Saturday, October 30, 2004

Irvine farmer's market

Saturday mornings in Irvine mean there's probably something interesting to taste over at the farmer's market near the University. Our market compares feebly to Santa Monica's or San Francisco's Ferry Building market that I wrote about in September. Sadly, the UC Irvine farmer's market remains the largest one we have in Orange County.

My four year old cares nothing about exotic produce or how much better things are at other markets. The important thing is all the free samples of fruits in season. Today's tastes featured Fuji and Pink Lady apples, Fuyu persimmons, pomegranates and the last of this year's yellow peaches.


Irvine's hyperplanned development over the past couple decades means that most of its former farmland and wild grasslands have been paved over into the über-suburb that you see today. While there are large plots in Irvine still being farmed industrially for tomatoes and strawberries, these too will be developed over the next decade.

So it's nice to talk to real farmers who work the earth every day and buy carrots that smell of rich, fertile soil, even if it's trucked in hundreds of miles from California's Central Valley. Here, a young boy in the midst of Southern Californian suburbia can learn that apple season starts as melon season ends, and taste how strawberries have no flavor or sweetness in October.

UCI Farmer's Market
In the shopping center parking lot across from the UCI Campus
Campus Drive, cross street is Bridge
Look for the In n Out Burger or Steelhead Brewery
Saturday mornings from 9a-1pm

Some folks on Chowhound wrote about Strickland's Ice Cream, a mile east from the farmer's market in yet another strip mall. This is an Ohio based chain that dates back to 1936. Here, you'll see large churns dispensing old fashioned soft-serve into freezer bins. The soft serve feels smooth and rich on the palate, with no discernible ice granules. Vanilla and chocolate are always on the menu, and two other flavors of the day constantly rotate on the menu of soft serve. Hard-frozen pints and quarts of other flavors are available to take home, too.

The folks on Chowhound described the soft serve as a frozen custard, and I asked what that means. Technically, any ice cream base that has egg yolks in it can be considered a frozen custard. The lady I spoke with said that eggs were in Strickland's original recipe prior to WWII. Since eggs were too precious during the war, they changed to an eggless recipe and nobody seemed to mind. Their recipe remains eggless to this day, and is no longer called frozen custard.

I'm told they add real fruit purees to their base. Today, we tried vanilla and pumpkin, since it's Halloween and all. Both tasted like the real thing, and were pleasantly sweet. For soft serve ice cream, I think it's the best game in town. Far, far better than the frozen custard at Kill Devil's in Lake Forest.

Strickland's Ice Cream
4523 Campus Drive (next to Jimmy Z's)
Irvine, CA

Barbecue Beginner

So I tried my hand at real barbecue last night in my Weber Smoky Mountain (WSM), a charcoal and wood burning smoker that I bought at my buddy Buddha's behest. He travelled from San Diego last weekend for the Los Angeles Chowhounds' fundraising potluck, and showed me how to use my WSM. There's a way to fire the charcoal so they burn steadily for over 12 hours while keeping the temperature in the sweet spot between 200 - 250 degrees. Last night at 1:15am, the temperature inside the smoker stabilized at 225 degrees F, and in went the ribs. Charcoal fires will spike up in temperature, but the temperature never went above 275 by the time I went to bed at 3:30am

The results you're seeing are overcooked. I should've pulled these out after about five hours, instead of the seven hours they cooked. Though they have a beautiful pink smoke ring and plenty of smoky flavor, they're dried out. You can tell the meat's shrunk too much by how much of the bones are exposed. Anyway, a positive experience in controlling the heat inside the smoker and a lesson learned about timing.

My first ribs of many, many more to come!

Monday, October 25, 2004

Food void

Lake Forest, CA

Black holes exist, and I have proof. Somewhere in this quiet inland town, an ominous vortex sucks any compelling dining experience into its massive, swirling void. If someone has eaten at a really good Lake Forest restaurant, please tell me about it. Nory's Peruvian - tried about 3 dishes there once, and wasn't excited enough to return. King's Fish House at the El Toro mall - merely ok for a chain place. I cut Peppino's some slack - I actually like their New York style pizza. Most places I try in Lake Forest just disappoint me.

Case in point: Kill Devil's, a West Coat franchise of a North Carolina chain that sells pulled pork sandwiches and frozen custard. I suppose it's possible in the Carolinas to sell a pulled pork sandwich that doesn't taste at all of smoke. I suspect a place like that would shut down pretty quickly where pulled pork is king.

