Monday, January 29, 2007

Yogurtland - Fullerton

I don't know when it started exactly, but by the time the LA Times published its story last August, the Pinkberry phenomenon had reached a deafening crescendo. Words like "crackberry" were being thrown around (to convey its apparent addictive qualities), along with other over-the-top hyperboles and stories of lines longer than a Star Wars movie premiere.

Before long, copycats like Kiwiberry and Roseberry sprung up to vie for a piece of the action. Then, as with all things fueled on hype, inevitable backlash ensued. "Too expensive," some said. "What's the big deal?" asked others.

Even the Deep End Diner himself, Eddie Lin, broke from writing about fetal duck eggs and bull penis to chime in on the craze. The title of his post: "Punk'dBerry." His verdict: the emperor had no clothes.

Still, the story has kept me fascinated to this day. Entrepreneurial success; fanaticism; possible trademark infringement; this saga had it all. Who would have thought that it was all about frozen yogurt? You heard that right.

Frozen. Yogurt.

But it's real frozen yogurt, its devotees will point out, touted for its health benefits, tangy taste, and icy mouth-feel.

Sitting in front of my computer in Irvine, reading about all the ruckus, the praise, the breathless enthusiasm, and even the sane voices of reason, one thought kept crossing my mind: when are they going to open in OC already?

Now, it seems, my wait is over. But not because Pinkberry has finally decided to venture south. On the contrary, I was made aware on the existence of a place that renders any such plans moot. Here within our county line, was a homegrown "real" frozen yogurt shop for OC to call its own, and it comes without a "berry" suffix, nor the hype associated with it.

Located inside what is also a Bobaloca franchise in Fullerton, Yogurtland has such an off-the-rack moniker, one wouldn't expect much more than a Golden Spoon clone at best. But its remarkably varied array of sixteen flavor choices easily beats Pinkberry by fourteen and Golden Spoon by at least six.

Among them is a flavor called Plain Yogurt, which flaunts the tart-tangy-icy formula made popular by the Pink-Kiwi-Rose-berries. The others Yogurtland offers are of the usual soft-serve variety, all pleasantly sweet and delightfully creamy.

The roster reads as follows:
Sugar Free Vanilla
Sugar Free Chocolate
Strawberry Banana
Egg Nog
Green Tea
Georgia Peach
Peanut Butter
Chocolate Mint
New York Cheesecake
Very Strawberry
Cookies and Cream
Blueberry Yogurt
Plain Yogurt
Chocolate Classic
Apart from the flavors, Yogurtland's primary competitive advantage and defining characteristic is that the yogurt is self served and priced at $0.30 per ounce.

This is an operational and pricing model that appeals to both the control freak and the cheapskate in me.

You take a clear tub from tall stack next to the entrance. Leading up to the cashier, lined up side-by-side on the right wall, are the yogurt dispensers, eight in all, where you can pump out as much of the frozen confection as your sweet tooth desires and your wallet allows. Each machine holds two flavor spouts, with a middle spout outputting a mix of the two.

Then there are the toppings. A refrigerated cart holds chopped fruit, like strawberry, blueberry, pineapple, and mango. Dry toppings in jars line a shelf above it, and include nuts, chocolate chips, and rainbow sprinkles. Finally, once you've completed construction on your frogurt masterpiece, it's off to the weighing scale and checkout.

On the last visit, my goal was to pipe a sample of all sixteen flavors into my bowl, but I only got as far as six before I ran out of room. What I need is a wider container. Here's what I'm thinking: paella pan.

What I did manage to cram into the tub provided was the chocolate and vanilla; the blueberry and plain yogurt; and the strawberry and New York cheesecake. I topped it off with some diced strawberry, kiwi and mango for a dessert with a refreshing icyness, a not-too-rich creaminess, and a mouth-filling smoothness so addictive that I fought the urge to go back for seconds.

Pinkberry might have LA eating yogurt out of its paws, but with Yogurtland's plans already in play to open in Irvine and other locations, it might just do the same for OC.

(714) 525-2912
501 N State College Blvd
Fullerton, CA 92831

Sunday, January 21, 2007

McCormick and Schmick's Pilsner Room - Irvine

Through a clandestine entryway in a hidden corner of an office tower parking garage, we enter McCormick and Schmick's Pilner Room. Inside it is dark, space is cramped, and the patrons are loud, but that's just how we like it. This is a bar after all -- a place to tick off another work week gone and celebrate a weekend that's just begun.

