Sunday, August 29, 2010

Bentoss - Costa Mesa

Five dollars. The magic number that take-out joints and diners seem to be able to agree on. Any higher, as a customer, you'd balk that it's simply too expensive, verging on highway robbery. You might as well go to a sit-down, or heaven forbid, cook!

$5 is the sweet spot. Not for snacks, nibbles, or drinks. For full-on meals. A real dinner. Something that will satisfy your belly and make only a modest dent in your daily food allowance.

Five dollars, or $4.99 pre-tax to be exact, is the cost of the discounted bento boxes at Bentoss in Costa Mesa. There are exactly three offered at this price.

There's the teriyaki, which they advertise with a banner, because, let's face it, who doesn't know what teriyaki is.

But then there's there's the fried fish bento, a Styrofoam container stocked with everything you need for a balanced Japanese meal. Rice is layered in the main compartment, protected by a sheet of nori that becomes a resting platform for the panko-breaded filet of fish and a tempura-battered tube of fish cake.

Everything else becomes side dishes. In a foil doily: An umami-filled simmer of gobo shredded to sticks. Salad comes in two forms: macaroni shells and a ponzu-dressed clump of cut up iceberg. The macaroni is fortified with starch and mayo; the iceberg, briskness.

The chicken karaage bento feature balls of dark-meat chicken fried to a sublime and golden crispness outside, an absorbed sake-sweetness inside. Here, there's a scoop of potato salad and refreshing pickles. All are compartmentalized in a traditional Japanese bento box, cooked to order, and ready for a picnic (if you were so inclined and have a red-checkered blanket handy).

When you think about it, Americans have always been eating bento boxes. What are those Styrofoam containers that hold BBQ and fried chicken if not a cheap, non-biodegradable bento box? It is however, the Japanese that turned the entire endeavor of a packaged meal into an art, even when they use the same Styrofoam. They arrange it carefully, taking account color, contrast and balance. And at Bentoss, eventhough it’s technically fast food (an order never takes more than 5 minutes) the attention to detail would make a traditionalist proud.

You might recall that Mitsuwa Marketplace also does bento boxes. And that they discount them after 5 p.m. to clear out the supply left over from lunchtime. They still do that. But knowing that Bentoss offers three different choices for a lower price, not to mention that it's freshly prepared instead of just sitting around in a fridge, my opinion is that it's the better deal for your five dollars. I’d even pay six!

(714) 444-3401
675 Paularino Ave. #3
Costa Mesa, CA 92626

Ngu Binh - Westminster

Monday, August 23, 2010

Izakaya Meijiya - Costa Mesa

A guy walked into the new Izakaya Meijiya one quiet Sunday night. "Take-out?", he asked. Since the waitress didn't show up for work, it was up to the chef, a 30-ish guy with an affable face, to oblige him with a bow and the menu. But then, as if by telepathy or maybe intuition, the chef said "We don't have sushi or rolls" even before the customer had a chance to read a single word on their three-page menu.

"Oh," the gent said disappointed, "then nevermind."

The chef smiled and bowed again as the man left, presumably to get a Double Stack from the Wendy's drive-thru across the street. Pity he didn't stay, because if he had, he would've discovered the youngest and most charming izakayas in OC.

As you may already know, izakayas are, for lack of a better term, the Japanese version of a gastropub. The impossibly busy Honda-Ya in Tustin, for example, is an izakaya; and so is Kappo Sui in Costa Mesa, which also happens to be where Meijiya's cook defected from.

Here in this new and undiscovered place, he produces the same kinds of food typically consumed with chilled glasses of Sapporo, Kirin, or Asahi--items that run the gamut of cooking preparations: fried, steamed, stir fried, stewed, grilled and raw.

You'll see examples of the latter on their whiteboard, where a list of sashimi is constantly rotated. Thick slices of seared hamachi steaks rest on onion, ponzu and topped with a crispy fried slice of garlic. Ahi is presented plain to show off its vibrant maraschino-cherry red. Skin-on mackerel eats as tangy as yogurt; but skip their pasty and slightly bitter uni. For now, since the restaurant is still lacking in foot traffic, the raw sea urchin roe is too rarely ordered and thus, does not benefit from turnover.

