Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Sahara Falafel - Anaheim

Faceless figures in flowing ghutras and thobes stood defiantly, looking out at a vast, barren, and desolate landscape. Beyond them, nothing but sand. Nearby, camels are slumped in repose, shielding their heads from the unrelenting sun. On the distant horizon, a blurry outline of a city, shimmering in the updraft emanating from the dunes. Or was it just a mirage?

Where were we? Not where you'd think. The scene I just described is depicted in a mural, painted on the walls of Sahara Falafel, a tiny restaurant in the Anaheim's Little Gaza District on Brookhurst Street.

With Disneyland mere blocks away, we were in the heart of Orange County -- but as we waited for our orders of food to be prepared, we felt as if we had travelled to a distant place, far away from Stepford, and somewhere closer to the Sahara Desert itself.

Also waiting was a young woman, dressed in a traditional black hijaab, who smiled as her three-year old son stared at me curiously with wide eyes. I waved to him, grinning. He giggled brightly, while at another table, a group of bookish young men chattered away in Arabic, chewing on skewered meat and scooping up hummus with rolled pieces of pita bread.

Behind the counter, a gruff elderly man with a wind-weathered face fried small batches of falafel in a small teflon pot, slowly turning the balls in the hot oil with a slotted spoon. Next to him, an frail-looking old woman, also in a hijaab, tended a grill no bigger than a school desk, tenderly flipping kaftas, kabobs, and vegetables as they roasted over a lapping fire. Between them, rotating on a vertical spit, spun what was left of the shawarma. Since it was past nine-thirty at night, the slender cylinder of meat was shorn down almost to the metal rod, looking like a spent apple core.

After a good fifteen minutes, our food was ready, served to us by the old woman.

What she brought was the most gorgeous mound of food to grace a styrofoam plate I had ever seen. This was the BBQ Combination Plate ($10.95). The largest well of the plate was occupied by a grilled tomato, onion, a grilled beef sausage called kafta and a skewer of seasoned white-meat chicken over fluffy rice, studded with bits of fresh parsley. On the side; a simple salad dressed with lemon juice and a serving of hummus, dimpled with two glistening puddles of olive oil.

Also, almost unnoticed by us at first, was a thimble-sized plastic container of garlic paste called toum. Being fans of the acclaimed Zankou Chicken garlic paste, we hastily ripped off a ragged swatch of pita bread and dabbed it into the innocent-looking concoction. A split second after the white substance touched our tongues, a searing hit of unmitigated garlicness sucker-punched our throats and burned a path clear into our sinuses.

We winced. "Pain. Oh the pain!," we cried as our eyes welled up with tears. It stung, but it stung good.

If Zankou's garlic paste was acetic acid, this was downright hydrochloric. While the former toned down their version with boiled potato, it was evident Sahara Falafel did not. Instead, they utilized nothing but straight up raw garlic, salt, lemon juice, and olive oil. Untamed, undiluted, this was toum at its purest and most potent: a blissful dose of garlic heaven.

Respecting its ferocious power, I used this edible napalm sparingly, slathering a narrow swath on the inner surface of my pita. Then I stuffed the pocket with kafta and chicken before I drug the open end through some hummus. As I bit into it, the kafta, spiced lightly with cloves and cinnamon, crumbled like a firm and dense ground-beef meatball. But the toum still managed to bite back.

The Falafel Sandwich ($3.95), also utilized a smear of toum, but was balanced by flaked chili, tahini, lettuce and tomato. The wrap's main attraction was, of course, the falafel.

The crunchy deep-fried orbs of well-spiced, mashed chickpea possessed a dark mahogany crust with the rough and tumble texture of gravel; pebbly and crackly. Hiding beneath was a potato-soft and ultra-savory center so rich in flavor, it easily substituted for meat.

After polishing off the meal, the toum we consumed relented, following us home, staying with us through the night and the morning after. It lingered in our breaths and in our consciousness. Garlic heaven turned into a garlic demonic possession.

There, in the thick haze of our stinky, smelly burps was the souvenir from our trip to Little Gaza.

