Sunday, June 29, 2008

Huong Huong - Westminster

Say you've been invited to potluck but you can't cook. Or your family's hungry, and you don't have much time or money to burn. There are a myriad of options, of course, most of them involving take-out. But for my hard-earned cash, there's Little Saigon's food-to-go shops -- establishments that exist just for these very reasons.

In particular, there's Huong Huong, a stop-in-and-get-out food-to-go shop with its own parking lot (albeit a tiny one) on Westminster's main drag of Bolsa.

There, Vietnamese home-style food sits ready in chafing dishes, under heat lamps, or wrapped in cellophane.

The choices are dizzying. Essentially, it's an entire buffet condensed into a few square feet of space. Proteins from animals that once swam, grazed, or clucked are all ready to be consumed, sold as combos with rice ($4 for two items, $5.25 for three), or by weight.

Some are stews rich in gravy, others are stir fried. There's ground beef stogies wound up in peppery la lot leaves, broiled and rammed through sticks. These are heftier, meatier, if not a bit cruder than the versions offered at proper seven courses of beef restaurants.

Fish dishes exist in as many colors as you'd find on a scuba dive. But one, which looked to be salmon, is chopped in bite-sized cross-sections, deep-fried and steeped in a rich, funky-tasting, red-tinged sauce I loved, but others may find off-putting. The likely secret ingredient? Fermented shrimp paste.

For the vegetarians, there's even a few tofu dishes. Their cha gio -- perenially crispy Vietnamese egg rolls the size of shotgun shells -- are the perfect two-bite appetizer to serve party guests.

The dish that's my go-to for to-go are the thit nuong, strips of charbroiled pork, which is normally the focal point on a plate of com tam. They're charred in just the right spots, well-marinated, and most importantly: cheap and always ready when I get there.

Huong Huong
(714) 895-6551
9262 Bolsa Ave # 3
Westminster, CA 92683

Hak Heang - Long Beach

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Beard Papa's - Costa Mesa

Unless you follow foodie bulletin boards and blogs, chances are you haven't heard of or had a Beard Papa's cream puff. That goes double if you don't normally venture out of Orange County, where there are only two outlets of this Osaka-based chain.

There's one at Santa Ana's MainPlace Mall, and another at the Japanese market in Costa Mesa that isn't Mitsuwa: Marukai. Both opened a year ago to little fanfare and zero hype.

From the first few weeks in business to now, visit either location and you'll see no queue, no crowds, nothing like the craze the owners must have observed at other Beard Papa's stores in Japan, Singapore, and Taiwan (even L.A.).

I have a few theories to why it hasn't caught on here in O.C. Aside from the not-so-convenient locations, there's the fact that cream puffs don't play kindly into low-carb diets -- it's far too similar to a Twinkie.

But I believe something else is to blame: the car.

Singapore, Japan and Taiwan are urban jungles, connected with a comprehensive network of subways which everyone uses. Almost no one drives. Most walk from their homes, to the stations, grabbing snacks between stops at food stalls which exist on every corner, at every turn.

In Singapore, in particular (a foodie city I recently visited), there's the equivalent of an American mall food court at every station (except a hundred times better, of course). It's in this kind of environment that I think Beard Papa's cream puffs function best.

The delicacy requires on-the-spot consumption, and therefore perfect for someone with both hands free and an appetite between train rides.

But here, if you try to eat one in your car on the trip home, you'll dribble cream all over yourself, the seat, the steering wheel...and pretty soon, the gurney in the ambulance that will cart your bleeding, broken body to the hospital.

So really, O.C.'s Beard Papa's outlets are pretty much out of luck. Even with these ridiculous gas prices, no one's going to give up their automobiles. But still, they relent.

Recently the Marukai Beard Papa's introduced a new "Cookie Crunch" crust to accompany their original, green tea, and chocolate eclair flavors. But save the extra cash it costs and get the original.

This new puff is just the old puff with a few crushed up cookie crumbs baked on top. It doesn't add anything and feels like a desperate gimmick, like Pizza Hut's Stuffed Crust.

Even the green tea flavor, which is filled with a green-tea infused cream and dusted with green tea powder doesn't improve on the original -- a cream puff the size of a small boulder with a shattering crust as pock-marked and cratered as a moon landscape, overstuffed with an injection of vanilla custard cream until it's practically ready to burst.

