Saturday, August 30, 2014

Class 302 Tea Cafe - Irvine

I think it speaks to Irvine's changing demographics that it can support not one but two Class 302's. I've said it before and I think I'll say it again: if they ever decide to name any city in Orange County its official Taiwan Town, it would have to be Irvine.

Boiling Point, Four Seas, 85 Degrees, Yu's Garden, the venerable A&J--these are all Taiwanese joints among many others in a town whose population might not have known the difference between kung pao chicken and teriyaki if you set your time machine back to 1980. But now, look at it: Class 302, the school-classroom themed restaurant that made it big in Rowland Heights, and then made it big in Irvine next to Wholesome Choice (which is a Persian supermarket, by the way), has opened its second outlet at the Irvine Marketplace. And there are lines out the door!

Most of the people you encounter come to do the self-serve boba drinks, which is not just new for Class 302, but Orange County in general.

With mechanized spigots you expect to dispense frozen yogurt, you construct your own milk tea, ice slush, you name it. Then, from troughs kept behind a sneeze guard, you scoop in your choice of jelly, fruit, or boba. Whatever you get, however much boba you add to your cup, it's a flat fee of about $4.

And no, there are no refills.

Still, getting a boba drink here requires you to have a certain level of trust for the person ahead of you and the people ahead of them. So if the thought of the hundreds of unwashed hands handling the wares is too much to process, then you are a germophobe, and you're probably better off getting your boba drink at Lollicup. Instead come to Class 302 for the food, especially the pork chop, which comes with the deep-fried batter already shedding, the pork sliced and sweet of its rice-wine marinade.

And if you order the chops as a bento, you'll be given a cute little lunch tin, which disassembles into two containers--one with ground-pork-and-pickled-vegetable-strewn rice, and the other with sautéed vegetables, pickles, and a tomato-and-egg scramble.

Also great: the thousand-year-old-egg and cold tofu appetizer that's doused with a savory brown sauce, pork rousong, scallions, and bonito flakes. It is refreshing, the perfect cooling bite of food when the weather is as hot as it has been. But then is there bad version of this dish?

The service might be a bit frenzied and forgetful right now--it's only been open a few weeks. And just like the original, they only accept cash. And once in a while, someone at the next table orders a stinky tofu dish that brings with it its usual smell of rot and decay. But this is Irvine in 2014, O.C.'s unofficial Taiwan Town, and if you live and eat here, you will need to learn to love the stench of stinky tofu.

Class 302
13256 Jamboree Rd.
Irvine, CA 92602

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Saturday, August 23, 2014

Mama Lu's Dumpling House - Monterey Park

The big news right now is that Din Tai Fung has finally opened at South Coast Plaza--the first time the Taiwanese-based chain has stepped foot in OC. But most of the chatter isn't about Din Tai Fung's food, it's about the familiar and inevitable Din Tai Fung wait, which is predictably long--upwards to 2 to 3 hours according to some first-hand accounts I heard.

I'm going to go anyway because, well, because it's goddamn Din Tai Fung and I'm of the belief that there is no better juicy pork dumpling (a.k.a. xiao long bao) out there than the one they make.

This, however, isn't to say that I don't appreciate other dumpling houses, especially Mama Lu's Dumpling House in Monterey Park which I tried recently on the recommendation of a friend who goes out for dumplings more than I do.

Yes, they make xiao long baos, too--pretty darned good ones that have the proper number of pleats and burst scalding hot soup if you eat them too soon. And though Mama Lu's dumpling skin isn't as thin or delicate as DTF's, the xiao long bao's here are just as consistently well-made, and fresh. Also, there's this: a meal here costs about half what you would pay at Din Tai Fung.

The other reason you should come is everything else. The onion pancakes might be the lightest, bubbliest, and greaseless I've ever had. They use these same pancakes for wrapping rolls slathered in hoisin and stuffed with tender tendon-jeweled slices of beef. There's also non-juicy pork buns, where meat-stuffed fluffy steamed bread with sesame-crusted bottoms are pan-fried to crispness. Their boiled chive, shrimp, and pork dumplings are exquisite in their simplicity. There are deep-fried breads you're supposed to dip into saucers of sweetened condensed milk. And vermicelli noodles with salted fish and chicken. And sautéed green beans in family-sized quantities freckled with garlic, dried shrimp and pickled vegetables.

Another thing about this place: the food comes out hot and fast, mere minutes from when you ordered, which will be mere minutes from when you were waiting to be seated.

