Sunday, August 31, 2008

Warung Pojok - Garden Grove

When Asian Deli skedaddled to Diamond Bar a few years ago, it left Orange County deprived of its only Indonesian restaurant. The nearest alternative for hungry expats existed just beyond the Orange County line, at Toko Rame in Bellflower. Meanwhile, in O.C., Indonesian food remained the Rodney Dangerfield of Asian cuisine. It gets no respect.

So when a reader* tipped me off to a new Indonesian restaurant inside the Orange Curtain, my exact words were: "HOLY SH*T!!!!"

The news couldn't have come at a better time. A week ago, I'd learned that Pondok Kaki Lima -- the every-Saturday outdoor gathering of Indonesian vendors at the Duarte Inn -- was recently shut down by the state**.

As fortuitous as it is bitter sweet, and in a "one door closes, another one opens" kind of way, I found myself in a parking lot at the corner of Harbor and Garden Grove Blvd. There, next to Chuck E. Cheese's and a 99-Cent-Only store, in the shell of what was a Chinese take-out, stood Warung Pojok, the newest and so far, the only Indonesian restaurant in Orange County.

The name itself made me giddy. "Warung" is a general Indonesian term for casual eatery. In Java, it can constitute anything from a lowly shack made out of discarded aluminum siding or a brick-and-mortar structure. "Pojok" meant corner, but together the words actually suggested something else; hole-in-the-wall.

And that's exactly what it is.

There is no menu. No waitresses. Everything is served on Styrofoam. It is, in fact, fast food. Moreover, Warung Pojok makes full use of the chafing trays left behind by the Chinese take-out that was there before it. But instead of troughs of kung pao chicken and broccoli beef, now there's ayam goreng (fried chicken) and beef rendang (beef, stewed in spices). Instead of fried rice, it's nasi goreng (Indonesian fried rice) and nasi kuning (turmeric rice).

Other than just dropping by and having a look, you can check up on what's being cooked that day on their constantly updated website. Also, on a white board, a few made-to-order items are scribbled. On my visit, it's mie ayam -- a classic Chinese/Indonesian bowl of egg noodles, coated in flavorful oil, topped with diced chicken and mushroom, served with a side of bakso (beef meat balls) in broth.

You eat it as separate entities, first slurping the noodles, then sipping the soup immediately afterwards as a chaser. And in between, you slather everything with sambal (chili paste).

The chafing dish selection is served as combos with rice or noodles. I tried sayur urap, a salad of boiled cabbage and kale dressed with chili-spiked grated shavings of coconut. And there was was a coconut milk-based curry of tofu and egg, which made my burps fragrant for the rest of the day.

Rendang was seasoned confidently, with more spices I'd care to name here. It could've been softer -- though I am biased and still partial to my mom's fork-tender version.

But make no mistake: even though Warung Pojok may appear to be no different than a Panda Express clone (they even offer boba milk tea), the food is authentic. Even the smell of the restaurant is distinctly Indonesian. How so? Well that's easy: it smells like how an Indonesian restaurant should smell -- like my auntie's kitchen back in Java.

Warung Pojok
13113 Harbor Blvd.
Garden Grove, CA 92843

*Special Thanks to Monster Munching reader Tony for this tip.
**Update (February 2009): Pondok Kaki Lima IS BACK ON!

Jaqu's - Huntington Beach

Sunday, August 24, 2008

99-Cent Pizza at Pasta Bravo - Orange

It was a quarter past one.

After catching a late morning matinee at The Block's AMC, my friends and I found ourselves hungry. If we weren't lazy and famished, we would've made a beeline for the parking lot and bolted out of there to the nearest banh mi shop or burrito stand.

Instead we wandered mindlessly, zombie-like, into O.C.'s version of the Universal City Walk food court. In the sun-drenched, gaudy alley of billboards and tourist-trappy fakeness, we ambled around dumbstruck.

Then, a poster outside Pasta Bravo caught my eye. $0.99 for a slice of pizza it said. If it had to be food court food, I thought, at least it ought to be ridiculously cheap. Still, I had to be sure that there wasn't a catch.

I walked in and confirmed the deal with the counter man -- an intimidating hulk with a menacing scowl that would make Seinfeld's Soup Nazi seem like Mr. Rogers.

"No's just 99-cents for slice like this," he growled, pointing his gigantic sausage fingers at a lonely, dried out quarter of a pie on display.

