Sunday, November 30, 2008

Kim Huong - Tustin

When my heart aches, when my brain is fried, when all hope seems lost, I turn to noodle soup. It soothes me more than any other meal, more than any other remedy. It blunts the harshness of life, stamps down those prickly thoughts that make my hair stand on end. All it takes is a few sips and a slurp.

Here, in a humble bowl of starch and soup, is the antidote -- my personal anti-depressant.

And it doesn't even have to be particularly great to do the job. I once bought a mediocre bowl of saimin from a Hawaiian take-out joint. The broth tasted like it was diluted from a seasoning packet, the noodles were mushy, and it came with nothing but boiled cabbage. Yet, it was exactly what I needed, at exactly the right time, like a faithful friend.

What it does need to be is hot. Rocket hot. Steaming, billowing, blow-on-it-before-you-sip hot. When it's served, I should be able to put my face over the bowl and feel the warmth of its vapors on my cheeks.

Also, it must be cheap. Nothing over $10 is acceptable. The sweet spot is between $5 and $7. Lower, of course, is always better.

The chicken pho (pho ga) at Kim Huong fulfills both requirements. It's $3.10, served up fast and fuming.

Tangled up with the silken ribbons of rice noodle will be boiled chicken leg, bone intact, skin attached; or if I'm lucky, also a few slices of breast meat.

It's decent, honest, acts like a blanket that warms from the inside -- and that's all it needs to be.

Kim Huong serves other things, too. There are steam trays stocked with an impressive array of dishes that all look very well-prepared. I bought a spring roll for $0.45 to go with my noodles, and it was as good as any I've ever had.

The only problem is that the place closes promptly at 6 P.M. So when I need the curative powers of a hot bowl, I have to rush out of the office by 5. Or else it's lunch. But usually with it, I can coast for the rest of the afternoon, basking in its after effects -- long enough to last until I can crawl back into bed.

Kim Huong
17311 McFadden Ave # B
Tustin, CA‎ 92780‎

85°C Bakery Café - Irvine

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Renu Nakorn - Norwalk

If you've heard of Las Vegas's Lotus of Siam, then you should already know about Renu Nakorn in Norwalk. Lotus was Renu before it went through Thai restaurant cellular mitosis and migrated to Sin City where it became the blockbuster it is today, hailed by virtually every single member of the food press as the best Thai restaurant in America.

It must be said that the original Renu already enjoyed that distinction long before it relocated to the desert. In the mid to late nineties, Jonathan Gold and Tom Armitage -- two of the original Chowhounds -- had proclaimed Saipin Chutima's food as the best you can get outside Chiang Mai.

But after the Chutimas left to start Lotus of Siam, there were rumblings that Renu's quality waned, like what happened to Batman after Tim Burton handed it over to Joel Schumacher. Added to that, the complex it stood fell into disrepair. Eventually, the whole grimy set of buildings was razed and just like that, Renu was gone.

The scene seemed to fade to black for Renu. But then, earlier this summer, there was a Christopher Nolan-esque rebirth.

Renu miraculously reopened at the same location but in a freshly rebuilt and stuccoed mini-mall that wouldn't look out of place in Celebration, Florida. Best of all, word was that the food was back to being good.

Since it was our first time in (our previous attempt, years ago, was met with the discovery that we had driven 30 minutes to arrive at an empty lot), we stuck with the basics.

First was the tom kha gai, which was so thick with coconut cream a spoon could've gotten stuck in it. Wait too long, and the liquid will cool and solidify back into a coconut. It was rich, but not the least bit tiring on the palate. Our mouths never once signaled that it had had enough. All the requisite flavors of "yum" were there. The twangy, lime-perk of citrus; the gingery-bite of galangal; the faint perfume of kaffir lime leaf and lemongrass; and of course, the sinus-clearing, sweat-gland-triggering presence of chili.

Their fried tofu, though, was really just fried tofu. Also the sweet and sour sauce was a bit flat and lacking when compared to Lotus of Siam's, but the pork larb erased that disappointment with a sharpness that could cut paper. In this dish, ground meat has never met a better ally than lime juice, chili flakes, cilantro and red onion. And it was even more excellent with rice.

