Monday, May 28, 2012

Tapioca Express - Irvine

A new Tapioca Express just opened in Costa Mesa. Yes, apparently I was premature when I proclaimed a few years ago that boba had gone the way of the dodo like so many food fads.

Tapioca Express, judging by this recent development and the longevity of other outlets, is still growing and remains strong--even as froyo shops continue to melt away into oblivion. And truth be told, I haven't actually been to a frozen yogurt shop in ages; but I haven't stopped going to Tapioca Express, at least the one on Jamboree and DuPont, next to the Daily Grill.

This store, I'm convinced, is the best one in the whole franchise. They have couches to sit on, magazines that aren't from the early nineties, and a staff that seems to be glad to be there.

But it isn't for the milk tea bobas that we come. We're there whenever we're jonesing for Taiwanese-style crispy chicken. Unlike the other Tapioca Expresses in town, they use big, generous cuts of white meat for theirs, each gossamer-battered chunk still juicy and fried fresh. And while other poorly managed Tapioca Expresses have given up on serving it with fried basil leaves, this branch still does--a sign that they still take pride in what they do.

We usually end up having it as a complete meal with fresh steamed rice and a salad coated in such an addictive, sweet-and-sour, Asian oil-and-vinegar dressing that I use more of it to douse my rice and dip my chicken.

So, long live Tapioca Express at Jamboree Promenade! May you outlast the frozen yogurt stores, the cupcake boutiques and the recently birthed snow ice shops.

Tapioca Express
2636 Dupont Dr
Irvine, CA 92612
(949) 553-9988

Brasserie Pascal's Foie Gras Meal - Newport Beach

Thursday, May 24, 2012

A Thai Nakorn Feast - Garden Grove

Ah, the splendors of a Thai Nakorn feast. In my humble opinion, the restaurant remains the best Thai in our county with flavors bold and arresting--the kind that stays with you, etched in your memory for days.

I was treated to such a feast recently. To celebrate five years of food reviewing for OC Weekly, we went back to the restaurant I reviewed first: this restaurant. Ordered was way too much food; seven dishes in all for four mouths when three entrees would've been sufficient. But there's no such thing as too much when it comes to this food. Everything is good and a majority of it is great. Close your eyes, put your finger anywhere on the menu, and where it lands is a guaranteed winner.

We got all of our favorites. Staples of tom kha gai slurps with the thickness of coconut milk and the invigorating tang of lime juice. The mee krob is laced with orange zest to tickle your nostrils. A stir try of water grass, the spinach-like vegetable we Indos call kang kung, harbored chilies and roughly chopped garlic. Satays were smoky; the pad see ew silky; and the larb piercing of raw ginger. And the chicken curry reiterates how food can actually make you feel good. Paired with rice, it's a natural antidepressant.

We managed to make a significant dent on our order but had so much left over we reconvened the next evening to finish the rest. Ah, the splendors of Thai Nakorn leftovers!

Thai Nakorn
(714) 583-8938
12532 Garden Grove Blvd
Garden Grove, CA 92843-1907

South County Pho

Friday, May 18, 2012

Ridgeback Shrimp at The Shack - Rowland Heights

Have you ever had a ridgeback shrimp? They're a local species, caught off the coast of Santa Barbara, and they're finicky creatures. They must be kept alive until the very moment they are to be cooked--otherwise the internal organs start to degrade rapidly and they turn an unappetizing black.

They are also armored with a carapace made for medieval forms of war. BB pellets shot at point blank range would ricochet with a pling-pling-pling. I had some ridgebacks at The Shack in Rowland Heights recently, served and steeped in a plastic bag filled with butter and Cajun spices (yes, just like at The Boiling Crab), and I sustained actual injuries handling them.

The shell is somewhere between a regular Gulf shrimp and a crawfish, but with barbed appendages as sharp as pins. I got an honest-to-goodness cut on my thumb, and she punctured her index finger. Seriously, a chain mail glove would probably be advisable to use here.

But oh the rewards. The meat is inordinately sweet, deep in flavor, not at all fishy, and as delicate as crab. The stripes of a cooked ridgeback are deep crimson instead of pink. You also need to tear into the head, peeling the skull back like a brain surgeon and then nibbling on the meat right behind the beady eyes along with all of that delicious pulpy gunk that surrounds it.