Note to Kill Devil's Lake Forest franchisee: pulled pork = barbecue = meat smoked for long hours over wood embers. Perhaps a visit to the home office in Kill Devil Hills is in order. If y'all came to the Chowfiesta potluck put on the Los Angeles Chowhounds this past weekend, our man Buddha would've shown you how it's done. Kill Devil's cold, shredded pork is meekly schpritzed with a vinegar based sauce and piled on a hamburger bun with some uninspired coleslaw. Interesting? Not.

Kill Devil's also sells frozen custard. I didn't grow up with this stuff, so it seems like soft serve ice cream to me, and it doesn't lift my kilt. I admit my ignorance. However, if you appreciate this stuff, they have an extensive menu of their custard desserts painted onto a surfboard.

Frozen custard menu

The surfboard menus showed up in the past month. Prior to that, they sold a sandwich made from the best Italian sausage made in our local area, from Sabatino's in Newport Beach. It's no longer on the menu. Go figure - they get rid of the one really interesting item on their menu. Damn you, black hole of Lake Forest!
Kill Devil's
23842 El Toro Rd
Lake Forest, CA

Epilogue: As of summer 2005, Kill Devil's Lake Forest location ceased to exist.

Want a good pulled pork sandwich in Orange County without tending a wood fire for 8 hours ? Head up to Huntington Beach and give Smokin Mo's Barbecue a shot. Their pulled pork has just a faint taste of smoke, and it's the one thing on Mo's menu that I really recommend. Their excellent coleslaw is based on a highly regarded recipe from The Pantry in downtown Los Angeles.
Mo's Barbecue
301 Main St. #107 (across from Avila's El Ranchito restaurant)
Huntington Beach, CA

Want to try that Italian sausage I mentioned? Go to the wharfs of Lido Peninsula and try it at the source. Take home a big coil of Italian sausage studded with cubes of cheese and flecked green with parsley. It's on the salty side, but damn fine if pan fried then simmered in a tomato sauce!
Sabatino's Restaurant & Sausage Company
251 Shipyard Way
Newport Beach, CA

Sunday, October 17, 2004

TJ's alert

My favorite new item at Trader Joe's: Wasabi Cashews. Nuclear wasabi flavor. The 12oz bag comes with about a pound of wasabi powder. We're talking armor-piercing potency.

Mariscos Tampico

Santa Ana, CA

Fourth Street in downtown Santa Ana brings back memories of Mexico City when I visited there at 10 years of age. There are pushcart vendors hawking fresh fruits and Mexican snacks on every corner of this business district lined with restaurants, bridal shops and discount stores with windows signs that say "Envio Dinero." That could mean "send money" or "envy my diner," depending on how well one paid attention in Spanish class.

Scoping out restaurants by car is difficult on this narrow one way street, because of all the traffic behind me. Parking on Fourth Street can be a dodgy proposition, but I managed. Dodgy not because it's a bad neighborhood, but because parking spots are rare and watched over by the meter maids in their triwheeled scooters. I dumped an hour's worth of quarters in the meter, and walked a half mile stretch. From the several candidates, I chose Mariscos Tampico for a light seafood lunch.

The place looks like it's been around since the`70's judging by the wood paneling and the bright, handpainted underwater motif on the walls, and fishnets draped from the ceiling. Think Spongebob Squarepants meets the Brady Bunch on the Gulf of Mexico. A jukebox by the door played Mexican ballads with instrumentation that sounded several decades old. A retro, not-intentionally-ironic, kitschy place.

The antojitos menu offered some interesting snacks, including a taco of smoked fish (pescado ahumado) and a chicharron de pescado (fried fish skins) . They were out of the smoked fish, and I wanted something more substantial than chicharron de pescado, so I ordered a small mixed seafood cocktail, and a fish taco off of their antojitos menu. The large entrees were more than I wanted.

The seafood cocktail arrived quickly in a sundae glass, filled with shrimp, octopus, fish, and raw oysters and accompanied by a handful of saltine crackers. Its tomato sauce tasted oversweet. A heavy squirt of fresh lime juice cut the sweetness nicely, and the pieces of fresh avocado on top added a nice richness to the seafood-topped saltines. The other seafood tasted just fine, bu the oysters were small and flabby, leading me to think they use canned oysters for the cocktail. I will have to go back and try their ostiones menu to see if they use freshly shucked oysters on those dishes.

The fish taco, however, was terrific. Two large corn tortillas were griddled with a bit of oil, and topped with a big heap of grilled fish fillet pieces (I think it might have been catfish, judging by its fine flakes), shredded cabbage, tomatoes, avocado and oddly, a squirt of mayo. The mayo worked just fine, I just don't think of it as an especially Mexican condiment. Perhaps they do this in Eastern Mexico, I don't know.

