Tuesday, August 15, 2017

$5.25 Boba Milk Tea vs. $1.50 Boba Milk Tea

The milk tea you see to the left is from Gong Cha, the newest and shiniest boba shop to open in Irvine. When I ordered it, the cashier asked what sweetness level I wanted (either "no sugar", 30%, 50%, 70%, or 100%) and what level of ice I preferred (either "no ice", 25%, 50%, or 100%).

After that came the toppings. I chose boba (which they called "pearls") and pudding (which was still called "pudding"). Each topping cost an additional 50 cents. Two people and at least one cocktail shaker were involved in its preparation.

When I was presented with the final product, the person told me that I should let them know if anything needed to be adjusted.

Since I opted for the large, and it was the "Brown Sugar Fresh Milk Tea" from their more premium "Fresh Milk Series" list, the total cost for the drink was $5.25.

I still am unsure of the difference between this "Brown Sugar Fresh Milk Tea" and the regular "Pearl Milk Tea", which can be found under the regular "Milk Tea Series" list. But if I had opted for that one in the medium-sized cup, it would've been $3.75.

I point this out because the milk tea you see to the right is from Banh Mi Che Cali. It cost me $1.50 (Banh Mi Che Cali offers two milk teas for $3, toppings included).

It came out of a circulating beverage dispenser. And it tasted no different than the one on the left.

Gong Cha
14130 Culver Dr. Ste H-2
Irvine, CA 92604
(949) 656-8276

Banh Mi & Che Cali
15551 Brookhurst St
Westminster, CA 92683
(714) 839-8185

Lido Bottle Works - Newport Beach

Sunday, August 06, 2017

Why I Don't Like 626 Night Market

This weekend, the crowds will swell again at 626 Night Market in Santa Anita Park. It's the second to last one of the summer. And I get its appeal. For some it may be nostalgia for the night markets of the old country. For others, it's something different to do on a summer's night that's festive and outdoors.

But for me, the more I go, the more I realize how utterly pointless the whole exercise is. First, there's the traffic nightmare in and around it. Then comes the inevitable search for an open parking spot that's not a mile away from the venue. And when I get inside the gate, I have to navigate against herds of people going in different directions. There are lines everywhere. And for what? To eat the same foods I've had elsewhere? To drink a boba milk tea that tastes like all the others?

And then there's the thing that makes it all for naught: the prices.

To be clear, I'm not complaining about the $3 admission fee that the 626 Night Market organizers charge to cover the security guards, fence rentals, and whatever else. That's a sunk cost I can understand. Besides, it's still far less than what they charge for OC Night Market, where they also levy a parking fee.

It's just that when I realize how exorbitantly more expensive everything is, I can't help but think that a lot of the vendors regard the whole endeavor as an opportunistic money grab. To them it must be like shooting fish in a barrel if the fish had pockets full of disposable income. How else to explain how one stall was selling six or seven measly fried quail eggs for $9?

Of course, there are exceptions like the $15 uni rice bowl you see above. A vendor called "Beach Live" served it in an actual sea urchin shell for $15, which is not only reasonable, but a bargain when you consider what a sushi bar would charge for the five lobes of fresh sweet uni we found still stuck to the sides.

Other than that, 626 Night Market is not where you are going to find bargains for food. 626 Night Market is a perversion of what the original night markets in Asia are supposed to be, where the non-wealthy can get a great meal for not much money. In fact, it's my opinion that when you go to 626 Night Market, what you're paying for is the privilege of having a Third World eating experience in a First World country.

One might argue that it's like camping. Although the invention of hotels has made it unnecessary for anyone to sleep outside when they travel, people still camp because it reminds them of the essentials, something that brings them back to basics.

So if you haven't gone or you're a person who might enjoy 626 Night Market for what it is, then you should go. But personally, when sleeping in a tent costs as much as a night at Waldorf Astoria, I'd rather go for the room service.

626 Night Market
285 W Huntington Dr.
Arcadia, CA 91007
(626) 765-5166

Free Range Cafe - Newport Beach

Wednesday, August 02, 2017

Another Rhyming Review of Cafe Hiro - Cypress

Cafe Hiro is a monthly ritual,
Our usual Cypress spot.
That's no secret on this blog.
We go there and go there a lot.

We order as we always do,
The same dishes, the same iced tea.
Uni spaghetti. Osso bucco.
That fabulous katsu curry.

But sometimes, there are specials.
Special plates, special deals.
One night, t'was a shrimp tempura salad,
which ate like two meals.

Then karaage made of yellowtail,
Firm and cold its flesh.
Not unlike Filipino escabeche it was,
Sour, and sweet, the red peppers fresh.

