>Tutto Famiglia — value for money family style Italian

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**Version of article also in OC Register**

With the crazy amount of restaurants dotted around Orange County, it is hard to really pinpoint where to go when those crazy cravings hit. Some days, I want to stay close to home, I want value for money, I want good service but most of all I want something tasty!

I don’t go out for Italian often because I make a lot of it at home, but I won’t say no when a friend wants to go and try some place new. This was the case with Tutto Famiglia! I’ve seen Tutto Famiglia so many times while hitting up Pho Bo Vang next door.  I’d even gone up to read the menu posted outside, but never stepped inside until now.

Interestingly, the first thing that hits you when you are walking into the restaurant is the strong smell of pho wafting from next door, and I mean STRONG. Even when you are inside Tutto Famiglia, you are still getting a whiff or two of the beef broth. However, it only lasts a few moment until you catch the aromas wafting from the kitchen — that undeniable aromas of garlic and tomato.

The interior is simple, comfortable and cozy and it came as no surprise when I realized it is a family-run business. Mother and daughter were both taking orders and serving customers and you definitely feel that warm hospitable affinity when you are there.

The wondrous smell of aroma is continued when complimentary garlic bread is brought to the table — hot and buttery, perhaps not garlicky enough for me, and way too buttery, but a nice welcoming touch. It’s great to see that they didn’t just plonk some regular bread on the table with pats of butter like most places.

We ordered a small pizza with gorgonzola, eggplant and sausage. Three toppings come standard on the pizzas, $12 for the small, or $15 for the large. Additional toppings are $1.50 each.  — we opted for gorgonzola, eggplant and sausage — and linguine alla vongole (clam sauce) to share. I was surprised at how large the pizza was for a “small” and how generous the toppings were. The pizza was laden with toppings, which I know a lot of people love, but for me, I prefer less toppings and a sturdy crust, but it was a great tasting pizza regardless and such what value for money! But for me, the toppings bogged down the crust making the crust not crispy and too much toppings is more of an American style pizza rather than those pizzas I love so much from Naples.

Linguine alla vongole was also a hefty portion, way too much for me alone. I was very impressed that they used fresh clams as there’s nothing worse than finding tinned clams in your linguine alla vongole when it hits your table. Although the pasta itself didn’t soak up enough of the juices, leaving it a little bland, the pasta was perfectly al dente. The sauce also needed a touch more wine and maybe a pinch more salt as the flavor was a bit one dimensional.

Because everything was cooked with love, like how your Italian aunt may do so in her kitchen, I let it go. I also liked how the whole dining room was bustling with energy from all the patrons who were here, a lot of them seemingly regulars. I like how the servers were very attentive, never leaving a glass of water empty, how they constantly came to check on us, to see if we needed anything else.

This is a neighborhood restaurant, something I can see families with children will frequent in the evenings and on the weekends.Tutto Famiglia is true to its name, “the whole family”, and when you dine there, it’s like eating in their home.

Tutto Famiglia, 23766 Mercury Rd, Lake Forest, CA 92630. Tel: 949-472-5466

*** Photography by Mahesh ***

Tutto Famigila on Urbanspoon

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>The Greasy Wiener — as sinful and naughty as it sounds

>Hey, I don’t particularly search out for hotdogs or burgers as a means of staple when I am contemplating what to eat, but on this particular day, I get a tweet informing me that The Greasy Wiener gourmet food truck was going to be in Irvine and if interested, to go out there and give them a try. I gathered up my trusted fellow foodie and blogger Holly (Savored) and headed out to Central Park West where we found several trucks already parked there.

I quickly searched out for The Greasy Wiener and found Adam, who had tweeted me and Holly as well to come on down to give their simple menu a shot. We chatted a little before embarking on what was to be a hell of a journey into making my taste buds whet and changing my mind forever on the humble hot dog and its counterpart, the burger — in this case, sliders.

chili cheese dogs

The menu is simple. There is the bacon chili cheese dog, or the chicken and apple sausage dog. Then there is the Iggy slider which come two to an order and topped with cheese, pickle and a special ‘secret’ sauce. If you’re a non-meat eater, well, they even have the “Hippie” which is a vegan dog especially for you. Add some fries, or, if you’re feeling REALLY brave, get the chili cheese fries. A whopping portion of fries topped with the delectable chili and cheese sauce for only $4 is enough for four or more people to share as a side. It was so good I couldn’t stop eating it even though I kept telling myself “gotta stop, gotta stop”, but I kept taking another bite.

