Saturday, April 26, 2008

Gammy's Cafe - Santa Ana

Grand Avenue was busy that day I ate lunch at Gammy's Cafe. But I suppose it's always busy. Looking out towards it from one of their concrete picnic tables, I saw truck after truck roaring past. Trailing every rig was the rumble of diesel engines, whirring of gears, smoke and dust.

Above my head, a speaker blasted Mexican ranchera music at an ear-piercing volume. Together, the noise of the road and the polka-beat combined into a crazy, cacophonous soundtrack.

Suddenly midway through my meal, a thunderous bang and deafening crunch jolted me half bite. I looked up and saw that a car had just plowed into another. A woman stormed out of one vehicle with a cell phone clutched to her ear. She hunched down to survey the damage to her rear bumper.

It's dented, but the car that hit her fared far worse. Its driver, a guy with a beard, had already begun picking up pieces of his front end from the road when the woman started yelling at him.

"They should get off the street," I thought as I gulped down the mouthful of taco I was still chewing. They did eventually, turning into a nearby strip mall to swap insurance information, but not before snarling the rest of the traffic on this four lane thoroughfare to a halt.

This kind of thing must happen a lot in front of Gammy's. But nothing seems to faze the gentleman who greets you inside. He's got a cheery disposition and warmness that immediately disarms people. The guy is nothing but smiles and good manners.

And why not? His tiny, roadside taqueria -- although surrounded by the uglyness of traffic, chaos and noise -- is a refuge.

Jugs of cold agua frescas sweat in the corner. A modest salsa bar chills in another. The smells of the kitchen wafts through the air. And before he hands you your plate of tacos, he thoughtfully adds some pickled carrots, wedges of lime and chips, free of charge.

The pastor taco I had featured chunks of pork, mired a caustic-looking red-pepper sauce that seems like it should be bolder and spicier than it is. Though by contrast, the chicken taco is still milder.

They are wrapped in two floppy rounds of tortilla, which is thicker and pillowier than most. All are topped with pico de gallo and small bits of creamy avocado -- a nice touch, especially for a taco that costs only $1.40.

Full and satisfied, I got in my car and said a little prayer before I lurched back onto the road. Before long, a semi-truck was hard on my tail, belching and throttling its engines all the way to the 5 on-ramp.

Gammy's Cafe
(714) 835-8328
415 N Grand Ave
Santa Ana, CA 92701

Ritz-Carlton Afternoon Tea - Dana Point

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Champion Food Co. - Fountain Valley

It's Saturday morning around nine-o-clock. I'm at Champion Food in Fountain Valley, sitting in a plastic chair, resting my elbows on a fold-out table, waiting for my order to be prepared.

In the corner, with a commanding view of the room, next to a rickety shelf of imported foodstuffs, two old Chinese men sat, their faces hidden behind newspapers, visible only when they took a sip of hot soy milk from a styrofoam cup and a bite from a crispy, deep fried cruller called youtiao.

Meanwhile, the owner -- a middle-aged man with kind, sleepy eyes -- shuffled out from the kitchen, carrying a serving tray of freshly-made Chinese onion pancakes to a group of women at another table.

Throughout the morning, customers would trickle in, though most would just grab a Chinese newspaper from a stack next to the door, walk up to the counter to plop a few coins down, then leave without saying a word.

This is the typical weekend scene for the place. During the weekday, it's just a deserted boba shop and Chinese jerky store -- a walk-in, walk-out joint where you could buy a Ziplock bag of frozen dumplings but no food is served.

Come the weekend, Champion tranforms into one of the few places in Orange County to take in a traditional, starch-laden Chinese breakfast and wash it all down with soy milk -- but only from 8:30 AM to 2 PM.

When my to-go order was ready, the owner handed me the stash with a polite bow. I thanked him and took the pile, which was crammed in a dusty, old cardboard box.

After I got home, I poured the still steaming soy milk ($1.25) into a cup for easier sipping, and cut the foot-long, flaky, golden crullers they called "Twist Dough" ($1.50) into segments. The soy milk, although a bit chalky, was just the thing to cleanse the palate after the oily crunch of those Chinese "donuts". Just like their American counterpart, dunking is not just acceptable, but required.

Since it was freshly made, the onion pancake with egg ($3.50) was still warm and crisp even after the transport time. The flat discs of dough -- which is essentially nothing but flour, salt, fat, and scallions rolled thin and layered over each other -- was pan-fried with an egg, cracked right over the top. The result was like the Chinese version of French toast, except no vanilla or milk is involved; just the carbs and the protein.

While I'm making comparisons, I'll also say that the sesame pie with beef ($3.00) was like a shredded beef taco -- but only because you eat it like one. The flavors, though, were much simpler. The gossamer-thin crust was crisp and pliant (yes, like a tortilla); the shreds of beef were savory, but not overwhelming -- hit with just enough cilantro and green onions to refresh.

The BBQ pork buns ($1.25), on the other hand, could've used something to lift it out of its doldrums. The bread was too dense and the pork was not saucy enough.

Next time, I'll skip them for the best thing Champion does: the rice rolls.

What is it? Well, it's just glutinous rice rolled around some sort of mystery filling -- a contrast of textures that simultaneously smacks and hugs the palate. First, you bite into the gummy and gluey chew of the rice. Then you encounter the crunchy, savory bits at the center, which feels like a bar brawl between Snap, Crackle and Pop in your mouth.

If I had to guess, the crunch component must be the hacked-up chunks from one of those deep fried crullers I spoke about earlier. But there's more to it than that, especially in their "salty" version ($2.75), in which I tasted pork. And there's a "sweet" roll ($2.50) that's got crushed peanuts and something tooth-decayingly sugary.

