Sunday, January 24, 2010

Sutha Thai Kitchen - Tustin

This is that kind of place. The kind of corner joint mostly known and patronized by locals, where the only print review on the window is a few paragraphs long, clipped out lovingly from a hidden section of a community paper and held up by Scotch tape.

It seats maybe twelve or fifteen people, tops. The square footage is scant. I have been inside closets with more room. Any smaller and it wouldn't be a restaurant. It reminds me of a diorama constructed of cardboard and Elmer's Glue -- the one I spent all night making for a fifth grade project.

A thin layer of drywall separates you from the kitchen, behind which you hear the unseen whoosh of the burner and the loud clangs of a metal spatula beating up a wok.

One night we came early, at about six, and we noted how sad it was that we were the only ones there. But then, slowly, surely, we were proven wrong. Customer after customer came. Before we knew it, the place was filled to capacity. We heard every word of conversation from the next table -- a blonde woman in a red pea coat and a man in dreadlocks -- and smelled their food as we waited for ours.

Last Friday night, we sat at a table near the entrance (which, let's face it, every table was), and we shivered as yet another patron would breeze in through the doorway. Though the storm had finally passed, the roads were still sleek and it was a damned freezing night -- a night made for soup and rice.

We were there for the tom kha gai. They use criminis instead of straw mushrooms, and cabbage as filler; but oh that silken coconut broth! It was exactly what we needed: a boiling pot filled with a hot/sour/sweet exilir that would warm our extremities and melt our frostbitten ears.

It's as good as any I've had. But truthfully, is there such a thing as bad tom kha gai? Even a mediocre rendition would be a good one, especially when served in one of those aluminum vessels with chimneys that double as space heaters. We rubbed our hands over it, letting the heat bring back some feeling and circulation to our fingers.

On top of hot sticky rice we spooned yellow curry, a bright-as-sunshine blend redolent of lemongrass, coriander and cumin, rounded out with plenty of coconut milk. The chicken was white meat, the potatoes crinkle cut meticulously by someone who cared.

You'd say the same about the nam sod we ordered. They took the time to chop the pork to tiny bits with a cleaver, instead of just taking the easy way out with ground pork. The rougher, coarser consistency lends itself better to the lime juice and the bracing ginger slivers used as flavoring.

By the time we started on the lard na, we were too stuffed. The thick gravy lubricating the wide rice noodle was slightly more vinegary, more assertive than I expected. Bits of minced garlic, unseen until you encounter one, exploded in tiny bursts behind every slurp.

Afterward we walked out warmed and satiated, our garlicky breaths curling in steamy puffs in the frigid air.

Sutha Thai Kitchen
(714) 734-6100
1161 Irvine Blvd.
Tustin, CA 92780

Il Dolce - Costa Mesa

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Mi La Cay - Westminster

I think I'm predestined to love any kind of noodle soup. If you looked at it, you'd find noodles making up my DNA strands. The Mi Dac Biet La Cay ($4.95) at Mi La Cay in Westminster is exactly the dish to play into my genetic predisposition. Doubly so when it's rainy out, like this week's going to be.

Dac Biet (translates to "house special") is the first thing on their menu, a list which is mostly dedicated to two types of noodle. There's mi, which is a wheat-based, egg noodle; and there's hu tieu, which is crystal clear, jelly-like, rice vermicelli noodle popular in South Vietnam. There is, however, no pho. So don't ask. This is a Chinese Vietnamese noodle house; and as such, specializes in broths more nourishing than amniotic fluid, made from pork, sweetened with rock sugar, and smacking of umami (probably from MSG).

Atop the bowl, you'll find torn lettuce leaves, pieces of tender boiled hog, crispy fried cracklings, and a cut of chicken hacked off from a whole fried bird, still on the bone. The latter, I think, speaks of the Chinese-ness of the dish. The Chinese believe (and rightly so) that meat on the bone is better, more succulent.

As for the fried, breaded shrimp that also floats in the soup? It tastes like cast-offs from Long John Silver's; but still, they're a welcome add-on, especially when dolloped with Sriracha.

When I ordered a bowl, the waitress asked me, "Large or small bowl?"

Small, I said.

"Soup inside or outside?"

The latter question threw me in for a loop. Do I dare order the soup separated? No, I told her. Not today. I needed the noodles swimming in the warmth.

But as I ate those noodles, I understood. They're the stars. Sturdy enough to use as lashing, spun and stretched to strengthen, each thin yellow strand chewed like it was just a few minutes shy of al dente. Excellent. The differences between this and other mis that I've had is the same as the vast divide that separates a proper French baguette from Wonder Bread.

It makes sense then, that it is offered on its own, sans soup. Only when a restaurant is proud of their noodles would they serve it that way. And that's how I will have it next...with the soup as chaser.

Mi La Cay*
14092 Magnolia Street, #116
Westminster, CA 92683

Ohshima - Orange

*Special Thanks to Bill and Hungry Huy for this tip!