Dessert was coconut ice cream and fried bananas...scratch was fried plantains, done in a style that I haven't had since the Wat Thai Temple food vendor fair was shut down. These were exactly like those. Not sweetly cloying, or covered in batter, or wrapped inside an egg roll wrapper. It was done with nothing but a light shimmer of coating and a loving fry till crisp. I ate one and looked up heavenward. Delicious!

The best dish at Renu Nakorn that night was the crispy mussel omelette -- which also happens to be one of our favorites at Lotus of Siam. Glutinous rice flour, egg and mussel form a pan-fried disc as rigid and round as a Frisbee. This rendition trumped LoS's version by miles (about 300 miles to be exact). All at once, it was sticky, gooey, crackly, crunchy, oily, chewy -- textures that still haunt my dreams and put Renu Nakorn back on the map as one of the best Thai restaurants in America...or at least in Southern California.

Renu Nakorn
(562) 921-2124
13019 Rosecrans Ave., Ste 105
Norwalk, CA 90650

Back Bay Bistro - Newport Beach

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Sandella's Flatbread Cafe - Santa Ana

If you read last Friday's entry on OC Weekly's Stick a Fork In It blog, and followed up on the lead that I gave, then you would've scored yourself a free meal. If you haven't, then click on the link provided, and go get a copy of the Weekly already.

It will prove, once and for all, that there is such a thing as a free lunch.

And there's more:

The gift certificate may seem to limit you to their wraps, paninis, quesadillas, rice bowls, grilled flatbread (pizza), or salad. But since that's ALL THEY SERVE, it was a license to try practically anything on their entire menu.

Everything on it involves flatbread. Flatbread, it seems, is like the Swiss Army knife of breads, a multi-tasking and versatile workhorse that Sandella's -- part of a chain that started in the east -- is all too happy to exploit. They have every conceivable use and permutation of least the edible ones.

Sprinkle cheese, fold it up into a semi-circle, stick it in the oven, and voila! A quesadilla! Fold it a different way, add cold cuts, and shazam! A panini! Crisp it up until rigid like a tostada-shell and bam! An edible vessel for rice bowls!

Or if you're a bit less adventurous, you can have it be wrapped around usual sandwich fillings for a...well...a wrap.

Because I never fully understood the wrap fad that went away mercifully a few years ago, I opted for what is possibly the best application of all: pizza. With my gift certificate in hand, I went for the most expensive topping: the Aloha, which consisted of the following:

Ham, bacon, fresh pineapple, red onions and fresh basil leaves over mozzarella cheese and Mango Habanero sauce

Since I'm a sucker for thin crust pizza, I enjoyed the dish, even if it was only crispy on the edges and structurally limp and soggy elsewhere. For all its versatility, flatbread just can't stand up to the moist assault of melting cheese and sauce. But because "Sanjaya's Papadum Cafe" has not been realized (think of it: papadum pizza!) this is as close to my dream of a gossamer-thin pizza pie as I'll ever get.

The fact that it was free was also nice.

Sandella's Flatbread Cafe
(714) 668-9090
2801 MacArthur Blvd.
Santa Ana, CA 92704

Cafe Piccolo - Long Beach*

*Special Thanks to Monster Munching location scout Cecile for the tip on Cafe Piccolo.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Sushi Murasaki - Santa Ana

Rather than my usual word spewage, I'll go for brevity this week. So here goes:

PLACE: Sushi Murasaki

DECOR: Pier 1 Imports meets Japanese tea room.

INTERESTING THING THAT I NOTICED: They have a sushi roll called "The Santa Ana". It's topped with salsa.


COST: $50 per person for six courses with a mix of cooked dishes from the kitchen and raw ones from the sushi bar. There was also an option to do all sushi, or all cooked dishes. Though $50 was the minimum, you could upgrade to bigger meals for a nominal fee.


A long plate with three cold dishes.

They were bigger than an amuse bouche, smaller than an appetizer, and consisted of the following:

Enoki Mushrooms with Boiled Greens.

A tiny portion that could've been mistaken for garnish. We finished it in two bites.

Ankimo (monkfish liver) and Ponzu.

Ate like hard-cooked egg yolk. A puddle of ponzu beneath mitigated its richness.

Oyster Cooked with Miso Paste.

I could've easily consumed two more. Make that four. No, actually six.


Sashimi with Shishito Oil.

