Sunday, May 25, 2008

The Greatest Pork Dish In The World

I want to share with you what I consider the greatest pork dish in the world. It is called sisig, and it is made by the folks at Magic Wok, a Filipino restaurant in Artesia -- a city I want to nominate as an honorary member of Orange County, simply because Magic Wok is in it.

Their speciality of the house has long been the crispy pata; a whole hind leg of a pig, brined, boiled and deep-fried into a crackle raunchier than a thousand pork rinds. But last year, around the same time they recovered from a fire that nearly destroyed this preferred dining destination for Southland Filipino food lovers, Magic Wok introduced a dish, nay, a porcine opus, that bested its crispy pata on succulence.

This dish is sisig.

Traditionally in the old country, sisig is made with meat chipped off a pig's face, and can include some offal, even brains. One recipe I found for the dish begins with "Grill pork head to remove hair." After that, it gets even more archaic.

Although Magic Wok's rendition does not involve a pig's head (that I know of), it is still a long distance away from your mama's Tuesday night pork chops.

This is dish of pork for those unafraid of pork. Only true carnivores who don't cower at the thought of consuming a little, no, make that a lot of fat, should consider it for their supper.

The reason? On every other spoonful of this porky hash, you will encounter a slip of quivering pig blubber, stuck to the underside of a crispy shard of skin here; next to a crunchy chunk of meat there.

It will slick your lips to a glossy shine. It will make you shudder and moan in ecstasy. It will make you thank the heavens for creating this "magical, wonderful animal" for us mortals to enjoy.

But the most compelling part about Magic Wok's sisig is that it is a dastardly simple dish, with little more than a few ingredients that make up its composition.

They start by plunging the meat and its attached skin and fat in hot oil. During the cooking, some of the fat renders off, leaving behind a crusty mahogany crunch that harkens an alliance between bacon and chicharrones. Imagine a whole, deep-fried pork belly done in this manner, and you get the idea of its inherent decadence.

The hunk is lifted out, cooled slightly, and then hacked up into fingertip-sized fragments before being tossed with a liberal squeeze of citrus juice, diced fresh ginger, a few bits of onion and peppers for color.

That's it.

Then you eat. And you eat. And you eat, until there is no more.

If you are prone to addiction, or even if you are not, you will be addicted. Why? Eventhough sisig is made of 99% pork, thanks to the sourness of the citrus and the refreshing bite of the ginger, it is extraordinarily light on the palate. You never get sick of it.

Since its richness never becomes cloying, you end up gorging on the sisig with careless and unchecked abandon; until before you know it, you start looking a little like a pig yourself.

Magic Wok
(562) 865-7340
11869 Artesia Blvd
Artesia, CA 90701

Manhattan Supper Club - Orange

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Rollie's - Tustin

Why is it that when you hear eye-witness accounts on Bigfoot and Nessie, it's always the chance encounter by the drunkard who just sauntered out of his local pub? It's never the guy who actually goes out looking for them -- like that determined scientist with grant money and expensive equipment?

So when I accidentally stumbled across salteñas while aimlessly meandering through Tustin the other day, I felt like the former: the village idiot who just got lucky. Why? According to Gustavo Arellano, only two local restaurants serve this Bolivian take on the empanada. Fortunately, I had a camera on me, ready to snap a picture as proof of my discovery.

So here it is: the third place in O.C. to serve salteñas.

Of course, it's a panaderia. And although the classy digs of this week-old eatery won't allow the restaurant to call itself as such (its professionally-made sign reads: "Rollie's Bakery & Mexican Cafe"), it is one.

Inside you find the usual assortment of rolls and pastries. There are the predictable staples of conchas, spongy domes striped with compacted sugar; and unexpected things like custard-filled flutes rolled to be as thick as a Cuban cigar.

All of this wouldn't be newsworthy in, say, Santa Ana or Anaheim, where you can throw a stick and hit a Mexican baker, but in Tustin, it's as rare as a sasquatch fart.

In fact, if I am not mistaken, Rollie's is possibly the first real panaderia in the city (if you don't count the bakery inside the Bodega Ranch Market).

And I haven't gotten started on those salteñas ($2.50 each).

