Rice Paper Bistro: another hidden gem in the heart of lil Saigon

It’s been quite a while since social media guru Ted Nguyen organized an OC twEATup, where people converge to eat and hang out with people who they have met via social media. In the past, we have been introduced to a variety of mom and pop restaurants which may have been overlooked because of their obscure locations.

On this particular outing, we visited Rice Paper Bistro, a pretty new little place in an indescript strip mall with pleasant modern decor. This was one of the smaller twEATups I’ve attended, only nine people as opposed to 20+ in the past. I knew most of the bloggers who participated so it was like hanging out for lunch with old friends.

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A few bowls of sugar coated peanuts arrive at the table for us to munch on while we perused the menu.

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We each ordered something and decided to share in the bounty. Thit Nuong Cuon ($6/3pc) were summer rolls (not fried) stuffed with charbroiled pork, shrimp, vermecelli, lettuce, bean sprouts, cucumber and mint. The hoisin based dipping sauce was very tasty. We loved these so much we ordered another.rolls (640x425)

Some people were creeped out by Ca Bong Trung Chien Gion ($10) whole fried smelt. Crispy and every bite consists of smelt eggs which I so love. The dipping sauce was salty and tart. The smelt were perfect on its own and even better with the sauce. I loved it.

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We all loved Bo Tai Chanh ($12), medium rare beef slices topped with crushed peanuts, aromatic herbs and marinated onions. The dressing was pungent with fresh grated garlic and Thai chili peppers. SO SO good. I’m salivating as I’m writing this.

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I’ve eaten Com Do Ga Roti ($8) so many times and at so many places before. Half a marinated Cornish game hen is served with red rice like everywhere else, but the hen is a little larger than elsewhere. It is also juicy and moist with one of the best shallot soy sauces I’ve ever had. Highly recommended!

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I’m a huge fan of octopus so Goi Bap Chuoi va Muc ($12) was right up my alley. Shredded banana blossom and sliced octopus combine to make a mouth puckeringly delicious salad.

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Tom Su Rang Me ($12) were large, whole shell-on shrimp grilled and coated with tamarind sauce. I love sucking on the head and shell which has the most flavor. Savory, piquant, just perfect.

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The last item we had was Muc Nuong Moi Ot ($12) marinated charbroiled squid topped with crumbled anchovies. The squid was perfectly cooked, tender and nicely textured. The anchovies added that umami and textural contrast to the squid.

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I was really pleasantly surprised by how delicious everything was. Chef/owner Le Huynh is a self taught cook and his dishes really showcase his creativity and obvious culinary talents. Dishes are unique yet stay true to the flavors and style of authentic Vietnamese fare. A hidden gem that’s for sure.

Rice Paper Bistro
10561 Bolsa Avenue
Garden Grove, CA 92843
Tel: 714-554-8889

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370 Common is always a tummy pleaser

I never get sick of dining here. Whether it’s an unplanned casual dinner, or Sunday suppers with a bunch of friends, 370 Common never fails to please. Therefore, I didn’t even waste a moment deciding to have dinner on my actual birthday right here with a handful of friends who also love the food here.

Although the menu I’m listing below was enjoyed a few weeks prior to my birthday, we also ordered some of the dishes we can never leave without eating. But before starting, a dish of something is placed on the table for you to munch on. Tonight was house-made pretzels and mustard for dipping.

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I love chicken wings and so does my son. We both wanted to try the ones here (surprisingly I’ve never had them before). Chicken Wing ($3.75) comes two pieces on a plate, baked, not fried, then tossed in a spicy Thai sauce. I like a spritz of lime on mine.

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I’ve also never had the Pork Rillettes Toast ($4.50) here and a whole toast is really big enough to share. It’s rich and unctuous which means you’ll fill up super fast if you eat a whole one on your own but pickled onions and frisee lettuce help cut the heaviness some.

