Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Yakyudori Yakitori & Ramen -- passable if you're desperate

Yakyudori Yaktori & Ramen
4898 Convoy St
San Diego, CA 92111
(858) 268-2888

Sometimes I join a group called the Kearny Mesa Lunch Bunch (KMLB) for lunch. The group is based in the Kearny Mesa area in San Diego and lunches include visiting new restaurants or sometimes, just old favorites which need desperately to be revisited. On one such occasion, we came here.

The restaurant is really small and the same goes for the menu. There are about 6 types of ramen you can choose from and each comes with a few toppings. Additional toppings range from 50 cents to $2 and the usual stuff such as bamboo, chashu, beansprouts, green onions etc are available.

They offer small bowls of ramen and it is confusing on the menu because it is hard to decipher how much a small bowl costs. But actually, it is $1.50 less than whatever regular bowl of ramen costs depending on the style of ramen you want.

I also got chicken karaage which was actually quite good. I tasted the takoyaki (octopus balls) which they called fried octopus fritters on the menu..... were meh. I've definitely had much better and these were kinda mass-produced tasting. They also have gyozas which I didn't try, but those who did said it was really good.

I ordered a small bowl of nagoya style ramen and a small bowl doesn't come with the soft boiled egg, while the large bowl does. It doesn't make any sense really because the egg costs $1.50 so essentially, it is cheaper to just get the regular bowl of ramen and not eat your extra ramen for the same price.

I got additional chashu, beansprouts, egg (since mine didn't come with any) and bamboo. The ramen itself came with a small spoonful of ground pork and some chives. The small bowl also comes with a minuscule amount of broth so the ramen was essentially kinda on the dry side. The regular sized ramen had a decent amount of broth.

Flavor-wise the chashu was really good, not too fatty and very tasty. The ramen was just so-so and the broth was on the weak side. I asked for the creamed garlic to add to my broth for additional flavor and it helped some.

In the end, when you add this topping and that topping, the price of your ramen can get quite expensive. My bowl of ramen ended up costing about $11 when Santouka ramen's most expensive bowl of ramen costs the same with more pork and more toppings already included. Santouka's broth is also far superior to the one here.

For a quick ramen fix this place suffices. It also looks like it is trying to turn itself into an izakaya during dinner time as there were signs stipulating that once they get their liquor license they will be serving yakitori (grilled skewers) along with the alcohol.

Yakyudori definitely has potential to become a happening place!

Friday, June 19, 2009

Duong Son BBQ -- yummy Chinese close to home

Duong Son BBQ
9081 Bolsa Avenue
Westminster, CA 92683
(714) 897-1269

It's been a really long and hard road in trying to find some decent Chinese food in OC and especially a place where the food is reasonably priced as well. Duong Son is run by Vietnamese Chinese folks and their homestyle Chinese cuisine is by far some of the
best I've had in the area. It is not fancy, but very hearty, comforting if you will. Something your mama might make at home.

The meal starts with complimentary Chinese soup which changes daily. To me, this is the best part of going for Cantonese food because the soup usually is a great indicator of how the meal will follow. If your soup is bland and watery, your meal won't be much better either.

We ordered a BBQ combo plate which includes steamed chicken, roasted duck and bbq pork. The latter was very tasty and not too fatty. The duck and chicken were also good, but I don't think I would order those again on subsequent visits since there is just so much offered on
the menu to sample.

Steamed rock cod was tender and just what I was craving. I love steamed fish Chinese style with scallion and soy sauce. I did think they needed a tad more soy sauce as it wasn't salty enough, however, the fish was very fresh which made up for whatever was lacking in the sauce.

Fried tofu is absolutely fantastic -- served with a chili soy sauce -- and it was apparent
because my son devoured the entire plate on his own minus two pieces which we took. This is definitely a keeper.

Chinese broccoli (gai lan) with beef was perfectly cooked and seasoned. Tender pieces of beef stir fried with gai lan with a hint of garlic and ginger -- highly satisfying.

We also ordered salted fish and diced chicken fried rice. Ordinarily, this item is very s
alty, but for some reason, the version here was just right. You could eat it on its own without fear of having a thirst attack later on.

When you're done with your meal, complimentary Chinese dessert is brought to the table. On our visit, it was red bean and sago and in true Chinese tradition, it wasn't super sweet.
Even I, who traditionally stay away from these sorts of things, ended up polishing off my little bowl.

Best of all, the entire meal only set us back around $40 (tip not included) and we still had food leftover to bring home.

