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Sunday, June 24, 2012

Aburiya Toranoko: Avoid and Stick with the Ox Next Door

I'm a big fan of Lazy Ox Canteen so I had high hopes for Aburiya Toranoko by the same owner/chef. But I was disappointed big time. It was bad, bland and ingredients weren't that fresh. If you're going to serve sashimi like albacore tuna and uni (sea urchin), make it good. Sure, the uni makes for good food porn, especially with its gold flakes. But really, who cares about how lux it looks if it tastes so bland you feel like adding soy sauce to your dish? The uni topped the block of tofu that was house-made but while the uni itself was passable although not the freshest, the combination of uni + tofu was so forgettable I can't even remember how it tasted besides it being bland.

Then the albacore tuna salad was something I could have had at Blue Marlin on Sawtelle for a fraction of the price. The tuna wasn't super fresh and the salad drowning in dressing. A disaster. The hamachi jalapeno roll sounded promising but alas, the fish wasn't fresh and the roll was nothing special despite its "special roll" moniker.
It was one of those rolls served in a super cheap sushi place that prides itself on having all sorts of funky rolls, mostly drowning in super sweet teriyaki-like or some kind of ponzu sauces. I know I sound like a total snob but it's true! There's a time and a place for cheap rolls but this place should do better, especially with those prices.

The restaurant didn't redeem itself until dessert, when it served a green tea pudding drizzled with some maple syrup and topped with a single, dainty raspberry. I like my green tea desserts (i.e., ice cream, etc) to taste like green tea, not the fake flavoring that plague so many impostors. Thankfully, this one did. It tasted like solid green tea. I wouldn't have minded more fresh berries on top but we were happy after so many duds.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Boulangerie Pierre et Patisserie and 85 Degree Bakeries: Heavenly Bread Made with Stuff Beyond Your Imagination

Isn't this a beauty? Not sure I'll be flamed for this but I, for one, am sad and angry that California decided to ban foie gras.

So I chose a pate and ham banh mi at Boulangerie Pierre et Patisserie in Little Saigon/Garden Grove area. I entered this place on pure whim as the one I had in mind had closed down. Crowded strip mall. Check. Tons of people waiting in line to order. Check. Enticing aromas of butter that enables all that flaky goodness in the croissants. Check. The pate and ham banh mi was good but the baguette could have been better. I liked the one at Banh Mi Cho Cu better.

Still, it was a solid sandwich with all the fixings such as fresh jalapenos, onions, strips of carrots and radishes and fresh cilantro.

I also tried the plain croissant, chocolate croissant and apple turnover, as well as a coffee eclair. I'm super picky with my eclairs and unfortunately, this one was too sweet for me.

Still, the croissants were good and I'd definitely return for them.

Another place I'd be returning to more frequently were it not so far away from me is 85 Degree Bakery in Irvine. It's tucked into a massive mall that has all types of Asian restaurants and a Korean market.

A Taipei import, it was a veritable candy store for me. Start with a big tray and inspect your vast selection. Taro roll? Add. Black squid ink roll with cheddar cheese? Add. Green onion roll with cheese? Add. I continued to do this until my tray had moca coffee roll, red bean bread, cream cheese filled bread, custard pie like the ones sold in dim sum joints and many more.

This delicious and flaky custard pie, by the way, carries a lot of history. It's called pasteis de nata and is originally Portuguese. It made its way to China through Macau that was under Portuguese rule.

85 Degree's rendition of it was very good, far better than many dim sum joints.

I also had bread similar to Korea's gombopang that has little bumps of sugar crust on top of the bread with no filling.

The green onion roll was like a meal but on the greasy side.

The chocolate croissant was good but not as good as Pierre's version. I know this is being nit picky but it's also about abiding by traditions. So a chocolate croissant, aka pain au chocolat, should like this, not like the one you see to your right. That's what plain or almond croissants look like.

How was the squid ink cheddar cheese roll, you ask? Honestly, I couldn't taste the squid but it was cool eating a jet black roll with hints of cheddar.

My favorite was the custard pie. My favorite bread was the almond and walnut roll that's shimmering in the left photo.

The best thing about the experience was its entirely reasonable price tag.

All this cornucopia cost me less than $15 total.