Paid my $9 tab, ran back to the car and pulled away from the meter maid with four minutes left on the meter. I will go back to try other interesting dishes on the menu. Most entree items are in the $10-$19 range. The fresh fish and lobster dishes, and several behemoth seafood soups on the caldos menu caught my eye as they left the kitchen. They also offer two kinds of chilaquiles, in Mexican and Norteño styles.

Mariscos Tampico
220 E. 4th St
Santa Ana, CA
Two other locations in L.A. county, too.

Friday, October 15, 2004

Boba me, baby

Fresh fruit smoothies with boba pearls. Sounds much more appealing than the nasty, neon, non-dairy-creamer concoctions that most boba shops will foist upon the unsuspecting.

My favorite boba shop in OC is a little shop in a big Costa Mesa strip mall on Harbor Blvd and Baker Street. They use real fruit (bananans, stawberries, mango, lychee, etc) in their drinks, which makes all the difference in the world. Think of a fruit smoothie you might buy, say, at Jamba Juice with chewy black tapioca pearls. Depending on what you order, they will boost sweetness with a flavored syrup too.

Reading impaired menu

They also have good quality teas and herbal blends with which they'll brew your tasty beverage: things like rosehips and the herbal sweetener stevia in its natural leaf form.

Mayo jars full of herb

Boba Smoothie
1460 Baker St. Suite D
Costa Mesa, CA
and a new location:
19092 Beach Blvd., Suite V
Huntington Beach, CA

Wednesday, October 13, 2004

Ramentown, USA

Costa Mesa, CA

Within a quarter mile of the intersection of Bristol Street and Baker, there are no less than 5 Japanese restaurants that serve ramen, and even more if you expand that radius by a few miles. Some are ramen specialists. Others treat ramen as an afterthought. That there's five places to get ramen in that close proximity is amazing, even in Japan.

Dadami serves ramen and other Japanese staples in an obscure strip mall close to where I work. Buried behind Wahoo's Fish Tacos, it's easy to overlook. Even though I've passed by Dadami for months, I've only tried it recently for the first time. The first sampling of their ramen is promising. Overly salty soup, but promising because they make a really rich pork broth by boiling for long hours. I'll save the review until after I've sampled their menu more deeply. They have a Japanese curry rice that they make with this same ramen broth. [ed -I've since tried this curry, and it is amazingly good]

These other shops I'm talking about are: Mitae Ramen, Oki Doki, and a couple more inside the food court at the Japanese supermarket Mitsuwa. I'm not that fond of Mitae's very light, vegetable-tasting soup. Like my photo on this blog states, I am big on the pig (flavored soup). The food court ramen shops are mediocre at best, using a broth from commercial bouillon. I haven't tried the ramen at Oki Doki yet. So even though the ramen in Ramentown USA isn't necessarily great, I will go back and try them all, for the sake of being thorough. My favorite? Shin Sen Gumi, in nearby Fountain Valley and Gardena. A more detailed review will follow.

Shin Sen Gumi Hakata Ramen
2015 Redondo Beach Blvd #G
Gardena, CA
18315 Brookhurst Ave #1
Fountain Valley, CA

688 Baker St #7
Costa Mesa, CA

Tuesday, October 05, 2004

Little Saigon, a prelude

The TV shows "The OC" and "Laguna Beach" would have you believe that only rich, beautiful, white people live in Orange County. Which they do; Newport Coast and the clifftop homes in the superexlusive Irvine Cove are loaded with the white people that even white people call white people. White folks -- love you (air kiss) and your food -- but oftentimes, I need a food fix of the Asian persuasion.

For that, I drag Adam on a venture into Westminster, the largest Vietnamese enclave outside of Vietnam. Little Saigon is a local gem that makes our county more special to live in. Adam is my 4 year old, lily-white stepson, the most Asian white kid in our neighborhood. We start our forays into Little Saigon at Top Baguette and the Vietnamese sandwiches made with them, called banh mi. It's a multitextured party of flavors in my mouth, filled with various meats (Chinese style red roast pork, shredded braised chicken, etc); juliennes of pickled carrot and daikon; slices of raw jalapeno; sprigs of fresh cilantro. Entry into this party: $1.50. Crazy cheap. Even though the Vietnamese consider banh mi a fast food snack, they're about the best fast food I've found. I tip my hat to any culture that reveres good, fresh food as much ast the Vietnamese.

