dogs are probably the only decent meal to be had within the confines of the Magic Kingdom. But at $5.80 for a corn dog and a small bag of Lay's chips (and an additional $2.90 for a fountain drink), one pays a premium for the pleasure, just like all other things sold inside the resort.

The corn dogs, however, are colossal, as long as my forearm and just as thick. Deep fried to a dark mahogany brown, it's as greasy as they come. A napkin I wrapped around its base for gripping turned clear on contact. Enough oil leeched out of its pores to lube up a bodybuilder, but the corn dog was scrumptious and filling enough to also feed one.

A good and generous slathering of plain yellow mustard cuts through the richness of the juicy beef frank found at its core; but it's the fried and porous cornbread crust that I savor most. Thanks to the pull of gravity, almost all of the corn dogs produced are inherently lopsided, but it seems that the more asymmetrical the shell, the better the experience. Best of all is when the batter tears halfway through cooking, creating gnarled knobs of goodness reminiscent of crackly hush puppies.

So, the next time you order a corn dog from the Little Red Wagon, do those working there a favor if they're looking down-and-out: tell them thanks.

Little Red Wagon
Disneyland Resort
(714) 781-4000
1313 S Harbor Blvd
Anaheim, CA 92802

Sunday, November 19, 2006

The Filling Station - Orange

Tapping into the wisdom of university educators takes four years and a lot of money. But the sage advice of one Professor Salt -- a fellow O.C. foodblogger who writes You Gonna Eat That -- comes free and easy, sans tuition fees or midterm exams. And instead of a degree, you get great tips on where to find good eats.

One such tip of his that I had been putting off for far too long is The Filling Station; a joint in Old Towne Orange which, the Professor says, bakes "behemoth pies of incomparable flavor."

And he wasn't the only one singing its praises either. Recent chatter on the Chowhound board told of family members disowning other family members who come back from The Filling Station pieless, and forewarned that it was "open season" on pre-orders.

If you didn't know any better you'd think they were gabbing about Elmo TMX (no relation) or a PS3. But this ain't the latest toy craze. We're talking pie. Pumpkin pie. A pumpkin pie that people around these parts go nuts for every year around this time.

About a week ago, we ordered a slice to share just to see what the hub-bub was all about. The wedge of pastry was heated, dusted with cinnamon, and served with several dollops of whipped cream.

As soon as I tasted my first forkful, I understood. This was a true masterpiece in the art of baking.

While fillings of lesser pies range from too pasty, or too slobbery, or too dry, this was perfectly set; firm to the touch and wiggly on the palate. With a fleeting presence on the tongue like the lightest of creme brulees, this pumpkin custard was a happy confluence on its roster of players: the emulsifying power of eggs, the earthy-sweetness of the gourd, and the warmth of cinnamon.

The edges of the crust that held it all was rippled in repeating parabolic shapes, and was of a rigid construction although it looked as if it was sculpted in sand. It broke into brittle chunks under the pressure of my forktips and ate like a butter-rich shortbread cookie. The granulated coarseness of the crumbles was the perfect foil to the custard -- a study of contrasts between the sturdy and the delicate.

This was autumn, distilled inside a pie pan.

As we pinched the last pie pieces from our plate with our petty paws, we knew what we had to do: pre-order post-haste for a paltry $20.

The Filling Station
(714) 289-9714
201 N Glassell St
Orange, CA 92866

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Pagolac - Westminster

"Seven courses of beef." This is a phrase which will either trigger a Pavlovian response or a gag reflex.

If your reaction is the latter, you are a closeted vegetarian and should read no further, because what follows is a report on a meal which celebrates the consumption of cattle flesh.

This past Wednesday evening, a few O.C. food bloggers -- which included Chubbypanda of Epicurious Wanderer, Carter, Joy and Christian of OC Mexican Restaurants -- and I, were invited by Beach to Pagolac in Westminster.