Beer is brewed in-house in towering stainless tanks as tall as rocket boosters, but one can choose to imbibe on any number of bacchanial delights here.

As I don't normally drink, and dislike the taste of alcohol, I order a sweaty glass of their lightest ale: the Beach Blonde ($5.10). And it is always particularly refreshing and liberating on a Friday afternoon, especially when paired with bar food from the $1.95 Happy Hour Menu (offered Monday through Friday 4:00 pm - 6:30 pm and 9:30 pm to midnight).

When I'm feeling peckish, and in need of protein, the Cheeseburger -- a half-pound beef patty grilled medium, served with crisp steak fries, leaf lettuce, tomato, red onion, and a dill pickle -- is just the type of thing to fill my belly for the rest of the night. It's man food for manly appetites, and a ridiculous bargain since the same burger will cost $7 at the restaurant upstairs.

There's also jambalaya, shrimp quesadillas, chicken satay, and spicy tuna roll -- all for $1.95 while supplies last.

But on this visit, we settle for some finger food. The Spinach Dip is chockfull of tender artichoke hearts and gooey cheese, while the Buffalo Wings are meaty but dry, served with crudité of carrot and celery. The Ahi Poke, however, contained no ahi at all, just lots of salsa over wonton chips. It was an oversight by the kitchen which I excused since it's Friday after all.

McCormick & Schmick's Pilsner Room
(949) 756-0421
2000 Main St
Irvine, CA 92614

Friday, January 19, 2007

SqueezeOC's Hot Sauce Taste Test

Some burned slow, some scorched on contact, some were acidic, while others were familiar. Cumulatively, it made my mouth throb like a radioactive element.

Even with swigs of ice cold milk as extinguisher, my brow was sweating like I just ran a marathon in the tropics. But it was fifty degrees outside at the OC Register building in Santa Ana. And this was a blind taste test of ten hot sauces for SqueezeOC's current issue.

Read the feature here, or pick up a free copy at newsstands all over OC.

Thanks to SqueezeOC reporter Brian Quines, for inviting me to participate in the fun.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Frenzy Sushi - Costa Mesa

I've never met anyone so passionate about a restaurant as Chubbypanda is about Frenzy Sushi. He's its biggest fan and most ardent champion.

So when he invited a few of us to dinner there last month, it was the equivalent of going on a Manolo Blahnik shopping spree with Carrie Bradshaw herself.

I don't know or care about women's shoes, but I adore sushi. And I knew immediately that we were in good hands when I sat down at the bar and saw how giddy Chubbypanda was. He had an easy rapport with John, Frenzy's owner and chef -- the kind fostered by mutual trust and respect between patron and sushi master.

Naturally, we surrendered all ordering duties to him, which gave me time to admire the surroundings.

In a stripmall among other stripmalls that dot Costa Mesa's 17th Street, we were in an eatery which billed itself as "Frenzy, Sushi Gone Wild." With its slapdash of a space -- lit brightly using rainbow spotlights and a framed photo of a kitten wielding a samurai sword -- the decor exuded the casual and the brazenly untraditional, matching John's surfer-dude attitude and plain black t-shirt attire.

But despite the words "Gone Wild" sprawled out on the marquee outside, the night was all about taste. Tasty food, that is.

He started us off with the amberjack belly (hamachi), which was marbled like a fine piece of Kobe beef and melted like ice cream in our mouths.

Smelt was stuffed to obscene proportions with its own roe, then grilled over fire until the skin blistered. Head, tail, and everything in between were eaten whole after a drizzle of lemon and a dip in mayo. As I chewed, the fish eggs scattered in thousands of tiny pellets, bouncing off the walls of my mouth like naughty kids in a bounce house.

The next course used the leftover skeleton of the hamachi, deep fried in hot fat. The process rendered the fish bones edible, producing golden brown shards so addictively crunchy it should be criminal. The dish was finished with a splash of tart ponzu and a garnish of green onions.

Cajun tuna tataki came lightly torched, crusted with spices, and dressed with more ponzu. It was a delicate balancing act of the spicy with the sweet, the sour with the rich, the cooked with the raw.

The fried calamari, however, was slicked with fry oil, leaving the cilantro garnish to wick away most of the grease.

Shumai and gyoza also made an appearance, going down fast and easy without leaving an indelible impression.

