Sunday, May 31, 2009

Kim Huong's Bun Rieu - Tustin

I know what you're thinking, but no, I haven't written about the bun rieu at Kim Huong. I've waxed poetic on Quan Hop's bun rieu (the homey dish I once described as the more feminine face of Vietnamese noodle soups) and praised Kim Huong's discounted prices on pho, but I haven't shared a word about this particular dish at this particular restaurant.

And not telling you about it is like leaving out Pirates of the Caribbean when I'm talking about Disneyland. Part of the reason is that it's become part of my take-out routine, and as such it disappears into my day-to-day consciousness, like brushing my teeth. What I'm saying is that I eat Kim Huong's bun rieu a lot. Their number is on speed dial, and when I call they usually know who I am, what I want, and that I'll be there to pick it up in ten minutes.

That's another thing about it: they'll package it up for me. The soup in its own container. Accoutrements in a baggie. Noodles in its own bowl. Only assembly required? Pour the broth on top of noodles. Squeeze the lime. Pile on as little or as much of the included roughage. Dinner's done.

Above the convenience, the price is rock-bottom low; because if I'm anything else besides a creature of habit (and lazy); I'm a cheapskate. The pre-tax price: $3.60 (it's $0.50 less if you opt to dine in).

The soup is wondrous and light. It's just slightly spicy, mostly sweet and tomatoey. Actual tomatoes are present, softened by the heat of the brew and slowly melting into it. There are floating rafts of fried tofu and compressed, meatloaf-like morsels made from ground pork, crabmeat, and what I guess is beaten egg as a binder. And of course, those wispy noodles that dissolves instantly in your mouth.

On the side, as tradition dictates, a plastic thimble containing a purplish paste that reeks like crab toe jam (this one I use very, very sparingly). A packet of ketchup, it is not; but neither is this typical take-out food...well, I guess for me, it is.

Kim Huong
17311 McFadden Ave # B
Tustin, CA‎ 92780

Boqueria - Costa Mesa

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Cambinos Asian BBQ - Cypress

Move over Kogi BBQ, I'm in for a new obsession: Cambinos Asian BBQ. And for this one, I can unplug the Twitter because Cambinos is a stationary brick-and-mortar, open at regular hours, and only found here in O.C. Although it may never get lavished with Newsweek articles or NPR segments, in my opinion, it deserves all of that and more.

So far, it has relied on good, old fashioned word-of-mouth from the strength of its product. A product, which other than the word BBQ, has nothing in common with what Kogi serves.

At Cambinos, BBQ means meats from all that clucks, moos, oinks or swims, marinated with flavorful things and chargrilled to order. Some are lubed in sauce prior to service. Some are skewered on bamboo sticks. All are served over dependable jasmine rice and piled on paper plates.

This is backyard BBQ food. The kind of grub common to all Asian family reunions when the charcoal grill is carted out.

And in Cambinos' Mix Plate ($9.95) one gets to enjoy the fruits of the fire without aunties telling you how much weight you've gained or asking you leading questions about your future.

The chicken skewer is burnished with a mahogany sheen and freckled with crunchy char, deeply flavorful and moist. The beef skewer is tender enough to be torn by bare fingers, slightly sweet and perfumed with lemongrass. The beef short ribs is a kalbi doppelganger and explodes with lip-lickin' fatty juces when bitten. A chicken thigh is chopped into strips, glazed in a hoisin-based sauce with a similar purpose as teriyaki. Veggies, like broccoli, red onions, squash, and bell peppers, are also grilled just to heat through, but not enough to wilt.

But the raison d'être is the pork spare ribs. These defy comparison to anything that I've ever had before or since: a citrusy, tangy, garlicky, sauce-covered masterpiece that collapses from the bone in unctuous, sloppy mouthfuls.

It can only be summed up with one word: incredible.

At this point you might ask, "So is it Asian?" Yes, no, and um...I'm not sure. The restaurant's name itself is a portmanteau of Cambodian and Filipino (Cambinos! Get it?!) -- a subtle hint about the nationality of the owner and his wife, respectively.