I was suprised and delighted to find that their kani cream croquette isn't in the usual croquette form. Instead it's stuffed into a hollowed-out crab shell I assume previously held the meat. After extraction, the crab is mixed with a bechamel-based sauce, breaded, deep-fried and served aside lemon. You scoop out the blubbery-creaminess with a spoon as if it were crème brulée.

A runt-sized deep fried soft shell crab is done sans batter, its leathery carapace rendered crisp. Salmon is broiled simply, basted with a shimmer of sauce, and slightly overcooked. Looking like Pac Man ghosts, homemade shrimp shumai arrives fat and plump. We used ponzu sauce to dip and eat them emulating our favorite yellow video-game icon, though it's customary to use hot mustard.

In a small bowl, nostril-clearing wasabi and diced-up raw squid squiggled in a playfully chewy dish called shiokara--a term that encompasses a whole class of fermented seafood the Japanese usually chase down with alcohol.

Simply stir-fried spinach with garlic will be familiar to those who have dined at Honda Ya. Here it's not as oily and probably a few degrees healthier because of it. As a consequence, it's not as decadent. But decadent is the word I'm saving for the buta kakuni.

How else to describe the massive hunk of fatty pork belly simmered in broth flavored with sake, soy, and mirin. Meijiya serves it traditionally, with hard boiled eggs. The dish is one of my perennial izakaya favorites and here it melts even before you pick it up with chopsticks.

The yin to the pork belly's yang is a simply named seafood salad--a brisk, crisp, and well-constructed plate of iceberg lettuce and cuts of sashimi draped with ponzu perfect for cooling you off when the weather is hot and balmy.

No, they don't serve California rolls here, but who needs it? I hope that man who left enjoyed his Wendy's.

Izakaya Meijiya
1113 Baker St.
Costa Mesa, CA 92626
(714) 545-5175

Beachwood BBQ - Seal Beach

Monday, August 16, 2010

Pink's - Buena Park

If there was a hot dog stand more hyped than Pink's, I don't know what it is. You can't watch a travel show about L.A. without hearing about the lines and the celebrities who have wrapped their collagen-puffed lips around their snappy-skinned wieners.

For a while, the iconic stand insisted they never wanted to expand. I heard them say that their original location on La Brea near Melrose was good enough; and that it would dilute the brand to even think of exporting the dogs out from that spot.

One might wonder then, why they recently broke the vow by opening a Pink's at Knott's Berry Farm. But the fact that they did allows this hot dog skeptic to try it without schlepping it to L.A. to wait in a forever line.
And I'm glad I didn't have to, because while the Guadalajara Dog ($3.85) that I had was good--the skin snapped with a satisfying pop 'neath my incisors--it's still just a hot dog. What made it Guadalajaran? Why that thin drizzle of sour cream, of course! Duh!

My bun was softly steamed (I think) rather than toasted, which is how I much rather prefer it; but the toppings were done as if presentation counted for something.

The Brooklyn Dog ($5.55) used the same 9-inch wiener, but had an excess of pastrami piled on top, all of it chewy thick and remarkably flavorless. I didn't get to taste the Polish sausage ($4.60) a friend had, but he ended up knife-and-forking it. It came with chili regardless of the fact that it did not say it would...which is not a complaint, just an observation.

A side order of fries ($2.95) were cajun-battered, and the onion rings ($3.35) had a crust that reminded me of hush puppies despite the mushy onion beneath.

We ate all of it within earshot of roller coaster screams and smelling distance of Mrs. Knott's famous fried chicken, another lauded eatery that did not choose to expand (a theme park was just built around it). Any bets on when we'll see a Mrs. Knott's chicken franchise taking on KFC?

Pink's Hot Dogs at Knott's
(714) 220-5200
8039 Beach Blvd
Buena Park, CA 90620

Food Issue 2010 - Holiday Restaurants
Fish Camp - Huntington Beach

Sunday, August 08, 2010

Jersey Mike's - Irvine

Geographic irony has never tasted better than in Jersey Mike's Famous Philly. The fact that the meat starts out as raw and thinly sliced before its slapped on the griddle when you order is reason enough to forget that Philly isn't in the Garden State (though it's really not that far).