The tops of these airy puffs of pastry are braided to be ridged and arched, looking like the backbone of a mythical beast. Their insides are stuffed with ground beef, chicken, peas, chopped hard-boiled eggs and raisins. Crusty, steamy, and savory; it's everything a good empanada should be. Once you finish one, you debate ordering another. And another.

But there are more savory goodies to try. For instance, they've also got a type of empanada that doesn't fit into the classic definition of one. The empanadas de queso ($1.25 each) are more like thick blinis folded into half-moons, sandwiching melted cheese, and dusted with powdered sugar. If you get one, eat it as soon you can: the ooze of the cheese congeals too quickly otherwise.

If you want something more substantial, opt for the breakfast chorizo burrito (served all day) instead of the enchiladas ($5.00), which aren't anything special.

These burritos may look small for something that's priced at $4.50, but it's deceptively filling. And really, how much salty, fatty, nicely gristly, surreptitiously spicy pork sausage and cholesterol-laden egg do you need? Okay, I admit: a lot. One can never have enough chorizo and egg, nor joints that serve salteñas.

Rollie's Bakery & Mexican Cafe
14071 Newport Avenue
Tustin, CA 92780

Blanca - Newport Beach

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Paris Baguette - Irvine

Food fact: Some of the best French bakeries in Orange County are run by Asians.

There's Japonaise Bakery in Tustin, whose custard-and-strawberry-stuffed croissants would make Escoffier weep. For baguettes with crusts as shatteringly crisp as potato chips, go to Little Saigon, where Vietnamese bakers have perfected the French loaf for use on their banh mi sandwiches. And at Irvine's Layer Cake Bakery, it's not Frenchmen, but two Indonesian sisters who make the macaroons*.

The newest is Paris Baguette, a South Korea-based boulangerie and patisserie that would rival those on the Champs-Elysées.

Where can you find it? Inside Zion, a Korean supermarket in Irvine; near its refrigerated jars of kimchi, of course!

Don't let its location fool you. Though this second Orange County outpost of the chain recently opened to very little fanfare and looks very much like the Vons supermarket bakery it replaced, closer inspection will reveal flaky croissants so perfectly symmetric it can be balanced on a toothpick and so crumbly, a bite will trigger an avalanche.

My best advice: if you bring it home, eat it over the sink.

Some croissants are violated by a hot dog rammed up its dough-hole ($1.80), their tops brushed with a sticky-sweet glaze that make them sparkle to a glossy gleam.

Another is drizzled with a tempting stream of chocolate ($1.70). Hidden underneath all those buttery layers is even more chocolate.

They also have a panini ($1.80) and a potato croquette ($1.60), which are spectacular, but aren't technically a panini nor a croquette.

In fact, the "panini" tastes more like a Hot Pocket crossed with a Pop Tart than a grilled-cheese sandwich. It's flat, filled with a thin-layer of cheese and salty bits of ham. The croquette (actually a savory orb of fried dough with a lightly-curried, mashed potato filling) is as fluffy as a goose-down pillow. And since it's really a donut, it'll grease your fingers to an oily shine.

Same goes for the sweet red bean donut ($1.10).

If you can picture it, think of you're average jelly-filled sugar-bomb; then subtract the jelly and replace it with a not-too-sweet paste of red bean. The result is a breakfast treat that won't cause you to crash within the hour.

And can Paris Baguette's baguettes stand up to those actually sold in the City of Light? I can't say, because first, I've never been to France; and second, I was too full to try them.

But what I can say is this: Who needs the French?!

Paris Baguette Bakery Cafe
4800 Irvine Blvd.
Irvine, CA 92620

*Fact-Check Update: Reader digkv has informed me that Layer Cake buys their macaroons from elsewhere.

Tracht's - Long Beach

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Gen Kai - Irvine

If you are at a sushi bar and the guy slicing the fish is the also the guy from which the restaurant is named, you are all but guaranteed exceptionally great sushi. In this category, there's Ikko, Hamamori, and Shibucho -- just to name a few in Orange County where the chef responsible for your meal also signs the rent check.

But when you talk about the majority of sushi joints out there, this isn't the case. Most restaurants merely employ their itamae, who might be there one day, gone the next. As such, if you wait too long between visits, you might discover that the journeyman sushi chef whose creations you admired has left, leaving you to settle for the dreck made by the guy who replaced him.

