Alegria Farm is unique in what it offers

Last week, The Hungry Dogg and I were invited to visit Alegría Farm, California’s first urban hydroponic vertical farm on a ¼ acre property. A subsidiary of EnviroIngenuity, a Laguna Beach-based environmental company, its mission is to reduce waste and promote sustainable energy solutions, such as solar PV, hi-efficiency LED lighting, green building and vertical food production technologies.

I was really impressed by how small the farm actually is, everything is grown using the Verti-Gro® hydroponic system, which has been featured at the Epcot® theme park at Walt Disney World Resort for the last 16 years.

The system employs stacked interlocking pots with the nutrient solution automatically dripped through the plant’s root system. It uses 90 percent less water, 50 percent less fertilizer, 70 percent less land and zero toxic pesticides.

What REALLY caught my attention is the soil-less way of farming. I have eczema on my hands and soil aggravates it. Here, coconut fiber (coir) instead of organic soil is used, which eliminates the chances of soil-borne diseases and prevents use of toxic pesticides as well as irritating my hands. I held the coir in my hand for a while and it never caused any itching or aggravation whatsoever.

1,200 square feet of the farm is dedicated to five double rows of hydroponic vertical towers with a total of 150 towers growing over 8,000 plants. The towers are connected to tanks of hydroponic nutrients that feed the plants. Each stack is automatically watered on a schedule, average twice per day.  Each stack has seven pots with four to eight plants in each pot.

About ¾ gallon is used in watering each stack (averaging 60 plants) and no water is wasted. The entire growing system is solar powered and off-grid which makes it truly sustainable.

Alegría Farm is currently growing heirloom tomatoes, zucchini, squash and other hydroponic vegetables and a variety of hydroponic greens and medicinal herbs. All plants are started from certified organic, non GMO seeds and grown into seedlings before being placed into the stacking system.

The tomatoes were SO huge I couldn’t believe they were often bigger than the size of a man’s hand.

As we walked through the rows, we plucked off leaves of green and red Romaine lettuce, arugula, Swiss chard, kale etc and munched on them. I marveled at how the Swiss chard didn’t have that strong mineral taste of soil which I don’t particularly care for.

The collard green leaves were also very tender and so easily eaten raw. Micro cilantro was so flavorful and on top of that, there are several types of basil including the Japanese variety better known as shiso vibrantly growing like a bush.

Tomatoes including Heirloom Beefsteak, Japanese Black Trifele, Black Krim, Black Sea Man, Yellow Brandywine, Black and Green Zebra and Cherry were growing in clusters like grapes, so beautiful and so unique in each of the flavors.

Alegría Farm’s purpose is to become a local green “Farmacy” providing nutrient-rich food to people who wish to improve their health and prevent diseases.

On top of that, Alegría Fresh is creating jobs for young people. Right now, they have youths between the 18-25 age range operating a produce delivery route, delivering beautiful salad green bouquets to local subscribers. You can visit their website for more details on how you can receive same-day harvested, clean and pesticide-free salad greens and seasonal vegetables delivered straight to your door.

If you are interested in visiting the farm or for more information, you can contact Jessica McLeish at 949-294-3554.

Alegria Farm has generously donated a vegetable bouquet for one of my readers to win this week. Leave me a comment with your full name and tell me why you would be interested in buying hydroponically grown vegetables or having one of these units to grow your own at home.

Alegría Farm
2675 Laguna Canyon Road
Laguna Beach, CA

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incredible fare at Isola Pizza Bar

The last time I had a seriously excellent pizza was at Stella Rossa Pizza Bar in Santa Monica. It is so difficult to find a decent pizza in Orange County — well, one that constitutes as a perfect pizza in my book — and I am elated to report that I’ve found some in San Diego!

Isola Pizza Bar in Little Italy is one of those little gems which I hoped would have reasonably good pizzas but ended up being SO much more than just a pizza bar!

