Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Bibingka from Manila Sunset - West Covina

This is a bibingka. If you're not Filipino or familiar with Filipino cuisine and traditions, it's something you've probably never heard of. It's also, as I found out, something that's eaten in Indonesia. I'm from Indonesia. And before yesterday, I've never seen it or had it. But that makes sense. I'm from Java and this delicacy is popular in Sulawesi, the K-shaped island of the Indonesian archipelago that's closest to the Philippines.

The bibingka you see in the picture above is from Manila Sunset, a Filipino fast-casual chain that used to have a branch in Fountain Valley, but now only exists in areas where Filipinos live. West Covina has a big Pinoy population. And the Manila Sunset there makes bibingkas to order for $3.75 a pop.

And when I say they make it "to order", I mean it. Bibingkas are best served rocket hot. If you go to a place and they give you your bibingka lukewarm, you're probably NOT at a "bibingkahan", which translates to "place that makes bibingka". Since Manila Sunset IS a bibingkahan, when the cashier handed me the finished bibingka I ordered, the plastic container they'd placed it in literally melted from the heat.

Traditionally, bibingka is made by pouring a batter of rice flour and coconut milk into a cupped section of banana leaf set atop a terra cotta pot. The whole thing is cooked over a brazier with glowing hot coals.

A topping of grated coconut is provided for temperature and textural contrast. And when you eat it, it feels like a freshly baked tropical sponge cake that Tarzan and Jane might make in their jungle treehouse. The best parts are the edges where it's slightly charred and perfumed with the aroma of the banana leaf.

One thing you might be interested to know that bibingka is most often eaten at Christmas. So in essence, it's the Filipino equivalent to fruit cake, except that it's edible.

Manila Sunset
2550 E Amar Rd A13
West Covina, CA 91792
(626) 912-7672

Marche Moderne - Newport Beach

Monday, November 27, 2017

Thanksgiving at Norms - Costa Mesa

It's our tradition every year to eat turkey for Thanksgiving at a restaurant. This year we went to Norms, which offered a $13.99 Thanksgiving special that looked great in the flyers advertising it, but horrible on the plate.

Look at it! It looks like prison slop!

But despite its vomit-inducing appearance, it was both a great-tasting pile of food and an incredible bargain.

For $13.99, I was served a soup (a cream of turkey that I could have any day of the year), a green salad, turkey with both white and dark meat (which was admittedly dry and ropy), a ton of stuffing, candied yams, zucchini sauteed with onions, mashed potatoes indented with a lake of gravy, and a thimble of cranberry jelly.

For dessert, there was a slice of pumpkin pie. And oh yeah, a roll that I never even touched.

I should also mention that I shared this plate with my better half and we were still barely able to waddle out the door...and if that isn't the point of Thanksgiving, I don't know what is.

2150 Harbor Blvd.
Costa Mesa, CA 92627
(949) 631-0505

Basil Mediterranean - Costa Mesa

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Ice Cream at Yogurtland - Tustin

On the NBC afterlife comedy The Good Place, there's a running joke that heaven has a lot of frozen yogurt shops. At one point, their ubiquity makes the main character, played by Kristen Bell, ask, “What is it with you and frozen yogurt? Have you not heard of ice cream?”

The answer she gets from Ted Danson's character is the most pitch perfect line ever written about frozen yogurt. He said: "There’s something so human about taking something and ruining it a little so you can have more of it.”

It's true. People love froyo and can get enough of it, even if it's a perversion of yogurt. No matter from what walk of life you come, a cup of frozen yogurt is, in a small way, an attainable a piece of heaven. It's the one "want" in life you can get anytime. And if you go to Yogurtland, arguably the most successful frozen yogurt franchise in the world, buying one gives you full control of your sugary salvation: portion size, what toppings you want, even the color of your spoon.

More than that, a frozen yogurt shop is, I would argue, the Zen garden that exists on every corner, in every neighborhood. Think of the last time you went to get frozen yogurt. You relaxed. You forgot about your troubles. You let your guard down. You found your own "Good Place".

With all that said: just like Kristen Bell's character in The Good Place, I've always preferred ice cream over froyo. So when Yogurtland finally started offering ice cream, I tried it, and it was long overdue. It's milkier than their usual froyo, with richness that let's you know it's going to cost you an extra half hour on the treadmill. It is, however, for all intents and purposes, just soft serve--the same kind of soft serve you've always been able to get anywhere that does soft serve. So revolutionary, this ain't. Regardless, it is now my favorite thing at Yogurtland.

And if there is a heaven, I don't doubt this chain--whose explosive growth and popularity I helped fuel when I wrote about the first store in Fullerton in 2007--has already introduced it there.

15090 Kensington Park Dr Ste 410
Tustin, CA 92780

Grams BBQ - Garden Grove

Monday, November 20, 2017

L’uxweet - Tustin

Several years ago, I proclaimed that the boba fad was as good as dead. I was wrong then. And I’d be wrong now if I said it now.