I tend to like menus which are simple and no fuss. Really, hot dogs, burgers and fries. Straight-forward stuff! But let me tell you, when the stuff hit my mouth, there was nothing simple about it.

Iggy sliders

The bacon chili cheese dog was topped with a massive amount of grilled onions and some grilled jalapenos (I asked for mine spicy, you can get it without) making it a little difficult to bit into at first. I picked up the dog and thought about it for a bit before just giving up and taking a bite. I think I was literally a bit shocked at the mouth-explosion which happened right after I realized what had hit me. This wasn’t like any other hot dog I’ve ever had before and I thought those bacon-wrapped muthas from downtown LA were the bomb.

These hot dogs are fried which adds to the snap of the sausage but they are not over-fried where the skin shows sign of deterioration and starts wrinkling up. Oh no, these were just fried to perfection and the incredible snap of each and every bite is what is so addicting for me. You see, there are two reasons why I eat hot dogs, one of course is the flavor of the sausage portion and the other, is how much it snaps. For some reason, that snap just thrills me to no end. I can’t explain it, but it does, and the dog here has the most incredible snap I’ve ever encountered.

Next was the chicken apple sausage — okay, I’ve never been a fan of sausages mixed with apples to begin with due to its sweetness — I do NOT like sweet with my savory food —  but I’ll have to give it to them because again, the snap factor had a lot to do with how I like a dog. If you like chicken apple sausages, definitely go for this one.

chili cheese fries

Sliders, ahhh these cute lil miniature burgers which sound so adorable and tasty, but my experience with them have been a hit and miss. Why? Well, most places use King’s Hawaiian bread rolls for their sliders and if you were paying attention …. yeah, you get the picture, they’re SWEET! Up to now, my favorite sliders are those kobe ones from Drago Centro in downtown LA, but these little suckers just blew my mind.

Take freshly ground Angus and season them correctly, cooked so they are still tender and juicy, and now you assemble them with grilled onions, a fair amount of cheese, and the ‘special’ sauce and voila — positively one of the best sliders I’ve had in a long time!!

At the moment, The Greasy Wiener operates in Los Angeles and if you’re lucky they’ll stop by in OC on a whim. They are working to get an OC permit and when that happens, I’ll be first in line for more of this deliciously greasy fare.

The Greasy Wiener can be found on Facebook as well as Twitter

The Greasy Wiener (food truck) on Urbanspoon

>Liang’s Kitchen — long lines mislead what awaits

>I’m convinced that newly opened restaurants get the “new restaurant hype” and the long lines outside the place affirms that hype even more. This is what happened to Liang’s Kitchen, newly opened in Orange Tree Square Irvine, taking over the Takaraya space in the Ranch 99 Market plaza off Walnut. We tried to go there several times in the past few weeks and each time, we drove by there and the crowd outside was insane, so I opted out. I do not like standing in line for food, it puts me in a bad mood and makes my dining experience very unpleasant.

beef noodle soup

This time, we got there early and stood in line at around 10.50am (they open at 11am) and there were only a few parties waiting, Believe it or not, they put out a “sign in sheet” and make you put yourself on a “waiting list” and this is BEFORE they even open. Of course the minute the sign in sheet was placed outside, those who were in line behind us descended upon it like vultures trying to get in on the game. This is the reason why I hate eating in Chinese establishments around Irvine. People are rude and do not follow protocol. It is a highly stressful experience when you feel like you have to fight others just to get fed.

At 11am sharp, a guy comes to the door and reads off from the ‘waiting list’ and customers are seated. Menus are already on the table so the intention is for you to quickly order, so they can quickly feed you, so you can quickly get the hell out of there so they can keep the momentum going.

dan dan noodles

The menu is reminiscent of that from A&J, Nice Time Deli and even Yu’s Garden. An order sheet is provided as well as a menu with tons of photos to help you along the way. I’m a huge fan of tendon and beef noodle soup and although I like the one at A&J it’s not the best I’ve ever had. I was really hoping that the one here would be good. Sadly, it wasn’t and to add insult to injury, the whole thing tasted rancid from the broth to the tendon. It made my son and I gag and when that happened, no one else wanted to try it.