I loved the hustle and bustle of the restaurant and was offered a glass of Prosecco Nino Franco, Valdobiaddene, NY veneto ($10/glass) while we perused the menu. It possessed a lovely effervescent sweetness which was also light enough for this balmy evening.

The menu was simple and my eyes were immediately drawn to Polipo ($12), a salad of charred octopus, Kalamata olives, fingerling potatoes, celery, lemon and an Italian parsley based salsa verde. I loved the hints of tartness from both the lemon and olives, as well as the crunch from the celery.

Pepata di Cozze al Forno ($12), a beautifully prepared wood-fired mussels were cooked in white wine and garlic with cannellini beans, cherry tomatoes and chile. The mussels were melt-in-you-mouth tender and the broth they were swimming in was so delicious I couldn’t stop spooning it into my mouth. These are a MUST in my opinion.

If you are a shrimp fan, Gamberetti alla Diavola ($12), also wood-fired in the pizza oven, is salty and tart in a light tomato sauce with white wine, garlic, capers, Kalamata and chile. I was so delighted to find two triangles of polenta on the bottom of the plate which was sublime when eaten with the broth. Again, this is highly recommended and should be shared if you want to leave some room for pizza.

But before pizza, I was intrigued by lardo on the menu. The last time I had lardo was in Italy and I’d never seen it on any menu in southern California before now. Vannellini e Lardo bruschetta ($8/4pcs) is served on a piece of toasted bread topped with cannellini beans, lardo, a splash of extra virgin olive oil and rosemary.

Lardo is a type of Italian charcuterie — a piece of fatback cured with rosemary and other herbs and spices. I remember having a hard time eating lardo on its own while in Italy, but here, with the beans and bread, the entire thing was a rich, decadent treat. Since each order is four pieces, definitely share because you don’t want too much of a good thing when there is a lot more to experience.

After all this deliciousness, we still had to eat the pizzas. Burrata e Pomodorini ($15) is one of the restaurant’s favorites, and mine as well seeing it is topped with burrata, sweet cherry tomatoes, fresh oregano and basil. The pizza is thin — very thin — and held up well even with the toppings. When I picked it up, it didn’t dip in the center, an this in my book is an absolutely flawless pizza.

We also ordered the Guanciale ($15), a white pizza with broccoli rabe, guanciale, cherry tomatoes, mozzarella and fennel pollen. Both pizzas were perfectly executed and only required two to three minutes cooking time in the pizza oven imported from Italy.

An impeccable evening isn’t only about the food but also, the service. Our server Alex was extremely knowledgeable about the food, wine, but to top it off, he was passionate and entertaining throughout our meal. He will tell you about the wines from the owner’s family’s vineyard in Italy and describe the notes and finish like the ultimate sommelier so you get the best experience ever. Isola Pizza Bar is much more than pizzas, it is your gateway to dinner in Italy, right here in southern California.

Isola Pizza Bar
1526 India Street
San Diego, CA 92101
Tel: 619-255-4340

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new chef at Five Crowns & SideDoor

I was invited recently to meet the new Executive Chef at Five Crowns and SideDoor and try a few menu items at the same time. The garden event was casual and we were able to watch Chef Gregory Harrison and Chef Ryan Wilson, Executive Chef of Lawry’s Restaurant, Inc. prepare some of the gorgeous tidbits we were eating that evening.

The casual cocktail party naturally offered some in-house crafted cocktails including English Punch Pimms #1 with orange bitters, housemade strawberry lemon-lime soda and cucumber ribbons. It was so easy to drink you can’t just stop at one.

We were treated to delicious hors d’oeuvres while we mingled and chatted with the chefs.

Cured King salmon served on a spicy sauerkraut cracker with stone fruit and horseradish creme fraiche had all the textural components I liked.

The chefs took advantage of the lovely produce in season right now. Crispy squash blossom stuffed with burrata cheese is a different take to the ricotta cheese usually utilized in this dish. A richer texture is produced and the squash blossoms were beautifully crispy and light.