Dessert is almost always the bread pudding,
A croissant, egg, and chocolate composite.
After all the years and all the meals,
Maybe Cafe Hiro should just take my direct deposit.

Cafe Hiro
(714) 527-6090
10509 Valley View St
Cypress, CA 90630

Goodies in the Pantry - Orange

Sunday, July 30, 2017

OC Fair 2017 - Our Visit in Haiku

OC Fair Express.
Irvine to Costa Mesa.
Seven dollars saved.

Giant wheel of lights.
Smoke billows to the night sky.
Bodies back-to-back.

Cute racing pigs race.
Acrobats defy physics.
Corn roasted in husks.

Chicken Charlie line.
"Two drumsticks please, and a breast."
"Can I have some Ranch?"

Something sweet perhaps?
Every year: Lazy Toucan,
For funnel cake fix.

Full of fried foods now.
Another OC Fair: done.
Now summer's complete.
OC Fair
88 Fair Dr.
Costa Mesa, CA 92626
(714) 708-1500

Legado Bar + Kitchen - Laguna Niguel

Saturday, July 29, 2017

"Stacked" Bowl at California Gogi Grill - Irvine

This is the "stacked" bowl at California Gogi Grill.
It's now neat and compartmentalized. Before, it was a mess.
But for $8 a pop, it does the job.
No more; no less.

The kimchi's too sour,
The potato salad, too runny.
Yet it's still better than the other alternatives,
The best deal for the money.

You get rice, 6 sides, 2 meats,
The noodle dish called japchae.
It's all built by assembly line.
Yes, it's the Asian Chipotle.

This is the "stacked" bowl at California Gogi Grill.
For $8, it's cheaper than Panda Express.
And like I said, it does the job.
No more; no less.

California Gogi Grill
4237 Campus Dr Ste B157
Irvine, CA 92612
(949) 854-0000

Oak & Coal - Costa Mesa

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Beard Papa's - Monterey Park

How many engineers does it take to run the best Beard Papa's franchise in California?

Answer: Two. And they're both friends of mine.

Kenny (who handles the business side of things) and Bonnie (who handles the day-to-day) and I go way back. We went to UCI Engineering together, but after graduation we took different paths.

Kenny went into insurance. Bonnie went to design jets for Northrop and then to culinary school. Now they're working together, here at the Beard Papa's shop underneath Ocean Star in Monterey Park.

But it's Bonnie--previously the sous chef at the much-lauded The Spice Table--who has made this Beard Papa's shop unlike any other I've ever visited. To complement the usual cream puffs with those crackle-crusted shells and cool vanilla cream fillings, she's added meticulously crafted drinks that uses ice cream, custard pudding, and syrup that she makes all herself, from scratch.

Why is she putting all this thought and effort when her competitors are using powders and squirts of high fructose corn syrup? Because that's the Bonnie I've always known.

It's also why you should visit!

Besides, where else can you buy a cream puff and wash it down with a drink made by a Le Cordon Bleu grad who used to work on fighter planes?

Beard Papa's
141 N Atlantic Blvd
Monterey Park, CA 91754

Pacific Hideaway - Huntington Beach

Sunday, July 16, 2017

The Jucy Lucy at Matt's Bar - Minneapolis, MN

I went to Minneapolis and had what may be one of the most iconic foods in the city.

It's called the Jucy Lucy and from what I can gather, it's to Minneapolis as the Red Hot is to Chicago.

Matt's Bar is the place that invented it. There's routinely a line outside, which is largely due to the Travel Channel.

But since it's still very much a dank, local bar, like a real-life Moe's Tavern, its fame seems all the more incongruous.

Heck, President Obama ate here. There's a picture of him, smiling, arms around the family that now owns it.

Of course, he had a Jucy Lucy, which is essentially a burger with cheese embedded in the middle of the patty, served between a dense bun with grilled onions bits and three slices of pickle (yes, exactly three).

When you bite into the burger, a scalding torrent of cheese is supposed to flow out of it like a Hot Pocket made of meat. And mine did.


Honestly, it only spurted out cheese just from one side of the patty. The rest of it was actually cheeseless. But it was still a treat--a great burger made by a great place that was once visited by a great President.

Matt's Bar
3500 Cedar Ave S
Minneapolis, MN 55407

Coq Au Vin - Fountain Valley

Tuesday, July 04, 2017

Half-Order Carne Asada Super Nachos - Alberto's - Tustin

Is it just me or does this half-order of carne asada Super Nachos from Alberto's remind you of a flower? Look at the petals of freshly fried tortilla chips blooming from the meat, cheese, bean and guacamole!

