Friday, August 24, 2007

Icepan - Santa Ana

Lookout Pinkberry. Duck Yogurtland. Here comes another new, trendy dessert: Custom-made organic ice cream -- a concept that takes the Cold Stone Creamery idea and nudges it to the next logical level.

To be honest, I didn't know what "custom-made ice cream" meant until I ordered one.

The first clue should've been the fact that I didn't see any freezers. There's just a menu printed with these flavors:

Green Tea

In front of me, behind a glass display case, were small covered troughs filled with fresh fruit and a smiling gal ready to take my order. My first thought before I timidly said that I wanted green tea ice cream was "Where's the ice cream?"

But what threw me in for a loop was when she asked what kind of milk I'd like. She said I had a choice between non-fat, low-fat, whole, or soy milk.

I was confused. I ordered ice cream, not a milkshake.

Then it dawned on me.

"You mean you're going to make the ice cream? Like right now?"

"Yes," she said brightly, amused at my amusement.

"Oh! Well, um, low-fat then."

What happened next was not unlike seeing a magic trick for the first time. Into a beaker she poured the milk, squeezed a stream of sweetener, and plopped a few scoops of matcha powder. Then a stick blender turned the whole mixture frothy. She walked over to a shiny metal pan and poured the liquid into it. Two putty knives then spread the milk thinly over the surface.

Within seconds the layer froze into sheets which she scraped up, chopped with the knives, and folded over like dough to form a solid, rectangular patty. Then she started flipping, slapping and smacking the now rigid mass onto the pan like a short-order cook would a hamburger on a griddle.

Finally, she took an ice-cream scoop, gathered the finished frozen treat with it, and deposited into a cup.

I paid $4.75 for my 7 ouncer, and took it outside to eat.

It was cold. Ice cold. So cold in fact, it sent a chill up my spine and created a cocoon of shiver that enveloped my entire body. Its consistency was airy, and the taste of it was slightly sweet with a bitter finish; the strongest and truest green tea ice cream I've ever had.

Later I went back and tried vanilla with strawberries. The process is the same, except they work in the topping ($0.75) after the ice cream has solidified. (Watch the video above to see for yourself.)

It tasted exactly like the ice cream I make at home with my Cuisinart before it hardens in the freezer, except with more berries per bite. In other words, I loved it!

But it was at that moment I realized I just witnessed Icepan's most daring magic trick; they got me to pay $5.50 for a cup of ice cream I could've made myself.

3930 S. Bristol Sr. #110
Santa Ana, CA 92704

* Special Thanks to Monster Munching reader Jesus for this tip.
UPDATE: This location of Ice Pan has closed

Friday, August 17, 2007

Nha Hang $1.99 Restaurant - Westminster

Your eyes do not deceive you. This restaurant actually calls itself "$1.99 Restaurant." It is, without a doubt, the most blatant attempt to attract cheapskates since the invention of the 99-Cent-Only store.

But guess what?

The food is decent and the restaurant is surprisingly spacious. Those expecting a hole-in-the-wall would only be half right. There are holes in the garden-themed wallpaper alright, but not as many as you'd think.

Though without a working air conditioner, the room swelters like Saigon in summer. It's especially stifling now, in the thick heat of mid-August. The best place to sit is underneath one of the ceiling fans; anywhere else and you'll sweat your way through dinner.

What the restaurant doesn't realize is that there's a better way to save on the electric bill: Turn down that warbly Viet Pop.

It's pumped at full volume and drowns out any and all conscious thought. If you sit in the back where the speakers blare, you can forget about having that romantic heart-to-heart. But really, by the time you've grown the balls to take a date to The $1.99 Restaurant, you should already be past the getting-to-know-you part of the relationship.

The servers, who seem immune to the aural assault, are craggy old men, gruff in appearance and demeanor. Every crease on their faces speaks more about them than they ever could or would tell you. Conversation and interaction with them will be brief. They're there long enough to take your order and later, to drop off the check.