Octopus carpaccio with citrus, frisee, cilantro and yuzu was my favorite item of the evening. I must have eaten about four plates of these. The octopus was tender and the aromatic yuzu was heavenly bite after bite.

Pork belly skewers with candied cauliflower truffle was innovative and I loved it (even though I’m not a huge fan of pork belly as you all know) as it wasn’t as sweet as it sounds.

Lobster bisque topped with vidalia foam and roe was delightful and I would return and have a big bowl of this to start.

Gazpacho was such a refreshing change in this heat and the panino was exactly what we needed to go with it. It’s the classic grilled cheese and tomato soup given a modern face lift.

Salmon tartare was delicious with hazelnuts and nettle pesto. I love tartare and uniquely paired with the nuts and pesto, created a really flavorful mouthful.

Charcuterie with dates, bacon, wild rice and Point Reyes cheese was a mouthful of salty, sweet, smoky and a slight crunch from the wild rice. Simply lovely!

Espresso creme brulee served with a biscotti was one of the two desserts we sampled. Decadent, sinful and very satisfying!

The most delightful item of the night was cookies and milk, home made cookies served warm with a glass of icy cold milk. What nostalgia to be given a dessert such as this.

For a chance to experience Chef Greg Harrison’s creations, visit Five Crowns or SideDoor soon to take advantage of these new items we tasted.

I have a $100 gift card courtesy of Five Crowns/SideDoor for one of my readers to win. Leave me a comment and tell me your experience with this legendary restaurant, or why you haven’t visited yet. Get your entries in by Sunday and winner will be announced on Monday.

Five Crowns
3801 E Coast Hwy
Corona del Mar, CA 92625
Tel: 949-760-0331

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SideDoor
3801 E Coast Hwy
Corona del Mar, CA 92625
Tel: 949-717-4322

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Z Cafe’s unveils new menu items

This fast casual spot at South Coast Plaza’s Crystal Court is one of my son’s favorites. He loves the pizzas AND the salads. In fact, he can polish off a pizza, salad as well as a few garlic knots all on his own.

I was invited to taste the new menu items recently and was not surprised to find them all as delicious as expected. What was even more impressive was the fact that they now carry gluten free beer (on top of their gluten free pizza crust) and the beers tasted no different from any decent beers you will find out there.

Fresh Guacamole ($5.95) is a house-made guacamole which utilizes seasonal fresh corn on top of the avocados. The mound of guacamole is a very generous portion and is topped with pico de gallo and served with crispy Z bread — the Z Cafe pizza dough rolled out thin and baked.

On the topic of sweet corn, the soup of the daily was a creamy Roasted Sweet Corn soup ($2.95/cup, $4.95/bowl), perfect for those who love corn and soup, corn is at its peak right now and the flavor is optimum!

If you’re into salads, the Arugula ($7.95) is not as simple as it sounds. Organic arugula is is tossed together is toasted slivered almonds, grilled pineapple, house ricotta in a lemon vinaigrette.

The Barbecued Chicken sandwich ($8.95) is a good mix of chicken, grilled red onions, mayo, mixed greens and tomatoes on a ciabatta roll. The sandwiches at Z Cafe have always been an ideal choice for lunch whenever I’m shopping at Crystal Court.

Pizzas are a favorite here and the two new additions have ethnic influences sure to please those wanting something different. Thai Chicken pizza ($9.95/$16.95) is really unique with grilled chicken, red onion, cucumber, pickled carrots, cilantro and a peanut sauce. The flavors are lovely with a slightly hot and sweet taste throughout.

Mexican pizza ($9.95/$16.95) consisted of mozzarella, lime chipotle grilled asada, red onions, pico de gallo, roasted sweet corn, avocado, sour cream, cotija cheese and cilantro. I love the chipotle grilled asada which can also be found on the grilled steak salad. I definitely preferred this combination on the salad rather than the pizza.

Right now, during the month of August, if you make a purchase of $15 or over, you will receive a $5 coupon towards a purchase in September. Take advantage of this opportunity now, it ends on August 31st.

