Saturday, August 24, 2013

Seasons of Japan - Irvine

There are literally thousands of Japanese fast casual chains like Seasons of Japan, but only eight that are actually called "Seasons of Japan". All but the one that just opened in Irvine are located east of the Mississippi, most of them in Georgia. This makes Seasons of Japan even more foreign to me than if the place actually came from Japan.

Why? Well, because we've had a lot restaurants that are direct imports from Japan, without anything much lost in the translation. The beef tongue purveyor Gyutan Tsukasa at Costa Mesa's Mitsuwa Marketplace comes to mind. There were few surprises when I tried it. But a Japanese restaurant by way of Georgia? Now that's new.

Don't get me wrong: Seasons of Japan is certainly doing Japanese food. It offers the usual Japanese bag of tricks we Americans decided we like most about Japanese cuisine: teriyaki, hibachi, sushi rolls, sashimi, and tempura. But then they have these sauce dispensers that squirt what looks and tastes like sweetened mayonnaise. There are two variations of this sauce: a regular one and another that is adulterated with what must be Sriracha to be spicy.

There's a sign on the spigots that say the sauces go well with shrimp. And you know what? The sign is right: it tastes great with the shrimp. The hibachi-griddled shrimp, the tempura, but especially the shrimp served with a so-called Bang Bang Salad--which has the prawns lightly fried in a thin shimmer of batter and then served on top of greens as though it were croutons--turned into something even better than I expected when I dipped it in this sweet, creamy, and probably very fattening sauce.

It took me only a minute to realize why I liked it so much: it makes every shrimp taste like it's the Chinese restaurant staple of Honey Walnut Shrimp, except without the honey or the walnuts.

How are the other dishes? Fine. The seared beef cubes of hibachi steak is tender enough (not the best I've had). But they got better when I doused it with steak sauce dispensed by another self-serve spigot. I used a Sriracha-like hot sauce served out of a pitcher to dab a roll draped with unagi, avocado, and filled with some sort of broccoli salad. And because they are from the Atlanta area, home of Coca-Cola, they have one of those freestyle Coke machines--another reason why Seasons of Japan might quell feelings of homesickness in Georgians more than it would people from actual Japan.

3831-C Alton Pkwy
Irvine, CA 92606
(949) 502-5111

The Woods - Fullerton

Sunday, August 18, 2013

OC Fair 2013 - Costa Mesa

It's done. Over. Gone. The OC Fair is history; the next one a year away. And right about now I'm having withdrawals. Right about now I'm thinking about that corndog I didn't get to eat, that turkey leg I never got around to trying, that trapeze show I missed.

Yes, the food can be too expensive, too deep-fried, too fatty, too sweet. Yes, the crowds and the heat can be oppressive. But it's the county fair. It's summer. It's the time we excuse ourselves the dietary restrictions we barely abide by the rest of the year--you know, the one we also loosen for Thankgiving, Christmas, and birthdays?

Our discovery this year? The roasted corn. I don't know the name of the vendor who sold it. It's the one with the giant smiling ear of corn the size of a yeti; the one selling nothing but corn; the one with all the condiments on a side table to squirt, slather and sprinkle.

We told ourselves we'd go back the following weekend to get more. We said this time we weren't going to share one; we were each going to get our own ear. But things came up and we couldn't go. It may be just as well. Perhaps it's better to savor the memory of that corn for now. As they say, absence makes the heart go fonder and county fair roasted corn to taste even sweeter.

So next year, we're making a beeline straight from the entrance to the corn! And then, after that, the corndog, the turkey leg, and that trapeze show!

In the meantime, there's this video I made.

88 Fair Dr.
Costa Mesa, CA 92626
(714) 708-1500

H2O Sushi & Izakaya - Costa Mesa

Friday, August 09, 2013

Mie Ayam at Warung Pojok - Garden Grove

There isn't a time when I don't want noodle soup. Be it ramen, hu tieu, or something with fish balls, I will eat noodle soup anytime, anywhere, anyhow. There's just something about how the hot broth can find its way to patch the cracked parts of my soul.

And the noodles! Ah the noodles! What is it about the chewiness, the way it carries the warmth of the soup to my mouth in a long infinite stream? Maybe because it resembles a lifeline.

Whatever metaphors I may use to describe noodle soup, it is balm; it is a cure-all; it is, for lack of a better term, my comfort food.

Even watching people hunch over their steaming bowls can be therapeutic. The greatest TV food porn I've ever witnessed are the shows where Anthony Bourdain goes to some part of Asia and then sits down to suck down a hot bowl of noodles. But he, along with everyone else in America, has yet to discover what the Indonesians have contributed to the genre. Indonesians have an entire galaxy of noodle soup from mie bakso, to the elaborate mie tite (pronounced tee-tay), which starts out sugary sweet until it's doused with pungent hits of garlic water.

But perhaps the most popular Indonesian noodle soup is mie ayam, which is technically NOT a noodle soup. The soup, you see, is served on the side, in a separate bowl and apart from the noodles. You might say it's a deconstruction, except it predates the Ferran Adrias and Wylie Dufresnes of the world. In other words, this ain't molecular gastronomy. It's as home-kitchen as you can get. The noodles are cooked, then tossed in a bowl with a slick of oil, flurries of salt and pepper, and then topped with a slow-simmered mix of cubed chicken meat and mushrooms. Some boiled greens are added for color and texture.

You eat it "dry", but it isn't; every chewy strand is flavor-packed. You might say it has more in common with spaghetti, but then there's the soup, which is a dialed-back chicken broth with springy meatballs you sip in concert. Some might call it bland, but it's mild for a reason: its purpose is to act merely as lubricant in between the slurps of noodle. Also essential: some chili paste to dab over everything.

Warung Pojok has done this dish well since it started doing business a few years ago, but its maturity has allowed it to make the dish even better than it used to be. The mie ayam is now served an actual bowl, not Styrofoam, and everything seems to now be at a level that can't be improved upon. I don't remember enjoying it as much as when I had it recently. Warung Pojok is no longer the only Indonesian eatery in OC...but it is, to my knowledge, still the only place that does this dish--this wonderful noodle soup dish that's not exactly one.

Warung Pojok
13113 Harbor Blvd
Garden Grove, CA 92843
(714) 638-8716

Diego's Downtown - Santa Ana