Since these are wild-caught, there will be a disparity in the sizes. They aren't sorted, so you'll often get a few runts along with the Hulk-sized ones. And right about now, since its already at the end of its season, ridgebacks are hard to come by, which makes them all the more special.

The Shack is so far the only restaurant outside Santa Barbara where I've seen them. If you intend to go to The Shack to try them, call first. They've got three suppliers and the owner told me that what I had on this trip may be the last until the season starts up again in September. He sold them for $9.99 per pound, just a dollar more than the regular shrimp. When they do return, you can be sure I'll be back at The Shack...with Band-Aids.

The Shack
18927 Colima Rd.
Rowland Heights, CA 91748
(626) 839-4700

Anepalco's Cafe - Orange

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Bear Flag Fish Company - Newport Beach

Bear Flag Fish Company's second store has become, if I had to guess, the cheapest place to eat at Crystal Cove Promenade. Of course when I say cheap, I'm comparing it against what other choices you have there, including Bluefin and Mastro's, which would require credit history checks if they were any more expensive.

But here's a tip to make the most of your non-coast-dwelling, meager earnings if you do decide to dine at Bear Flag: when you order the fish plate, you have the option of picking whatever species is displayed behind their butcher case for the same fixed price--so choose the costliest one.

Without looking, I took the mahi mahi, which turned out to be the cheapest. I thought myself a rube as I ate it, thinking of how I could've had the wild salmon instead, which was nearly twice the price at the time.

Still it was a good plate of food, served with steamed jasmine, the kind of rice I always prefer, and a generous amount of stir fried vegetable including zucchini that tasted like it was cooked in a hot wok, a-la-minute.

Comparisons will be made to California Fish Grill, and Bear Flag is certainly in the same genre. It is a moderately priced seafood restaurant first and fishmonger second, even if it has very few seats and looks like a butcher shop. You will rarely see anyone buying raw fish to take home, though you certainly could. But why would you, especially when I've told you the secret?

Bear Flag Fish Company
7972 East Pacific Coast Highway
Newport Beach, CA 92657
(949) 715-8899

Umami Burger - Costa Mesa

Thursday, May 03, 2012

Magic Wok's "Special Combo" Breakfast - Artesia

I have finally tasted the king of all egg-based breakfasts. No Grand-Slam-This or Big-Breakfast-That can ever hope to compare to Magic Wok's "Special Combo" breakfast--a meal that has everything you need, nothing you don't, and is available all day long. Filipinos call this fried-rice-and-egg breakfasts silogs. And no silogs I've had before, or ever will have in the future will be as perfect as this. You doctor warned you to ease off on the cholesterol-ladened foods? Eat this as your last hurrah.

The combo breakfast is actually three silogs in one (bangsilog, longsilong, and tapsilog), which really just means it has all the essential Filipino breakfast meats on a single plate with the fried egg and fried rice. If you count the egg, the plate has contributions from cow, pig, chicken and sea. It's a veritable species sampler. The bangus (milkfish) is tangy, crispy-fried golden brown and delicious. The beef tapa is sugary, not unlike a boneless glazed BBQ beef rib. The longanisa is bifurcated down the middle, splayed open like a book, then seared on the flat side to a caramel sticky, crispiness and oozing sweet pork fat. The egg, well, it's also well-done. Everything I said, perfect.

Key to the greatness of the dish is that it's served screaming hot. The meats are still essentially sizzling when it comes to you; but even the fried rice is fuming steam, seemingly just seconds from the blazing kiss of a hot wok. You quench everything with douses of vinegar, which also cuts through the richness like a white hot blade.

I go to Magic Wok a lot. I write about Magic Wok often. I'm slowly working my way to trying everything on the menu. Someday, I'm planning a post where I just plaster this page with all the pictures from years of exploration. But this breakfast deserved a post of its own. It's a wonder I didn't try it till now. But when you're surrounded by riches, even the Hope Diamond can get lost.

Magic Wok
11869 Artesia Blvd
Artesia, CA 90701
(562) 865-7340

The Hobbit - Orange