Monday, January 15, 2018

In-N-Out's Hot Cocoa

When I heard about In-N-Out adding hot cocoa to its menu, I considered it non-event. To be honest, if no one had mentioned it, I would’ve obliviously assumed it had always been there. And I would’ve gone on ignoring it for all the other reasons I go to In-N-Out.

Hot cocoa, after all, is the Jan Brady of hot beverages. Coffee and tea gets all the attention. How often do you see anyone reaching for one of those Swiss Miss hot cocoa packets instead of the coffee and tea at office breakroom? And has any waiter in history ever offered hot cocoa after dinner at a restaurant?

I pondered these questions as I tried In-N-Out’s hot cocoa for the first time. On my first sip, I decided if all hot cocoas were like this, things would be different. First of all, it’s thick, rich, and made with what I assume is whole milk. I didn’t drink it as much as I enjoyed it as dessert. It’s almost like a hot version of their milk shake. And as soon as I experienced the candy-like texture of its tiny floating marshmallows, I realized an hour on the treadmill would be necessary to work off the caloric content of this cup.

But despite its potential of making me look like marshmallow myself, I loved it. And I especially like the price. In-N-Out currently sells its cocoa for $1.60, which, I don't have to tell you, is a fraction of the cost that Starbucks charges. Besides, only two kinds of people drink hot cocoa at Starbucks: children and sociopaths.

The Yellow Chilli - Buena Park

Sunday, December 31, 2017

"How My New Year's Eve Plans Have Changed"

To My Dear Readers,

As you get ready to say farewell to 2017, please enjoy this cartoon I did for OC Weekly's Annual Holiday Cartoon Issue last year.

May your 2018 be a good year filled with good food and good times!

And thank you for reading!

Edwin Goei a.k.a. elmomonster

Whealthy - Ladera Ranch

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Cafe Hiro's 2017 Christmas Eve Prix Fixe Dinner

This year, like all years, we celebrated Christmas at Cafe Hiro with its Christmas Eve prix fixe. And this year, like all years, it did not disappoint.

The cost was $49 per person and to us Cafe Hiro regulars, the meal felt like a culmination and retrospective of all the great dishes we've been eating all year.

A lot of lillies were gilded that night. Chef Ohiwa upgraded some of his greatest hits with special add-ons and extra touches. For his usual scallop carpaccio, he tucked uni under the daikon fold. For the uni pasta, he added three sautéed scallops (and as an extra treat for us, shaved black truffles).

And Christmas Eve is one of the few times when he does a roast beef that puts to shame all prime ribs I've ever had before. Succulent, juicy, it was red meat at its most pleasurable.

We swooned at every bite, moaned at every morsel. This year, like all years, Ohiwa had outdone himself.

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

"How My View of Christmas Changed Over The Years"

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Celebrating 25 Years of Honda-Ya in Tustin

Last year, when I wrote about a long overdue revisit to Honda-Ya, it was to praise its longevity.

Next year, Honda Ya will commemorate its 25th anniversary. In a business where most new restaurants are lucky if they survive a year, a quarter century is a significant milestone. But for Honda-Ya, it almost seems inevitable.

As I wrote before, it is a testament to its rock-solid stature as OC's preeminent izakaya that Honda-Ya is still unchanged yet still popular after all these years--like a stone monument in the middle of a city on fast-forward. Every time I step in there, it feels like a victory--not because I've usually just endured upwards to an hour's wait, but because coming into that room feels like I'm being welcomed back into the warm embrace of a loved one. Honda-Ya, more than anything, has one of the coziest and most welcoming restaurant spaces in all of Orange County.

If you sit next to a window, you don't look out to a parking lot; rather, you're lulled by a brightly lit Zen garden, even if it's late at night. And if you sit in the robota bar, you are mesmerized by the curls of smoke that enshrouds the grill master as he squints and flips dozens of sticks of yakitori over coals.

On a recent visit, we ate our usual assortment of Honda-ya favorites, balancing the grilled with the fried, the fried with the steamed, and our small appetites with the enormous feast we ordered. And as we took stock in how long we've been enjoying this food (since 2003), we can't help but wonder where we'll be in the next 25 years. The only thing that's certain is that we know where Honda-Ya will be: right here, in Tustin.

Honda Ya Japanese Restaurant
(714) 832-0081
556 El Camino Real
Tustin, CA 92780

Yamame - Rancho Santa Margarita

Saturday, December 16, 2017

What We Order at Din Tai Fung - Costa Mesa

Last night a miracle happened: The wait at Din Tai Fung South Coast Plaza at 6 p.m. on a Friday was less than 30 minutes.

If you're familiar with this restaurant, you know that its famous for two things: its juicy pork dumplings (a.k.a. xiaolongbao) and the long wait times. It's been especially bad at this location of the franchise. At one point during the month of its opening, it was a 7 hour wait to get a seat, which meant that if you wanted to have dinner, you'd have to check-in before lunch.

But last night, the stars somehow aligned. I was shocked when the hostess said it would be 15 to 30 minutes before we were seated.

We ate all the dishes we always order. Brined cucumber. Wood ear mushrooms in vinegar. Two orders of xiaolongbao. Pork chop fried rice. Braised beef soup. Green beans. Red bean dumplings for dessert.

And as always, we ordered way too much and stuffed ourselves silly. But this time, because we were able to eat at a reasonable hour, we were delighted to able to do some Christmas shopping in the mall afterwards. And for some reason, The Disney Store was offering discounts that made its toys actually affordable, which was an even bigger miracle!

Din Tai Fung
3333 Bristol St. Ste. 2071
Costa Mesa, CA 92626
(714) 549-3388

Bosava - Garden Grove

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

El Pollo Inka - Lawndale

One thing I'll never tire of is saltado. To me, it's the perfect meal--a stir-fry with one foot in the indigenous culture of the Incas, the other foot in China. It's probably not the first example of a fusion dish to have been invented, but it feels like it should be.

Besides, how can you not love a dish that has French fries in it. For me it's the gateway drug to the entire universe of Peruvian cuisine. And when I have to have it, it's gotta be at El Pollo Inka in Lawndale, the restaurant where I tasted it for the first time more than twenty years ago.

I went again recently and documented it in the Instagram video you see above. I captioned that post this way:

"If you don’t agree with me that El Pollo Inka in Lawndale has the best and most reasonably-priced Peruvian food in Southern California; I. Will. Fight. You!"

While I do honestly think El Pollo Inka is great and hard to beat, I posed my post that way as a surreptitious way to get recommendations of other worthy Peruvian restaurants.

So far, I've gotten a few great tips from none other than Kat De Angelis (formerly of the OC Register) and Professor Salt (one of the original OC Chowhounds).

So now I'm polling anyone still reading this blog: If you've tried El Pollo Inka and have found something just as good or better, do comment and share!

El Pollo Inka
15400 Hawthorne Blvd
Lawndale, CA 90260
(310) 676-6665

Paper Lantern Dumpling House - Irvine

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