If you're feeling like some non-pretentious Chinese food, definitely give Duong Son a try!!

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Utopia Cafe -- Claypot rice and more

Utopia Cafe
139 Wav
erly Place
Francisco, CA 94108
(415) 956-2902

Why does Chinese food always taste so much better in San Francisco? I have no clue, but it just does. My absolute favorite thing to eat is clay pot rice (boh jai fan) and Utopia Cafe specializes in it. The last time I was here, I dined alone, so all I could order was the clay pot rice. This time, there were three of us so we were able to order a few more items.

Ground pork pattie with salty fish clay pot rice appeals to all in my family so we ordered that one. We also got some garlic pea sprouts, salt and pepper tofu cubes, and an order of shrimp and pork wontons.

The wontons were really good -- not as good as what one might find in Hong Kong, but still, very good nonetheless -- in a dried fish broth with a few sprigs of choy sum. Use some of the chili oil they have in the jar on the table if you like spicy stuff as this will enhance the wontons eve more.

Salt and pepper tofu cubes were such a hit with all we ate those up very quickly. Garlic pea sprouts were lovely as well, but ask for the garlic cloves instead of minced garlic as they use jarred garlic and not fresh.

Clay pot rice take
s a while to cook so was the last to arrive. They give you a bowl of their house special soy sauce to drizzle over the rice when it arrives. My favorite part of the rice is the charred, crusty bottom. There is nothing like it in my opinion!

Service isn't the best in Chinatown, but the staff are ready to help if you need it, and because I speak the language, they are really nice, especially when hubby praises them on the food. If you spend $30 or more, they will validate your parking at Portsmouth Square G
arage for 2 hours.

Wish they had something close to this in Orange County!

Saturday, March 28, 2009

HK Causeway Bay -- A hankering for Chinese

HK Causeway Bay
111 E 4th Avenue

San Mateo, CA 94401
(650) 342-8388

In all honesty, even the most mediocre dim sum in the Bay Area is better than the best dim sum in Orange County. Frankly, there isn't a place I'd really go for dim sum in OC when I'm hankering for some. HK Causeway Bay is another example of the tons of dim sum restaurants available in the Bay Area, and in San Mateo alone, there are at least a handful which does the job when you've got that craving for some BBQ pork buns or har gow.

I came here with my aunt, uncle and cousins. We ordered quite a few dim sum items as well as some specials including a bamboo pith with Shanghai bok choy in broth with goji berries, steamed tripe served with a special soy sauce and a rice vermecelli with bean sprouts and
fried anchovies (they call it silver fish here) and a fried sweet potato dusted with salty egg yolk.

Dim sum comprised of the usual offerings: bbq pork buns, har gow, chicken's feet, w
u kok (taro puffs), seen juk guen (tofu sheets wrapped ground pork), mushroom cheung fun, mochi balls (lui sa tong yuen) and steamed sponge cake (ma lai goh).

I thought the chicken's feet were fantastic, flavorful and off the bone tender. Wu kok was also fabulous, so light on the outside and nice and mushy on the inside. The only thing I had a problem with was the rice noodles which were too thick and not delicate enough, and the wrappers for the har gow which uses the same rice flour as the cheung fun. Everything else wasn't bad.

Service is really awful at times even when you shout out in Cantonese to them. I think the bus boys were better at getting your tea or water refilled if you were lucky to flag one of them down. You can pretty much get an above average meal here if you know what to order.
We came back for dinner another night and again some of the dishes were hit and miss.

During our dinner visit, we had the snow crab done two ways: with scallion and ginger sau
ce as well as the legs steamed with vermecelli, string beans, salt and peppered pork chops, yuk tze tofu with a mushroom medley, steamed fish, stir fried gai lan in a wine sauce, sticky rice to finish. Most of the dishes were okay except the pork chops which had an over abundance of soda powder (generally used to tenderize the meat) which gave the pork a 'fatty' texture. I hate this texture because it causes the pork to not resemble meat anymore.

The yuk tze tofu was really good as was the sticky rice. The snow crab wasn't too bad and the fish was good too. Eating with a group means you can try more dishes and that's exactly
what we did -- eight adults did some major damage, but without hurting the pocketbook too much!

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Ambrosia -- An elixir of the cyanide kind

801 N Main St
Santa Ana, CA 92701
Tel: (714) 550-0811

It was supposed to be a happy evening spent with friends in celebration of a birthday. What transpired was not only bizarre, but an experience I had never encountered, until tonight, in 15+ years as a professional food writer, cookbook author and now, blogger.