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Poutine ($17) always makes an appearance at the table whenever we eat here. Fries are topped with tender short rib, leeks, cheddar, bacon bits and a good amount of horseradish cream. Absolutely decadent and delicious.poutine (640x425)

Even though we were sharing, my son insisted on the 10 Napkin Burger ($17) which he allows me a bite of. It is indeed one of the more sinful burgers around town. Cheddar, arugula, egg, bacon, mushroom, chile, aioli and onion makes for a real mess, but it is well worth it. Fries are served alongside.

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Austin and I decide to share the Bone-In New York ($37). I’m not a big meat eater so it was perfect for us. A perfect medium rare, the steak is juicy and the blue cheese adds another layer of intensity to the already savory steak.

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A side of green beans comes with this.green beans (640x425)

Charred Brussels Sprouts ($8) is one of my son’s favorite vegetables and here, the apple bacon, maple, cider and shallot combine for a salty, tart, slightly sweet finish.

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Who doesn’t love mac n cheese and I love the one here. Baked Mac n Cheese ($8) is not dry at all — most baked mac n cheeses tend to run on the dry side — and definitely should be shared. After everything else, I could only manage a couple of bites, but it was definitely hard to resist.

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If you have never been to 370 Common yet, you really need to go. Regular menu offered throughout the week but on Sundays, a 3-course supper is offered where everything is served family style! Make a reservation because you’ll need one!

370 Common
370 Glenneyre
Laguna Beach, CA 92651
Tel: 949-494-8686

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fusion fare at Little Sister Manhattan Beach

The start of my birthday celebrations brought us to Manhattan Beach. My friends and I are huge fans of the restaurant scene in the area but this time, we wanted to check out something we hadn’t tried before. Just across the street from two of our favorite Manhattan Beach restaurants — Chef David Lefevre’s two incredible offerings, MB Post and Fishing With Dynamite — is Little Sister.

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I actually had no idea the restaurant belonged to Tin Vuong, formerly of Sapphire in Laguna Beach. I had met Chef Vuong at the Kitchen Takeover event at Abigail’s early this year and knew he had opened WildCraft Sourdough Pizza, but I didn’t know he was affiliated with Little Sister as well.

We arrived early for our 5.30pm reservation and immediately ordered a large bottle of Shimizo-No-Mai Pure Snow ($24) chilled sake. It arrives in an earthen serving vessel which continued to keep the sake cold throughout our meal. The milky rice wine was very palatable and had a slight hint of sweetness to it.

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Ma La Beef Tartare ($12) was our first dish of the night. I love “ma la”, the flavor and sensation attributed to the Szechuan peppercorn. The numbing effects of the peppercorn is exhilarating, perhaps a little intoxicating even. The tartare had only a hint of the “ma la” and although I wasn’t able to taste the pear, I detected the pine nuts here and there. The bone marrow vin and quail egg helped elevate the flavors, however, the beef was a bit too chewy and could have been diced smaller.

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XO Pea Tendrils ($8) was absolutely perfect. Crazy how I’ve never thought to use conpoy (dried scallops) shards when I make my pea tendrils. I didn’t care for the crushed almonds because its flavor overpowered the delicate tendrils, but the addition of lime juice was a very nice touch.

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I was excited to try Confit Duck “Goi Vit” ($14), a Vietnamese style salad with red cabbage, sweet onions, carrots, green papaya and rau ram (Vietnamese coriander). The salted apricot vin it was tossed in needed more heat and more acid. I asked for lime wedges and more chilis and added them to the salad. At this point, Chef Vuong stopped by the table and asked us how everything was tasting — I didn’t think he remembered me. I told him that the salad lacked the heat and tartness I was accustomed to. We had a quick discussion and I guess the clientele dictates the flavors. So when you visit Little Sister, tell them you want it hardcore if you want it authentic.

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If you like spices make sure you ask for some sambal. Our server Jessica brought out four for us to try.

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Vietnamese Crepe “Banh Xeo” ($14) is a favorite of mine and this did not disappoint. Stuffed with pork belly, prawns, bean sprouts, various herbs and greens, it was a refined version of the banh xeo I eat regularly in Lil Saigon. The nuoc cham house dressing, made with nuoc mam (fish sauce), was garlicky, tart with a hint of sweetness and absolutely perfect in every way.