But any conclusions you may draw from this would be misleading. While there are some Cambodian and Filipino influences, the food is wholly original, born out of experimentation and pluck. And if you asked the owner himself, he'd say it was "camping" food since that's where he honed his recipes.

He is James Sar, a charming fellow who was originally in the steel business and got out when his friends and family encouraged him to open this restaurant last September.

How do I know all this? Simple: the dude told me his story.

My date and I were the only customers there on a Saturday night. So after bringing out our food, he struck up a conversation as he rooted for the Lakers on the flat-screen in Game 3 of the Western Conference Finals. James is like that poker buddy who brings the beer and knows all the good jokes. And when he hosts a party at his house, you RSVP immediately because you know he's going to do his BBQ.

Cambinos Asian BBQ*
5721 Lincoln Ave. Ste F
Cypress, CA 90630

Annapoorna Indian Cuisine** - Irvine

*Special Thanks to Ben Dayhoe for the tip on Cambinos.
**Special Thanks to Robbi for the tip on Annapoorna.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Cream Pan - Tustin

I know what you're thinking: "Wait. Don't you mean Japonaise Bakery & Cafe?"

No, I mean Cream Pan.

Within the last week or so, Cream Pan -- the little bakery that begat Japonaise Bakery & Cafe and disappeared into its offspring's slick new digs last year -- has been reincarnated.

In a sort of restaurant cellular mitosis, Cream Pan has now separated from Japonaise, doing business as its own entity with a new storefront and seating area two doors down. With the move, the Japonaise/Cream Pan organism has taken over its entire building; but the two are still conjoined in the middle by a single heart: its shared kitchen.

Why was this necessary? Well, my guess is that Japonaise was getting too big for its britches. Since it started doing pastas, breakfasts and sandwiches, the line for the cafe dishes choked up the line for the pastries. On some mornings, there would be a traffic jam of people, most of whom didn't know which queue to be in, frustrating themselves and everyone else. Trust me: I've been there.

Now that the problem is solved, you'll find me at Cream Pan, because while I like the breakfast specials, there's really one thing that keeps me coming back: The strawberry croissant ($2.20).

It is easily their single best item. Heck, it's probably the best pastry in the whole of Orange County.

Here's what I have said before about the strawberry croissant in, appropriately enough, OC Weekly's Best Of OC Issue:

It's a pastry perfect in conception, construction and execution. Nothing in its triangular, hand-holdable frame can be improved upon. The croissant flakes off in crisp, buttery sheets; the custard is as cool as silk; and the sliced strawberries are perkier than a giggly, doe-eyed anime schoolgirl. And of course, it's sprinkled with plenty of powdered sugar to make it look like you've just snorted some blow. Japonaise's strawberry croissants are just as addicting.

Now it's even easier for everyone to get their hands on this dessert drug of choice. But don't take this to mean that it will be available whenever you want a fix. As everyone who's ever been denied the pleasure of its wonders knows, these babies sell out faster than the newest model iPhone on Christmas Eve. Come the afternoon, their limited supply is history.

I do have a better solution if you want to ensure your mouth gets its just desserts: their equally wonderful mini strawberry croissants. It's just smaller, bite-sized versions of the original, but it's just as awesome.

The minis, however, are only available by special order and needs to be requested at least two days in advance. Pricing starts at $25 for an 18-count-tray. But trust me, in this Japanese bakery stock split, it's a wise investment.

And if you show up at a dinner party or office potluck with them, you will be anointed the hero -- your reputation cemented as someone who knows where to get the good stuff. But who's to say you can't consume it all by yourself in a dark corner of the house when no one's looking?

Cream Pan
(714) 665-8239
600 El Camino Real
Tustin, CA 92780

Kogi Korean BBQ Truck

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Dumpling & Noodle House - Irvine

When Ezo Noodle Cafe closed, I didn't blink. In the close-to-half-decade that I lived in the area, I never stepped in. I didn't have to. If I wanted ramen, Santoka was only a short jaunt away.

Recently in its place, something called Dumpling & Noodle House went in -- a restaurant name so ambiguous, it left a lot to the imagination. Me? I had visions, hopeful ones, of a Din Tai Fung-like establishment. Purses of soup-filled dumplings in steamer baskets. Or perhaps, hand-stretched noodles. Something different to shake up this tired-old food court.

