Thursday, April 30, 2015

Rutt's Hut - Clifton, New Jersey

There are hot dogs, and then there are rippers. Rippers, if you haven't seen them before on countless Travel Channel and Food Network shows, are deep fried hot dogs that split open and practically tear themselves apart in the fry oil. And if you have seen those shows, you'd know the only place in the country where you should have them is Rutt's Hut in Clifton, New Jersey.

I happened to be in New Jersey last week and I went through a gauntlet of turnpikes, toll plazas, and pothole-covered streets to find it. Rutt's Hut, let me tell you, is in an odd place--kind of perched in an industrial area, overlooking a highway and nowhere near anything else. It has apparently been on this spot since 1928. But parking was ample (a rarity in Jersey, as I discovered) and the rippers were worth the drive.

There are no chairs. It's cash only and it's a stand-and-eat joint. The countermen look like they came out of a Martin Scorsese flick with East Coast accents thicker than the housemade relish you slather with wooden spoons from the communal metal buckets near the register. And man! That relish! It's a sweet wonder gunk made of mustard, and other ingredients I can't begin to decipher--and it counters the richness of the fried hot dog in a way I didn't think possible.

Not unlike In-N-Out, Rutt's Hut also has a secret menu. If you want your hot dog extra well-done, you can ask for a "Cremator", wherein they leave the wiener to soak in the oil until it practically dries out and mummifies. Though I expected it to taste like jerky, it didn't. It's crisp, nearly bereft of juice, but still tender, as though I was eating a hot-dog-flavored fritter.

And oh the onion rings here! It further proves that, in the right hands, deep fryers are magical instruments.

Rutt's Hut
417 River Rd.
Clifton, NJ 07014
(973) 779-8615

4th Street Market - Santa Ana

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Nello Cucina - Costa Mesa

Sometimes, great service goes a long way at a restaurant, even if the food is just okay. Nello Cucina at South Coast Plaza made this kind of impression.

The grilled seafood platter I had was kind of meh. But as I ate the scallops, shrimp, salmon and swordfish, thinking the lemon butter sauce that sluiced everything was just a tad too tart, the team of servers who hovered over our party of ten made me feel like we were VIPs and had the restaurant to ourselves.

They anticipated our needs before we asked; they remembered what everyone ordered; and most importantly, they seemed genuinely happy to have us as guests on that Sunday afternoon--not one person had less than a smile.

Since ours was a birthday celebration, they not only offered to store the birthday cake we brought in their fridge until it was time, but also took it back to the kitchen, cut it into equal pieces, and served it on their own restaurant plates after the birthday girl blew out the candles.

But just look at how they did it: they actually took the time to decorate every single plate with their own strawberry sauce, which, in terms of what I already thought of their service, was the real icing on the cake.

Nello Cucina
South Coast Plaza
3333 Bear St.
Costa Mesa, CA 92626
(714) 540-3365

Burntzilla - Irvine

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Gibson Girl Ice Cream Parlor - Disneyland

Would a visit to Disneyland really be complete without at least one churro or one ice cream cone? I don't think so.

When you want the latter, Gibson Girl Ice Cream Parlor is THE ice cream shop. It's right there on Main Street so that you can get a scoop as soon as you begin your day in the park, and maybe another one on the way out.

Their flavor selection is basic, with nothing more complicated than Cookies-n-Cream.

Whatever you choose, you're better off getting it in a cone than in a cup. The cost is the same and the cone is made right there, in-house. You’ll know this because it's the smell that wafts everywhere and triggers a Pavlovian response that you want ice cream and you want it now.

Gibson Girl Ice Cream Parlor
1313 Disneyland Dr
Anaheim, CA 92802
(714) 781-3463

S.T. Noodle Bar - Long Beach

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Ariel's Grotto - Disney's California Adventure

Be aware that Ariel's Grotto is a prix fixe restaurant. As such, the price tag for eating here will be steep, no matter what you order. You pay the same whether you choose the lobster or the chicken. The cost of entry will be nearly half of what you shelled out to get into the theme park in the first place.

Also be aware that this restaurant exists not because of its food, but because of its princesses. Yes, princesses. Ariel's Grotto is what Disney calls a "Character Dining" restaurant--a more humane version of "Dinner with Shamu".

There will be at least up to five princesses in all. Cinderella. Snow White. Aurora. Belle. And of course, Ariel herself. They're introduced via blaring intercom, upon which they'll curtsy and then float about the restaurant, posing for pictures and engaging in one-on-one conversations with all the star-struck pre-pubescent girls who themselves are dressed like princesses.

At some point during the spectacle, you forget how much money you're shelling out and just go with it. You'll know exactly the moment when this happens: it's when you see your daughter's ear-to-ear grin.

Ariel's Grotto
Disney California Adventure Park
1313 S Disneyland Dr.
Anaheim, CA 92802
(714) 781-3463

Paninoteca Maggio - Santa Ana

Friday, April 03, 2015

Big Thunder Ranch BBQ - Disneyland

At Disneyland's Big Thunder Ranch BBQ, they ring a big old dinner bell when it's eatin' time. The tables are long and picnic-y. The waiters are dressed like they're getting ready for a hoe-down and in the whole entire courtyard, what's not shaded by leafy trees, is sheltered by huge tarps.

When they serve your meal, it'll be in metal pails. Drinks? Well, of course they're poured into mason jars. And when you get down to eating your all-you-can-eat feast of ribs, chicken, cornbread and coleslaw, it's with your hands. This is, without a doubt, one of the hardest tables to get in Disneyland. You need to reserve well in advance.

Is it the best barbecue? No. Not even close. The ribs seem to taste like they've been parboiled, baked en masse in an oven, then slathered in sauce, in that order. The chicken is just chicken. But you end up eating a lot anyway because: you are an American, this is Disneyland, and it's all-you-can-eat. It feels downright unpatriotic not to overstuff yourself until it hurts.

And after you waddle out, full of beans and meat, you walk by the petting zoo. You pet a goat.

Big Thunder Ranch BBQ
Disneyland Park
1313 S. Harbor Blvd.
Anaheim, CA 92802
(714) 781-3463

Kingchops - Irvine