With our bellies aching, even that sad, petrified piece would've sufficed, especially for 99-cents. But when we ordered a few slices, the guy immediately went to work. He flattened some dough onto an aluminum pie pan, spreading it thin, ladling sauce, sprinkling cheese and pepperoni, and sliding it into his oven's conveyor belt.

What came out a few minutes later was cut into quarters and served bubbling lava-hot on the pan. Total for the whole pie you see above (four slices): $3.96 before tax.

What I bit into was wide enough to eclipse my face. It was thin, crisp, fresh and with a crust that crackled like lavash. Before each bite, I shook on some flaked pepper and concluded that I loved it -- the best 99-cent slice of pizza I've ever had...

Pasta Bravo at The Block
(714) 769-4031
20 City Blvd W # S1
Orange, CA 92868

Jongewaard's Bake-N-Broil - Long Beach

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Thanh De Nhat Com Tam Restaurant - Westminster

I have a friend named Mike (who among us doesn't have a friend named Mike). Although his life doesn't revolve around food as much as mine does (read: he's not a food blogger), our tastes are often parallel. It was more than a decade ago (in college) that he tipped me off to Alerto's fish burrito; something I've been enjoying ever since. So if he likes something, I will too.

There is one point of contention where our opinions diverge: the guy despises anything burnt, scorched, or charred. He'd rather not see grill marks on his chicken breasts or on his burgers. And those bits of carbonized sauce on the ends of barbecued ribs? It tastes like grit to him, the equivalent of getting sand in his food.

Me? I think of it as extra flavor (oh-so-yummy carcinogens!!). A steak can be juicy, but it's not as good as it could be if there isn't just a little bit of crust and char.

Recently, Mike moved back to Orange County from The Valley, in search of milder climates, better opportunities, and of course, food. Since then, my itinerant dining companions and I have been re-acclimating him to the wonders of our cuisine. But after a whirlwind tour that stretched from our southern coasts to Fullerton, it was Mike who had a place to show us -- a Little Saigon hole-in-the-wall he liked when he lived here all those years ago.

It was located at the corner of a strip mall that's a mirror image of every other strip mall on Bolsa Street. But on that Friday night, the scene inside was like a sped-up, time-lapse film sequence of Time Square at rush hour -- busy with action and noise. Servers with armfuls of plates weaving between tables. People shoving rice and meat into their gullets. Customers coming and going.

In the middle of it all are ample meals of com tam, the Vietnamese broken rice dish topped with assortments of protein, accompanied by fish sauce for dousing and a bowl of hot broth for sipping.

With a napkin, I wiped my utensils clean (taken from a communal bucket on each table), getting it ready for my rice-and-meat combo. I had ordered com tam with a grilled pork chop as its anchor, surrounded by satellites of protein which included tau hu ky (shrimp paste deep-fried beneath a tofu skin wrapper), cha (ground pork steamed with egg) and Chinese sausage. To make it complete (and just because I can), I asked for a side of fried egg.

Though I would've preferred fresh tomato and cucumbers over the pickled cabbage they served as palate cleansers, it was refreshing. With the exception of the tau hu ky -- which was too heavy, too dense and too rubbery when compared to others I've had before -- I liked the meal. The pork chop had the requisite charring I demand, the Chinese sausage can do no wrong, and the cha tasted like homemade.

It wasn't until I looked over at what Mike was having that it occurred to me why he brought us here. His order of Vietnamese BBQ pork (thit nuong) was unlike any BBQ pork I'd ever seen. In fact, if the menu didn't call it that, I would have guessed it was boiled (sorry, no picture).

As pallid as present-day Michael Jackson, each ultra-lean, thin flap of meat had no trace of charring or browning. Curious, I asked for a sample. It tasted well-marinated -- full of flavor, not too salty. It was also tender enough that it almost dissolved. Yet I couldn't shake the fact that there was something inherently missing.

But Mike, he loved it. When he finished the plate, there wasn't a single grain of rice left.

Thanh De Nhat Com Tam Restaurant
(714) 531-3888
9870 Bolsa Ave
Westminster, CA 92683

Blackmarket Bakery - Irvine

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Mitsu E Shabu Shabu - Fullerton

The weather's balmy. The sun attacks from above and below, heating the very ground you walk on. People are in flip flops, shorts and sunglasses. So what the hell am I doing sitting in front of a hot plate, cooking my own lunch over a steaming, gurgling vat of water?

Because I can.

Thanks to the wonders of A/C, you can just do about anything in spite of the climate outside. Indoor skiing in Dubai? No problem. Eating shabu shabu on a hot August day in Fullerton? No sweat...literally.

