Sunday, February 28, 2010

Siam Taste of Asia - Santa Ana

If every tofu tasted like those from Siam Taste of Asia, we'd see an immediate surge in soy bean futures. Don't get me wrong: I already love tofu in every form. I grew up with it. I use it more in my cooking than any meat. I eat it like most people might eat mac and cheese. But these? These are tofu made into candy.

It may look like the same deep fried tofu cubes common to Chinese/Vietnamese/Thai restaurants -- the kind you dip into a sauce. And for sure it does come with its own dunking medium. But you won't need it. Not here. It doesn't need extra flavor. It's already tricked out with a coating of a sticky, spicy, sugary-sweet glaze that might as well be, as I mentioned, a Willy Wonka confection.

When the woman who is its creator comes out to serve it to you, heed the warning she'll give: these suckers are too hot to eat immediately. As mouth-watering as they may look, do not dive in and assume you can handle it. Wait, if only for just a minute.

I say this because even after thumb-twiddling a few beats, and blowing it like it was on fire, a friend bit into one and out sloshed a scalding torrent of soy-curd napalm. Ouch!

The custardy, milky lava hides beneath the craggly surface of its crust -- a crunchy shell with the same DNA as a tater tot -- which is solid enough to make a hollow sound when you rap on it with a spoon.

Besides the tofu, there are, of course, other noteworthy things to try at Siam Taste of Asia. And I'll mention a few other dishes I ate in a bit. But read what Gustavo Arellano, Chowhounders and Yelpers have to recommend for a more complete picture.

If you ask anyone who's been to the restaurant, all will be agreed on more than just the tofu, and that is that Siam Taste of Asia is an underdog, underappreciated and woefully lacking in customers.

It smells of incense, has beautiful Thai wood carvings on the wall, and is not at all the sticky-table place I thought it would be from its outside appearance. They serve their rice in an ornate aluminum vessel, with a matching lid and scoop. They have jars on each table containing three types of chili-based condiment. One of them, the homemade nam prik -- a slurry of chopped bird chilies in fish sauce -- is wickedly potent and deliciously lethal.

Their spinach stir fry topped with golden fried shards of garlic swims in a sweet broth good enough to sip as soup. It's even better to moisten your rice with. The pad see ewe is just as good as any I've ever had, the Chinese broccoli meticulously sliced thinly on the bias. And though the tom kha gai is subtly white, it has a surplus of flavor and elegance, not to mention enoki mushrooms -- the first time I've seen it used for this purpose.

But when I go back, and I will, it's going to be for their tofu, first and foremost. Maybe I'll bring a probe thermometer. Either that or burn ointment, because I'm an impatient bastard.

Siam Taste of Asia*
(714) 418-9678
3520 W 1st St
Santa Ana, CA 92703

Hebaragi Korean BBQ - Tustin

*Special Thanks to Melissa for the recommendation

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Vigilucci's Cucina Italiana - Carlsbad

I drive down to San Diego more than I drive up to L.A., namely for the Zoo and the Wild Animal Park. And I've eaten at just as many restaurants there as in the City of Angels. Yet I think I've only written about less than a handful of them. I'm even less chatty about Italian restaurants.

So here's to killing two birds with one stone: A San Diego County Italian restaurant.

Vigilucci's is part of a local chain, which grew out of the success of a single restaurant about decade ago. There are now seven other Vigilucci spin offs in the county, each one different than the next.

So why did I choose this one? Well, that's simple. I had a restaurant gift card and this was the closest to the Carlsbad Premium Outlets off of Palomar Airport Rd., which is the other reason I visit San Diego County if I'm not there to watch captive animals.

But in finding the place in downtown Carlsbad, I discovered that this beach-side burg has more than the outlet mall. Steps from the restaurant, there was a store actually called "Guy Stuff" that sold mostly antique weapons like swords and muskets. A few doors down, there was an all Irish store that sold mostly, well, Irish stuff.

Back to the restaurant. The place was nearly deserted save for a few people dining outside sipping ice teas with lemon and mimosas in fluted glasses. And halfway through our meal, a couple sat down, got served water and a few minutes later, they left without ordering. Weird, because the food was excellent.

Another quirk? Our waiter had a charming habit of ending each sentence with the word "beautiful", which he pronounced ""byoo-di-fool". It was his own brand of punctuation.

"We'll have the calamari to start."

"Ah, beautiful!"

"May we have some more water please?"

"Of course! There you go! Beautiful!"

Upon seeing our pasta plate was practically licked clean, "Ah you enjoyed! Beautiful!"

And we did enjoy the food. The warm sliced loaf that starts the meal had a crusty but tender exterior with a fluffy moist crumb almost as white as Wonder Bread. The fried calamari was, well, fried calamari ($11.50). It was a touch greasy, but included were fried rock shrimp covered in the same batter as its platemates, some of them caught up like prey in the cephalopod's tentacles' death grip.

We requested to add sausage ($2.75) to our capellini alla checca ($10.50) and it came from an actual tube of meat, cut up into healthy sections with the natural casing attached, and browned on the skillet before it was introduced to the pasta. The noodles were exceptionally silken and slurp-able, every strand glazed by the juices from the chunks of fresh tomato, flecked by basil, and amped up by cloves of garlic sauce you can actually see.

But what of the manicotti ($11.00) you spy in the picture? I've no idea...yet. After sharing and destroying the capellini, we were stuffed and had to leave the manicotti untouched. It waits in the fridge as tonight's dinner.

Not having to cook? Beautiful!