Z Cafe
3333 Bear Street
Costa Mesa, CA 92626
Tel: 714-545-5500

splurge at Daily Grill with low calorie menu

Restaurants lately have jumped on the band wagon of offering lower calorie items on their menus and Daily Grill‘s Simply 600 does just that. There are naturally salads, but included are burgers, sandwiches and entree items as well, hard to believe when you taste some of these 600 calories and below dishes.

We visited the Irvine location where the dining room was hustling and bustling during lunch time. It’s been at least five years since I’ve last visited a Daily Grill and the new menu definitely encompasses a more well-rounded array than I remembered.

We started with Southwest Chicken Taco Salad ($13.50) which is something I highly recommend. Make sure you fish around underneath the mixed field greens for the black beans, grilled corn,  brown rice, roasted red bell peppers, avocado and tomato. The chipotle dressing and lime crema are both delicious but frankly I didn’t understand the crispy tortilla on the bottom or the rice in the salad. 

I really enjoyed the Pan Seared Salmon Burger ($12.95) with arugula, sliced tomato, and remoulade, The salmon pattie was really flavorful, not at all dry and texturally pleasing. I didn’t like the bun much so I ended up eating the salmon on its own. I also loved how it is served with grilled asparagus and a lemon halve which you can use to squeeze over the asparagus and/or salmon.

Another item which simply blew me away was the Penne Pasta Primavera ($13.95) This will appeal to both vegetarians and carnivores alike. Zucchini, red bell peppers, cremini mushrooms, fennel, broccoli, carrots, kalamata olives, garlic and basil are tossed in a spicy marinara sauce and tasted like spring on a plate.

Moroccan Spiced Chicken ($16.50) comprised a grilled chicken skewer seasoned with tumeric, paprika, garlic and cumin, served with vegetables, herb brown rice and arugula. The price tag was a little too high for the plate and the chicken needed more of the spices to give it truly a Moroccan feel.

If you are a fan of a more Asian flavored salad, Blackened Ahi Tuna Salad ($16.75) will definitely appeal. Sushi-grade ahi tuna is seared rare and served with a delicious mixed field greens dotted with artichoke hearts, carrots, green beans, almonds, red bell peppers and tossed together in a gorgeous Asian-style vinaigrette.

An item from the dinner menu, Crab Stuffed Salmon ($26.95), is offered at lunch time as well. Your server should give you the option, but if he or she doesn’t tell you about it, make sure you ask. I’m not generally a fan of cooked salmon, but this baked salmon was moist and flaky and filled with jumbo lump crab. Served with whole grain mustard sauce, arugula and tomato, it makes for a wonderfully healthy choice whether it be at lunch or dinner.

Of course, if you prefer one of the Simply 600 menu items with a different side, there is an array to choose from ranging from mashed potatoes, mac n cheese, shoestring potatoes, creamed spinach, the list goes on and on. It won’t be under 600 calories, but if you’re not counting them, by all means, switch to a side more to your liking.

We weren’t counting our calories either, so we ended our low-cal meal with Fruit Cobbler of the Day ($7) there is a different one every day and on the day of our visit, it was apple and blueberry. I loved the cinnamon walnut crumble and wanted more of it. The apple and blueberries were nice and tart off-setting the sweetness, just the way I like it. A scoop of vanilla ice cream is optional, but why would you say no?

For those of you who are thinking of stopping by Daily Grill to check out the Simply 600 menu, I have a $50 giftcard, courtesy of the Daily Grill for one of my readers to win. Leave me a comment with your FULL name telling me why a 600 calorie menu works for you! Enter by Sunday and a winner will be announced on Monday. Good Luck!

Daily Grill
2636 Dupont Drive
Irvine, CA 92612
Tel: 949-474-2223

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the Early Bird leaves satiated

We were super excited when we heard Early Bird had opened in Fullerton, so stoked that we went twice in a span of a week. We first visited for breakfast and found the space very pleasing, with its minimalistic design and one of my favorite colors — orange!