You wouldn't think these dull, cylindrical objects bundled in plastic could elicit a Pavlovian response. But now, knowing the treat that lies beneath the Saran Wrap -- it does.

Because I didn't expect to love the suckers as much I did, I only ordered one of each. And since I was sharing the food with friends, I had to cut it up into sushi-sized pieces. Otherwise, both would've been all mine.

But now I know better. Forget "The Breakfast of Champions". Instead, give me the rice rolls: The true breakfast...from Champion.

*Special Thanks to Dumplings and Deb for this tip.

Champion Food Co‎.
(714) 841-0398
17090 Magnolia St
Fountain Valley, CA 92708

Thai Swan - Orange

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Crystal Cove Shake Shack - Newport Coast

Besides seagulls, no other group has monopolized eating by the shore than Ruby's. Along the O.C. coast, at the end of almost every pier, there's a Ruby's.

But it doesn't stop there. Ruby's owns and manages The Beachcomber, a beach-side restaurant set inside a rickety cottage in the Crystal Cove Historic District, which is so close to surf, people track sand in on their slippers.

Then there's the Crystal Cove Shake Shack, previously a family-run landmark that Ruby's claimed about two years ago.

Drive southbound on PCH from Newport to Laguna and you can't miss it. There's a turnout, a few parking spots, and when the weather is warm, a line of people. This is where I found myself yesterday, squinting from the sun, waiting to order a date shake.

There were tanned bodies and people in shorts, all out to enjoy the first summery day of the year and an ice cream treat to make it official. Other than the shakes, hot dogs were best sellers -- and eaten with the view of the Pacific, probably worth the tourist-trap prices.

Wisely, I ate lunch before I came, so all I needed was dessert. For my shake, dates are whirred to bits, blended into vanilla ice cream and milk. It's topped with whipped cream and a maraschino cherry, served with a long spoon to start you off because during the first few minutes, the drink is too thick for the straw.

And since it's packed with pieces of the dates, this is a shake you eat more than you drink. The fruit has the mouth feel of coarsely ground peanuts and amps the sweetness of the ice cream tenfold. By the last slurp, I felt like I had consumed two days worth of dairy fat and sugar.

Also at $4.29, the shakes would cut into Rachel Ray's $40 a Day budget a bit more. When the Food Network sprite visited more than a few years ago for her show, The Shack was still under the original owners and the shakes were $3.50.

Still, it did not deter anyone who was in line with me. Ocean air inhibits cheapness in people -- which might explain why Ruby's has done so well.

To read Chubbypanda's post
on Ruby's Shake Shack,

Crystal Cove Shake Shack
7703 E. Coast Highway
Newport Coast, CA 92657

Bistro 400 - Santa Ana

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Daikokuya - Costa Mesa

A few months ago, I drove to L.A., paid for parking in one of those Little Tokyo parking labyrinths, and waited for over an hour to get a seat at Daikokuya, a highly-regarded L.A. ramen shop -- all for a bowl of noodles that would've disappointed me if I had only waited a minute.

After their first slurp, my friends -- Daikokuya devotees who had convinced me to meet them there -- also admitted that it wasn't as good as they remembered. We thought of a myriad of excuses for it. An off-night? An absent chef? Ultimately, I decided that the commute was too ugly for another go round.

But despite that lackluster bowl, I was hopeful when I heard that Daikokuya was unveiling a branch in O.C. With its soft opening a few weeks ago, it makes Costa Mesa -- a city that already has Santoka and others -- the ramen Mecca of Orange County.

At first glance, the new O.C. store bears no resemblance to the original. For now, there is no wait. At their stall in the Marukai food court -- where the typical lunch crowd barely constitutes more than a trickle -- I was the only customer.

An abbreviated menu sampling was scribbled on a chalkboard no bigger than a sheet of copy paper. It was a warm-up list of the basics, which my Latina cashier (who greeted me in Japanese) said were the only items available at the moment. There was one ramen, gyoza, a rice bowl topped with shredded pork, and a combo of the three.

The ramen ($8.50) came in a trough big enough to immerse your entire face in. The required components were all present; slices of pork, a whole egg, bamboo shoots, the noodles, and the broth.

But as soon as I took my first sip, it felt like a repeat of that first experience. The milky-brown, caramel soup was luke-warm when it should've been boiling hot -- and the flavor was muffled when it should've been bold. My palate could still make out the words and hear the melody of pork, salt, and sweetness; but it wasn't enough to make it dance.

What my mouth got instead was a merciless beating by green onions. Gobs of it overwhelmed every spoonful, interfered each slurp and fouled up my breath for no good reason.

Without the support of the broth and because of the persistence of the scallions, the subtleties of the noodles slid further into the background. The pork slices, on the other hand, were blubbery things. They were braised so long, they couldn't be lifted out of the broth without disintegrating. Fatty and unctuous, it's what I enjoyed most in the bowl.

Then I encountered the egg. As I bit off a chunk, I uncovered a raw yolk surrounded by a still-clear albumen. This, I did not expect. I have marveled other ramens featuring eggs with yolks that were just barely set; but never raw and bleeding. I pushed it aside, and made sure it didn't tip over to muck up the broth.

So I'm back where I started with Daikokuya. However, since this is just their soft-opening, rather than being incredulous, I am still hopeful. Plus, because it's in the neighborhood, it will be easier to give them another shot to be great. Here's hoping they can.

To read what a Daikokuya visit should be like, read Wandering Chopstick's post on it, HERE.

2975 Harbor Blvd., Suite 5
Costa Mesa, CA 92626

Quan Minh Ky - Westminster