As I walked closer and closer to it, I knew it was going to be different, but I also realized that I wasn't going to get any xiao long bao when I spied what people were eating. Some were sucking up thick, udon-like strands of noodle out of basin-sized bowls awash in a seething red broth and topped with hacked hunks of crab carcass. Others slurped jja jang myun, more noodles drenched in what looks like crude oil, but what is actually black bean sauce.

If you hadn't figured it out by now (or taken in the clues I left on the pictures above) Dumpling & Noodle House is Korean. Who else but a Korean restaurant would equip every table with a plastic, flip-top water jug and offer complimentary saucers of kimchi with every meal?

The place, as it turns out, is a branch of Man Doo Rang, which has outposts in Buena Park and L.A. In doing research after the fact, I found out that they are known for offering free soda, which explains why one of the nice ladies there motioned to us, pointed at the soda fountains, and said, "Free! Free!"

We got our drinks and got on with our lunch. Water is my beverage of choice anyway.

The noodles in the Ramen Combo ($6.49) -- served in small gold pot with grip handles -- had the familiar Shirley Temple curl and crinkle I associate with Korean instant ramen. And therein lies the problem: it tasted just like it.

The broth was savory, hot, and good; but with it also came a realization: it, too, seemed like it had come from a seasoning packet.

Halfway through the meal, I made the observation to my tablemate, who was plowing through his Dumpling Ramen ($4.99), and he replied, "That's what I was thinking too!".

We were eating the same dish, after all. The only difference was that mine was dumpling-less and came with a side of kim bop -- a cooly refreshing sushi roll packed with crunchy veggies.

I offered some of my kim bop to my other dining companion, who ordered the Steamed Dumplings ($5.49), and was having trouble finishing it. "This is really strong," she remarked. At that point, my tablemate again said, "That's what I was thinking too!" He had the same dumplings in his ramen.

Taking a bite of one, I made it unanimous: these dumplings suffered from a chive-overload, which also made the texture seem like we were chewing on lawn clippings -- the filling was more roughage than meat.

But because we tried only a tiny fraction of what this restaurant offers, I'm not going to write it off just yet. The menu boasts Korean chorizo, katsu, even Korean fried chicken. And there's still that spicy-looking bowl of knife-cut noodle soup with the crab that I saw almost every table ordering...not to mention a whole section dedicated to "Sweet & Sour Dishes", which, I am not sorry to say, I'm going to skip.

Dumpling & Noodle House
13256 Jamboree Rd.
Irvine, CA 92602

Plums Cafe - Costa Mesa

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Kogi Korean BBQ Taco Truck - Santa Fe Springs

Saturday, May 2, 2009.

This was the night. I could feel it. I was going to finally sink my teeth into something the whole of L.A. had been talking about and enjoying for months. Unless you've been holed up in the Unabomber shack or haven't been reading my entries on Stick a Fork In It, I'm talking, of course, about the Kogi Korean BBQ Taco Truck.

But first, a little history.

Flash back to last October, when out of the blue, I got an e-mail from a person named Alice. She reads Monster Munching, she said, and she wanted to invite me and a few other food bloggers up to L.A. to do a taste testing of a new experiment her family was doing: street tacos, Korean style, served out of a truck.

My brain went wild. A Korean taco truck!? Now that's a great idea! But the event was on a week night. And in L.A.'s K-Town, no less. Disappointed that I couldn't make it, I wrote back to her: Please come down to my neck of the woods. "OC needs this bad!" I implored.

As they say: the rest is history.

Kogi went on to become an overnight L.A. legend and national media darling. No one's ever seen anything like it: a taco truck that used Twitter to rally the masses like the pied piper.

The result were lines that for stretched for hours, which, in turn, inspired blog postings, national news, the constant ire of cops, NPR stories, and Newsweek articles.

To date, they count close to twenty thousand followers on Twitter, who flock to their next landing spot at a typed text message's notice.

Cut to last Saturday, when I came this close to finally rendezvousing with them. After being shooed out of Buena Park by the police, the truck took refuge in nearby Santa Fe Springs. There, on a deserted industrial office park parking lot, I finally caught up with Kogi. But so did about two hundred other people. By the time I took my place in line, the wait was rumored to be two hours long and also, they were running out of food. Being risk averse and freezing, my date and I gave up. We left, taco-less, into the night.