More than two decades since I tried it for the first time inside the Chinese enclaves of San Gabriel and Monterey Park, boba is still very much alive and thriving.

In fact, boba is everywhere these days. You can find it on maps of cities that never before registered a blip on the Asian diaspora. Boba is now even on my favorite show on TV.

In Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the main characters don’t commiserate at a coffee house a la Central Perk; they go to a place called Cup of Boba. And in Tustin, a city that twenty years ago didn’t have a single boba shop, there are now at least five scattered around town.

The newest is a place called L’uxweet, which is aimed at an Asian audience despite being located in the part of town where very few Asian people live.

It serves boba drinks, such as a brown sugar milk tea in which you can add egg pudding along with tapioca pearls to make a concoction similar to what Half & Half does in Rowland Heights. But L’uxsweet also puts out a menu that has Taiwanese-style egg pancakes, baos, sub sandwiches and toasts stuffed with griddled meat and eggs.

My favorite non-boba item at the moment is a so-called cheesecake that’s so fluffy and eggy, it borders on soufflé. In fact, you may not even consider it a cheesecake if you’re judging it by the American definition. But I liked it. And when I bought it, it came in its own cute box with its own cute spoon, which, I admit, made me like it that much more.

So, no, the boba shop and all that comes with it is not just alive, it’s continually evolving, like dinosaurs into birds, and yes, Orange County itself.

12932 Newport Ave, Ste7
Tustin, CA 92780
(714) 884-3108

Yang’s Braised Chicken Rice - Tustin

Friday, November 17, 2017

The Holy Donut - Scarborough, Maine

I’ve never been too fond of donuts. If I had to rank all the breakfast pastry, donuts would place dead last. They’re too sweet, too greasy, and whenever I eat one, I’m immediately sorry I did.

I am aware, however, that everybody else and Homer Simpson, loves donuts. This was confirmed when a donut pic I posted on Instagram garnered more likes than the two previous posts combined. I know why it did. They were indeed some pretty photogenic donuts, made by The Holy Donut, a local chain in Maine that all the travel shows feature on their must-visit lists.

These donuts aren’t famous because they’re nice to look at though; they’re actually good, made with a unique recipe that involves mashed potato. What results is a donut that’s fluffy, moist, and somehow, not as greasy as those your local Cambodian mom-n-pop fries every morning.

If all donuts were like this, I’d like donuts more. But you know what’s even better than The Holy Donut’s donuts? Their bacon-and-cheese-stuffed savory donut, which isn’t so much like a donut but this Indonesian fried dough puff called bolang-baling I used to love as a kid.

So I guess I do like donuts if they’re the kind I like.

The Holy Donut
398 Rt 1
Scarborough, ME 04074
(207) 303-0137

The Cut - Irvine

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Shabuya - La Mirada

There’s regular shabu-shabu restaurants, and then there’s Shabuya—an all-you-can-eat buffet of all the things you ever want to boil, simmer, and swish in your own roiling vat of flavorful liquid. It’s a fondue festival; hot-pot heaven; and I wouldn’t have known it existed if our good friends—who live in North OC—didn’t take us here to La Mirada to treat us for my birthday.

Yes, I know there are others like it, but having never been to one, I never imagined how well it worked or how much I would enjoy myself. For $26.99 per head during dinner time (and $18.99 lunch), we had the run of the place, but especially the buffet line. It took multiple return trips to try every single one of the meatballs and fish balls and fish cakes they had, which, to me, are just as good as the paper-thin shavings of meat.

And there were all the vegetables. Oh, so many vegetables. Imagine a salad bar where all the produce is designed to be wilted in hot broth. It started with the basics of Napa cabbage and bok choy, and blossomed to nearly every type of mushrooms known to science, kimchi, and at least three kinds of onion.

A saucing station had every permutation of spicy, sweet, sour, savory, and even an egg sauce whose white color and thick viscosity reminded me of a vanilla milk shake. There’s seafood too, all meant to be boiled in the broth along with everything else, including crawfish, blue crabs, and, best of all, sea scallops so sweet and briny I think I more than recouped my admission price by eating at least a dozen.

And then, of course, there’s the meat, which exists in various grades of marbling from all parts of the Wagyu cow. There were other proteins, such as chicken and lamb, but the tenderest and most mouth-melting was the beef. You’re allowed to order three plates of it at a time. But we ended up with twice that at one point. And as we swished, dipped, and ate, over and over, everything blurred so that we lost track of what cut was currently falling apart in our mouths.

It almost didn’t matter what flavor of broth we chose either. It was at that moment I realized where I was: shabu-shabu Shangri-La-Mirada!

15028 Rosecrans Ave.
La Mirada, CA 90638

Roux - Laguna Beach