Monday, March 24, 2014

Rocharin Thai - Seal Beach

OC doesn't have its own Thai Town, but this doesn't mean that we don't have great Thai restaurants. It only means that the ones we have are scattered throughout our fair county—the proverbial Easter eggs waiting to be found. Some of the greatest—Coconut Rabbit in Los Alamitos, Sutha Thai in Tustin and Tasty Thai in Lake Forest—are still waiting to be discovered. And then there's Rocharin Thai in Seal Beach, which isn't hard to find if you've ever decided to take the PCH scenic route instead of the 405 from Long Beach to Orange County.

I stopped in finally after what must be dozens of drive-bys, and it deserves its place among the greats. The interior design is straight-up Pier One. At sundown, they dim the lights low for a romantic mood, candle lights flickering on each table. Like Coconut Rabbit, Rocharin Thai is one of a handful of Thai restaurants that could conceivably and capably function as a first-date place. Wine and fruity soju-based cocktails are served. The shareable sticky rice with mango comes with two kinds of sticky rice.

And of course, the presentation is impeccable; but the food tastes even better than it looks. Nibble on shrimp bundled in crunchy-fried noodles, the cocoons crumbling into shards as you bite; or if you’d rather, swaddled up tight in golden wonton skin—they have both kinds. The fried tofu is just fried tofu, but it's served so hot it'll burn off the skin of your upper palate if you eat it too soon.

Then there are the main dishes. The crab fried rice is silky from the egg, with the sweet meat of the shellfish dotting the rice like confetti. A special red curry with pumpkin is amazing, proving that kabocha is a way better starch than potato to use for all curries—it’s sugary, comforting, and more colorful to boot. One of their specialties is simply called the Andaman Sea, which is a noodle dish not unlike pad Thai, but more zippy, and covered in seafood—squid rings, fish pieces, mussels, shrimp and scallop.

So discover this Easter egg already!

Rocharin Thai
600 Pacific Coast Hwy #108
Seal Beach, CA 90740
(562) 596-5156

Boathouse on the Bay - Long Beach

Monday, March 17, 2014

Yellowfin Fish Grill - Irvine

There’s a fine line with fish and chips. Either they're great, or they're not. There are more of the not-so-great ones out there than anything else. They can be too oily, too dry, too mealy in the batter. One time, I went out of my way to an Irish pub that was supposedly famous for it. I left thinking I had better and kind of sorry I paid so much.

For me, good fish and chips tend to be stumbled into accidentally. I don't find good fish and chips; good fish and chips finds me. That's exactly what happened at Yellowfin Fish Grill in Irvine. The fish and chips there (which was actually served as part of a fried fish and shrimp combo with the fries as a side) was something I ordered because my lovely dining companion had already ordered something grilled. But my, am I glad she did, because if she hadn't, I wouldn't have discovered this. What a surprise! It was wondrous. White and flaky, moist where it counts and encased in a golden cocoon that seemed leavened by air.

I ate the thing like I'd never ate fried fish before. There was something about it, something buttery, and light, and all-around perfect. It reminded me of the trout they do at Thai Nakorn, all splayed out thin and fried greaseless. This was similar. And then there was that extra flavor in it that made it that much more irresistible. In reading the menu, I think they actually did put some of their garlic butter sauce on it...but then why was it still crispy? The shrimp was excellent too--tasting as though they were hand-breaded, not dropped into the oil carelessly from a pre-frozen package.

And oh, because they're relatively new (they took over Oceanic Fish Grill), they have these free, serve-yourself troughs of tortilla chips and salsa bar, which may be reason enough to try the place during this Lenten season.

