Monday, April 30, 2007

Red Ribbon Bake Shop - Cerritos

Whenever I drive to Cerritos on a growling stomach in search of Filipino food, I often ask myself this question: Why is Cerritos part of L.A. County?

More succinctly: why is this city, which is mere minutes or ten miles from Disneyland but at least an hour or twenty miles from downtown L.A., not considered part of Orange County instead?

By claiming Cerritos, and its less attractive sister Artesia, L.A. County hogs the Filipino enclave closest to O.C., when it already has many to call its own in Panorama City, Glendale, and Eagle Rock, just to name a few.

Like a spoiled rich kid who refuses to let the other children play with his toys, L.A. County leaves O.C. bereft of all the great Pinoy places to chow. Excellent eateries like Magic Wok, and even middling ones like Goldilocks and Salo-Salo Grill, are all within reach to O.C.'s citizenry but lie officially on the other side of the L.A./O.C. line.

But rather than fight city hall, I prefer to eat. And this week, my trip to Cerritos brings me to the Red Ribbon Bake Shop, which is neighbors to two other Filipino eating houses, Chowking and Pinoy Pinay, none of which, I might add, exists in O.C either.

Red Ribbon is famous for their sublime cakes, which are always the talk of every party they grace. The Mango Cake, in particular -- one of their best and most popular -- is a perfectly constructed and not-too-sweet feather-soft sponge-cake lovingly frosted with whipped cream, sandwiching a layer of ripe mangoes perkier than Lea Salonga.

Although it is, first and foremost, a bakery, inside their cramped, claustrophobic store, there's a tiny dining area where you can feast on a number of savory specials that they also offer as merienda (snacks) and light meals for a pittance of $3.99. One of them is my current obsession in the phylum noodle: Pancit Palabok.

To order a plate of Red Ribbon's Pancit Palabok, is to get a styrofoam dish of jiggly rice vermicelli threads, smothered with an orange, porky gravy as thick as goo. Topped with diced green onions, ground pork, hard-boiled egg quarters, and pulverized pork rinds, it's food you'd typically see being sold by hawkers out of roving carts on the streets of Manila.

I started by drizzling on a few packets of factory-sealed lemon juice, proceeding to mix up the whole mess together with a fork until every strand was lubed in that unctuous sauce. Slurp, after sloppy slurp, I reveled in the lemony tart and salty flavors that was simultaneously subtler and more complex than pad thai, but less cloying than spaghetti. I loved this dish, but seriously, who wouldn't love a dish that utilizes pork rinds?

Another dish that played directly to my comfort-food sensibilities is their Embutido, a steamed meat-loaf made of pork and pockmarked with raisins. Cut into silver-dollar rounds as thick as steaks, it is draped with a zig-zag of neon-red banana sauce and then served with hot, steamed rice. The taste is akin to Oscar Meyer bologna, with a bite that is just as bouncy.

As I drove the short distance back to O.C., I rethought my gripe about Cerritos, Artesia, and L.A. County. It mattered less what jurisdiction these cities fell under, and mattered more that my stomach was full of Pancit Palabok and Embutido. More importantly, I was happy that I didn't have to drive to Glendale to get it.

I also realized that I get grumpy when I'm hungry.

Red Ribbon Bake Shop
(562) 402-3304
11900 South St # 106
Cerritos, CA 90703

Monday, April 23, 2007

Bouchon - Las Vegas

Only in Vegas can a style-over-substance restaurant/night club called Tao -- which uses a Paris Hilton visit as a selling point -- exist under the same roof as one of Thomas Keller's bonafide gems. But that's exactly how it is here. The allure of Sin-City money brings together strange bedfellows.

Although Chef Keller -- the recipient of multiple James Beard awards and Michelin stars -- may have answered the siren call of casino cash, he compromises nothing.

In fact, judging by the location he's chosen for Bouchon, one gets the impression that Keller despises the whole idea of Las Vegas. His restaurant is physically removed (perhaps deliberately) from the cigarette smoke and slot machines of the gaming floor, tucked away in a secret cove atop the Venezia tower.