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We didn’t know which direction to take next. There were two items on the menu with curry, but I didn’t like the idea of curry overpowering scallops so we went with Vietnamese Coconut Chicken Curry ($18). I enjoyed the tartness of the broth as it lent a freshness to the entire dish. Confit potatoes tasted like regular potatoes, while the pineapple and kabocha squash added a touch of sweetness. The chicken tasted like it had been roasted or flash fried as the skin was crispy, but the curry flavor did not penetrate the meat itself, but rather, coating the exterior.

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I really liked the Master Stock Jasmine Rice ($2) which we paired with the curry — although Chef Vuong gave us a sesame baguette to go with the curry an option you can have with curry in Lil Saigon. The rice had wonderful flavors and was elevated by the fried shallots and green onion toppings. Whether you go for rice or bread, both are good ways to sop up the remaining curry sauce.

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Salt & Pepper Lobster ($38) was the piece de resistance of the entire meal. A whole lobster is topped with butter fried shallots, fried chilis and garlic. I relished in the flavors enveloping the shell and chose the pieces requiring the most work. I wanted to suck all the flavor off as many crevices as possible. The accompanying salt and pepper lime dipping sauce was not necessary but tasted great if you wish to use it.

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We had no room left for dessert but they offer an array of sweets served trio style. A list of items ranging from macarons, panna cotta and profiterole as well as souffle allows you to mix and match three of your favorites to complete your meal. My meal ended the minute I ate the last piece of lobster on the plate.

Little Sister
1131 Manhattan Avenue
Manhattan Beach, CA 90266
Tel: 310-545-2096

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C4 Deli: Cure for the Common

My friends and I love food. That is a given. I eat out with them a lot, sometimes one on one, sometimes, in a group. Then, I have two girlfriends I get together with from time to time, although lately, we’ve been getting together a lot more than usual, which is always a wonderful thing.

For our last get together, we decided to have brunch at the newly opened C4 Deli: Cure for the Common in downtown Santa Ana, owned by the same people who own Chapter One: The Modern Local across the street. The first thing which struck me was how absolutely delightful the decor and design is.

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We were a little too early for the lunch time sandwiches, so we decided to start with some breakfast items. Smorrebrod ($5.49), a Norwegian style open face sandwich with egg, bacon and sauteed broccoli rabe is served on rye. The runny egg makes this one of the most delicious breakfast sandwiches I’ve had in a long time.

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My friend orders the CA Breakfast Burrito! ($5.99), but I, not being a fan of burritos was not feeling so excited about it. Much to my surprise, I actually really liked it. The filling of corned beef, hash, eggs, potatoes, cheddar and chipotle aioli created a complete flavor profile which allowed for great textures and the right amount of saltiness to make it work.

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If you’re a coffee drinker, make sure you order some, they bring you individual servings in a French press!

B.E.L.T ($5.99) bacon, fried egg, lettuce, tomato, aioli on squaw was unfortunately, very pedestrian especially with the use of iceberg lettuce. Exchanging it for bibb or red leaf lettuce would make a huge difference to the final product.

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I wanted to try one of the sausages since they are made in-house and there are two to choose from, a Bratwurst and Italian sausage ($6.49) comprising fennel. Unfortunately, I didn’t care for the sausage at all. The texture was mushy and liver-like and highly unappealing. I’m not sure if the Bratwurst would have been better since I don’t particularly enjoy coarse ground sausages.

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But what I came here for was the Porchetta ($7.99). I remember eating the best porchetta sliders in New York and wanted to relive that experience. Sadly, the porchetta was very disappointing, not in flavor (which was spot on), but in the mouthfeel effect. The outside crispy parts was not crispy at all. I understand that it was not out of the oven that morning, but warming it back up in the oven would have been more appropriate rather than perhaps the microwave? The texture was like bacon cooked in the microwave with the fatty bits not crunchy but on the rubbery side. I was sad.