Irvine's sushi bars are particularly susceptible to this game of itamae musical chairs. So when my friend and fellow O.C. food blogger Chubbypanda invited me to eat at Gen Kai, I was hesitant. This was, after all, a place I had already tried about a decade ago whose sushi left me unmoved.

But I agreed because Gen Kai had nowhere to go but up. And if there was a different chef holding court now, that meant a completely new dining experience -- perhaps a good one.

And I'm happy to say, it was.

The master currently behind the counter is an itamae named Juuji, who's held the post for the past two years. We did him the honor of ordering "omakase", which is the equivalent of bowing reverentially, and saying "I trust you to serve me what you will".

If he seemed initially caught off guard by our request (the restaurant was nearly empty that night), he was also delighted. He quickly sprang to action, putting forth one of the best and cheapest (more on the price later) omakase meals I've had lately.

It started with vinegary half-moons of cucumber and a palate-cleansing salad of squid and octopus. The squid harbored bites of sinus-clearing ginger cut into matchsticks and crunchy, julienned sea kelp. The octopus was in ribbons tinged orange from spiced vinegar -- the candy-sweet yin to the spicy yang of the squid.

Then he served a whole poached sea snail, impaled on a toothpick, which were to be used to coax the meat from the shell. The fleshy innards slid out with a tug, looking like the flexed bicep of a juiced-up body-builder -- lumpy, shiny, and resilient to my bite.

While I was still contemplating the complexities of the sea slug, our chef dispatched a live spot prawn, twisting apart its body into two halves. The tail he disrobed and deveined, posing it spread eagle on top of grated radish. The head he presented as a centerpiece on the plate. Its antennae were still writhing wildly in the last throes of death.

Flavored with the life force that coursed through it just seconds before, the sweet shrimp lived up to its name. But so did the others on the plate with it.

Orange clam, which were the size of guitar picks, actually trumped the shrimp on sweetness. Flanking it were scraps of aji in a tataki dressed with scallions and grated ginger. The fish, which is naturally salty, was also slicked with the oil that naturally oozed from its pores. Next to that were wedges of cherry-red chu-toro; frictionless and cooly soothing cuts of tuna.

Braised skate wing, chilled with its jellied broth, felt like a dense hybrid of chicken breast and canned tuna. I flaked the meat off its central bone using my chopsticks like a surgeon meticulously trying to extract a tumor.

Then came a delicate roll wrapped in soy paper, containing shrimp, salmon, asparagus and avocado, cut into teardrop cross-sections, served on a plate dotted with Sriracha and spicy mayo. This was followed by ankimo, the liver of what is possibly the most grotesque species to swim the ocean; the monkfish.

But with this delicacy that many consider the foie gras of the sea, fishdom's Quasimodo more than makes up for its hideous appearance. Its liver is similar to a very dense custard if it were made entirely of egg yolk. Like foie gras, one bite is more than enough before you overload on the richness. And one was all that I needed from the five pieces our chef provided.

In the meantime, our shrimp heads were whisked away to the kitchen, where it was lightly battered, and plunged into hot oil. Now fried, it was dangerously spiky, rigid, and completely serene-looking. I ate the whole thing -- beady eyes, fatty guts, skinny legs and all -- but very carefully, orienting its barbed face away from me. Even still, one errant appendage almost managed to pierce my inner lip. A good gnashing between my jaws pulverized the rest.

A simple stack of pickled napa cabbage calmed my mouth after the savage battle with the shrimp head. Then, there was a squishy, mayo-sluiced, tobiko-topped, deep-fried nori roll that sat on slices of lemon. In a zen-master stroke typical of his style of speaking, Juuji called it "pizza".

Water-seared hamachi steaks sluiced in ponzu and shaved onion was the last thing he served before dessert. The perk and pep of the topping highlighted the meaty milkiness of the cuts.

As he closed our meal with some mango mochi ice cream, our itamae apologized that he wasn't able to offer us more cooked dishes. But for this terrific omakase meal that cost only $40 (tax and tip excluded), it was me who should be apologizing. How could I have not visited sooner? My only hope is that he sticks around a while. At least until he opens his own place called Juuji's.

To read Chubbypanda's post
on our dinner with Juuji,

Gen Kai of Irvine
(949) 786-3420
15435 Jeffrey Rd # 119
Irvine, CA 92618

Go Goo Ryeo - Garden Grove