In keeping with his Napa Valley bistro of the same name, it is in a space that is classic, classy, and completely unpretentious.

There's no shimmering floor-to-ceiling tower of wine, no cascading wall of water -- not even the promise of a good view of the Bellagio fountains. With none of these Vegas-style distractions (or attractions, depending on your point-of-view) it's a place you don't just accidentally amble into on a whim.

To arrive at Bouchon's understated doorway at The Venetian is to be aware of the man's reputation as "America's Best Chef." You're here because you want to be here. You're here because you want to eat his food.

For us, since the restaurant was just a short elevator ride down from our hotel suite -- where we happened to be staying for our get-away weekend from O.C. -- it was a special treat to be able to walk to an elegant meal: a feat I've always envied in New Yorkers since it is impossible to do in Irvine.

Pistachios and a crusty braided loaf of French bread started the meal, closely followed by an order of warm Carrot Soup ($8.50) so smooth, so soothing, and so savory it seemed improbable that it was extracted from the humble root vegetable normally relegated to the crudité platter. A tangy dollop of crème fraîche applied to the top of this sweet elixir heightened an already perfect bowl in a way that crumbled Saltine crackers never could.

A main course of Moules au Safron et à la Moutarde ($26.50), featured mussels farmed by a shellfish aquaculture expert in Maine. Called "bouchots," these specimens are the highly sought after, and appropriately, are very expensive. Harvested young, plucked from their deep-sea water beds at the peak of flavor and most sublime tenderness, they were succulent, sweet, and melted in my mouth like no other mussels I have had before or since.

While lesser mussels need a few seconds of focused mastication, these bivalves were so buttery-soft it could be spread on toast like pâté.

Underneath the gorgeous onyx shells pooled the cooking liquid and run-off from the mussels themselves. I sipped this nectar straight up, first daintily with an empty shell, later on with gusto and a soup spoon. I relished every drop, savoring the pleasant alcohol sting of wine, the heady sweet cloves of boiled garlic, the scent of saffron, and spiciness of Dijon.

An order of the mussels included an oversized cone of fries. And not just ordinary fries from a frozen bag. No, these are the same fries that when Tony Bourdain ate them -- in this very same restaurant in the Las Vegas episode of No Reservations -- he immediately became depressed, seething with mock jealousy. His pride hurt, Bourdain conceded that they were even better than the fries he makes at Les Halles, which he had believed, at least until that moment, were "The Best Fries in The World."

And they were great fries, crisp and addictive. But my amazement lies in the ridiculous portion size. No diner of any girth or appetite could ever polish off this truck-sized heap of potatoes. To ensure that no single fry was wasted, I passed it around the table, asking for assistance, which, not surprisingly, I got.

My friend's Saumon à la Poêle ($27.50) was a brick of salmon steak, perfectly sauteed with a golden crust and a supple core still moist pink. It's served with wilted black cabbage, honey-glazed turnips, and a drizzle of tangerine butter as sauce. I sampled a forkful, and spent the rest of the time eyeing his dish from across the table, waiting for an offer of another bite which never came.

Dessert were round scoops of Apricot and Raspberry Sorbet ($5.50) served with some freshly-baked cinnamon wafers. Tart and tangy like the fruits they came from, the icy-smooth treat was a fitting close and a refreshing palate cleanser to our meal in Vegas's best restaurant that isn't Lotus of Siam.

In a city where money is everything and nothing, where no expense is spared but every dollar counts, there's no place better to spend a few of mine than at Thomas Keller's Bouchon.

(702) 414-6200
3355 Las Vegas Blvd S
Las Vegas, NV 89109

Monday, April 16, 2007

Watson's Drug & Soda Fountain - Orange

There are few places like Watson's Drug & Soda Fountain left in America, and even fewer in Orange County. So it's no wonder when movie crews and politicians need a Norman Rockwell backdrop to go with their stories of bubble-gum American folksiness, this is the place they flock to. And that's exactly what Tom Hanks did in making "That Thing You Do" -- a movie about how a small-town rock band made it big.