It looked like it came out of ticker-tape parade. Strands of daikon, unidentified red strings of vegetable matter acted as textural add-ons and confetti. Not sure why, but it reminded me of sauerkraut. Bits of nuts were sprinkled on for crunch. Disconcertingly, the fish was lukewarm.


Sauteed Abalone in Foil with Asparagus, Mushroom, and Broth.

Biting down on the abalone was like gnawing on old gum. It made us wonder: "Is abalone always this chewy?" The veggies and the broth saved the dish, barely.


Assorted Sushi with Six Pieces of Nigiri and Two Cut Rolls.

All amazing. Arabian shrimp was the best. It was pallid like a ghost, opaque grey in parts and scorched by torch in others. The rest of the nigiri had playful Jell-O consistencies, were slick as an oiled inner-tube, or melted like ice cream. Cut rolls had a core of uni (sea urchin roe) -- always a winner as all things involving uni are.


Chawanmushi, Japanese Savory Steamed Egg Custard.

Shrimp, fish, and mushroom hid beneath the quiver of barely set beaten eggs. Eating technique was to blow and slurp carefully lest you want your tongue to suffer first-degree burns.


Panna Cotta with Red Wine and Berries.

Wiggled like gelatin with the constitution of a cheese cake. Quite possibly one of the best panna cottas I've ever had. The pudding was creamy without being cloying, and the thin pour of wine over the top was a stroke of genius. Bitter, sweet, tart, wonderful.

CONCLUSION: Was still hungry. Next time, I'll do the all sushi-omakase. Will leave the cooked stuff to izakayas. And so much for being brief!

Sushi Murasaki
(714) 241-1000
2901 W Macarthur Blvd
Santa Ana, CA 92704

*Special Thanks to Monster Munching reader Alosha (a.k.a. Melissa) for the tip.

The Hidden Kitchen - Costa Mesa

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Total Wine & More - Tustin

I'm not much of a drinker. Save for the occasional bottle of Singha when I'm at a Thai restaurant or a pint of Guinness when I'm in an Irish pub, I'm closer to teetotaler than college frat boy. After all, this blog is called Monster Munching, not Monster Gulping.

But it's not because I have a moral issue against alcohol. Frankly, I just think it tastes vile. And wine? Well, a lot of the foods I like -- nachos, noodle soups, etc. -- doesn't really call for it. And then there's the cost. Once, at Ruth Chris, a friend offered a sip from her glass of red, and although I admit it went well with the steak I was chomping on, I thought the extra ten bucks would've been better spent on dessert.

Water is my beverage of choice to pair with food.

So when a Total Wine & More opened in Tustin recently, mere blocks from where I lived, I went because of a curiosity for the new, not because I needed to stock up the liquor cabinet. Besides, I wanted to know: What would a place that claims it has "8,000 types of wines, 2,000 types of spirits, and 1,000 types of beers" look like?

The answer is that it looks like a liquor store got it on with a supermarket -- thanks largely to the fact that the space used to be a furniture showroom. Though, admittedly, it's really not that much different or bigger than a BevMo!.

Its selection of wine, however, was indeed impressive. Instead of supermarket aisles labeled "canned foods", "sugar", or "bread", the place boasts whole aisles devoted to the wine subphylums such as "chardonnays", "syrahs", and "merlots".

Despite the economy, the place was doing brisk business on a Saturday afternoon. Or perhaps, is it because of the economy?

In any case, I decided to test the mettle of their selection by asking if they had Magners Irish Cider -- a crisp, refreshing drink that I remembered actually liking at Auld Dubliner.

After leading me through aisle after aisle of beers, the employee shrugged. "You got me," he said, finally pointing towards their small selection of ciders, none of them Irish.

The conclusion: Wines, they got; ciders, not so much.

So I picked out a few from the shelf of singles, ranging from $1.19 to $1.49, and paid for it while chuckling to myself at the signs over the register that menacingly said, "WE ARREST MINORS".

At home, I chilled the bottles in the fridge and last night, tried two of them. So far, the Fox Barrell Hard Cider and the Woodchuck Pear Cider were a bit disappointing. While the Fox Barrell had a stronger alcohol kick, both seemed watered down and flat on flavor.

Now, off to BevMo!, where I think they have Magners in stock. Besides that, since it's been a while, I'd forgotten whether they also threaten minors with arrest.

Total Wine & More
2952 El Camino Real
Tustin, CA 92782

Warung Pojok - Garden Grove