Vigilucci's Restaurants
(760) 434-2500
2943 State Street
Carlsbad, CA 92008-2337

OltreMare - San Clemente

Monday, February 15, 2010

Brunch at Fisherman's Restaurant - San Clemente

I seldom go to the beach, but it's knowing that I could, any time I wanted, which makes living in Southern California, and specifically Orange County, such a privilege.

We are within minutes of scenes like that you see above...okay, well, let's be's more like a half an hour by car. And then there's parking. But still, it's possible, and once you make the commitment to actually make the trip, it can make the difference between a good weekend and a great weekend.

Better still, there's the Metrolink, which cruises down our coast on a pretty stretch of track straddling the glimmering Pacific Ocean. As soon as our train passed leafy San Juan Capistrano, we gazed out at it and its vastness, all the way down to our destination, the San Clemente Pier.

The train stops conveniently at the pier itself, whereupon it's a few steps to a few brunch options if you come on a weekend. Virtually a few feet from the train depot, there's a crepe place that people seem to love. But we ultimately took our meal at Fisherman's Restaurant, an eatery precariously held up above the surf by stilts.

If you think it looks like a tourist-y place, you'd be right; but that's not to say it wasn't good. The service is efficient like they've been doing this for years (they have) and before the meal, they give you a basket of warm muffins (cranberry, poppy, blueberry, and oatmeal raisin) and a thimble whipped butter to slather all over. Nothing, in my opinion, is more welcoming than a basket of warm muffins.

For my actual meal, I had something called a Seafood Boat ($13.25), which is quintessential brunch food if I ever saw one. A puff pastry shell is covered with bay shrimp and actual crab meat and engulfed in a layer of melted cheese.

I'm usually not a proponent of seafood with cheese, or even seafood for breakfast, but this I loved. And to eat it while looking out at the scene I so enjoyed on the trip over? Well, that's a better complement to the meal than the chilled glass of orange juice I had to wash it all down.

P.S. Metrolink is lamentably cutting down its service starting today (February 15, 2010) to a skeleton crew of trains.

Fisherman's Restaurants
(949) 498-6390
611 Avenida Victoria
San Clemente, CA 92672-5301

OC's Sexy & Romantic Restaurants

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Alberto's Flying Saucer - Santa Ana

Before you ask, I don't know why it is called "Flying Saucer". Frankly, I don't see the resemblance. I would argue, however, that there is no better name for it. Why? Well, I'll bet that from now on, you'll remember that I told you that it exists the next time you drive by an Alberto's, Alerto's or any of the Clone-ertos.

But as to where it came from? I welcome any guesses. And you can eliminate one popular theory right now: Alberto's hails from San Diego, not Roswell.

What I do know is that I would rather have a Flying Saucer than one of those slap-a-few-things-together-and-give-it-a-snazzy-title inventions that Taco Bell is infamous for.

Unlike Enchoritos, Meximelts and CrunchWrap Supremes, Flying Saucers seem like it came about organically, probably in a similar way that In-N-Out Animal Style burgers and Philippe's French Dip did -- by serendipitous accident.

But since it doesn't seem trademarked, every Alberto's derivative has its own version.

The common thread among them is the fried flour tortilla bowl. In the well, you will most likely have a closer encounter the following: soupy refried beans, slow-cooked shredded beef, wilted onions and bell peppers, grated cheese and chopped lettuce.

Another constant: When it comes Flying Saucers, time is of the essence. The crispiness of the tortilla has a tenuous existence, rapidly being soaked by the wetness to turn into the texture of limp noodle...which isn't necessarily bad, because this hybrid of a taco salad and rustic beef stew is even better when the weather is cold and rainy.

It's perfect when you are in need of something warm, wet, and sloppy. Just pick it up and eat in the privacy of your home, preferably with plenty of napkins.

Alberto's in Santa Ana makes a good one -- good because it's cheap ($4.99) and I need not travel light years to get one. Wherever you get yours, believe in The Flying Saucer. It's U.F.-Awesome.

Alberto's Mexican Food
(714) 834-9680
1425 East Edinger Avenue
Santa Ana, CA 92705-4805

Xanh Bistro - Fountain Valley

Monday, February 01, 2010

Japonaise Bakery & Cafe's Soy Sauce and Butter Spaghetti - Tustin

There are some ingredients that just work naturally together. Olive oil and balsamic. Milk and eggs. Peanut butter and jelly.

But soy sauce and butter? On pasta? Believe or not, it's a pairing short of heaven sent. And who might have attempted this? Some world-renowned molecular gastronomic alchemist?


The Japanese.

In this case, the second coming of Tustin's Japonaise Bakery & Cafe, which has recently been transformed into a donburi/pasta/curry joint.

It should be no surprise however. It was, after all, Japanese experimentalists dabbling in east-meets-west fusion that has given us such dishes like uni spaghetti and mentaiko pasta (which is also on the menu, by the way).

But until this dish, I never heard of soy sauce and butter being uttered in the same breath, much less occupying the same plate. Together they amount to a pasta sauce that has a surplus of umami, the fifth flavor -- a word also coined by the Japanese, which loosely translates to "savory delicious."

The butter rounds out the soy sauce's saltiness; and the soy keeps the butter from becoming too rich. And then there are the sauteed mushrooms, which soak up and marry the two flavors in an even more concentrated form inside themselves.

Slices of breast meat chicken were also in the dish. But the fact that they were slightly overcooked can be easily forgiven because of the goodness that surrounded them -- soy sauce plus butter equals culinary kismet.

Japonaise Bakery & Cafe
600 El Camino Real
Tustin, CA 92780
(714) 665-8239

Valhalla Table - Costa Mesa