In 1995, his film crew set up camp and used the whole of Old Towne Orange to double as Erie, Pennsylvania circa 1964. In it, he found a perfect character actor in Watson's Drug and Soda Fountain. With formica and chrome, "Liver and Onions" on special, and red checkered tablecloths with swivel stools to match, it oozes nostalgia without even trying.

Both a functioning drug store and a diner, its interior is a space so eeriely classic, so suspended in a long forgotten decade, that I half expect Andy Taylor to mosey in, saddle up at the counter, and order a slice of apple pie and a chocolate malt -- which just happens to be a specialty of the house.

Made with Carnation ice cream, cold milk, and malt powder, this is a shake that costs $4.95. That's right. A five-dollar shake. But it's one that Vincent Vega himself would approve of.
From Quentin Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction"

Goddamn! That's a pretty f***in'
good milk shake.

Told ya.

I don't know if it's worth five
dollars, but it's pretty f***in'
It's served up in the frosty metal container from the mixer, with an empty soda glass into which it's to be poured. The first sip is transcendent, full of memories and fondness. The malt -- more refined than a regular old shake -- has a nutty, milky sweetness to it; the kind of cozy flavor which transports my brain back to the innocence of childhood and warm-fuzzy recollections of watching Saturday morning cartoons in my pajamas, a cool glass of Ovaltine in my hands.

And since the concoction is hand-spun to order, the consistency of the chilly brew is simultaneously creamy and icy, charmingly imperfect with miniscule pellets of frozen milk that melt on the tongue the moment it's detected.

I inhaled the first glass through my straw, but realized I had another full glass coming when I poured out what was left in the metal cup. It was then that I discovered: there is such a thing as too much of a good thing.

While the first glass was heaven, each successive drag of the second was exponentially less enjoyable. By the time I had sucked down half of it, my body decided it had just about enough of the malt. Overloaded, overstimulated, and overindulged on butterfat, I summoned all of my strength to suppress my body's resistance to it, and to drink the rest without throwing up.

So the next time you see me at Watson's, I'll be sharing my two-serving malt -- ideally out of the same glass with two straws, as if I was in a Norman Rockwell painting myself.

Watson Drug & Soda Fountain
(714) 633-1050
116 E Chapman Ave
Orange, CA 92866

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Taco Rosa - Irvine

While The Irvine Spectrum takes its architectural cues from Spain, The Marketplace seems to take theirs from Tetris. The sprawling complex is built on variations of one single shape: the cube -- painted monochromatically in single shades of either purple, terra cotta, or adobe. The result is an Orwellian uniformity such that the only thing distinguishing a Home Depot from the Buca Di Beppo is the sign that reads "Home Depot" and "Buca di Beppo."

So when Taco Rosa opened its second location here, I was surprised that Big Brother allowed it to do what it did to the sullen box that was previously occupied by the failed chicken stand, Koo Koo Roo.

They put up black awnings that serve no other purpose than to break the rectangular monotony of the structure, and installed looping wrought iron lattice work and brass lamps to further reclaim a sense of originality otherwise cast adrift in a sea of sameness.

Inside, the space is equally un-Irvine, with a Manhattan polish and sleekness not seen here since French 75 Brasserie classed up the neighborhood a few years ago. Above the entrance, willow sticks are stacked in rows as roofing. Deep inside the restaurant, tables occupy a hidden alcove with drawn drapes for a touch of class and romance.

In a noisy bar straddling a comfy patio and the waiting area, margarita glasses dangle underneath a thatched roof canopy. Meanwhile, in the stark white showroom of the kitchen, uniformed cooks fall over each other in a space crowded with grills, tortilla presses, and a melted chocolate fountain.

Noticeably absent are the inane props and chotzkes usually found at a typical corporate Tex-Mex chain. There isn't a single sombrero or Texas license plate tacked up on the wall.