Or maybe it looks like it because it's been a while since I've allowed myself one of these. As they say, absence makes the heart grow fonder. And this is the kind of food that would do just that--not to mention do a lot of other things to your heart.

You're not kidding yourself when you eat it. You know it's junk food. But it's the best junk food. Particularly late at night, in front of the TV, while binging on Netflix.

And if you live in Tustin/Santa Ana/Irvine, there's yet another joint where you can pick one up, scarf it down, and feel guilty for days. I got mine at the brand new Alberto's on Newport near Walnut, in what used to be Omega Burgers.

The price is a little more expensive these days than I remember--around $7 for the half order. And you should always opt the half since the difference between it and the full order is nominal. It's still worth it, though, especially when you consider how little $7 can get you elsewhere.

If you go, you should always ask for the pickled carrots, which are free. Think of it as the card that goes with your nacho bouquet. Just be careful not to make these nachos too much of a habit, or else you might actually get a bouquet with a card that says "Get Well Soon!"

14551 Newport Ave
Tustin, CA 92780

TRADE - Irvine

Sunday, July 02, 2017

Ten Asian Bistro - Newport Beach

Buddhas are fixtures in a lot of Asian restaurants. Go to a traditional Vietnamese joint in Little Saigon, Thai Nakorn in Garden Grove, or Chinese place in San Gabriel Valley and you're likely to see a small Buddha statue set in some quiet corner surrounded by offerings and incense--they're essentially religious shrines used by the business owner for prayer and to bring good luck.

But here at Ten Asian Bistro in Newport Beach, the Buddha is interior design, decorative kitsch, theming, eye-candy...tchotchkes. There are so many Buddhas placed at random spots throughout the restaurant, I lost count.

I saw Chinese Buddhas, Thai Buddhas, Buddhas that might not have even been Buddhas.

The food Ten serves here, of course, is non denominational. It's literally all over the map. I had sashimi, a caterpillar roll, uni sushi, which were all Japanese, but I then chased them with a Chinese banquet-style honey-glazed walnut shrimp. If I wanted, I could've gotten pad Thai or something Vietnamese. And it was all decent to good--Asian food aimed not for the Asian palate, per se, but the palate who generally knows Asian flavors and is willing to pay a Newport Beach premium not to schlep it to four different restaurants to have all of it together, on the same plate.

Don't get me wrong: there were Asians there enjoying it. Some of them might also be Buddhist. And as far as I can tell, none were offended that the symbol of their religion has the same function here as an Elvis jacket at a Hard Rock Cafe. Neither was I. In fact, it tickled me so much that I tried to take pictures of all the Buddhas as though I were on a scavenger hunt.

But it did make me think of how a restaurant with Christian symbols and Jesus statues all over the place might make people feel.

And what kind of food would it serve?

Ten Asian Bistro
4647 MacArthur Blvd.
Newport Beach, CA 92660

OC Weekly Summer Issue - Jewish Food in Montreal

Sunday, June 25, 2017

I Had Better Food at Aria's Lemongrass than at Lotus of Siam

I thought I knew what to expect at Lemongrass.

It is, after all, an Asian restaurant inside a casino. Past experiences with other Asian restaurants inside other casinos told me I was in for yet another ham-fisted attempt at Thai, Chinese, or a combination of the two. And it was going to cost me twice as much as what I'd usually pay at an actual Thai or Chinese joint.

But when you're given hotel credit to be spent on food and your choice of where to spend it includes restaurants from Michelin and James Beard-award winning chefs, you have to settle on what will stretch your money the farthest.

So Lemongrass it was, because even in a high-priced Vegas casino like Aria, Asian food is always cheaper than the next alternative.

However, I'm glad to report that Lemongrass did not suck. In fact, it was spectacular.

The pineapple fried rice we ordered was light enough on the curry powder that it left a good impression rather an overpowering one. The pad see ew was textbook, with the gailan crisp, the meat velvety, and the noodles absorbing not only the sweet soy seasonings but the "breath" of the wok.

And there was a crab omelette that had so much crab meat, every bite was like discovering a trove of buried treasure.

Best of all was the chicken larb, which was so spicy, so funky, so well-constructed of fish sauce, rice powder, lime, and tons of chilies, that it made me question my entire way of thinking: Asian restaurants inside casinos CAN BE good!

I would even say this particular experience was BETTER than the last time I ate all the usual Issan favorites at Lotus of Siam, Vegas's highly lauded Thai restaurant. And it had nothing to do with the fact that this meal was essentially free!

ARIA Resort & Casino Las Vegas
3730 S Las Vegas Blvd
Las Vegas, NV 89109

2145 Pizza - Costa Mesa