I really wish it opened one up in West LA. How about one on Sawtelle? Or at the very least, Torrance?

Loved my OC adventure. Thanks for reading!

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Tacos y Mariscos Sinaloa in Anaheim: No Me Gusta (Not to My Liking)

Being right next to Santa Ana, I was sure I could find a good Mexican place out in Anaheim. Well, I first tried to go to Gabbi's in Orange but after learning the wait was an hour for a place that actually looked like a tourist trap from the outside, we shifted gears and landed at Tacos y Mariscos Sinaloa in Anaheim. Sinaloa is a state on the Northwest coast of Mexico known for seafood as you can see from the restaurant's namesake (mariscos).

The margaritas were average, on the strong side but nothing to write home about. The guacamole was also average, not too flavorful but ok. I wish it had more kick but that came from the three salsas they gave us. One was a liquidy guacamole that was spicy; another was a roasted tomato salsa that was the spiciest and my fave and the last was a plain pico de gallo-like salsa that didn't have too much flavor.

Then again, I like everything roasted and charred although it's not good for me, so take that with a grain of salt. Chips were nice and warm. We got the shrimp a la Diabla and fish al mojo de ajo, which basically means drowning in garlic.

The shrimp in a spicy creamy sauce wasn't great. The sauce wasn't as creamy as it should have been and didn't taste like Diabla sauce.

The refried beans were like mush and tasteless, not to mention the rice.

Never thought I'd say this but the fish al mojo de ajo had far too much garlic on it for my taste.

The rice and beans were unremarkable and I actually had to remove some garlic chunks off the fish because it was excessive.

It had promise but didn't deliver much and I likely won't be returning.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Nhu y Ca 8 Mon in Fountain Valley: 8 Courses of Fish is a Big Flop

I had tried seven courses of beef but not the fish version, which Nhu y Ca 8 Mon in Fountain Valley offers. I was sorely disappointed. The quality of the ingredients were clearly sub par. Execution was poor and flavors were bland. I don't necessarily recall loving the seven courses of beef but this was weak beyond repair.  

Similar to the beef version, the eight courses include fresh rolls with fish instead of pork and shrimp, fish salad, fried rolls with fish that you can wrap in a panoply of greens like lettuce, basil and mint as well as pan fried fish and fish porridge.
The least of all evils were the fried rolls that we could wrap in rice paper we soak in hot water, add a bunch of herbs, roll up and dip in a fish sauce. Tasting fish instead of pork as a filling was unusual in a good way. Otherwise, the course meal was truly unremarkable.

The pan fried fish that came on a hot place was sizzling but overcooked and stuck to the hot plate so we virtually had to yank the meat off of it.
The porridge didn't have any fish in it that we could see or taste like it, for that matter. I know porridge is by definition bland, but this was ridiculous.

We got some meat dishes like bo luc lac with garlic noodles and the bun with charbroiled pork and fried rolls.

The bo luc lac was average at best. The quality of the filet mignon wasn't great. The meat should have been incredibly tender. The noodles were a disaster. Overcooked and underseasoned. What were they thinking?

The fish salad isn't even worth mentioning.

The bun -- noodle salad with thin slices of charbroiled pork and chopped fried imperial rolls with raw carrots, bean sprouts, cucumber and lettuce all mixed with a fish sauce based dressing that I like to spike up with the chunky red hot chili sauce -- was ok but the noodles were overcooked and the rolls gave off a strong porky smell, which could only mean they used poor quality pork or worse, old pork.

The only redeeming factor about this place was the half-way decent dessert. We got the halo halo, which came with taro ice cream and three kinds of beans topped with chopped peanuts.

The beans weren't too sweet (a lot less sweeter than the Korean or Tawainese shaved ice versions) and the taro ice cream was ok.

Still, that isn't enough to make me want to return.

It makes me sad because I feel it has so much promise but I didn't get a sense that the owners cared about serving quality food.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

El Gaucho Market in Anaheim: Chimichurri Saves the Day, er, Empanadas

Just as I was pleasantly surprised to see there was a Little Arabia in Anaheim, I rejoiced when I found an Argentine market that also sells empanadas nearby where I was staying. They were baked empanadas at that, even better than the fried ones.