The food follows suit, with dishes more refined than those sold at the On The Border just down the road. Take my favorite dish called Salmon Acapulco ($17.00), which I first tasted at the original Taco Rosa in Newport Beach -- a restaurant which was already well-established by the time Joy and Christian of OC Mexican Restaurants introduced me to it. In it I found not a trace of refried beans or melted cheese, which is one of the reasons why I love it so much.

Another reason was how it's cooked. A slab of salmon steak was broiled over flames, blackened until it attained a smoky and charred crust, but with a center still butter-soft and silken. It's the sort of flavor only a roaring beach bonfire can produce.

Before serving, the fish was slathered in a papaya butter sauce and some salsa. Then it's draped over a mushy bed of pureed acorn squash as sweet as candied yams, as smooth as apple sauce, and as thoroughly addicting as the two combined.

The best part of the dish, however, were the mini-zucchinis and their blossoms. Roasted to a tender-crisp, each verdant spear had a refreshing bitterness that simultaneously awakened the palate and complimented the succulence of the salmon.

The wilted blossoms, in particular, instilled in its ruffled petals the very spirit of the partnership between flower and fruit. After tasting it in this dish, to continue to eat zucchini without it is to watch Astaire without Rogers, listen to Simon without Garfunkle, and laugh at Charlie Brown without Snoopy -- each is full of substance on their own, but lacking a certain panache and vitality without its companion.

Another knock-out dish was Taco Rosa's take on Lobster Bisque ($5.00). Murky with the deep crimson color of the creature's carapace, this was a concoction so seductive, so boldly creamy and powerfully spicy, it coated my spoon like Indian masala gravy and attacked my mouth like Montezuma on the warpath. Although this was a soup that isn't exactly Mexican, it was just as convincing and impressively sultry as Catherina Zeta Jones when she plays one.

By this time, the food was playing my tonsils like maracas. A tall, sweaty glass of Watermelon Agua Fresca ($2.00) provided a refreshing respite. I took a long drag on the straw and a surge of the chilly nectar cooled my throat. All the while, the crispness of the watermelon juice and its cold cubed chunks conjured images of summers on the back porch, Slip 'n Slides, and swinging hammocks.

Surprisingly though, a few bites of their namesake dish left me unimpressed. Lobster; Lump Crab; Carne Asada; none of their tacos ($3.50 each) possessed much in the way of flavor or heft.

It only goes to confirm that at Taco Rosa, it's better to order outside of the border and out of the box.

Taco Rosa
13792 Jamboree Road
Irvine, CA, 92782

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Din Tai Fung - Arcadia

His tools: a wooden dowel and an oversized tongue depressor. Rocked back and forth on a work surface, the dowel flattens pellets of dough, each the size of a dinner mint, into perfectly uniform discs as thin as parchment. The tongue depressor is then used to scoop up small amounts of the raw ground pork filling, smearing it onto the flat rounds like paste.

Then with sleight of hand more amazing than anything David Copperfield has ever demonstrated, he picks up a filled specimen and pleats the top in a knitting motion with his nimble fingers. Within seconds, the piece is crimped with spiralling folds and transformed into a tight bulbous sphere. Grouped ten to a basket and steamed over a roiling vat of water, a juicy pork dumpling, or xiao long bao, is born.

Outside, within view of the glass window from the dumpling assembly room, dozens of people mill about, waiting for their chance to indulge in these perfect pouches of pork. For the pleasure, they will wait an hour or more.

On this sunny Sunday morning, I am one of these people -- queueing up in a ritual that has become a familiar routine for me and every customer since Din Tai Fung has been in business in Arcadia. To come is to wait.

And wait. And wait.

Cumulatively, I estimate that I usually spend more time waiting for a table than I do driving from Orange County to this sole American outlet of the legendary Taiwanese restaurant.

But much has been written about Din Tai Fung in the seven years that it has been open. For every person that gives it praise, there is another that thinks its food is overrated and its popularity fueled by hype.

