Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Dos Chinos - Orange County

Face it folks, this food truck fad isn't going away soon. Of the many newfangled food trucks out there, there are few that didn't take its cues from Kogi, the one that started it all. Dos Chinos' Latin-Asian imitation of what Kogi does is flattery at its most sincere. But then, Kogi itself wasn't exactly original. It got the idea from a blogger.

I think Krusty the Clown summarized it best when he said, "If this is anyone but Steve Allen, you're stealing my bit!"

But I digress. Imitator or not, Dos Chinos is great. If you're going to find your inspiration from something as iconic as Kogi (yes, Kogi is now an icon), you couldn't do it better than what Hop Phan and crew have done at Dos Chinos. In actuality, apart from the fusion-y aspects it shares with Roy Choi's concept, Dos Chinos has a flavor profile all its own.

As most of you who've already tried both will already know, Kogi tends to favor the heavy, the cheesy, the bold. Dos Chinos is lighter on its feet and in what it puts into its tacos and burritos. Rice inhabits most things, as does cabbage, cilantro and salsa.

A shrimp burrito actually does taste like something out of a Hawaiian shrimp truck, a scampi-like preparation that mixes so well with the Mexi components that it boggles the mind why no one did it sooner. The Korean BBQ beef is sweeter than carne asada, but it still makes sense wrapped up inside a toasty and pliant tortilla.

But perhaps the best thing the truck produces is the fries, a deceptively simple and humble mound of fried-from-frozen garden variety spuds. It's sprinkled garlic butter and crumbles of cotija cheese to become an addictive substance that is immediately better than the sum of its parts.

It shows that in the end, it matters not who you take your inspiration from. What matters is that you put out something good...that just might inspire someone else to copy you later.

Dos Chinos

Three Seventy Common - Laguna Beach

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Sushi Imari - Costa Mesa

If you fancy yourself a sushi purist, you might have dismissed Sushi Imari as a roll-peddler, an entity that would initially appear so diametrically opposed to the respected raw fish masters at Sushi Shibucho and Sushi Wasabi that it becomes like comparing a graffiti artist to Michelangelo and Botticelli. Yes, it has a menu that features rolls with names including but not limited to the "Marilyn Monroll" and "Me Soy Horny".

But if you were judging by only that, you'd be as misinformed as I was when I walked in.

Nearly everything I ordered from the specials board turned me from snobby skeptic to instant fan.

I've been eating a lot of live amaebi lately, some better than others, but Sushi Imari's special was immaculate. I was floored how good it was. The flesh was predictably crunchy and sweet, dispatched just seconds before it's laid on top of the ball of rice; but the way they do the heads was a different beast entirely.

The antennae extended past the boundaries of the plate, arching towards the stratosphere, and were gilded in a thin shimmer of tempura batter that hung off like dew drops. The care taken in cooking the head was remarkable--every millimeter of the carapace was rendered crisp into a sea chip, the best fry job of its kind. It's greaseless and perfect, with just the right amount of salty.

And then there's the uni, so sweet I swore it was made of some sort of heavenly custard, and so sparkling fresh it seemed as if it were just fished out of the lapping waters of the Pacific just a minute before.

When we left, we talked about it again and both agreed: that was some great uni.

The hamachi kama, which I order just about anywhere I can get it, has to be ranked in my top five. The grilled fish collar--skin covered in char, supple flesh imbued with sweet, sweet smoke all the way through--was nothing but two thin bones picked clean by the end.

And yes, the rolls were unexpectedly enjoyable too. There was a cucumber-wrapped crab and tuna thing threaded by toothpicks that gushed flavor and a chillingly cool sensation, like a icy surge of arctic air down your spine.

Sushi Imari was excellent, and for the record, I also like well-done graffiti art just as much as I appreciate Michelangelo's masterpieces.

Sushi Imari
375 Bristol St. Ste 40
Costa Mesa, CA 92626
(714) 641-5654

Le Pain Quotidien - Newport Beach

Monday, December 12, 2011

Gourmet Grill Masters - Irvine

This lamb shawarma wrap is probably not the thing you ought to order if you go to Gourmet Grill Masters in Irvine. The signature item that put their catering truck--which does rounds at LA’s farmers markets--on Jonathan Gold’s list of Bests is the rotisserie chicken. The Pulitzer Prize winner honored Gourmet Grill Master’s hens as the best roast birds in LA, which is high praise when you consider what’s out there.

But alas, when I came to GGM in Irvine (their first brick-and-mortar store) I was at lunch break and had no desire to mack on a juice-gushing chicken with my good shirt on. A full-on rotisserie bender complete with finger-licking and toum fouling up my breath would have to wait.

In the meantime, it was the shawarma, and it was still more food than I intended to eat in an hour. I was not prepared for its girth. This was a shawarma that beats just about all other shawarmas I’ve had in magnitude. For all intents and purposes, it was a giant Middle Eastern burrito, especially when you consider that it uses the very same pliant and pleasantly stretchy flour tortillas places like Alberto’s employ for their carne asada gut bombs. This "burrito" is just as similarly mottled to crispness in spots, a thin barrier holding back a barrage of onions, tomatoes, lettuce and seasoned lamb meat shaved from an ever-rotating spit.

Along with the excess of filling, there’s an excess of flavor within those tortilla walls. For sure they’ve slathered on a bit of garlic paste, and probably some tahini (and perhaps just a tad too much onion). Not that the lamb really needs the assist: the crumbly and griddle-singed edges of this ground meat loaf-like thing sings of spices like cinnamon, nutmeg and oregano. Also contributing to distend my tummy: they gave out complimentary baskets of deep-fried mini pillows of tortilla with a minty dipping sauce on the side, just because they're nice.

Yes, I’ll try the rotisserie chicken soon. I’ve got a shirt ready to sacrifice for the occasion.

Gourmet Grill Masters
14141 Jeffrey Road
Irvine, CA 92620

Wood Ranch BBQ - Irvine

Monday, December 05, 2011

Macarons at Pascal - Santa Ana

Cupcakes, schmupcakes. I never came on board that train; but you can count me in as a passenger on the macaron bandwagon. A few years ago, there was a run on these crispy, chewy, multi-hued and flavor-filled pastries that look like mini burgers. I vaguely remember more than a few exuberant posts Chowhound touting the macarons at Boule, a now defunct bakery. Now, macarons are everywhere.

The best I’ve found so far are made by Pascal Olhats, the chef I most associate with anything French that’s worth consuming in OC. I’m not the only one that thinks so. A co-worker routinely compares Pascal’s macarons to those he’s had in Paris. They’re just as light, he says. To beg forgiveness for his transgressions, he buys them for his wife in lieu of flowers.

The merits of a good macaron, he says to me like an expert lecturer on the subject, is measured on how close it is to eating air. After all, macarons are pretty much a meringue with almond flour added for structural integrity. It can’t be at all dense; and it has to be crispy, leading to a delicate tacky chew on the inside. Ideally it should crumble and melt upon contact with your mouth, whereupon it just caves in on itself, subsiding like a sandcastle at high tide.

Available on the day I went to Pascal at Hutton Center were pistachio, lemon, strawberry, chocolate and chocolate banana. At $0.85 a piece, they’re half the price most bakeries would charge. I’ve seen macarons retail at prices around $1.60 per piece elsewhere. It must be said that Pascal’s macarons are, however, smaller than most. You can conceivably put two your mouth and still have room for one more—their diameters just slightly larger than a quarter…with the cost of about three and a dime.

2 Hutton Centre Dr
Santa Ana, CA 92707
(714) 957-3087

Silver Trumpet - Costa Mesa