I tried the ground meat, ham and cheese, the chicken one they gave me by mistake and the spinach one.

All of them were huge disappointments except for the spinach one.

The chimichurri sauce made everything better, of course. I drowned each bite with a generous spoonful of this amazing parsley, garlic and oil sauce.
The crust was great -- baked to a crusty golden brown. That wasn't the issue.

It was the filling. The ground meat was completely lacking flavor and don't get me started on the bland as water chicken. Even the ham and cheese, which should have at least been salty from the ham, was bland. No stringy melted cheese.

On the upside, the coffee was good. I had the cappuccino and it was very respectable.

I can't say the same for the service -- curt and really makes you not want to return. The only semblance of service was the "hasta luego" I got when I left. I would advise they save the "hasta luego" and start with "servicio con una sonrisa (service with a smile)."

I'm still searching for an empanada here that's as good as Julia's in DC.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Country Family Cafe in Anaheim: Decent Chilaquiles for Breakfast

I'm going to feature the eats from OC every day of the week -- the good, the bad and the ugly. Today's entry: Country Family Cafe in Anaheim. It's close enough to the hotel area but also far enough that it's not a zoo, as in tourist trap.

We wanted a low-key diner-type place for breakfast-y goodies and this place hit the spot. The vegetable omelet was just above average but the clincher was the chilaquiles.

Crispy tortilla chips topped with tomato sauce with cheese paired with scrambled eggs and perfectly browned potatoes and refried beans. I liked that the potatoes weren't oversalted.

I cleaned up my plate nicely.

Just don't expect the coffee to be any good, or the juice, for that matter. Ok, they could have used a better salsa too but let's look at the bright side.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Au Lac in Fountain Valley: What's In Those Rolls? Not Rice but Try it!

My next stop was famed vegan and raw/semi-raw food restaurant Au Lac in Fountain Valley, which calls the food it serves "Humanese," whatever that means.

As a hard core carnivore, I was intrigued by the creativity of the raw dishes. I wasn't interested in fake "soy chicken" or "soy fish" that actually gross me out.

I liked the raw dishes because they truly celebrated the vegetables and used them in unexpected ways. For instance, the rolls you see above aren't made with rice, but with jicama and the creamy cheese-like thing is actually ground tofu. Since kimchi goes well with tofu, Chef Ito added that too although it was a bit watered down (I think he literally washed the spice away to make it milder. Minus points.). Genius.

One of the most popular rice dishes is the curried rice, which was creamy and had a crunch from the semi-raw vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower, corn peas and mushroom. It also had what seemed like dehydrated onions that had the texture of fried onions. It had some green olives that provided the saltiness and brought it all together. Soft chunks of avocados complemented the whole dish nicely, giving it an even creamier texture.

I also liked the use of coconut meat in rolls that gave the rolls a soft texture and refreshing edge. Meet the Cali Roll, which has seaweed (dulse, not the dried black seaweed it was rolled in), cucumbers, avocado, coconut meat, tamari ginger, chives and pine nuts (again, acting as the "rice" that holds it together). The rolls came with a soy sauce-based dipping sauce that provided the saltiness it needed.

The last rice dish was had was the fried rice, in a manner of speaking, of course, since it's not entirely cooked. Our server told us the rice is actually "sprouted rice," that's basically rice where hot water is poured on and soaked for a while. It tasted like al dente rice to me -- incredible it was semi-cooked.

The dish's descriptions are always interesting: grass seed, corn, cilantro, dulse, red chili, tamari, "fried onion" with ranch, which of course isn't the real ranch but it tasted lighter and better. I'm really eating grass seed? Who knew it could taste decent?

The fried rice was crunchy and it made for a winning combination with the vegetables and toppings.

My apologies for skipping the starters. They were good but we liked the mains better so I jumped the gun.

 The Pop Eye spinach salad with spiced macademia nuts, cashews and pistachios with red onions and orange smothered in a creamy tofu dressing (dubbed "Kenchur" on the menu, a type of Indonesian ginger) was hearty, crunchy, juicy, spicy and sweet. I got a new found appreciation for ways of incorporating nuts into everyday cooking.