Then the cheese goes on as soon as the pink is cooked out. And it ain't Cheese Wiz as it's usually done at Pat's Steaks. Instead you get your choice on what to melt. Whatever it is, realize that the cheese bubbles into a sauce that will eventually burn your upper palate. Calling it a sauce is incorrect. I should say scorching hot cheese lava.

I sunk my teeth into my sub and was immediately sorry I didn't wait. Best I could do was do the tongue dance, suck in air as fast as I could, and fan it frantically with my hands as if that would help. They weren't kidding when they billed this as a hot sandwich. And I like it that way.

The onions and bell peppers (red ones!) transform into sugary flavor boosts and the whole sandwich worked as a kind of sloppy wet, steaming meat stir-fry encased in an insulating pillow of bread.

I was surprised how much I liked this sandwich. I had little or no expectations for Jersey Mike's when it opened. But there's routinely a line out the door despite the hidden location in a practically deserted plaza where even Sam's Club couldn't manage to succeed.

I suppose it helps that it's the only lunch time alternative from the other fast-food purgatory options of Taco Bell, Burger King and Panda Express. There used to be a food court here, but that died long ago.

The second time I had the sandwich, the meat was a little less tender, and I knew better than to bite into it as soon as the torpedo-shaped, foil-wrapped thing was handed to me. Pausing to take a picture helps.

Next time I'll order a cold sub sandwich. They seem to do a little show when they assemble it, showering the open faces with a deluge of oil and vinegar from a tall bottle like an overzealous weather effects prop man on Gene Kelly.

And aren't you glad I went this long talking about something from Jersey without mentioning Snooky?

Jersey Mike's
(949) 955-2400
Von Karman Plaza
16525-G Von Karman Ave
Irvine, CA 92606

Raya at The Ritz-Carlton, Dana Point

Monday, August 02, 2010

Mami King - Buena Park

There's a theory that every noodle dish in the world is descended from China. It may still be up for intense debate, but while I'm no food historian, I would tend to agree. If not all noodles, then at the very least just those with a striking resemblance to the Chinese idea of serving noodles in a soup.

Among many examples, the dish has been repatriated to become ramen in Japan, bakmi in Indonesia. As with every noodle soup in Asia, both have become an indelible part of those cuisines.

Same goes for the Philippines, which enjoy a similar dish called mami: the Chinese/Filipino version of noodle soup. And where you can get a bowl of mami, you can also get siopao: the Filipino take on the Chinese bao, steamed buns filled with meat.

In Orange County, the place noted for its mami is Mami King in Buena Park.

Take a look at that broth. Have you ever seen anything richer and more evocative of chocolate milk? If it were any creamier, I think it would actually have to be chocolate milk.

Those who are familiar with ramen would be mislead if they think this is a tonkotsu broth. It is not. The brownness comes from the slow-braised hunks of beef they put into it, which is not unlike the hulking tender chunks you'd find in niu rou mian, Chinese beef noodle soup. Here, the beef takes on a kind of sweetness that may be too cloying for some. It's so sweet it almost tastes like it's covered in caramel.

I shared a bowl and though I liked it, my tolerance was tested.

The broth, however, is poured on hot. And I mean tongue-scorching, napalm fire, scalding hot--exactly how I prefer it. It's so hot it even tends to overcook the thin and stringy egg noodle.

Below the soup hides what seems like an never-ending supply of that beef, and shredded white meat chicken and a few pork-stuffed wontons. You get your $6.50's worth in proteins with this dish.

Truth be told, I actually like the siopao ($1.99) more than the mami. The fluffy cotton-soft buns are thick, perhaps too thick. But its gentle, pillowy bite brings a sweetness that comforts as much a bosom to a baby. Whether you choose the bola bola, or the pork, or the chicken, you slather it with a dipping sauce that will kind of remind you of hoisin, but not really.

Take the bola bola over the others, even if it's more expensive by 50 cents. Why? The thing harbors salted duck egg, pieces of Chinese sausage and more pork. Chinese influence or not, what's not up for the debate is that the combo is delicious.

Mami King Restaurant
(714) 521-0108
6901 La Palma Ave
Buena Park, CA 90620

TusCa - Garden Grove

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