Sahara Falafel
(714) 491-0400
590 S Brookhurst St
Anaheim, CA 92804

Monday, February 19, 2007

Alerto's Mexican Food - Westminster

Just say: "half order carne asada nachos" and for $4.68, you get the quintessential fuel for all-nighters, food for the nocturnal munchies, the harbinger of heart-burns, the anti-Lipitor, and my favorite item at Alerto's, a Mexican food pit-stop famous for enormous burritos stuffed with nothing but meat.

There are two Alerto's outposts on Brookhurst Street, and although they are a few blocks from each other, each are technically in different cities. One is in Fountain Valley, while the other, Westminster. The Westminster branch is cleaner, more consistent, with a dining room that's open until 12:30 a.m. on most nights and a drive-thru that never closes.

But at either one, when ordering the nachos, always specify "Half Order", because since the quantity served is the same, the only difference between the full order and the half is two bucks.

In any case, by the time your styrofoam container of food is ready, you should probably have done fifty sit-ups to offset what you're about to consume: a pile of freshly fried and greaseless tortilla chips smothered with the culprits of an unhealthy diet, including:

Refried Beans
Pico de Gallo
Sour Cream
Grated Cheese
Cubes of Carne Asada

The first bite is always the best, simply because guilt hasn't set in. You revel in the hearty corn crunch of real tortilla chips; the pleasant mushiness of refried beans; the chewy/tender morsels of seasoned steak; the slobbery green goo of the guacamole; the tang of cheese; the coolness of sour cream; and the oniony bite of the pico de gallo. It all makes sense and feels so right, especially when it's way past your bedtime.

Remorse always follows the last chip, not because of all the fat and calories, but because you want another one.

Alerto's Mexican Food
(714) 775-9550
15681 Brookhurst St
Westminster, CA 92683

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Pho Hung Vuong - Tustin

It wasn't long ago that pho, the acclaimed beef noodle soup of Vietnam, seemed like it was on the cutting edge of a new and exotic cuisine. If Vietnamese was the new Thai, pho was the new pad thai. But after over a decade of consuming hundreds of bowls at dozens of joints large and small, spotless and grimy, I am suffering from pho fatigue, or as I like to call it: "pho-tigue."

Relegated to the "been-there-done-that" bin in my brain -- along with teriyaki and too many plates of kung pao chicken -- it seems that every bowl of pho I slurp is virtually indistinguishable from the next.

At Pho Hung Vuong in Tustin, their titular dish is, of course, pho. And although the restaurant does a decent and faithful version of it, my attention gravitates elsewhere, to somewhere on the back page of the menu. It's there that I've found my new noodle soup obsession.

Its name: Hu Tieu Mi Dac Biet ($6.25).

It starts, as all things noodle soup does, with the broth. And it's a gorgeous brew, lovingly culled from pork and chicken, and harnessing all of its essence. In my bowl, floating bubbles of melted fat skitter across the surface of the liquid, like disembodied spirits possessed with flavors both sweet and savory. Garnished artfully with chopped cilantro, scallions, and heightened by a squeeze of lime, this hot, soothing nectar is simultaneously rich and refreshing -- a lip-smackingly good and honest soup. Each sip energizes the palate, entices the gullet, and warms the soul.

Submerged beneath the shimmering elixir you'll find not one, but two types of noodle, existing in a dichotomy of textures -- a veritable yin/yang of starches. Gelatin-clear, stretchy and elastic strands of chewy hu tieu constitutes the yin. Its yang is a firm and crinkly yellow egg noodle called mi. The pair are entwined in a lustful embrace, like lovers in a jacuzzi of boiling broth.

But they aren't alone. Among the many bearing witness to the delicious affair are four jumbo shrimp as big as a toddler's fist, barely cooked to a jiggly perfection. The rest of the motley crew include: thick and floppy rectangles of fish cake; wispy, razor-thin slices of red-rimmed xa xiu (barbecued pork); turgid cylinders of krab; and blanched, white curls of calamari.