For those who've not tried one, there's a single rule of thumb on how to best enjoy a Beard Papa's cream puff: Eat it immediately.

The crunchy and creamy interplay between the choux pastry crust and the custard has a notoriously short half life. It's the reason they wait until the very last second before shoving it into a metal pipe to begin the custard pumping process.

If you let it sit overnight in the fridge, it will degrade into just another soggy cream puff. And by then, you might as well eat a Twinkie.

Beard Papa's (inside Marukai Market)
2975 Harbor Blvd.
Costa Mesa, CA 92626

A Restaurant - Newport Beach

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Kyochon Chicken - Stanton

Of all the trendy foods to hit L.A. recently, nothing has intrigued me more than Kyochon Chicken, fried chicken as done by Koreans. Jonathan Gold's Pulitzer-prize winning taste-buds swears by it ("Current fried chicken mecca", he writes), while food bloggers, Chowhounds, and Yelpers alike have gone ga-ga, typing out countless testimonials of its greatness.

The buzz has been so loud that it's even spurred the predictable backlash, a signal that the hype has run its course, at least in L.A.

Sounds like Pinkberry all over again, doesn't it?

And just like during the fro-yo frenzy, Orange County stood idly by, removed from the excitement, but left hungry in its wake.

There were substitutes that popped up while Kyochon stayed exclusively outside of the Orange Curtain. Most notably, a place called Pizza and Chicken Love Letter served to quench our Korean fried chicken jones. But look out fellow O.C. dwellers!

The chicken has landed.

I repeat: The chicken has landed. In Stanton.

You heard that right. Stanton -- long the butt of trailer-park jokes -- is now the home of the first Kyochon Chicken in O.C. Some may remember that the city is also headquarters of Thai Nakorn, the best Thai restaurant in California. Add this recent development, and things are looking up for this humble burg.

But apparently, its newest resident still wants nothing to do with it. On its brochure, Kyochon prints in bold type face that this is the "Garden Grove Store", even as the address clearly states that it's located in Stanton.

No matter. Kyochon can live in denial all they want. Just keep making that chicken.

My friends and I shared an order of 20 wings ($16.99) for dinner and it was everything I hoped it would be. We could've opted for the "sticks", which are chicken leg drumsticks sold in multiples of two, or traditional fried chicken pieces; but the wings are best suited to savor the chicken's most-written-about quality: the skin.

It's crispy, finely bubbled and crackly like the caramel crust of a creme brulee.

Utilizing just the thinnest whisper of coating, the rest of the crispiness is a result of a double-fry that renders all of the subcutaneous fat off, leaving nothing but a thin strata of concentrated crunch and flavor between your teeth and the meat.

There are two flavors available: "garlic soy sauce" and "hot sweet sauce". Both are wonderful. The "garlic soy" feels sticky, like its glazed in honey or nectar. Those lubed in the "hot sweet sauce" unleash a sour, stinging burn that subsides quickly, but leaves a lasting impression of kimchi and spice.

Either way, between bites of chicken, I alternated between rice and Kyochon's radish pickles, cubes of refreshing sweet/sour palate cleansers sold floating in vinegar, sealed inside a plastic box. The latter is required for every meal and costs just a buck.

The chicken has landed. And it's one small step for O.C., but a big, giant leap for Stanton.

Kyochon Chicken (inside Freshia Market)
12840 Beach Blvd.
Stanton, CA 90680

Summer Guide

Sunday, June 08, 2008

House of Kabob - Lake Forest

To unearth the biggest diamonds you have to dig deep. To swim in the most secluded beaches you have to get on a plane. And to find one of the best Persian restaurants in Orange County, you have to drive to Lake Forest. That's right. Lake Forest -- the bedroom community that's just a blip in the radar of most OC dwellers, existing only as a set of exits on the 5 South that signal you've missed the Irvine Spectrum off-ramp and it's time to turn around.

But for me, Lake Forest is home to a few great eateries. There's Nory's for excellent Peruvian. Boneheads for piri-piri chicken. And now House of Kabob, the little Persian place that could.

You'll find it several clicks away from the freeway (unless you're coming from the 241). But when you make the journey, as I did, you have to persevere: Keep going, even if you think there couldn't be anything but expensive houses down yonder.

When you do finally arrive at House of Kabob, it will be in a strip mall, albeit an abnormally posh one.

Then you walk inside. It will strike you as the kind of joint you wish you had in your own hood. It's cramped but comfy, and as nicely appointed as a Starbucks.