In the same impassioned breath that a Lord of The Rings fan would disparage the Star Wars films, some proclaim that there are better dumpling houses in San Gabriel Valley. While there may be some truth to this, the same futility lies in both pleas, because regardless of what is said, George Lucas and Peter Jackson get richer, and the line at Din Tai Fung never gets any shorter.

A few years ago, after being stuck in it for the tenth time, I was fed up, and I defected to Mei Long Village, a nearby competitor which also serves up highly regarded and equally delicious steam baskets of xiao long bao without so much as a two-minute wait. But within a few months, I found myself crawling back to Arcadia, like a masochistic junkie.

My drug of choice was, of course, the Juicy Pork Dumplings ($6.75) and they are worth the hour lost in limbo.

As soon as it is served and the lid is removed, a plume of white steam billowed from the basket. Inside, I found them -- those precious, cute buttons with Curly-Q tops I saw being born earlier -- now sporting sagging bellies full of broth.

Picking one up with chopsticks is a task to be done tenderly, as if moving a vial of nitroglycerin. Handle it roughly, and the whole thing explodes, spewing out fatty juice and flavor. But experience has taught me how to do it properly, treating the fragile outer membrane with respect.

After it was safely perched in my Chinese soup spoon, I nibbled the top off to expose its juicy innards and then sipped the hot soup welled up inside. It's a rich, porky brew -- savory and flavorful to the max. But the decadence didn't end there. What's left after the last drop of broth is gone, was a fatty morsel of pork and the supple noodle skin. I garnished it with refreshing slivers of julienned ginger and dribbled on a slurry of vinegar, soy sauce, and chili paste before I gulped it down with a single and determined slurp.

But to wait an hour and only eat the dumplings is folly. So we ordered a plate of veggies -- required to offset the richness of those protein purses. The best to fulfill this duty was the Sauteed Green Beans ($7.00), which were first oil-blanched and then wokked with minced garlic and salt. The quick blanching in hot fat rendered the leathery outer skin tender while leaving the rest crisp and greener than emeralds.

For one starch, we tried a plate of Stir Fried Rice Cake ($7.00), which chewed much like soy-sauce flavored gum. The dish was full of contrasting textures -- with crunchy onion, bok choy, napa cabbage and pork playing against the bounce and chewy firmness of the densely compacted rice flour dough.

The Fried Pork Chop ($3.25) was aromatic, crusted with a dusting of five-spice and cooked to a mahogany luster. Once all the white meat was consumed, I found myself gnawing on the bones like a snarling dog.

Less than stellar was the Pork Fried Rice ($5.75) -- one of the dullest plates I've ever had. Flavorless and downright bland, not even the fatty strips of pork strewned within was able to save the dish from a banal existence.

The Wonton Soup ($5.50) was better. Featuring the clean, bright flavors of freshly boiled chicken, the subtle broth brought with each sip the essence of the bird. Swimming in it, like a graceful Esther Williams, were shrimp enveloped in a flowing gown of sheer noodle.

On the flip side, opposite in every respect to the Wonton Soup's subtlety, was the Roasted Beef Soup ($5.50). Robust and full-bodied, beneath its dark and murky depths lurked licorice-flavors of anise and the cloying sweetness of beef fat.

Still swooning over the xiao long bao, we soon found out that not all things dumpling are worth ordering. The Vegetable Dumplings ($6.75) were dry and mealy. If the thin wrappers of the Juicy Pork Dumplings were silk, these were made of burlap -- simultaneously tough, chewy and thick.

Thankfully, the Red Bean Dumpling's ($4.50) used the same thin wrapper as the xiao long bao. And it was the perfect dumpling closer to the meal. Designed as dessert, it's stuffed with a candy-sweet bean paste -- a confection that has the stick-to-your teeth consistency of peanut butter.

With Din Tai Fung's expansion to bigger digs in the same plaza set to open in May, I'm hoping the wait will decrease. But to think that a larger space will make it faster to get in is as hopeful as thinking that the next George Lucas or Peter Jackson spectacle won't find an opening day audience of geeks.

Din Tai Fung
(626) 574-7068
1108 S Baldwin Ave
Arcadia, CA 91007