Pho may still be the reigning king of Vietnamese noodle soup, but at Pho Hung Vuong, I worship at the altar of its rightful heir: Hu Tieu Mi Dac Biet.

Pho Hung Vuong Restaurant
(714) 731-1933
14182 Newport Ave
Tustin, CA 92780

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Kapamilya - Fountain Valley

Thanks to the work of a public relations pioneer named Edward Bernays, when you think about an all-American breakfast, two words will undoubtedly come to mind: bacon and eggs. His PR push convinced millions of Americans that there was no better way to start the day than by consuming a product sold by his clients. I, myself, recall scarfing down a daily breakfast of Sizzlean and scrambled eggs before I scurried out the door to gradeschool, never questioning until now: "Why eggs? Why bacon? And what the heck is Sizzlean made out of anyway?"

It is doubtful that Bernays' influence extended to the island nation of the Philippines. But one has to wonder why no other country in Asia offers a breakfast like the Filipino almusal. So similar is it to its American counterpart that it becomes hard to deny whether Bernays' work might have had something to do with it. Principal components of the meal consists of the staples he strived to popularize: salted cured meats and eggs.

The only difference, however, lies in the fact that in the Pinoy version, fried rice takes on a major role as carbohydrate, and there's usually a vegetable involved, often a slice of fresh tomato.

But the dish is such a constant in Filipino households that it is referred to by its shorthand, which always ends in a silog suffix. The moniker is a concatenation of its components. For example, take one dish called longsilog, which includes a Filipino sausage called "longanisa", fried rice ("sinangag"), and a fried egg ("itlog").


Longanisa + sinangag + itlog = longsilog.

Whatever you call it, it's a big breakfast designed to provide long-lasting fuel for a hard day of labor.

But for a person who now sits in front of a computer all day long, the cumulative effect of such a substantial morning meal, no matter the country of origin or history, is that it's too much fat, too much cholesterol, too early in the day -- which is why I save it for lunch.

One place in Orange County that specializes in the almusal is a family-run joint called Kapamilya. In this hidden Fountain Valley stripmall eatery, several varieties of silogs are cooked to order and offered all day (Monday to Friday 10:30am to 6:30pm, Saturday 8:30am to 2:30pm) for a flat fee of $4.75 (tax already included).

Included in all the almusals is a mound of sticky garlic fried rice, a slice of tomato, and two fried eggs prepared over-easy, unless requested otherwise. All that needs to be chosen is the protein that accompanies it, which can include one of the following:

Marinated beef

Sweet sausage

Marinated sweet pork

Corned Beef

Pork or chicken cooked in vinegar and soy sauce

Fried Danggit
Salted dried fish

Fried Pusit
Fried squid

Boneless Bangus
Fried marinated milkfish
From three visits, I tried four of their offerings.

Tapa, one of the more traditional choices for Filipino breakfast, is beef marinated in garlic, sugar, soy sauce, and vinegar.

The texture of the meat is similar to Korean kalbi, but a bit dryer by design, straddling the line between jerky and steak. The flavor, however, is ten times sweeter than its distant Korean cousin, and without its characteristic sesame oil nuttiness.

Corned beef is prepared the way the Pinoy palate prefers it, cooked moist to an almost Sloppy Joe consistency and decorated with ribbons of wilted onion.

The ruddy scoop of salty, soppy meat goes especially well with the rice and eggs.

To save time, restaurants typically use factory-produced tocino, which although delicious, contains nitrites and artificial coloring.

Kapamilya chooses to make theirs from scratch, utilizing fatty cuts of pork. Coated with a candy-sweet glaze and tooth-tender, their tocino resembles Vietnamese grilled pork with an amped up sugar qoutient. To counter its cloying flavor, I balance it with tart shots of vinegar.

One of the lighter proteins is the boneless bangus, crisply fried marinated milkfish. Blessed with a prized yogurty tang and a flaky white flesh, this is one of my favorites for almusal, and something that Edward Bernays definitely had nothing to do with.

Kapamilya Restaurant
(714) 593-6212
10964 Warner Avenue
Fountain Valley, CA 92708