Scallion pancakes (cong you bing) is my son’s favorite item whenever we go to Chinese/Taiwanese breakfast but ironically, the ones here didn’t impress him at all. He ate one piece and didn’t touch it again. The pancake was undercooked, very greasy and was chewy instead of crispy on the outside. To make matters worse, the beef roll we ordered was wrapped with the same undercooked scallion pancake making it extremely soggy. When I took a bite, the grease oozed out from the scallion pancake — this is due to the pancake not being cooked at the right temperature and left to sit in the oil in low temperature.

beef roll

Dan dan noodles (spicy sesame noodles) was terribly weak. The sauce was watery, lacked flavor and basically, consisted of nothing but just the sauce, a pinch of chopped scallions and such a small amount of crushed peanuts that it didn’t do anything to enhance the flavor.

I love bittermelon so I ordered the stewed bittermelon and was glad the flavor was nice and was soaked into the melon, but the seeds weren’t removed so the initial bite caught me off guard and I bit into a bunch of seeds which made the whole eating experience very tedious.

Fried pork chop bento was probably the best thing we had. The pork chop was nicely fried, even the ground pork on the rice was nicely flavored, but when I took a bite of the pickled vegetables, they tasted weird…. and I realized they were OFF. I quickly removed them from the plate and prayed that I wouldn’t get sick from this AND the rancid beef noodle soup.

If the food had been good, I wouldn’t have had a problem paying what we did for this meal. However, I don’t believe in paying for bad food, whether it’s a lot or a little. There is no excuse for serving bad food to customers, let alone rancid food.

The lines outside this place do not justify the quality you will receive and frankly I think it’s just that Liang’s Kitchen is new and people are curious that the line is so long. Once the hype dies down and everyone goes back to this being just another restaurant in Irvine, Liang’s Kitchen will have trouble staying so popular if it continues to serve its customers such crappy food.

Liang’s Kitchen, 5408 Walnut Ave, Irvine, CA 92618 — CASH ONLY

Liang's Kitchen on Urbanspoon

>Xanh Bistro — a delicate balance of the old and new

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**This article is featured in the OC Register**

Xanh Bistro is tucked in the corner of a larger strip mall with no signage to alert you to it from the street, so if you’re not looking for it, you won’t find it. But let me tell you that this is a gem of a restaurant you definitely need to go in search of because you won’t regret it.

The food here can be construed as modern Vietnamese, but the only thing modern here is the presentation and attention to detail that Chef Haley Nguyen puts into every dish that hits your table. The food itself is as traditional and authentic as one can find in lil Saigon but your food won’t be carelessly dumped on your table, nor would the staff treat you with nonchalant disrespect. Here the service and food go hand in hand to give you a complete experience.

There are ubiquitous items on the menu such as cuon (rolls) and there are many to choose from. Salads are innovative and the intricate preparations are not lost on me. I see the julienned banana blossoms in the Goi Hua Chuoi, along with the daikon and carrots and everything else in the salad that require so much knife-work for it to be this simple and refreshing salad, but more on this later,

Chef Nguyen will be the first to tell you that Vietnamese food requires a lot of preparation but the end result is well worth it. Nguyen also runs cooking classes which teaches eager students easy ways to prepare Vietnamese meals at home (check out the website for more information).

squash blossom salad

Refreshing salads are very popular in Vietnamese cuisine and almost every restaurant will offer some sort of salad on its menu. Goi Hua Chuoi, or banana blossom salad is one such salad. Banana blossoms are found on the condiment plate when you eat bun bo hue, a beef noodle soup from Hue, the old capital city of imperial Vietnam, and have a nice crunch to it, which makes it ideal in a salad. Here, Nguyen adds pickled daikon and carrots, Vietnamese mint, peanuts, sesame seeds, shrimp and grilled pork. All the ingredients tossed in a dressing made with nuoc mam, or fish sauce, it is the perfect way to tease and whet your palate for whatever else to come.

Com Chay Thit Nuong is an appetizer comprising of crispy rice and grilled pork. Chunks of jasmine rice, deep fried until crispy is topped with pieces of flavorful grilled pork to give this dish not only great flavor, but also, great texture. Crispy rice is always delicious regardless of what cuisine it comes from, whether the bottom of a Korean bibimbap pot, part of Chinese sizzling rice soup, or this, I love it all. This appetizer is definitely something I would order over and over again!

crispy rice

One of my favorite Vietnamese dishes is Cha Ca Thanh Long, dill fish. I’ve had it in so many restaurants in lil Saigon….. usually whitefish is preferred ranging from catfish to snapper, but the best ones are seasoned impeccably and cooked to perfection, moist and flaky. The fresh dill brings an added dimension to the dish and is the primary factor in the wondrous aromatic finish of the fish. Bun, or rice vermicelli, along with lettuce, peanuts and special black sesame crackers are served alongside this dish to be assembled before eating. A bowl of special shrimp paste sauce is served alongside for dousing purposes. Although the one at Xanh isn’t pungent enough for my tastes, it will be accepted by the majority of people because it is mild yet flavorful enough to enhance the ingredients.