Don't even think about asking them for water. They'll tell you with a straight face that they don't have it. If you want water, you'll have to buy it. Bottled. For a buck.

These folks may charge $1.99 for a hot meal, but they're not suckers. They know how cheap you are!

If you're going to spend money on a drink, you might as well make it a Thai Iced Tea or their Freshly Squeezed Orange Juice. Both are $1.75. The latter is more orange-ade than orange juice; sweetened with sugar, thinned with water, and invigoratingly refreshing.

Now that you've got your drinks, choose your meal from a menu of eleven items (which also fits neatly on the back of their business card).

Seven items retail for $1.99. Three are $2.75. And one -- the most expensive of all their cheap meals -- goes for the princely sum of $3.25.

This is the Cornish Game Hen with Fried Rice, where half of a bird is deep fried whole till the skin's a crackly gold and the meat moist. A dome of orange rice is served as a side, but not worth the extra stomach room it will claim. There's also a bowl of soy dipping sauce. It's very salty and gunked up with coagulated pieces of something unidentifiable.

One $2.75 dish is the Broken Rice with BBQ Pork and Egg. And it's as gut-filling as a meal going for double the price. The BBQ Pork is, in fact, a whole pork chop grilled competently that tastes, well, like a pork chop. Although it could've benefited from a longer soak in the marinade, oil-wilted green onions that top the meat make up for any shortcomings. The egg, however, is as close to perfect as sunny-side up egg gets. The white is set, but the yolk dribbles into the rice like sauce. With a few hits of Sriracha, it's something of a hangover cure.

But I know what you want to hear about: How are the cheapo plates of food?

Surprisingly good, actually.

The Rice Noodle Soup is my favorite there, at any price. The broth is steaming and savory, the noodle slurpably satisfying. And in my serving, they included a hunk of pork still stuck to the bone. And with each sip of soup, I encountered crunchy granules of concentrated porkiness. My guess: Pork cracklins, which aims straight at my heart (figuratively and literally).

Others in the $1.99 category have their strange quirks, but all are worth the sticker price.

The lacy egg rolls in the Bun Thit Nuong Cha Gio has a factory-produced and thawed-from-the-freezer aftertaste, and the BBQ pork are sliced into miserly matchsticks. But if you can accept these components as decorative elements, you'll find the cold noodles wispy and the crunch of the raw vegetables fantastic. And don't discount those crushed peanuts. They liven up the party just as much as that side bowl of nouc cham does.

Squid florets, bites of tofu, shrimp, and a few fat cylinders of krab are the protein choice in their Xao Thap Cam, a stir fry to top rice or noodles. The gravy needs a little more salt, but it's chock-full of veggies. Consider your daily allowance of fiber fulfilled when eating this meal. Crisp-tender broccoli, carrots, bamboo shoots and baby corn make for a dish that looks more expensive than the sum of its parts. Opt for it as topping to the nest of crispy noodle; a better medium for the gravy than plain ol' rice.

So there it is: Hot meals offered in a hot room at a good value. Maybe if that sprite Rachel Ray pays a visit, they'll actually think about turning on the A/C.

Nha Hang $1.99 Restaurant
7971 Westminster Blvd.
Westminster, CA 92683

Friday, August 10, 2007

El Gallo Giro - Santa Ana

"Hey! Hey! It's your ol' pal Krusty for my new pork sandwich, the Clogger! If you can find a greasier sandwich, you're in Mexico!"

-- Krusty the Clown in "The Simpsons Movie"

And that sandwich, my friends, is the torta. But you don't have to go to Mexico to find it. Deep in Santa Ana -- a city that has redubbed itself as "Downtown Orange County" -- an institution called El Gallo Giro makes one of the best.

The greasiest is a behemoth called the Torta Cubana ($5.99). Yesterday, I ordered one.

Allow me to describe it.