At dusk, they bring out the votive candles, setting it on each table next to a vase of fake, plastic flowers and a shaker of sumac. There's a flat screen monitor that only the servers watch when they're not bringing out huge plates of food. In the corner, there's a shelf with books that no one reads.

The menu is the only reading material you need.

The list of appetizers are full of hummus, and flavored yogurts called maust mooiser and maust khiar. All are meant to be scooped with squares of pita bread, served in a wicker basket and refilled until all bowls are wiped clean.

Their kashk o bademjon ($4.99) is also a dip, designed to be eaten with plenty of pita. It's essentially mashed eggplant that resembles Mexican refried beans. But, of course, the stuff tastes nothing like it.

On top of the velvety paste, there's a generous drizzle of kashk (a yogurty liquid that will remind you of sour cream), pulverized dried mint and crispy fried onions. The later amps the savory-flavor quotient past boring old baba ghanoush.

For the main course, you can't go wrong with the kabobs (duh!). But why not a sampler served with the fluffiest rice you'll ever chew? That's exactly what the sasani ($16.99) is -- a combo plate of two petite lamb chops, shish kabob, and koobideh. All are fire-licked and charred to a Zen-like balance of burnt carbon flavor and quivering red meat.

The lamb chops bode the best from this treatment. Its black charry bits of crust convey notes of smoke that tames the gamy tenderness of the beast. You won't want to stop gnawing until every scrap of marinated flesh is cleaned off the bone.

But that's not to say the others aren't worth praise. Their kabobs are so soft it can be eaten with dentures or heck, even by determined gumming. It is filet mignon after all, flanked by a tomato, roasted to a jet-black shine and onions that are just wilted.

The most surprising of all the barbecued meats is the koobideh, especially if all you've known is the koobideh at Wholesome Choice, which will taste like carpet after you've had it here. By comparison, House of Kabob's koobideh is a moist, melt-in-your-mouth tube of ground beef transcendence.

For the sweet-tooth, there's bastani ($2.99), a house-made ice cream that functions simultaneously as dessert and breath freshener since it's intensely perfumed with rose water. It may be icy, a little coarse, but hey, I did say it was home-made. Home-made, right here, in Lake Forest.

House of Kabob
(949) 460-0800
20651 Lake Forest Dr # 101
Lake Forest, CA 92630

*Special Thanks to reader Cameron Young for this tip.
Irezumi - Costa Mesa

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Souplantation's Cookies

Souplantation is a harmless (I don't mean that sarcastically) and serviceable way to detox from a weeklong meat binge. It's also perfect when you want to please the vegetarian in your midst. We took a visiting Indian colleague who was "veg", and he gushed about it for days.

But Souplantation's got an even higher purpose for existence: their chocolate chip cookies.

In my opinion, these are the greatest chocolate chip cookies the universe has ever known. They make Mrs. Fields look like a two-bit fraud.

Bagged as a baker's dozen (that's 13 cookies!) you'll see them near the end of the buffet line. Yet most people ignore them. After all, why buy the cookies when they are given away for free inside, next to the desserts?

But to shove them in your gullet willy-nilly as part of an AYCE gorge-fest will make you oblivious to how good they actually are.

I, on the other hand, bypass the meal entirely, and pay for the bag of cookies to take home.

These cookies are worth relishing slowly, away from all the rush.

When you do, you'll notice how buttery and not overly sweet they are. The edges are crisp and slightly porous, like sea coral. In the middle -- if it's a particularly big cookie -- there will be an area of softness that's wonderfully chewy.

To ensure you're eating the best possible, a "baked fresh" label is attached to the bag with plastic twine. Check it if you'd like, but it will always be the same date you bought them.

Now the bad news. This month, like the price of all foodstuffs, I noticed that the cost for a bag jumped modestly from $1.79 to $1.99. On closer inspection of the ingredient's list, I may have figured out why; The margarine is gone, replaced by a "palm oil butter blend". The rest of the roster remains the same; flour, chocolate chips, water, sugar, bown sugar, eggs, baking powder, salt and vanilla.

But since this "palm oil butter blend" is presumably trans-fat free, it makes the cookies actually healthier. And if 20 cents ensures this, it's two dimes I'd happily part with.

I wouldn't take this as a license to binge though...a cookie is still a cookie, after all.

Springbok - Long Beach