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Our final sandwich was the Pastrami ($8.99) on rye, which redeemed the last two underwhelming selections. The pastrami was wonderfully seasoned and nicely textured. My only complaint would be that it could have been a little bigger. Otherwise, a very delicious sandwich indeed!

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The portions here are not large by any means as you can tell by the amount we ordered, we managed to eat everything albeit half the pastrami and the sausage which we left behind. For a new establishment it is decent enough and perhaps with a few more months, the kinks would have worked themselves out and everything will be up to standard — well, my standard anyway!

C4 Deli: Cure for the Common
200 N Broadway
Santa Ana, CA 92701
Tel: 714-263-1555

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Little Sparrow spruces up Santa Ana dining

I’ve been longing to eat at Little Sparrow after hearing all the hype surrounding this place, a new eatery in downtown Santa Ana. We finally made a reservation and came to see what the fuss was all about.

Chef Eric Samaniego, formerly of David Myers’ Comma Ça on Melrose in West Hollywood, heads the kitchen….

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…. but before we settled in for dinner, we began our journey at the adjoining bar, where we went through the cocktail menu, each picking out ones to try.

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Some of the guys started off with Lyon Street Buck ($9) a highball with whiskey, lemon, ginger, house bitters and fizz.

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The Hemingway Special ($10) had a ton of crushed ice in the glass with rum, lime, grapefruit and maraschino poured over it. We didn’t detect any maraschino in this drink at all.

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When Trinidad Sour ($10) arrived we all ooo-ed and ahh-ed. How pretty its color was! Angostura made up the bulk of this drink with lemon, simple syrup and egg.

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The namesake cocktail here, Little Sparrow ($12), is a mix of French whiskey, Suze, Amargo Vallet, demarara sugar and lemon. They guy who ordered it loved it….. me, not so much!

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If you’re a bourbon fan, then Gold Rush ($10 on the right) is your choice. Honey syrup and lemon complete this. Or, my absolute favorite, the Penicillin #2 ($11) a mezcal, ginger, honey and lemon libation with a spritz of Fernet Vallet mist. Smokey, sweet, tart — fantastic!

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After about 30 minutes at the bar, we moved into the dining room and sat ourselves down for dinner. The restaurant was already half full with many more to flow in later for a packed house.

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After we perused the menu and placed our immensely large order, plates of complimentary Amuse Bouche arrive with campagna paté topped with mustard seeds, golden raisins, fig and a sprinkling of chives. The paté was sublime and texturally spot-on. What a perfect way to start this meal!

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Therefore, I was so glad we chose Housemade Charcuterie ($17) because judging from the campagna paté, I knew it was going to be a winner and I was right. The headcheese, the terrine with chorizo, all seasoned to perfection and stunningly delicious.

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Everyone at the table is a fan of burrata so Heirloom Tomato Salad ($14) was a must seeing it is paired with burrata cheese and a drizzle of basil oil, I didn’t care for the burrata as much as I thought I would due to its extremely strong milky aftertaste which I’d never encountered with burrata before.

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My obsession with octopus is satiated with Grilled Octopus ($15), but left me wanting more of the namesake rather than the cranberry beans accoutrement dotted with red mustard greens. The dish was perfectly savory and very addicting, I couldn’t stop eating it.

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Steamed Mussels ($16) with sour beer, piquillo peppers and roasted fennel was better on paper. I wasn’t able to detect much sourness in the beer broth, or the fragrance of the fennel. The piquillo pepper was the only saving grace as the broth needed more salt to bring out the umami of the mussels.

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Our next dish, Corn Risotto ($16) was something we all agreed to. Who wouldn’t with Dungeness crab salad as part of the item description? The crab was exquisite and completed the dish when eaten with the risotto. Unfortunately, the risotto on its own was under-seasoned and on the bland side.

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I’ve been noticing sweetbreads appear on various menus lately, some well executed, others, not so much. No one can accuse Chef Samaniego’s Crispy Sweetbreads ($14) of being anything short of delicious. An English pea puree, bacon and onions accompany.

