Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Waiiha Sushi - Costa Mesa

I don't think I've seen a more austere sushi bar than the new Waiiha Sushi at the OC Mart Mix. It looks almost half finished, like they saw the primer being applied and then just told contractor, "Stop right there. That's perfect."

Perhaps they figured the food should be the focus. In tasting a few items, I would have to believe so. The menu is as sparse as the surroundings--rolls with cute names on a single sheet; combo bentos with tempura, teriyaki, and karaage; and some apps in a two-page laminated folio.

I thought I had the place pegged. I thought it would just be like so many others; but I was pleasantly surprised.

In fact those words were exactly what I heard a customer tell the chef when he asked how everything was . "I'm pleasantly surprised," the guy said as he paid his check.

We were surprised with just about everything we tried.

Something called "Moon Light" turned out to be fried shrimp, crab meat and asparagus rolled inside a thin omelet that's cut into six wheels. There was no rice to obscure the oceany sweetness, no wasabi to interrupt perfection. And then there was that crepe-like omelet and I'm always a sucker for things made from an egg.

There was the "Candy Salmon", a $3-a- piece single bite shot of salmon draped over a ball of crab meat mix dipped in fine-grit tempura crumbs. You drag it through a dribbled sticky sweet soy sauce and let the cool silk of the meat dissolve into nothing in your gullet.

Poke nachos ($9) were cubed ahi coated in sauce stacked on top of wonton chip--standard stuff, really, but well-done and gone too quickly. You could say the same about the yellowtail carpaccio ($11), four pristine slices soaking in a complementary sauce with a jalapeño slice.

It was one of those experiences with which we had no prior expectations but came away with much more. Like that other guy said, we were pleasantly surprised.

Waiiha Sushi
3321-D Hyland Ave
Costa Mesa, CA 92626
(949) 424-3321

The Starling Diner - Long Beach

Monday, March 19, 2012

Thrifty's Ice Cream - Irvine

Those who remember that Thrifty's ice cream used to cost 15-cents will also remember that the whole store used to be called Thrifty's, not Rite-Aid . And with that sentence, I've officially dated myself as a child of the 80s. 

My memories of these cones were fond ones. It was a treat that, even as a kid, I recognized as an incredible value. I'm pretty sure I must have used Thrifty ice cream cones as a price index for other things a young person of that age deemed necessary for survival--a Transformers Megatron action figure with silencer, stock, telescopic sight/fusion cannon, for instance, cost a small fortune in scoops of vanilla.

When I have one now, it's always sweetly nostalgic, even if its current price ($1.69) now represents more than 1000% increase from then. 

I'm not complaining. It's a fact that Thrifty's...sorry, I meant, Rite-Aid, still charges a fraction of what other ice cream parlors levy these days. And they've kept everything else the same, which is much more important.

Flavors like Chocolate Malted Crunch, the pina-colada-ish Coconut-Pineapple, and the Technicolor orgy of the Rainbow Sherbet are still around. And then there are those cylindrical scoops that push out the ice cream into that distinctive pencil-eraser, flat-top shape with an audible "kachunk".

Those who've had one with me these days can attest that the sound is as reliable as hearing me wax nostalgic about how the cones used to cost just 15-cents.

Rite Aid
18112 Culver Dr.
Irvine, CA 92612
(949) 786-0151

The Riders Club - San Clemente

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Christopher Garrens' Cookies - Costa Mesa

Was there ever a farm called Pepperidge? If so, why were they baking when they should be farming? I do like a few of their cookies, though. Not so much the chocolate chip ones, which for some reason, never taste as good as they look on the package; but the Chessmen and the Milano Melts can do no wrong.

The chocolate chip cookies at Christopher Garrens are what I'd expect Pepperidge Farm's chocolate chip cookies to taste like: rustic, craggly and embedded with all sorts of chunkage.

We tried about four kinds, ranging from the basic chocolate chip; to something called the "Ultimate Chocolate Chip" with coconut, oats, and pecans; to another cookie with more chocolate chips; and something else I pointed at without thinking about what I was pointing at.

Now get ready for the most useless review/recommendation you'll ever read on this blog: One of them was tastier than the others, crumbly, milky, filling my mouth with a vanilla warmth and grandma-baked homeyness. The others were simply okay and one was inordinately dry. Since they were dropped into the same bag, I can't tell you which one was which.

So there. But then, they're not very expensive, so it's not much of a risk to try them all.

You know who else makes a good cookie? Doubletree. No really. They do. And they're free if the front desk mistakes you for a hotel guest; a buck if they don't.

But I digress. Christopher Garrens is also a cake baker, if you didn't already know. They have a whole room shrine/museum showing off what they can really do with sugar, butter and flour. These are cakes so elaborately designed and artfully decorated they don't look like they should be eaten or even touched. I have no pictures to show you because pictures are not allowed; but they have a few of their mind-boggling edible architectural structures on their website.

I'm sure a commenter or two will tell me to try more there. So let me be preemptive and say that I have every intention of going back, especially if just to narrow down which cookie that was that I liked so much!

Christopher Garrens
3321 Hyland Avenue
Costa Mesa, CA 92626
(714) 445-0189

THE RANCH - Anaheim

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

The Spice Table - Los Angeles

I'd been putting off reviewing The Spice Table in Los Angeles, not because both Jonathan Gold and S. Irene Virbila pretty much said everything in their gushing odes to Bryant Ng's Singaporean-flavored Little Tokyo restaurant; but because I still haven't made it up there for dinner, which I hear from Bonnie Jiang, Ng's chef de cuisine, is the real reason to go.

Also, there was the fact that I wanted to write something about Bonnie herself, who I went to college and am friends with (that's me in full disclosure mode) and whose food I ate and enjoyed before she ditched her technical background designing F-18 fighter jets, went to culinary school, worked at Lucques, and then finally landed this current gig.

I made my first and so far, only, visit last September and caught them in a lull between lunch and dinner. It was then that I ordered the turgid, insane-wich you see above. It is officially called a banh mi, but this thing seemed more grandiose than that. The bread is made in house, and it crunches down with a hearty crackle and supple crumb that became the base and delivery device for tons and tons (did I mention there was a lot?) of marinated and griddle seared (I think) pork belly. The picture I took does not do its enormity justice.

Then on came the slaw in tart, refreshing, snappy fistfuls. And for a final crowning touch? Crunchy golden hoops of fried shallots, a topping that plays directly to my Indonesian-food-loving heart (We Indos like to put fried shallots on top of nearly everything).

It cost me about $11, and it was so much food (and probably the biggest pork sandwich I've ever had put in front of me) that I could only eat about $5-worth in one sitting, leaving the rest to nibble on for the remainder of the afternoon.

So why am I writing about it now? Well, Bryant Ng just got nominated for The People's Best New Chef in Food & Wine Magazine with some heavy hitters like Michael Voltaggio and Corey Lee. And it seemed an appropriate time as any to mention them, even if I still have to make it up there for dinner.

The Spice Table
114 S Central Ave
Los Angeles, CA 90012
(213) 620-1840

Orea Taverna - Placentia