Yellowfin Fish Grill
6404 Irvine Blvd
Irvine, CA 92620
(949) 861-3800

Nesai Restaurant - Newport Beach

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Tabi-Ji - Orange

When you sit at the Tabi-Ji sushi bar, prepare to be fed. This offshoot of Shiki--one of the oldest (if not the oldest and continuously running Japanese restaurants in OC)--is barely months old, but it already has regulars who know that they will get their money's worth in food when they come. The space used to be an Italian restaurant up until a few months ago. Now it's a catch-all Japanese cuisine emporium. One area with two teppanyaki islands is dedicated to the rap-a-tap-tap showmanship of two teppan chefs. In between this and the regular tables is a sushi bar manned by four venerable-looking gents who look like their combined experience adds up to at least a century.

Our chef was younger man, but he happened to be the most jovial and cherubic of the bunch. When he wasn't laughing or toasting his customers with a big beer in hand, he cut his fish with a cheeky smile spread across his face. I whispered to my date that he looked like the human embodiment of one of those perpetually pawing cat statues. We liked him immediately, and not just because he gave us complimentary starters of seasoned fish salad atop of wonton cracker and fruit for dessert (they give that out to everyone). No, we liked him because he looked like he was genuinely lucky and glad to be there...and so, too, were we.

He makes big, generous, honking sushi. When most salmon skin rolls are anemic, his is overloaded, nigh pregnant, with more meat than skin--fat cylinders that we could hardly fit in our mouths. His uni is luscious and as sweet and creamy as custard. A special of conch sushi chewed with a deliberate crunch. Then there was the Mango Roll, spicy tuna hugged with fistfuls of rice, then covered in salmon and formed into wheels gilded in sliced mango. Had we known this was enough for a meal in and of itself, we wouldn't have ordered the hamachi kama. But it's a good thing we did. We got the last one of the night and it was as good as always--the one food that rewards those who are dexterous with chopsticks. I'm of the belief that just as there is no such thing as a bad publicity, there is no such thing as bad hamachi kama.

In the meantime, a Caucasian man came in, sat next to me at the bar, then ordered a "Big Asahi", some edamame, and sashimi. When he was served his plate of immaculately cut fish, he had already made himself a soy-wasabi slurry that at this point looked like smooth peanut butter. Every piece of fish he took from the pile, he rolled around in that stuff, covering every inch in the greenish-brown sludge. When he ate one his eyes rolled to the back of his head. If you couldn't tell, he liked the place. And so did I.

665 N Tustin St
Orange, CA 92867
(714) 633-6000

Tabu Burgers & Bites - Santa Ana

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

TK Noodle & Grill - Irvine

Now here's something I never would've thought could open in Irvine: Com Tam Thuan Kieu, which is perhaps the most Little Saigon of all the Little Saigon restaurants. What do I mean by that? I mean it's divey--or at least the original was, the one I first wrote about here on these pages so many years ago.

This isn't quite the same Com Tam Thuan Kieu I knew. It's called Thuan Kieu Noodle & Grill, which is, from what I can see, a rebranded chain owned by different members of the family.

Furthermore, the newly opened restaurant in Irvine's Northpark neighborhood goes by the official title of TK Noodle & Grill, and it serves pho, which the original does not do.

But make no mistake: this is still a Com Tam Thuan Kieu. It says so in big bold letters inside the restaurant itself. And the menu has grand plates of broken rice surrounded by as many as 10 different toppings...yes, I said 10!

I did not try the 10 topping plate, which looks more like a party tray than something one person eats for dinner by himself. So I got the special, a reasonably priced combo of their grilled lemongrass-perfumed chicken, a whole mess of cha gio (deep fried Vietnamese egg rolls), veggies, and dome of broken rice garnished with sautéed green onions. It came with a bowl of hot soup ladled from the pho pot, the scalding liquid sweetened with bits of fried onion and meat to lubricate your mouth in between shovels of rice and meat. And of course, there's plenty of nuoc cham for dousing.

It was in the nuoc cham that I realized, once and for all, that this was truly a Com Tam Thuan Kieu and not some impostor--onion bulbs floated in it, a signature touch of the original.

3951 Irvine Blvd.
Irvine, CA 92602
(714) 389-4800

Craftsman Pizza - Placentia