We also had Da Bowl, which had romaine lettuce with some onions, olives, tomatoes, flax and pistachios with a sweet mustard dressing. I didn't like this one as much as the spinach salad as it was too sweet for my taste.

The Au Lac raw soup sounded very promising but was far too salty. I think they poured too much miso. It was a warm miso saffron broth with dried seaweed, tomatoes, garlic, onions, shallots, bean sprouts, celery leaf, red bell peppers, pine nuts, macademia nuts, avocado with some lime juice. It was frothy but the even with the addition of more water to dilute it couldn't save it.

For dessert, my friend recommended the donut holes that looked like any old mochi from the outside but turned out to be these wonderful concoctions made with funky sugars and powders made from nuts. They weren't too sweet and they were delicious. 

I know raw food isn't everyone's cup of tea but if a meat lover like me can appreciate it, trust me, you will too. The menu also has full cooked vegan dishes that I didn't try at all for the above mentioned reasons. Enjoy!

Monday, June 11, 2012

Forn Al Hara in Anaheim: Excellent Savory Pastries + Zatar

When I found out I was going to be staying around Anaheim for a few days, I immediately went on turbo research mode. I knew there had to be more to Anaheim than massive amusement parks. I knew we’d be run down by tourists and convention goers alike but that didn’t deter my determination to find some good eats around there. I quickly learned that Anaheim is home to Little Arabia with many bakeries selling delicious shwarmas and baked goods that I couldn’t wait to sample. Then there was Little Saigon nearby. Ah…

The first installment of my OC excursion starts in Forn Al Hara in the heart of Little Arabia on Anaheim Blvd, just a five minute drive from the tourist trap area. It has an array of sweets and variations of baklava (pistachio or cashew, to name a few) and if you’re in for lunch, you can get one of the many zatars offered.

Zatar is like a flatbread or pizza and the traditional one comes with spices and sesame seeds. The helpful woman behind the counter recommended the vegetable zatar that is eaten rolled up. She couldn’t have recommended a better one for me.

I’m no vegetarian (the understatement of the century) but I loved the combination of the warm dough fresh out of the oven (and they have a nice one that would put any serious pizza joints to shame), freshly cut cucumbers and tomatoes that gave it a crunch and the kicker – roughly chopped salty, briny green olives that provide the flavor center of the sandwich. All zatars start off as the traditional one that has oregano, sesame seed and other spices on it.

I also tried some of the baklava that were good but I don't have too much of a sweet tooth so couldn't have more than a bite. Although not my cup of tea, I saw people buy boxes of the tiny baklava so they seem to sell like hot cakes.

Speaking of tea, another thing I liked about this place was the fresh mint it offers by the hot water dispenser for mint tea. It was a fine accompaniment to my zatar.

While not photogenic, here's what a zatar looks like. Delish.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Mottainai Ramen: Gravy-like Broth = Not Good

I've been going out of my ramen comfort zone lately -- that safely tucked away area that includes Shinsengumi and Santouka. But truth be told, I usually get disappointed, as I did at Mottainai Ramen in Gardena.
It's true that I'm anchored to the wonderfully porky and salty flavors of the above mentioned ramen joints, not to mention their al dente noodles and super tender charsiu that's been boiled for hours on end. But Mottainai's broth tasted oddly like...gravy and that's not a good thing. I had the heavily pork-based tonkotsu ramen but the broth was thick in a gravy-kind of way, which is to say excessively thick. Strike one. The charsiu pieces were passable. The noddles were a tad overcooked and the works were average. The works included bean sprouts, spinach, green onions and dried seaweed. Full sheets of seaweed didn't work for me at all. They're totally soggy by the time they hit the broth so why bother? I know Koreans do it with shredded seaweed in rice cake soup but that's at least shredded. Having to tear the giant unwieldy sheet of seaweed is a royal pain.
The gyoza were a bit on the porky side, meaning they smelled a bit too much like pork, which signals either unfresh or low quality ingredients. They were fried perfectly as the image shows but they weren't as good as Shinsengumi's. The spicy miso that came topped with ground pork was even more disappointing. It was nothing like the spicy miso ramen at Santouka that I like. Not sure I'll return. So my ramen journey continues but I have yet to be surprised at the non-faves to which I'm trying to give a chance.