The thing weighed as heavy as a shotput in my hand. It boasts not one, not two, not three, but four kinds of meat. There's a spicy, chili-marinated filet of lean pork leg simply called pierna. Then there's jamon, a floppy slice of ham that looked like Danola. There's also sliced headcheese -- bits of the nasty odds-and-ends of the beast suspended in gelatin and formed into a loaf. And finally, a beef steak, pounded thin, breaded and deep fried. This one's called a Milanesa; my favorite protein in the pile.

But that's not all. The bread was thick and dense, more macho and built of a heartier stock than a normal burger bun. One side was slathered in refried beans. Then everything else was stacked on top of this base. The meats. A tangy slab of queso. Avocado. Pickled jalapenos. Wilted onions. Tomato. And a few measly shreds of lettuce that did absolutely nothing to offset the wanton excess of it all.

Since it was assembled on a griddle, the sandwich was still warm when I got back to the office -- a good thing too because all that the grease would congeal otherwise.

But common sense told me that I could not, and should not, attempt to eat the whole thing in one sitting. So I cut it into two halves.

I bit into one and before I knew it, that half was gone.


I was full, but not satisfied. I wanted more. More of that porky flavor. More shards of that crispy beef. More of that rich, yet cooling avocado. And, yes, even more of the disturbing cartilage crunch of the headcheese.

And that, my friends, was how I devoured a massive sandwich and felt every bit like Homer Simpson when he uttered these immortal words:

"I can't believe I ate the whole thing!"

El Gallo Giro
(714) 549-2011
1442 S Bristol St
Santa Ana, CA 92704

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Koo's Catering Truck - Tustin

It was twilight on a recent Saturday at the Freshia Market in Tustin. We were there to do some grocery shopping, but what I saw in the parking lot stopped me in my tracks, as if an alien spacecraft had just landed at my feet.

It was a catering truck, plastered with bold Korean lettering and indeterminate photos of something that looked edible. Whatever it was, I knew I had to investigate, and I had to do it now before it left for its home planet, never to be seen again.

Ooh look! Let's go try it.

But we just ate!

We'll just buy one and take a nibble.

It's a roach coach, and you can't read Korean.

Whatever it is, I'm sure it'll be good. C'mon!

(Exasperated sigh) Alright!

I stepped under the trailer's canopy, craned my neck and stood on my tippy-toes to peer inside. The interior was brightly lit, not unlike the beam of light emitted from the bottom of a flying saucer -- the very kind that levitates unsuspecting humans from their beds.

In the tiny space, a middle-aged Korean woman flipped unseen objects on an unseen griddle hidden from my line of sight. There was the sign in front of me, which said that whatever they were selling, it was sold for a dollar each, or $10 for 11.

When the woman turned to look down from the low crack of the truck's open window, I said, "One please" and surrendered my dollar bill. She had no idea that I had no idea what I just paid for.

In return, she passed me what looked like a Chinese onion pancake on a paper plate. "Careful! Hot!" she warned. And she was right. The pancake was almost radioactive.

I took it back for us to eat near a row of Korean newspaper boxes, using them as an impromptu table. We each took a bite and immediately fell into a blissed out state.

Our teeth met a crisped, brown outer crust, leading to a chewy, almost glutinous, doughy center. Tucked in the middle, sandwiched between it all was a pleasantly sweet but scalding filling of syrup made from brown sugar, cinnamon and a few specks of nuts and sesame seeds.

It occurred to me right about then that this is essentially a dessert pupusa.

I find out later, by way of Google of course, that what we ate was hotteok (pronounced ho-duck), a common street food found in Korea. And here was a truck selling it on the streets of Tustin.

After we polished off the one we bought, I was hankering for another.

You wanna share one more?

Yes please!

To read Daily Gluttony's close encounter with the hotteok truck:
--->>> CLICK HERE <<<---

Koo's Catering Truck
Last sighting: Freshia Market Parking Lot on a Saturday night
14551 Red Hill Ave
Tustin, CA 92780