Thursday, January 29, 2015

The Asian Person's Hamburger Helper

I don't mean to generalize, but if you are Asian of any persuasion, you probably have a box of what you see above in your pantry. It is, as the title of this post suggests, the Asian person's Hamburger Helper--it turns stuff you already have in your fridge or freezer (ground pork, a bunch of scallions, and soft tofu) into a hot meal.

It's also the shortest distance from hungry to happy in 15 minutes or less. You brown the meat, add the chopped scallions, add the sauce, let it simmer a bit, then fold in the tofu cubes. You don't even need to read the directions on the box.

And of course, you should have it with some steamed rice. Actually, probably a lot of it. What you see is below is one box of tofu with about a half pound of meat, but I could polish off the entire thing all by lonesome self.

I've tried many other brands of Mabo Tofu sauce, but the House Foods version trumps them all. Heck, in my opinion, it produces a better product than most restaurant mabo tofus. You might say the same about the good ol' blue box of Kraft Mac-N-Cheese. Yes, I have that in my pantry, too, but it's like, five years old and untouched.

Pueblo - Costa Mesa

Thursday, January 22, 2015

MaDee Thai Kitchen - Costa Mesa

MaDee's cashier, who is probably also one of its owners, was frazzled. It was Sunday, 30-minutes before her restaurant was set to close up, but people were still streaming in as steady as a drumbeat. I was one of those people. I wanted to order something for take-out.

She says to me: "It's going to take at least thirty minutes. Is that okay? I've been telling people on the phone forty-five."

"Yes, it's fine!" I responded. "I'll wait."

Mine was a simple order: just the soft shell crab and sticky rice with mango for dessert. And so I waited. And observed. It's a tiny restaurant. Barely anything on the walls. Chairs in disarray. Two couples were there slurping on what I presume is the kha soi, their most popular dish. But like me, the rest of the customers who ambled in from the cold wanted take-out.

Half quietly left after they found out it would take upwards of a half an hour. The other half were smart enough to phone ahead.

There were three other people behind the register, working furiously in the cramped open kitchen, tossing things airward in a blazing wok, dropping battered pieces of something into a gurgling deep fryer.

At about minute 25 I see my crabs being prepared. Then all of a sudden she has my order ready. I take it home, the scent of the deep fried crustaceans causing me to drool all through the drive.

It's a simple dish: bite-sized pieces of lightly-battered and crisply-fried soft shells that I dunked in a tartly-seasoned soy sauce that's like a Thai spin on ponzu, all of eaten with the side salad.

The real revelation was the sticky rice with mango. The rice has its requisite sweetness, but also saltiness and a coconut-cream richness. I made little sushi rice balls using chopsticks, then laid a piece of mango on top as though it were nigiri and wondered as I was eating slice after slice of that not-too-tart, not-too-ripe fruit: how is it that Thai restaurants always have perfect mangos no matter what time of year it is?

MaDee Thai Kitchen
401 East 17th Street Unit C
Costa Mesa, CA 92627
(949) 631-2731

Poke Etc. - Long Beach

Monday, January 12, 2015

I-Tea Cafe - Irvine

I-Tea Cafe in Irvine serves stinky tofu, that maldorous deep-fried treat that smells as though someone purposely dipped a sweaty gym sock in the sewer, stuck it under your nose, and then farted in your face. That's how bad stinky tofu stinks.

But what's curious about the I-Tea is that despite the fact it serves stinky tofu, the rooms actually smells like pizza. Anywhere you sit inside the brightly lit restaurant, but especially underneath one of the main air vents, you get whiffs of doughy bread baking with marinara and cheese.

After a few visits, I realized it wasn't my imagination--it was pizza I was smelling. A Papa John's is right next door and apparently the ventilation systems are connected. And so when I actually ordered the stinky tofu, my nose was fooled into thinking I was eating pepperoni pizza while my mouth enjoyed the slightly bitter, slightly tangy, slighty spongy tofu cubes in a sweet-and-sour soy sauce slurry and topped with pickled veggies.

Don't get me wrong: it still reeks if you encounter a particularly ripe one, as though something died on your plate and started decomposing. But if you can stand Gruyere, you shouldn't be afraid of stinky tofu--it's just another wonderful product of fermentation. Besides that, it's the most Taiwanese thing you can order in a restaurant that, in my opinion, is one of the best Taiwanese joints in a town full of Taiwanese joints.

Yes, you can conceivably just drop in to have a milky slush (which is a boba drink that forgets the pretense that you need anything having to do with tea in a boba drink). You can even have the pork chop rice (which is as fine an example as any, and served in portions enough for two people). But what you should do is order from the snack menu, which has the stinky tofu and the gigantic plate of popcorn chicken, morsels of lightly battered chunks of dark meat sprinkled with a flurry of spicy-salt and crispy fried basil leaves.

As a palate cleanser, I always order some of the really great brined cucumbers with bits of raw garlic. And I never go to I-Tea without asking for the pidan tofu--blocks of chilled silken tofu doused with a sugary sauce and topped with a thousand-year-old egg, pork rousong and scallions--one of my all-time favorite things.

I ate it all together and wondered: if it smells like pizza in here, does it smell like stinky tofu at the Papa John's?

I-Tea Cafe
15435 Jeffrey Road
Irvine, CA 92618
(949) 551-4832

Twenty Eight- Irvine

Friday, January 09, 2015

Houston's - Irvine

Did I ever mention I like Houston's a whole lot? This is a chain that has all the corporate polish, and puts out food that's consistently good--the high bar when it comes to classic American meat-and-potatoes cooking.

There was a smoked salmon appetizer, a slab of it pink and flaky, served with toasted bread and a tarragon aioli that's simplicity and elegance defined. There was the French dip, a fist-sized wad of rosy-hued carved beef hugged between two shiny planks of a toasted roll with a mound of house-made shoestring fries.

And then there's the thing I always get: the ribs. It's not BBQ; it's just really, really good ribs. Kissed with bits of char, sugary glaze turned to caramel, and meat that tears off with a tug.

After I was done, they came around with steaming hot towels to wipe my gunked up fingers and sauce-covered lips.

2991 Michelson Drive
Irvine, CA 92612
(949) 833-0977

Kitakata Ramen Ban Nai - Costa Mesa