Beach is a reader of this humble blog and a gourmand who has eaten his way through Little Saigon and as well as his native Vietnam. Being a patron of Pagolac for all of its seventeen years in business, he was as enthusiastic about sharing its "seven courses of beef" specialty as we were in trying it.

It was immediately evident to us that he knew this restaurant and its staff well. With a snap of his fingers, servers appeared seemingly out of thin air to replenish the rice paper, refill the water glasses, and cater to all of our requests. He commanded the kind of respect and attentive service reserved for Don Corleone himself.

And he gave us an offer we couldn't refuse; an education on how to eat Bo 7 Mon. Our gracious teacher was also our host (he insisted on treating us all for this extravagant meal) and table-side chef, preparing our food with a dexterity to rival a show-boating Benihana cook.

He started us off to a running start with an order of Tom Nuong Vi ($15.99) -- a plate of raw, butterflied shrimp -- which were immediately deposited onto a domed cooking apparatus that looked like a pith helmet fashioned out of steel. With a chopstick, Beach distributed the morsels around the well of the brim, where a shallow moat of drizzled cooking oil had collected.

"The shrimp takes longer to cook than the beef," he explained.

The beef was the Bo Nuong Vi ($11.99), presented in red, raw, and razor-thin slices, splayed out in glistening sheets on a stark white plate, and garnished with red onion slivers and scallions. It looked ready-to-eat as carpaccio, but it had a date with the convex cooking surface where it was to be quickly seared.

In anticipation of the beef being done, Beach instructed us to peel off a few sheets of rice paper and to mound our choice of herbs and veggies onto it. I did so by picking a few leaves of tia to, mint, a wedge of green banana, pickled lemongrass, bean sprouts, and shredded pickled carrots. There was enough vegetation, herbs, and roughage on our table for a cow to chew as cud and fill its four stomachs. But in fact, it was exactly what we needed to temper the excesses of our beef exploration. Otherwise, our palates would've been quickly overwhelmed from the onslaught of fat, beef, and more beef fat.

Scarcely seconds after I was satisfied at my garden-fresh arrangement, my slice of bovine flesh was ready. Beach plucked it off the griddle and placed it on top of the mound I had created.

All that was left to be done was to roll the contents into a tight tube with the rice paper, which I attempted to do with clumsy fingers.

I looked around and noticed that Beach had completed rolling his to a perfectly taut and symmetrical cylinder, as if by magic or divine intervention. A penny bounced off of it would've ricocheted around the room.

In the meantime, Chubbypanda created a cone-shaped wrap more akin to a sushi-bar tuna hand roll. Joy and Carter's attempt looked closer to the desired egg roll shape.

But all I managed to accomplish was something that looked an exploded garbage bag, with the pliable rice paper wrapper jettisoning its contents onto my plate.

To correct the mess I made, I patched up the breaks with more rice paper. Soon, resigned with the fact that I wasn't going to do any better than what now looked like an obese and ragged burrito, I took it for a dunk in mam nem, a murky thick and pink dipping sauce made of pulverized and fermented shrimp.

But as ugly as my parcel was, it was delicious. The salty tang of the sauce cut through the rubbery pull of the rice paper; the richness of the grilled beef; the fresh crunch of the raw vegetables; the fragrance of the shaved lemongrass; the sourness of the green banana; and the bitter-sweet earthiness of the herbs.

As soon as we had finished the beef, the shrimp were ready. The same protocol followed, and wrapping it was just as frustrating to me as the last time. But similarly, the finished product was delectable. If I were Homer Simpson, a series of "D'ohs!" would have been followed by a series of "Mmmm, mam nem!"

Later, our expert demonstrated the proper technique which Chubbypanda skillfully captured on video. The secret, I observed, was to squish the contents as you roll. The more you squish, the tighter the construct will be.

But little did we know that what we just enjoyed was merely appetizer. The seven courses of beef ($13.99 per person) had not yet even begun.