I also got to sample the Bo Ham Ngu Vi — five-spice braised short ribs — which reminded so much of a dish my mother makes. It was not surprising then when I found out that this dish has its roots from Chinese cuisine and although Nguyen’s version isn’t as intense as my mother’s, it was beautifully paired with garlic mustard greens. The meat was tender and it was obvious it had been slow cooked for hours.

dill fish

Chef Nguyen also makes her own ice cream in-house so if you have room, by all means try the ginger ice cream! It is delicious! There were so many other enticing dishes on the menu I had wanted to try, but unfortunately, there is only so much my stomach can endure in one sitting. I am already eagerly anticipating my next visit and I am planning on bringing along some friends so we can order more dishes to share.

Xanh Bistro, 16161 Brookhurst Street, Fountain Valley, CA 92780. Tel: 714-531-2030

>Komodo — first time didn’t do it for me

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rendang taco

I wasn’t sure what exactly Komodo was offering really — is it Mexican? Indonesian? Singaporean? I guess there is a little of each. What caught my eye was the Indonesian offering of beef rendang in a taco. I make a mean beef rendang, or so I’ve been told, by my Indonesian friends and my Indonesian BFF’s mother no less, so I know what I’m talking about. I wanted to try it in a taco because in my mind, this would TOTALLY work, and with a cucumber salad? It could totally rock!!

Komodo taco photo by Florance Chung

I was waiting for my friends to arrive, but I was absolutely famished so I don’t pass out while waiting. I get the taco, it looks good enough, but when I looked at how pale the rendang is I knew that flavor-wise, it wasn’t going to be strong enough. I also didn’t catch the fragrant aroma it should’ve been emitting.  I took a bite and surely, there was just a hint of the rendang flavors, but boy oh boy, it should’ve been pounding out at least 10x more than what I was tasting. I liked how they even topped it with bawang goreng (fried crispy shallots), but the rendang need a hell of a lot more punch than that! There wasn’t enough sauce so the meat was a little dry — there is a lot of potential here, but right now it wasn’t doing it for me.

When my friends arrived, we also got the Komodo taco — seared skirt steak with jalapeno aioli and a Southwestern corn salad. It looked very colorful and appetizing and honestly, the corn salad was really good, but the steak was so dry (almost like jerky) that none of us wanted to eat the meat after tasting it.

meatball with romesco

The other thing we tried were the meatballs with romesco sauce, which is a Spanish pepper sauce. The pork meatballs were overcooked — the outside was too brown and the entire meatball was well….. dry! The romesco sauce was perhaps a variation of traditional romesco sauce because it didn’t taste like any romesco sauce I’ve ever tasted before. On the whole, this was another item none of my party enjoyed.

I may give Komodo another try sometime later — but for now, I’m kinda licking my wounds from wasted stomach space.

You can find Komodo at their website, on Facebook or follow them on Twitter

Komodo (Food Truck) on Urbanspoon

>The Californian — decent hotel fare

>When my friends were in town I came to visit and hang and ended up having breakfast at the hotel. The Californian at the Sheraton Universal Hotel is small but suffices in that most people who stay here are on vacation either to visit Universal Studios or something like that and wouldn’t ordinarily be eating inside the hotel anyway.

There is a breakfast buffet for $21 but I opted for the regular breakfast of sausage, poached eggs, hash browns and toast. It was $12 which wasn’t exorbitant for hotel prices and one would expect to pay a few bucks less at a reasonably nice breakfast place. All I cared about was that the poached eggs were poached well and that the sausages were flavorful — which they both were. The poached eggs could’ve been a little less well-done, but they still were runny. The sausages were lovely pork sausages, very tasty!

I had asked for the hash browns to be extra crispy and they did exactly that! Overall, a nice meal without really breaking the bank if one absolutely MUST stay in.

The Californian, 333 Universal Hollywood Drive, Universal City, CA 91600. Tel: 818-980-1212