Moreover, the meal was cheap. At $8.40 per person for their lunch special, Mitsu E Shabu Shabu offers one of the lowest price tags I've seen anywhere for this, the Japanese version of hot pot.

And since what I pay for shabu shabu is inversely related to my enjoyment of it, this is well below my ten-dollar threshold of tolerance. Any more than that and the meal becomes less palatable, no matter how freezing cold it is outside or how well the meat is marbled.

The concept couldn't be simpler. When you order the lunch, a gentleman takes a frozen block of beef as massive as a boulder and seesaws it through the rotating blades of a meat slicer. After each pass and into his waiting palms, out comes prosciutto-thin slices of red. He lays it out piece-by-piece on a wide plate until the whole thing is covered in raw steak.

By the time it's presented, the cauldron of water in front of you will be at a rolling boil.

Along with a plate of vegetables and a bowl of rice, two types of dipping sauces are served. Most, if not all, of the flavor will come from these condiments.

Ponzu is a sour yuzu-based dip. To it, grated daikon pulp can be added for texture, which also changes its properties so that it clings onto the meat. Garlic milled to paste will add oomph. Diced green onion will do both.

Goma, a sesame seed-based sauce with a milky-caramel hue, is nutty and rich.

When you're ready, you take a whisper of meat and wave it around in the liquid with chopsticks. Because it's got the thickness of a playing card, it turns brown and opaque before your eyes.

Lift it out. Soak it in sauce. Eat with rice. Repeat.

The beef, cut across the grain, will melt in your mouth just as quickly as it cooks.

Just before you've exhausted the supply of rice in your bowl, deposit the udon noodles into the water to heat. Ladle out some of the now beef-flavored water. Season it with more garlic, green onion, and soy sauce. Before you know it, you have hot udon noodle soup.

Things to look forward to on this blog in winter? Shaved ice and frozen yogurt. What can I say; I like being a contrarian.

Mitsu E Shabu Shabu
(714) 871-9418‎
225 N. Harbor Blvd.
Fullerton, CA 92832

Food Issue 2008 - Meal Deals For Our Recessionary Times
Michael's on Naples - Long Beach

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Popeyes Chicken and Biscuits - Santa Ana

Call it a reverse knee-jerk response, but when I saw this story about L.A.'s City Council's ban on new fast-food restaurants in South Los Angeles to combat obesity and the highest incidence of diabetes in the county, it made this blogger realize that he hasn't sunk his teeth into some Popeyes Chicken in a while.

And when one has such an epiphany, there's no better day of the week to have it than Tuesday. Tuesdays, as most people know, is when you can get the leg and thigh special for $1.29 at participating Popeyes.

Some folks may recall a time when gas prices were low and the Tuesday two-piece deal was $0.99. Those days are over.

Still, it's exactly this kind of discounting that has L.A.'s City Council worried. $0.99 Whoppers, Extra Value Meals, Taco Tuesdays; it's pricing that L.A.'s citizenry allegedly cannot resist, resulting in unhealthy eating behaviors.

Truthfully, if my own gluttony on that Tuesday night was any indication, then they are right to be concerned.

I ate two thighs and two drumsticks, reveling in the fat-laden, greasy-goodness, crispy-spicy-bubbled-battered-skin of it all. I poured packet upon packet of Lousiana hot sauce over each bite of chicken, despite the throbbing pain of my oil-slicked lips and the sweat downpour on my brow. I ate spoonful, after sopping spoonful of the beans and rice -- an unattractive mess of a side dish consisting of both starches mixed together, looking of vomit, but tasting of heaven.

I washed it all down with a tall, Super Big Gulp-sized serving of Coke. And in the early hours of the morning after my feeding frenzy, I would pay for my sins in ways I will not describe in a food blog.

Though, when it comes time again for me to contribute to my own obesity, (say, in about a month), there's no better place than the Santa Ana Popeyes to do so. This Popeyes is arguably one of the best managed fast-food joints in the county and one that The OC Weekly dubbed as "The Best Really, Really Clean Fast Food Restaurant".

Of course, obesity and diabetes is no joke. And while L.A.'s City Council has good intentions, one wonders when free will and moderation also became victims of cheap fast-food? Or was Tommy Lee Jones' character in Men In Black right when he said;

"A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky dangerous animals and you know it."

Popeyes Chicken and Biscuits
(714) 834-9709
1244 E. 17th St.
Santa Ana, CA 92701

Blake's Place - Anaheim*

*Special Thanks to Monster Munching location scout Cecile for this tip.