The first course was called Bo Nhung Dam and was similar to fondue or shabu-shabu. But instead of steeping the meat in plain old hot water, the thinly sliced tenderloin is swished around a simmering vinegared broth in a metal bowl. The acidic brew cooked the meat in seconds and added a noticeable zing. The tart and tender flaps were then to be wrapped up with more herbs and rice paper before consumption.

The stubby meat stogies dubbed Bo La Lot packed a wallop of flavor, of beef and of spice. The la lot wrapper had peppery overtones, and felt like a cross between grape-leaf and nori on the palate.

Paired with it was Bo Sate, rolled pieces of grilled tenderloin with a slender sliver of ginger hidden in its center. Supremely tender since it was essentially nothing but filet mignon, it ate like a steak, but with no cutting utensils involved.

Bo Cha Dum were steamed spheres of ground beef, packed with mushrooms, peas, and bean thread noodle. Crumbly soft and pleasantly fatty, Beach placed his on top of a shrimp chip before he ate it. We followed suit and ooh-and-ahh'd when we felt the contrasting textures dancing in our mouths. The crackling crunch of the chip led the tango while the moistness of the meat followed in a perfect lockstep all the way down our gullets.

On the same plate as the Bo Cha Dum, was the Bo Nuong Mo Chai, round balls of ground beef sausage seasoned with a touch of five-spice. Wrapped in caul fat, the bundles self-basted during broiling. The result was a scrumptious and smoky beef nugget which needed no additional accoutrements. These were the best meatballs, Swedish or otherwise, that I've ever tasted.

The second to the last course, was a salad. Not just a salad, of course, but a beef salad named Bo Bit Tet. More slices of cooked tenderloin, this time sluiced with Italian dressing, adorned a bed of butter lettuce. The pointedly tart vinaigrette worked to balance the richness and the cool lettuce leaves refreshed the palate even further.

Last but not least was the Chao Bo, a clear soup with cooked rice, minced beef, green onion, ginger, and most inexplicable of all, itty bitty pieces of star pasta -- the very same kind you'd find in a can of Campbell's Chicken and Stars. Regardless of the oddity, the soup came perfectly timed as a reprieve from an impending beef overdose. It was the equivalent of downshifting to first gear before rolling to a stop.

When we were completely sated and stuffed, I surveyed the scene: complete and utter carnage. Spent beer bottles, sullied napkins, discarded herb stems, dribbled puddles of mam nem, empty tea cups and glasses covered nearly every square inch of our table -- a mess worthy of a feast hosted by the Godfather himself.

Pagolac Restaurant
(714) 531-4740
14580 Brookhurst St
Westminster, CA 92683
To read Chubbypanda's report of the dinner:
--->>> CLICK HERE <<<---
To read Christian's post on the dinner:
--->>> CLICK HERE <<<---
To read about Pam of Daily Gluttony's previous visit:
--->>> CLICK HERE <<<---

Monday, November 06, 2006

Poke Here, Poke There

Poke (pronounced poh-kay) is as indigenous to Hawaii as the coconuts and the world-class beaches. The dish is made up of nothing but cubed raw fish, usually ahi tuna, simply seasoned with sea salt and slender slivers of seaweed. It's essentially no-frills sashimi, enjoyed by its native fishermen for centuries, but popularized by perfunctory hotel luaus and celebrity Hawaiian chefs like Sam Choy.

I recently came back from my first trip to our 50th state, where I ate this local delicacy in the quaint town of Hilo, after being empowered by Kirk of the über-food blog, Mmm-yoso, with a roadmap of foods to try and places to try it.

Poke was a high on the list of priorities, but eating it where locals like Kirk would eat it was even more important to me than swimming in the most secluded beaches or snorkeling the bluest lagoons. He suggested KTA, a supermarket chain which sells the stuff by the pound, with locations throughout the Big Island.