Our group of five ordered a good selection of menu items across the board enabling us to sample a nice variety of dishes featured.

I’m not a sweet breakfast person. In fact, I’m not a huge breakfast person — at least not western style ones — so you know I’ll never order pancakes or waffles. Surprisingly however, Griddle Cakes ($6.95) were perfectly fluffy and not toothy which, in my book are always the ideal pancakes. Served with fresh seasonal berries and home-made whipped cream, I actually took several bites of this.

On the topic of not liking sweet things, “The Dutch” Waffle ($6.95) completely blew me away. The crispy texture with blue berries and home-made whipped cream was SO delicious — not too sweet — was enough for me to eat more than my share. If I were to eat anything sweet, this would be it.

Chilaquiles Steak & Eggs ($13.95) were interesting because the fried tortillas in ancho chile sauce was strangely sweet which didn’t appeal to me at all. Even the queso fresco wasn’t able to balance out the sweetness. I did, however, love the flavor of the steak. If only I can have the steak paired with something else on the menu……

If you’re like me, you’re always looking for delicious low-carb items and Frank Floyd Benedict ($9.50) was right up my alley. Instead of an English muffin, a roasted portabella mushroom is used. It is then topped with spinach, smoked salmon, poached eggs and bearnaise sauce. Of course, they offer this with two slice of toast, but you can opt not to eat it.

Teemu’s Duck Confit Hash ($13.50) was quite tasty although I don’t like potatoes (except for fries and potato chips) and croutons which were interspersed with the duck and potatoes. I could just eat the duck confit on its own!

Open Faced Truffle Egg Sandwich ($9.95) was good but nothing special. I’ve made this at home, but this had country ham in the scrambled eggs. The eggs were nicely done, fluffy, and seasoned well.

Breakfast items are served until 11am and then a different lunch menu is served until closing. Pigs In The Fryer ($2.50) were similar to pigs in a blanket, and although I really liked the fact that they used home-made sausage, the batter coating the sausages were doughy and mushy. The accompanying maple-mustard sauce was good, but on the whole, it was just okay.

You can add a cup of soup to your meal for $2.95, so we took advantage of that by trying the soups. EB Clam Chowder (ordinarily $6.50) was more a corn chowder than clam chowder. The corn to clam ratio was substantially higher and I was only able to taste bits of clam here and there. I really enjoyed the soup, but it was somewhat misleading to call it a clam chowder.

Tomato Basil Soup (ordinarily $6) was nice and tart and not creamy, just the way I like.

Maxwell’s BLT ($8.95) comprised of pecan smoked bacon, tomato compote, iceberg lettuce and mayo. It wasn’t anything exciting, something I could have thrown together at home, and for almost $9, I wasn’t impressed. Yes, all sandwiches comes with a side of potato salad, quinoa salad or fries but I’d rather get a substantial sandwich without a side.

The Roasted Chicken Sandwich ($9.50) was again nothing exciting. We enjoyed the filling, but the sandwich itself just didn’t quite hit the spot. Maybe it was the bread, and maybe it was just it was assembled — with bibb lettuce, roasted peppers, provolone, country ham and whole grain mustard aioli. I don’t know what it was, but it didn’t do it for us.

I really enjoyed the Fried Chicken Salad ($9.95) — well, the fried chicken part of it anyway. The chicken was crispy on the outside and moist on the inside, but the corn, arugula, radish, long beans tossed in a buttermilk-corn dressing was really boring. The addition of a poached egg (and don’t get me wrong, I absolutely LOVE poached eggs) was a bit weird on the salad, but I’d come back for the chicken. Wish it was served on its own as an entree.

So my conclusion of this newly opened cafe is go for breakfast and let the lunch ride out a little. I’m planning on visiting again in a few months and see what tweaks have been made on the lunch menu. I have great confidence that Chef Joseph Mahon will figure iron out the growing pains in no time.

Early Bird
1000B Bastanchurry Road
Fullerton, CA 92835
Tel: 714-529-4100

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