Yes, I said minutes. Not hours. And when you sit, there's free peanuts and pickled cucumbers to munch on. Mama Lu's may not be as famous, glitzy, or as fashionable as Din Tai Fung, but when did dumplings and this kind of food need to be?

Mama Lu's Dumpling House
153 E Garvey Ave.
Monterey Park, CA 91755
(626) 307-5700

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Saturday, August 16, 2014

Kitakata Ramen Ban Nai - Costa Mesa

Surely you heard about the recent headline that instant ramen has been linked to heart attacks and diabetes. That along with MSG and the chemical preservative tertiary-butylhydroquinone (TBHQ), which is a petroleum byproduct, it's also high in saturated fat.

This is why you probably should eat more real ramen. Made-from-scratch noodles in a made-from-scratch soup. And the city you need to go to have it has always been Costa Mesa. Costa Mesa is Ramen Town. Costa Mesa is home to the venerable Santoka with its rich-as-gravy broths, Ramen Yamadaya with its equally weighty bowls of pure pork bliss, but also the indies Mentatsu and Ramen Zetton.

There used to be one more: Kohryu. It closed earlier this year. But guess what took over the space? Yes, another ramen shop called Kitakata Ramen Ban Nai, which is the first U.S. store of a chain that has about 60 locations in Japan. Costa Mesa isn't called Ramen Town for nothing.

Kitakata Ramen Ban Nai makes great noodles. And they are perhaps the ones that feel the most homemade of the bunch. The strands are particularly bungie-like and elastic here, with an imperfect crinkle that speaks of its manual process. These noodles are a pleasure to chew. There's a considerable bounce to the texture and a thickness that lies somewhere between udon and angel hair--characteristics indicative of the region from which they came.

Another distinctive feature of the bowls from this area is the broth, which is clear, not milky. When you sip Kitakata Ramen Ban Nai's soup, it will be light--virtually spring water when compared to Santoka and Yamadaya's rich oily sludge. This is not to say it isn't flavorful. It is. But you don't drink your sustenance here; you eat it in the form of those bloated noodles and the thick pork belly slices they layer on top.

Kitakata Ramen Ban Nai adorns all the bowls with the toro chashu (fatty roast pork). In their most expensive bowl, they carpet the entire surface with layers of pig. Less pork-endowed but just as substantial is the green chile ramen, which has tufts of shredded scallions, strips of red onion, napa cabbage and thin slices of chili hiding near the bottom of the bowl. It's not particularly spicy until you run into them.

Their signature bowls of Kitakata ramen have corn, snow peas, bean sprouts and menma. Portion sizes are generous. You probably want to add an egg. They're perfect. The yolk is flawless--balanced in a state of matter between liquid and solid. Also great, their chicken karaage--greaseless, soft, moist throughout, and just the right amount of crisp on the outside.

During these first few weeks, service is over-the-top nice. There are so many floral arrangements and bouquets from friends and well-wishers, the restaurant smells like a funeral home where it isn't steamy and crammed with people.

Ramen is alive and well in Ramen Town.

Kitakata Ramen Ban Nai
891 Baker St. Suite B21
Costa Mesa, CA 92626
(714) 557-2947

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Thursday, August 07, 2014

DelSushi - Irvine

You may have your doubts about DelSushi--the sushi delivery service whose coverage area is bordered by the 405, Culver, Jamboree, and the 73. How good can delivery sushi be? Answer: Very good. Amazing actually. And if I may be so bold: Better than the sushi fast-food chain that rhymes with Pushy Toy.

I know what you’re thinking: “That’s not saying much”, but hey, just try it. You can afford to. The prices are fairly reasonable for the girth of the rolls they offer. The average price is about $10 for a fat, generously proportioned maki that yields 8 mouth-muffling pieces with lots of fish and just enough rice.

Take a gander at the large ruby core of the spicy tuna; the egg-and-unagi-and-crabmeat-and-cucumber stuffed Futo Maki; the thick slices of unagi on the Double Dragon; and the rice-less Pink Lady, which looks like flower petals made of salmon.

And for those of you who aren’t lucky enough to live in the coverage area, you can get the sushi straight from its storefront (which also stocks a variety of Korean instant noodles and snacks). It’s sandwiched in between Berkeley Dog and CyberDeck across from the UC Irvine campus--one more reason that University Center is all kinds of awesome.

And oh, DelSushi is open until two in the freaking A.M.!

4249 Campus Dr.
Irvine, CA 92612
(949) 324-7171

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