But weeks before I even packed a single pair of shorts in my luggage, I went in search of poke in Irvine. And I found it at Nalu's Island Grill, in the Quail Hill Village Center. Here was a poke primer and it was no more than a few clicks away from home.

Which poke was better? Well, it's no contest really. But to be fair, what I had at Nalu's, because of the way I chose to have it, wasn't technically poke in the most traditional sense.

And as for KTA's poke, in addition to weilding the homecourt advantage, the fact that I was eating it while on vacation made it just that much more delicious -- everything tastes better when you're on vacation.

Here's the breakdown.


Its walls plastered with posters of surfers riding cresting waves and an atmosphere reeking of Von Zipper hipness, Nalu Island Grill's main attraction, as with most Hawaiian joints, are the plate lunches. But my eyes immediately locked onto the words "Ahi Poke Salad" like a sailor lured by sirens.

The total sticker price was $7.49, and comes with the ahi either "rare" or "seared". Going against the concept of poke, I chose it seared. And as expected, the tiny chunks of tuna were cooked on a griddle to an opaque and pearly white, each morsel the size of a dinner mint. Placed on top of a bowl of greens with sliced tomato, wilted slivers of onion, diced scallions, and some crunchy fried noodles, the poke was more salad than poke. But it was refreshing nonetheless, introducing me to the dish in baby-steps.

The dressing -- a mix of soy, rice vinegar and sugar -- harbored a spicy bite and perked up the dish like an electric jolt to the system. The tuna, tasted like, well, like tuna; but a few notches above what you get out of a Starkist can. And although the dish had a Chinese Chicken Salad aura to it, its soul was still distinctly Hawaiian.

Nalu's Island Grill
(949) 854-8900
6741 Quail Hill Pkwy
Irvine, CA 92603


Offered at the butcher's counter in the rear of the store and sold by the pound, poke at KTA comes in no less than a dozen dizzying varieties. There were different species and different flavors for the choosing, displayed in glistening mounds and scooped to order into small plastic tubs for weighing.

I had heard that poke is supposed to function as an appetizer or snack, but weeks of anticipation made my eyes bigger than my stomach. After picking out three pokes, we took our bounty outside to eat it on stone picnic tables located at the entrance to the market. With just a few wooden chopsticks in hand and iced bottles of water to wash it down, we gorged ourselves silly. Before we knew it, our poke snack became a full-fledged poke meal.

The Hawaiian Ahi Poke ($7.13) was the brightest in appearance and flavor. As catching to the eyes as polished rubies, the chilled cubes of ahi glinted in the sunlight, and soothed us to the very core with its clean taste and unmitigated freshness.

The measured use of seasoning only enhanced the experience. Dried chili flakes flecked each cube of fish, subjecting our palates to a subtle but slow burn; the crunchy bits of seaweed and sea salt added texture and flavor, respectively.

The Shoyu Ahi Poke ($6.36) was Korean influenced, with sesame oil and sesame seeds giving the raw tuna an oily sheen and a fragrant nuttiness. This and the soy sauce dominated the ahi, and caused it to taste more like marinated raw tuna, and less like poke. But the flavors were robust, bold, and rich. Although I still had an urge to take the whole mix to a hot wok for a quick sear.

A surprising turn was the Tako Miso Poke ($2.63), which delighted and intrigued our tongues. Thinly sliced octopus tentacle was steeped in a deeply tangy and milky-colored miso paste redolent with the mysteriously addictive alcohol sting of white wine. The tender chew of the cooked cephalopod pleased us, especially because every piece of octopus we've encountered in the mainland has been as rubbery as an old tire.

After polishing off the last pieces of the poke, we took a long swig of water and watched as the coconut trees billowed in the tropical breeze.

We were in a supermarket parking lot in Hawaii, and we were on vacation.

KTA Super Stores
(808) 959-4575
50 E Puainako St
Hilo, HI 96720
To see more Big Island food PHOTOS,
--->>> Click HERE <<<---
During the slideshow, click on the middle of a photo to read my commentary.