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I am generally not a fan of pork and wouldn’t ordinarily order it, however, someone at the table did. Grilled Heritage Pork Chop ($29) was juicy, tender and really really GOOD. I was pleasantly surprised at how the flavors were deep into the thick chop providing great piquancy throughout. The beluga lentils were my favorite and the sofrito, a well thought out addition. Overall a solid plate!

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Housemade Tagliatelle ($23) is definitely a must! Braised lamb neck, poached garlic, fennel and oranges were tossed together with some of the best thick noodles ever. No one should ever not order pasta made in-house, it’s just unheard of because well-executed house-made pasta generally is to-die-for. This is one of them!

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For those wanting a vegetarian option Ricotta Agnolotti ($20) is another pasta dish not to be missed. Roasted tomato sauce topped with a thinly shaved asparagus salad and shards of frisee.

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My first experience with Little Sparrow was a good one. Considering how many dishes we ordered the misses were minimal and I look forward to returning again soon for round two of some delicious cocktails and bites to accompany them with.

Little Sparrow
300 N Main Street
Santa Ana, CA 92701
Tel: 714-265-7640

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spur of the moment decision lands us at Plan Check

An impromptu decision to drive up to LA for lunch ended up here, at Plan Check! We got there early and snagged a great parking spot right outside. Funnily, I realized where I was after we had parked because I saw the Japanese restaurant (Bar Hayama) across the street where I attended a birthday party four years ago.

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We were seated at a nice booth by the window and were immediately delighted by the cocktails, including my Green Daisy ($12) of tequila, lemongrass tea, apple brandy, lemon, bitters — which wasn’t green by the way — or the Ginger Grant ($12), with pisco, blood orange, sake, aperol, ginger.

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To accompany the cocktails, we ordered a bunch of tidbits to go with them including Egg in Pickle Juice ($2), an interestingly flavored boiled egg but with weirdly textured egg whites.

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We absolutely loved the Midnight Moon cheese ($5), beautifully salty without the overwhelming aroma of goat’s milk that I usually don’t care for. However, being a gouda, it had a hard texture but still remained creamy texturally.

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Soppressata Picante ($5) made with Berkshire pork has a nice kick to it but otherwise, was just average.

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The Duck Breast Ham ($5) brought a touch of nostalgia when I tasted it. Strangely, it reminded me of Chinese air-dried duck which my mom will add to the steamed Chinese dried meats my dad likes to eat.

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The Chorizo Sausage ($3) was awesome! Just awesome! I didn’t taste the green garlic at all, but it was still, AWESOME!

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Pastrami Gravy Fries ($9) was the daily special and I’m so glad we ordered it. Beef tallow (beef fat) French fries are topped with pastrami bits, pastrami gravy, melted Swiss cheese and chopped pickles — gooey, decadent, delicious. The pickles add a perfect acidity helping cut a little of the richness. A must-order!

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I’m not a huge burger fan, but this had “signature dish” screaming at us, so Plan Check Burger ($11) it is! I’m not sure about the Americanized dashi cheese or ketchup leather, but together with the schmaltz onions, mixed pickles between the crunch bun, it was a DAMN GOOD burger. REALLY good!! Well seasoned meat paired with flavors that fit like a glove — impressive.

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Smoky Fried Chicken ($13) on the other hand is right up my alley. Jidori chicken is fried perfectly and I liked how the accoutrements were not doused over the chicken, but in the skillet with the chicken sitting on top. There is nothing worse than soggy fried chicken and there was nothing soggy about this. Smoked milk gravy and sweet yam preserves added levels of flavor profiles I so enjoy — salty, sweet with spicy pickled okra pods to give it heat and tartness. A perfect dish in my book!

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This was definitely a great lunch choice and well worth driving up to LA for. They are expanding fast and we hope they will soon have an OC location so we don’t have to drive an hour to relish in this very satisfying meal.

Plan Check
1800 Sawtelle Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90025
Tel: 310-288-6500

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