As soon as we walked in, we knew it was going to be an interesting evening. The dining room was kitschy like one would find in a 70s restaurant, complete with lounge singer and another accompanying on the piano and synthesizer. The plastic foliage should have been a dead giveaway, but we were marveling at how a restaurant only 3 years old could be so dated in every possible way.

Our server Cesar was the start and end to our problems. The minute he offered us water -- sparkling or still -- and heard we were fine with tap, was the start to the ill-treatment we received. His immediate response was to remove all the wine glasses from the table before we’d even had a chance to peruse the menu or wine list for that matter. Such pre-conceived notions perhaps that maybe, people who like to drink tap water are somehow too gauche to want wine with their dinner is why he removed the wine glasses in the first place?

With the wine glasses, he also promptly removed the a la carte menu leaving us with only the prix fixe version. He then informed us that we all had to order the prix fixe or the a la carte menu—there was no mixing and matching allowed, but if we were to order the prix fixe, then side selections from the a la carte were acceptable.

He started with me when he took the orders and after I had selected my appetizer and entree, proceeded to ask what I would like for my dessert off the prix fixe. I asked him if I had to tell him right now and his answer? ABSOLUTELY YES! I sighed and gave him my response.

Our appetizers of flambed shrimp and beet salad were so-so. It didn’t blow us away, but they were just average. The general manager who flamed our shrimp is an eccentric Frenchmen who actually gave a damn about our dining experience. He was pleasant and inquired about our meal a couple of times throughout the evening.

However, when our entrees arrived, we realized that every one of our meals were cold. The plates they were served on were cold. Not only that, but the steak frites was ordered medium and arrived rare. The most bizarre thing was that the meat tasted off. It had the gameyness of unfresh meat. I immediately spat it out.

Incredibly, the braised Colorado lamb was not gamey at all, but I was surprised that it arrived like a ragout served with undercooked pappardelle which only needed a minute more in the water for it to have been perfect. Such a waste of homemade pasta too.

I found it strange that seabass could be overcooked since it’s such an oily fish. I cook it all the time at home and never have I found seabass to turn out dry. But there is always the first time for everything.

When a busboy inquired about our meal we informed him that the steak was not edible. His immediate response was an apology, followed by a ‘what would you like me to do’, and then ending with the shirking of responsibility off to the kitchen stating he took no part in preparing the meal. He did say he would send a manager over.

What we got was Cesar who says to my friend “I see you’re going to take your dinner home”. My friend with the steak shook her head and told him no. He then replied “that’s good news since we’ve run out of ‘to-go’ boxes and I was going to suggest you finish it since you won’t be able to take it home”.

Perhaps it was just as well that my friend didn’t understand his sarcasm but it wasn’t lost on the birthday girl who was quietly seething away. We didn’t even know how angry she was until the general manager stopped by before she let loose her contempt for Cesar.

Not having a good meal happens sometimes. Kitchens have bad nights, it’s totally understandable. But if you’re working at the front of the house, it’s your job to make sure your diners are having a good time regardless of how the food is. Not only did we have a subpar meal, but the blatantly rude behavior of Cesar just pushed us over the top.

Although the GM ended up comping out meal, it was too little too late. The birthday celebration was ruined. The birthday girl was devastated, and birthdays only come around once a year!

*I have never been so distracted that I didn't even feel like taking photos, but as you can see there is only one photo to accompany this entry and a shoddy one at that*

Monday, February 16, 2009

Pizzeria Ortica -- molto bellissimo

Pizzeria Ortica
650 Anton Blvd
Costa Mesa, CA 92626

(714) 445-4900

I had driven by this place several times and often wondered what it was all about, so when my son wanted pizza today, I suggested we try this place out since it seems to be a pizzeria by its name.

Upon entry, I immediately took to the long dining room, something one hardly sees out here in southern California, but quite prevalent in New York City restaura
nts. Our server was a really lovely gal named Justene who was knowledgeable about the menu and was pleasant throughout our entire meal.

We ordered salsiccia e finnocchio pizza, Angelino panini and two starters, polipo e patate and verdure al forno con burrata to share. Foccaccia is brought to the table with balsamic vinegar and olive oil. My son immediately loved the olive oil. He said it was good olive oil and he would know since we've been to other Italian restaurants where he's said the olive oil was gross. The balsamic wasn't as aged as it could've been since it was a little too tart on the palate.