Monday, January 11, 2010

Native Foods Cafe - Tustin

Self-deception. That was the theme of a recent Saturday morning I had. First, it was Up In The Air, the excellent film with George Clooney who's self-deceiving mission is to believe that he needs no one and nothing. Then, for lunch we ate at Native Foods Cafe, a restaurant within steps of the AMC at The District, which allowed us, for an hour, to really believe that we did not need to eat meat.

(SPOILER ALERT) And like Clooney was for the first half of the movie, we were content to live in the delusion. But unlike him, our story had a happy ending.

We destroyed our nachos like as if it came from Alerto's itself (our go-to joint for the king of all faux-Mexican dishes). And if we were blindfolded eating it, we'd tell you it was just nachos. Nothing about the main components really deviates from what's already part of, say, a carne asada nacho. This was real pico de gallo, real guacamole, real corn, real black beans and real tortilla chips. Though I figure they'd use lardless tortilla chips, it crunched and shattered in shards just the same.

The only innovative component was the sour cream, which wasn't dairy-based, but made out of something that cannily approximated it. My tongue told me it tasted like a cross between creamy bean dip and hummus. And subbing for meat, there were light-brownish, textured curdled pieces of a substance that almost fooled us into thinking that we were chewing of the flesh of a creature that once walked, flew or crawled.

Same thing the margherita pizza, which I have to conclude is the work of an alchemist. How does one get a milkless cheese to melt? I have no idea. And neither do my friends. We just agreed this wasn't just a good vegan pizza, but a good pizza. The crust crackled. The pesto bit. The marinara, respectful.

Chicken wings, tube-like spears of soy protein masquerading as fingers rather than wings, were battered well and was still more chicken-like than McDonald's McNuggets.

About the only thing I didn't dig was the watermelon agua fresca, which had a grassy flavor that distracted from its sweetness. It was as if the whole green rind was included in the blender.

So yes, we deceived our carnivorous selves into not eating meat and were happy for it, not to mention full. The combo of Native Foods and Up In The Air, I dare to say, was even more fulfilling than a burger and Avatar.

Native Foods
(714) 259-0400
2453 Park Ave
Tustin, CA 92782

Continental Deli - La Habra

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Break of Dawn - Laguna Hills

Culinarily speaking, if you drew a line from Little Saigon to the ritziest luxury hotels on the O.C. coast, you'd find Break of Dawn in Laguna Hills at the halfway point.

Arguably the most beloved breakfast spot in Orange County, this restaurant by Chef Dee Nguyen who was previously at the Ritz-Carlton Laguna Niguel, takes the best of Vietnamese, the precision of French, the surprise of everything else in between and puts it on a plate that begins with one ingredient: the egg.

The place is not new. Nor is it exactly a best-kept secret. If you read food blogs or talk to anyone considered a foodie, you should've already heard of it. Just about every O.C. food publication has gushed about the place with accolades upon accolades, including Gustavo Arellano, fellow food blogger Chubbypanda, and oh yeah, me.

So if you haven't been, go. And if you have, let this overdue post be a reminder to revisit. The place is still fantastic and deserving of all the praise designating so.

If you are new to it, start with a glass of O.J. while you bask in the effortlessly sunny room -- a space with communal tables that seems to breathe the possibilities of Southern California. It reinvigorates you just being there. This, as you may have already guessed, is no greasy spoon.

A good primer is the sausage and rice plate, whereupon a fatty, delicious Portuguese sausage is sliced on the bevel, then fried to a mirror-shine and a boomerang curl. Every bite is porcine transcendence, which for me, fondly conjures memories of breakfast in Hawaii's Big Island where the meat is more likely to be seen next to the eggs than bacon.

But this is a spicier, bolder specimen; almost treading the line of chorizo than linguica.

Although I would much prefer just regular white sticky rice rather than the chewier, nuttier brown rice they form into a dome by an upturned bowl, its healthier and offsets the porky and eggy indulgence of its platemates.

The same can be said of the bright green swipe of scallion puree and the green papaya salad, which exists in refreshing, vinegary shreds atop the rice. Both cleanse the palate for the next piggy mouthful.

Wassatyousay? You like your breakfast meat more mooing than oinking? How about corned beef then? Theirs is not-too-salty, colored pink like a cherub's cheeks and served with cubed sweet potato hash, braised cabbage, coarse grain mustard sauce and just about the cutest, most bulbous poached eggs that dares you to pierce it like a water balloon.

And if there's any doubt that the restaurant respects all of O.C.'s wonderfully distinct food cultures, take the next dish I have pictured, which I believe is called Ranchero.

Dribbles of crema, sauce, and black beans surround a block of steamed masa, which functions as the base of a gravity-defying fried tostada disk. The crispy platform is itself mounded with scrambled eggs, wilted onions, and a slathering of fresh guac.

You forget for a second that you're in Laguna Hills, at the far end of a sprawling neighborhood center, not beachside at a Mexican resort somewhere. Then you look around and conclude you'd rather be nowhere else but here at Break of Dawn eating breakfast in O.C.

Break of Dawn
24351 Avenida De La Carlota #N-6
Laguna Hills, CA 92653

Stick A Fork In It - Year In Review