But the pieces of bluefin nigiri did. Silken in texture and milky in flavor, this would be my preferred source of Omega-3 fatty acids.

While the chicken karaage wasn't a poor rendition, it didn't win me over since I make this dish quite competently myself. It was neither crispy nor hot, and just distracted from the sublime sushi John was churning out.

Bluefin sashimi, cut from the same specimen as the nigiri that came before, got things back in order. Fattier, with a demure pink color of cherub, it slid down our gullets with nary a blink. Creamy, tangy, unblemished by fire, untouched by the frying pan, this was tuna as nature intended for it to be consumed: crystal fresh and raw.

The next dish was one of Frenzy's signatures, and one of its most successful. Called Biwa, it's a quail egg hugged by a layer of diced shrimp, deep fried in tempura batter. This bastard offspring of a Scotch egg and shrimp tempura would've made both of its parents proud.

"Baked butterfish saikyo miso" was one of the lovelier cooked dishes to come our way and a favorite with the group. A miso-marinated fish filet was broiled briefly to get the sugars to lightly char, and had flesh so soft it felt like pudding.

Shucked fresh from its shell and mounded on top of nori and rice in ribbons were the odds-and-ends of the scallop anatomy -- a crunchy and hauntingly sweet piece of sushi.

The scallop steak, the filet mignon of the same bivalve, was served soon afterward draped on a ball of molded rice. The flesh colored strip was almost pornographic on the pedestal, and even more so as it lithely shimmied around my mouth.

So far, the sushi we saw was a lesson in restraint and simplicity. Then came the Firecracker Roll; a lesson in excess. As busy and flamboyant as a Mardi Gras float, it contained tempura shrimp, hamachi, crab, mayo, hot sauce, nori, rice, and seaweed powder. All contributed to a rush of textures and a surge of flavor in a creation which overwhelmed by design, but brilliant precisely because of it.

Horse mackerel (aji) returned to tradition. Crowned with a dollop of radish and scallions, dribbled with sauce, it tasted of mild sardine.

After it was stripped of meat, the carcass of the fish was also fried to a golden brown, dressed in the same manner as the hamachi bones we consumed earlier in the evening. I enjoyed it, of course, since I'm a fried fish bones junky.

Mackerel (saba) seemed like it was lubed in melted butter, with oil secreting out naturally from its pores even in death. Unctuous, rich, and salty, this was a decadent treat.

At this point, our stomachs were an inch away from bursting, but even as we cried for mercy, John said, "One more". We relented when he showed us a palette of sexy, fresh Santa Barbara sea urchin. And if there's one thing I'll always agree to, it's uni. The cold, sweet, slobbery gonads of the spiny sea creature was just as good for dessert as pumpkin pie.

As promised, it was a blow out of a meal (though reasonable at $55 per person before tip), chased by sake and fun.

Frenzy, Sushi Gone Wild
(949) 646-1333
369 E. 17th St. #17
Costa Mesa, CA 92627

To read Nguyen's report of the dinner:
--->>> CLICK HERE <<<---

Friday, January 12, 2007

Taleo Mexican Grill - Irvine

There are no taco trucks in Irvine, because, well, they'd get ticketed the minute their front tires entered city limits. And that's too bad, because in my opinion, the best Mexican food is cheap, filling, and served inside the dingiest place possible.

But when you have a few dollars burning a hole in your wallet, and a free appetizer coupon courtesy of fellow blogger Christian of OC Mexican Restaurants, there's Taleo.

With a seal of approval from The Mexican himself (OC Weekly's Gustavo Arellano), Taleo has earned a reputation for successfully bringing Mexican food into a spacious, designer dining room complete with a wine list.

We started with Taleo's take on tuna on toast, dubbed Tuna Tostar ($10), which wasn't something you'd find at your neighborhood taco stand.

Four triangular planks of ciabatta toast was first slathered with a layer of creamed avocado, then adorned with glistening cubes of raw ahi spiked with soy and wasabi. The appetizer paid homage to Hawaiian poke, Japanese sashimi, and Mexican tostada -- a snack that would make a Paniolo proud.

Next was the main course of Mole Poblano ($14), named after the legendary sauce it featured. Culled from roasted peppers and seasoned with cocoa, this mole was the star of the dish, as it always is. But the delivery device was itself worthy of mention; a role performed by the roasted chicken breast.