Fast forward to yesterday, Saturday, May 2nd. I had been in constant contact with the Kogi folks about their next visit to O.C., which was to come soon. This time, they said, they were going to keep things on the down low, to avoid run-ins with the law and to keep the crowds to a minimum. The exact location of their next stop wouldn't be revealed to the public until the last possible minute. But it was hinted that it would be Saturday night in Buena Park.

Finally, they revealed their location via Tweet at about 7 p.m. Problem was, it was the right cross streets; wrong city. They Tweeted Buena Park, but the truck was actually in Santa Fe Springs. In fact, it was the same, exact place they'd landed a week before.

We realized the error quickly and corrected our course.

The rest of the night went like this:

7:38 p.m. We arrive at the same Santa Fe Springs spot we'd left empty handed a week prior. But this time, things were different. Not one but both Kogi trucks -- nicknamed Roja and Verde -- were there. Coupled with this and the lower key announcement (also perhaps the unintended geographical error in their Tweet) made the lines almost non-existent. This was the night alright: the night I was going to have those tacos!

7:43 p.m. We file into the queue in front of one of the trucks. It's about six people deep. Since it wasn't quite dusk, I could see who my fellow Kogi stalkers were. Most were in their twenties. Most were Asian. But there were older folks, babies in strollers, dogs on leashes.

7:51 p.m. We get to the front of the line. We place our order. Four tacos. One of each kind. Short rib. Spicy Pork. Chicken. Tofu. Also two burritos with short rib and chicken. Total? $19.80.

7:53 p.m. We step aside to wait for our order. I notice people are taking pics of themselves in front of the truck. I do the same. This, I thought, is something to show the grandchildren -- slightly less significant than the Wright Brothers at Kittyhawk, but still a story to tell.

7:55 p.m. I see that there are more people waiting for their food than standing in line to order.

8:01 p.m. A freight train roars past the office park. The ground shakes. Loud clickety-clacks drown out the chatter of people. A breeze carrying the pungent smell of kimchi blows in my direction. Instinctively, I salivate.

8:08 p.m. Now, no one is in the order line. Now, we are all salivating.

8:11 p.m. A helicopter flies over head. "Look, it's Eyewitness News' Air7!" someone quips. It is not.

8:14 p.m. They call out my name. I approach, but a couple behind us taps me on the shoulder. "Oh, I think that's us," they said to me. I apologize. "Oh are you Ed too?", I said. I should've gone with "Elmo" instead. Fat chance of two Elmo's being at the same place, at the same time.

8:17 p.m. Getting anxious now. I see the pink order forms over their assembly line dwindle down to four. Ours is second. A late comer saddles up to the order window. "Are you Roy?" he asks. "No, Roy's not here tonight...I'm his cousin," the Korean man answers.

8:23 p.m. My name's called. Taking our loot to our car, we devour it under the dim glow of our map light. The tacos didn't take long to finish. Each disappeared after three ravenous bites.

The short rib was a wonderful confluence of fatty, beefy chew and sugary sweetness, dripping yummy grease all over our palms like a good street taco should. The spicy pork was as striking as an al pastor, but more well-mannered. The chicken tasted almost exactly like the pork, but leaner. And the tofu was soaked in something tangy.

In fact, everything was tangy, as if a pineapple or some other fruit were juiced into the marinade. A touch of sesame seeds added nuttiness, but not enough to overwhelm. Topping the tacos: shredded cabbage, wilted scallions. These were Asian flavors all right, but mostly it's playful, fun -- apropos for the venue and the chase.

9:05 p.m. Back at home, we start on the burritos. And we find that they are just as good as the tacos. But since one burrito amounted to about five tacos, it was also more economical. Not to mention, less messy.

9:13 p.m. I burp.

UPDATE: Kogi will be all over O.C. this week. Click here for details. And CLICK HERE for Christian's report. He made it to Kogi's Fullerton stop on Cinco de Mayo!

Don the Beachcomber - Huntington Beach