Friday, April 29, 2016

Playground - Santa Ana

The first time I reviewed Playground in Downtown Santa Ana was when it opened more than four years ago. Since that time it has become a darling of the OC food scene because of good ol' fashioned word-of-mouth, the string of TV shows that the chef and owner, Jason Quinn, has been in...and, oh yeah, that one time when he told an unkind Yelp reviewer to "burn in hell".

That one incident probably cinched his acclaim as news outlets picked up on the story. As with most things this day and age, you don't get anywhere if you don't court controversy.

But if his restaurant is anything, it's something that's almost impossible to review. Because it updates the menu daily, any dish that any reviewer might rave or rant about one night might not be there the next.

So I'll tell you about the dishes I had last week, even though if you're reading this later than the last week of April 2016, you aren't likely to see any of the stuff I had.

There was the incredibly tender and crispy Spanish octopus with perfectly fried potatoes plated using negative space. And a melting hunk of Kurobuta pork belly tucked in a steam bun with guacamole. And a Gibraltar-sized boulder of pork chop that had our entire table contemplating how best to extricate the last of the meat from the bone.

There was the stir-fried udon dish that came with a raw egg yolk on top to mix into it. And the eight-piece order of the Memphis-style Uncle Lou's fried chicken I'm going to talk about next week in OC Weekly.

Then there was the Brussels sprouts we ordered to offset the meat dishes, which turned out to be as rich as any of them.

And then there was dessert: an awesome sticky toffee pudding with salted whipped cream, and the drink special of the night called "Purple Rain," which they offered to honor Prince who died earlier that same day.

So even if you're reading this in the distant future, go anyway, because Playground is like a box of chocolates, and you know what they say about that...

220 E 4th St #102
Santa Ana, CA 92701

Baos Hog - Garden Grove

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Chili Chutney - Lake Forest

I have an equal number of Indian and Persian co-workers. So whenever I go to lunch with them, it's usually a restaurant that serves one of the two cuisines, both of which Orange County is blessed to have in spades.

But there's one restaurant that seems to exist to please both groups simultaneously, and not by accident or happenstance or artificial fusion-y construct--Chili Chutney in Lake Forest is an Afghani restaurant, and if you look at a map you'd see why it's a perfect example of cross-cultural sharing.

Afghanistan is sandwiched between Iran and the Indian subcontinent.

As such there's overlap in the cuisine. There are kormas like you'd see in Indian restaurants, but also koftas that aren't unlike Persian koobideh.

I went during their buffet lunch ($11.99), and it was as though I was at one of those Thai and sushi hybrid restaurants--but with way better results.

Yet, although there are similarities to Indian and Persian, Afghani cuisine has distinct characteristics all its own. If I were to generalize, I'd say it has a lighter hand at spices than Indian and has fewer sour notes than Persian.

But whether my co-workers and I are at an Indian, Persian, or Afghani buffet, one thing's always the same: we overstuff ourselves to get our money's worth. That's universal.

Chili Chutney,
24301 Muirlands Blvd.
Lake Forest, CA 92630
(949) 859-1778

Wok N Tandoor - Orange

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Steakhouse 55 - Anaheim

The closer you get to Steakhouse 55 inside the Disneyland Hotel, the more you smell the unmistakable, distinctive aroma of big, thick, juicy steaks sputtering in pools of melted butter. The intoxicating fumes are the same fumes that envelops you the second you enter any steakhouse, whether it's Mastro's, Capital Grille, or Ruth Chris.

If Steakhouse 55 smells like a prototypical steakhouse, it looks like one, too. In fact, aside from the classic pictures of Walt, the layout and feel of the room are almost identical to the South Coast Plaza Morton's--with dark lighting, uniformed waiters, and booths along the wall--except, you know, good food is served.

(Yes, you read that right: I dislike Morton's.)

That night, we ate crusty bread and a nice, cold wedge salad with hunks of crispy pork belly and candied pecans. An appetizer of cocktail shrimp had the pink crustacean bodies entwined around each other like something out of the Kama Sutra. This was followed by a thick prime rib with a lovely au jus and cleansing horseradish sauce in a boat. It reminded me that I don't eat prime rib often enough.

Since we had the meal during OC Restaurant Week, dessert was included. A creme brûlée had a donut on top of it, but the chocolate cake was particularly amazing--it had bits of crushed toffee embedded in the filling. And because we were celebrating a birthday, we also got a complimentary third dessert: a chocolate bomb with Mickey ears on it.

We took most of the desserts home and ate it over the course of a few days to spread out the calories, which is also prototypical of us to do after we go to a steakhouse.

Steakhouse 55
1150 Magic Way
Anaheim, CA 92802
(714) 778-6600

Playa Amor - Long Beach

Monday, April 04, 2016

Dim Sum Express - Monterey Park

You know what’s the best kind of dim sum? The kind you don’t have to wait in line for. This place--which has been around longer than I can remember--is where I go for no-wait dim sum. For years and years, it has been serving impatient people like me har gow (shrimp dumplings), cha sui bao (steamed buns stuffed with ruddy Chinese BBQ pork), and shu mai (pork dumplings) in the time it takes for McDonald’s to give you your French fries.

It’s appropriately called Dim Sum Express and it’s quite literally a shack in the middle of the street. It has two small windows: One where you order the dim sum, another where you pick it up.

I must warn you that this is no-frills dim sum. This is dim sum where delicateness and finesse is eschewed for girth and value. The shu mai is sold by the piece at slightly less than a buck. Eat two and you’ve consumed about the equivalent of three McRibs' worth of pork. Beneath the thick (and not particularly tender) translucent skin of the har gow, you find four shrimp compacted into a tight sphere as dense as a golf ball.

The best deal is the combo plate that has two of nearly everything they have for about $10. It feeds two people and includes the baked BBQ pork tarts, egg custard tarts, egg rolls, shu mais, har gows, and the hom sui gok (deep-fried glutinous rice dumplings)--the best thing they make. They’re shaped like Nerf footballs, almost as big as one, and filled with a smidge of minced pork. And when you bite into one you meet a lacy crust that crunches like a breakfast hash brown and then the chewy interior of mochi.

You take it all home, brew a mug of tea, and enjoy it all with the knowledge that there are probably still people waiting in line to get into Ocean Star as you finish your last crumb.

Dim Sum Express
326 N Garfield Ave
Monterey Park, CA 91754
(626) 307-5800

Gratitude - Newport Beach