Enormous in girth and moist down to the center, it was baked with a light crusting of spices. Chief among the aromatics: cloves. Its warmth enlivened the otherwise banal existence of the meat, but the mole was doing the heavy lifting.

And it was the mole that I savored.

The chocolate-colored sauce had the smooth consistency of hot fudge, and carried with it the sweet sting of poblano chiles. But there was only a few tablespoons of the stuff puddled beneath the giant slab of chicken. It was like a kiddie pool drawfed under the Rock of Gibraltar.

Once I sopped up the last drop, I still had half of the chicken to deal with. Thankfully, some table salsa helped to finish the job.

Our second main course of Tamales ($12) were two obese pillows of masa dough both crumbly and sweet, stuffed with shredded chicken. But most of the flavor came from a dousing of red sauce and a topping of crumbled cotija cheese.

While the dish was competent, it wasn't mind-blowing, and could've done better with more of that sauce, or even better: the mole.

In fact, had we not been stuffed, I would've insisted on a dessert of ice cream, drizzled with mole.

Taleo Mexican Grill
(949) 553-9002
3309 Michelson Dr
Irvine, CA 92612

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Agora Churrascaria - Irvine

"Put down that donut," my co-worker said to me.

It was nine in the morning and I was at my desk, a cruller in one hand, a cup of tea in the other.

"Don't take another bite, and spit out the piece you're chewing. We're taking you to Agora in two hours. You're going to want an empty stomach for this."

And at half past eleven, as promised, my co-workers -- who were two seasoned Agora veterans -- took me for a five-minute drive which was more like a pilgrimage. A pilgrimage to the Mecca of meat.

I'd been putting off going to Agora until now, because simply put, I was afraid of the gluttonous excess of it all. I had visions of a never-ending procession of meat, and me slowly slipping into a catatonic state between the fifth and sixth helping of steak. Agora was, after all, a churrascaria, the all-you-can-eat meat-a-palooza, the Brazilian contribution to American obesity.

But before the meat feast to end all meat feasts started, I made a trip to the buffet line -- one of the most immaculate I've seen this side of Interstate 15 -- and scooped up mashed potato so smooth it could've passed for crème fraîche. Then there were the collard greens, deep emerald, full of chlorophyll and crunch.

When I brought back a full plate, my two friends chortled. The buffet was beside the point, they said.

"It's there only to appease the vegetarians who get dragged in here by their carnivorous friends."

"We are men. We eat meat. Meat good!"

On cue, a server dressed like a gaucho, wielding a saber threaded with heart-shaped bundles of beef, stopped at our table and began carving away at his cargo. Dripping with fat and juice, crusty brown on one side and bloody red on the other, this was the sirloin of sirloins.

As a slice fell away under his knife, I pinched the top of the flap with a pair of tongs and transferred it to my plate. Seasoned simply with just salt and pepper, the sanguine sample of tender flesh tasted rich, beefy.

"Meat good!"

The protein parade continued as another gentleman arrived bearing what looked like a giant shish-kabob. "Bacon-wrapped filet mignon," he said they were. "Give me three," I said back. These salty soft beef nuggets, I noted, were far too easy to consume, and far too enjoyable.

"Meat very good!"

Even the bacon-wrapped chicken breasts were perfect: juicy and flavorful to a fault. But the sausage, although tasty, was dry by comparison, lacking the fat and grease our palates now craved. Also mildly disappointing was the pork with parmesan. Arid and dusty, it seemed to be robbed of moisture. I set them aside and waited for another go round on the sirloin and the bacon-wrapped filet.

The warm cheese rolls were worthy non-meat distractions, as was the fried banana. The former harbored the mild tang of cheddar and the soft texture of a freshly baked Pillsbury Crescent Roll. The latter was sprinkled with cinnamon, served on a banana leaf, and present on every table -- intended to be used as palate cleanser between bites of meat.

As the gorging continued, we grew lethargic, conversation slowed, replaced by half-slurred proclamations of "Meat good. Stomach full. Must stop."

By the end, we were useless lumps, slumped in our seats like sacks of potatoes. We had overdone it, and joked that a blood test taken at that very moment would have detected bovine DNA frolicking among our human cells.

For the rest of the afternoon, I had what could only be described as a "meat headache," along with a strong desire to crawl into bed and hibernate for the winter.

Agora Churrascaria
(949) 222-9910
1830 Main St
Irvine, CA 92614