I wrote about banh mi on earlier this year, after I tried a dozen or so banh mi shops. Click here for part 1 of the report, and click here for part 2. Top Baguette is still my first choice for banh mi. They have very few potholes on the menu, and the rest of the choices are top notch. If I want a banh mi with a smear of paté, I'll go to Gala Bakery, because I like theirs better. If I'm in the mood for really great red roast pork, I'll go to Tai Buu. Today, we ordered a fried egg banh mi (Adam's favorite) and a pork "ham," which is actually not ham but a mild, white, cold cut made from ground pork. Think sliced, processed turkey cold cuts, but made of pig. If a 4 year old can like it, so can you. But then, he likes it because it's mild. If you like big flavors, get the hoisin-tasting Heo Nuong (roast pork) or the Xiu Mai (meatball).
Top Baguette
9062 Bolsa Ave (south side of street)
Westminster, CA

There's a tiny mom and pop fruit vendor a couple blocks East on Bolsa Ave that sells Southeast Asian fruit like mango, jackfruit, durian, lychee for retail and wholesale. Today, the store was loaded with bright pink dragonfruit for $4 / pound, which is a steal. In the past, I've paid higher than average prices here for jackfruit and mango, but their quality is high, fruit is all they do, and they give friendly service, so I'm willing to pay more. I regret not bringing a camera because the sight of the store filled with this bright magenta fruit impressed me. If you've never seen a dragonfruit, scroll down to the "fruit from hell" photo on the SF - Part 2 post. Check back next week and I'll have photos too.

Tien Phat
9291 Bolsa Ave (NE corner of Moran)

I find it funny how the Vietnamese do French food better than the French in this part of the world, and for less money too. Adam and I finished our trip today at Sing Sing Bakery, which makes excellent French style pastries. I especially like their puff pastry and the pastry cream here, so we got a mini fruit tart and several cups of Vietnamese yogurt. The silky yogurt is made with sweetened condensed milk, which contributes a caramelly, mild sweetness. The small, clear plastic cups of yogurt are sold all over Little Saigon. The cups look remarkably similar despite different labels, so I'm guessing there's a wholesale source that these shops all buy from. Will track that down and report back when I do.
Sing Sing Bakery
9600 Bolsa Ave Unit A
Westminster, CA

Saturday, October 02, 2004

Assaulted Bagel Man

Remember how you'd chase down the ice cream truck when you were a kid? I followed a bagel truck recently, at midnight, into a sleepy strip mall parking lot. The man from Brooklyn Bagel Bakery had just dropped off a sack at a Seattle's Best coffee shop and was locking up after himself when I pulled up in front of his van.

"Hey, uh... so, do you guys have a bakery in Orange County, or do you drive all the way here from LA?" The guy had the afraid-to-speak look of someone stuck on an elevator with a load of Hare Krishnas.

Really good bagels are hard to find anywhere, especially on the West coast. I've found 98% of bagel and pizza shops with an East coast allusion in their name inevitably suck. (Yeah, I'm talking to you, Noah's NY Bagels...) Brooklyn Bagels has a reputation as one of the better ones in LA, and I'd never tried theirs. You can understand my excitement when I spotted their truck in my neighborhood (or maybe you don't, and I am a freak). Interrogating the bagel man is a minor misdemeanor at worst, during which I uncovered another of his retail accounts in my area (Benji's Deli in Tustin).

Long story short - I stopped by that Seattle's Best shop this morning and found they wrapped each of last night's delivery in plastic wrap, a crime far worse than stalking the bagel truck. It's bad enough that the bagels were now over 8 hours old. They completely ruined what's left with Saran wrap. I ran crestfallen straight to Bruegger's Bagels, where I got theirs right out of the oven, still too hot to touch. While not a great bagel by any means, it's acceptably good when fresh.

I will schlep over to LA some day and try Brooklyn's straight from the source. To be continued...
Brooklyn Bagel Bakery
2217 Beverly Boulevard
Los Angeles

Bruegger's Bagels
All over, nation wide

Friday, October 01, 2004

Roscoe's House of Chicken `N Waffles - the movie

Turkey `N Waffles

Some stories are better left untold. Roscoe's fried chicken & waffle empire serves pretty good Southern food (for around these parts) in 5 locations around Los Angeles. As odd a combination as it sounds, fried chicken and waffles go together like milk and Pepsi. Think hot, crisp, peppery fried chicken. Grits, greens, corn bread (two kinds), chicken sausage, smothered biscuits, red beans and rice, and of course, waffles.

Went to the Long Beach store a couple weeks ago, and noticed paper placemats promoting their movie. My verdict: skip this straight-to-video turkey. Ostensibly, it's the story of two shady numbers-running guys from NY who came out to LA and opened a restaurant to pay off loan sharks. I shut off the DVD after the first 20 minutes. The production quality approached a soft porn film's, but lacked your typical soft porn's professional acting, writing, and directing . I swear the DVD player gagged when it hoiked out the disc.

If the recent price hike on Roscoe's menu is paying off production costs, I'm going to be *very* upset.

Roscoe's - Long Beach
730 E. Broadway
Long Beach, CA