Our appetizers arrived shortly. The polipo e patate, or charred Mediterranean octopus served with Yukon potatoes, capers and celery hearts didn't look pretty but it sure tasted good. We loved the tartness of the dressing and the chewiness of the octopus. The
grilled vegetables with burrata comprised of zucchini, red peppers, sweet peppers and cippolini onions and a nice lump of burrata. We loved this immensely.

We came for the pizza and when it arrived we were not disappointed. This is the type of pizza I like, with a nice crust and not too much toppings. I really dislike American pizza because the toppings overflow and the pizza is greasy as hell. Here, the toppings are used sparingly like they do in Italy, just enough to flavor without overkill. The house made sausage was nicely flavored, but what I loved most about this particular pizza was the caramelised fennel.

Angelino panini comprised of a very moist piece of chicken breast with oven roasted tomatoes and crispy pancetta. I thought the panini bread was too soft which resulted in the sandwich becoming soggy too quickly. The bread was also too thick which made it hard to bite into the entire sandwich. Other than that, it tasted delicious. If they could figure out a way to keep the bread intact, this would have been an almost perfect sandwich.

We were even tempted enough to have some dessert -- ricotta al forno -- ricotta cheese cake topped with berries and served in a fig sauce reduction. The first thing which struck me about this was that it wasn't sweet at all. I would've loved it had the ricotta cake been softer and moister. Ricotta is on the dry side so without adding anything else to it would mean that it had a crumbled texture rather than a smooth texture. I like how they were true to using only ricotta, but texturally, it wasn't to my liking.

Service was great. I really liked Justene and I hope when we return again, we'll have her serve us or have someone equally good. There is validated parking in the back as well so it makes it convenient for diners not to have to circle around trying to find street parking. The portions are European-style, which means you're not going to get gargantuan proportions, but it also means that your final tab might be slightly higher than you anticipated. However, we thoroughly enjoyed our meal here and we'll definitely be back to try some other things on the menu.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Lotus Chinese Eatery -- a different kind of Chinese

Lotus Chinese Eatery
16883 Beach Blvd
Huntington Beach, CA 92648
Tel: (714) 848-4940

In China there is a small population of people who are Muslim and this means they don't eat pork or pork by-products. This means, lots of beef and of course, lamb! Naturally, t
he cuisine is highly reflective of the region and its people.

It took us a long time to find a favorite place for Muslim-style (halal) Chinese food after moving to southern California. We used to eat it a lot when we lived up north so after eating a lot of uninspiring halal Chinese, we finally found a place which has consistently served us great food.

Lotus Chinese Eatery is interesting in that they have the authentic dishes along with the regular "American-friendly" dishes for those who might not want to venture into unknown territory.

Our favorite items to order at the spicy beef tendon or the beef tripe. It is nice and spicy here and utilizes a seasoning using Sichuan peppercorns. In fact, we try to order a lot of the spicier items on the menu except for the braised tofu with vegetables which we always order because our son loves it.

They also do a sesame scallion bread which takes a little while to prepare, so if you're interested in ordering this dish, make sure you do it the minute you sit down, even before you order your dishes because otherwise, your bread will come out at the end of the meal rather than with your meal. We like the thin version -- which isn't thin at all! It's still about an inch thick.

I suggest ordering any lamb dishes is the way to go. We love the lamb with leek or lamb with green onions. However, if you're not a fan of lamb, you can have them substitute any lamb item with beef. They're happy to do it! You won't get the gorgeous aromas that lamb gives off, but it'll suffice.

It is of course best if you go with a group of six or more so you can order more items to share. On one occasion when I've come here with friends, they've ordered this tofu omelette dish which comprised of soft tofu in a brown sauce topped with an omelette. I liked their combined textures but I am not sure it's my favorite dish here.

Once the sesame scallion bread arrives, our son likes to use it like bread in a sandwich. He'll take any of the dishes we've ordered and put it in between the slice and eat -- quite innovative for an 8-year-old if you ask me!

Don't expect excellent service, after all, it IS a Chinese restaurant. However, I've never received bad service here. The ladies are hilarious since they speak Cantonese to me and love to come o
ver for a chat. They are also quite quick to help us order, often suggesting new items we've never tried before.

Another thin
g that's different about this place is that you'll notice that apart from the Chinese diners, there will be a lot of diners of other backgrounds enjoying this fare. After all, your regular Muslim clientele can't well walk into any Chinese restaurant for a meal. Oh no! Pork is one of the largest staple of Chinese food and that would be a huge no-no for a devout Muslim to consume. Here, at Lotus Chinese Eatery, they can indulge in tasty Chinese food without worrying about the possibility of cross contamination!

If you've never tried it, give it a go. It's positively delicious!