The BEST of the rest: 2014

I didn’t have a category in which to place these last few restaurants I love, so here they are in no particular order. These restaurants have been solid contenders in my dining repertoire this year and hopefully, will continue to impress in 2015.

Starting with Los Angeles County, Dominique’s Kitchen in Redondo Beach has been winning us over again and again. This year, we visited a total of four times — a mean feat when you think about how many restaurants I actually get to return to every year. It has become my son’s favorite restaurant and he will find any excuse for us to dine here. Chef Dominique Theval and his wife Liza run this little French bistro which offers some of the best home-style fare southern California has to offer. Chef Dominique creates his own rillettes, pates, lamb sausages, and a myriad of other things to tickle your fancy. If you’re planning to visit, make sure you call for a reservation because they get packed. There are two posts from 2014, but here is my most current one.

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Chef Frank DeLoach is a young chef who has almost the exact same palate as I do. Therefore, it is always such a pleasure to eat something he’s created. His combination of tart, heat and savory is spot-on and has cooked some of the best Asian-inspired dishes I’ve ever eaten. His ability to present Asian flavors on a plate is incredible — he’s not Asian — and blows me away every time. The menu at Tavern on 2 in Long Beach is focused on gastropub fare, but that’s not what I go there for. Choose any of the non-Western dishes on the menu for one of the most tantalizing journeys your tastebuds will go on. You can read my review here.

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There’s something about family-owned and run restaurants which appeal to me. Ceppo (pronounced che-po) in Huntington Beach is one of them. Its location is its biggest enemy which does absolutely no justice to what the restaurant has to offer. Pair with that a drab ambiance and most people would not even bother stepping inside. However, once you do, you will be so pleasantly surprised by the skill of Chef Tomi who previously owned what’s it called in Newport Beach. Not only are the main dishes incredible, but you will be blown away by the beautiful desserts as well. Read about my visit here.

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I was at first skeptical about Selanne Steak Tavern because of its celebrity attachment, however, all was quashed when I experienced one of the best meals this year, along with top notch service to boot. The restaurant is beautiful regardless whether you sit on the outside patio or in the many rooms inside. Old school charm in a modern setting is what I call it, where the impeccable attention to detail makes you wonder why no one else is doing the same. I won’t spoil it for you, but I was just blown away by all the little things Selanne Steak Tavern adds to a visit — some might not even recognize them, but I sure did! Here’s my post from this year.

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Istanbul Grill is one of those restaurant you will easily miss if you’re not looking for it. Located in a plaza across from the Costco in Fountain Valley, it is not exactly in a great spot, but once you’ve eaten here, it will fast become your favorite Middle Eastern place. The food is flavorful and can absolutely compare with some of the best out of lil Arabia. During lunch time, the crowd can be overwhelming so I suggest going early. Here’s my post from this year.

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My last pick is Counterpoint in San Diego, a little neighborhood eatery which has been on my mind ever since we visited several months ago. My son still comments on the Brussels sprouts whenever I make mine at home because they are not nearly as good as the kimchi infused ones here. Counterpoint offers a menu of familiar comfort foods, but all with a bit of a twist, like the pastrami sandwich made with tongue. The menu is almost completely made in-house including sausages and pickles, which is highly impressive when you see how small the restaurant is. You can read about it here.

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There you have it. This is my last post of the year and I want to thank all of you for your continued support and readership. Join me again in 2015 for more food finds all across southern California and beyond. If you have any suggestions of your favorite restaurants, please let me know! Happy New Year to you all.

 

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5 favorite Asian restaurants of 2014

I often crave comfort foods I grew up eating. After a string of non-Asian meals, I will find myself gravitating towards something familiar, usually consisting of rice, but also, noodles of some sort swimming in broth. I also love spicy foods, so southeast Asian cuisines are especially popular in my culinary repertoire.

One of my favorite restaurants is Rakiraki Ramen and Tsukemen, located in what may be considered as San Diego’s Chinatown. On every visit — which is practically every time I go to San Diego — I will order the ikagetso (fried squid) as well as chicken karaage (Japanese style fried chicken) and a ramen of some sort depending on my mood. On my last visit, I returned once again to the original, one of the first ramen offerings I fell in love with from the start. You can read my visit from this summer, here.

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Vientiane is a hole-in-the-wall which I frequent at least once a month and now, have gotten some of my friends completely hooked on it as well. The northern Thai and Lao dishes are a huge hit especially the crispy rice, ong choy, Lao sausage, and if you’re into it, mok pa (steamed catfish in banana leaf). The kids who work here know my order and laugh when I veer off the usual because they know at some point during my meal, I will order the dishes I didn’t at the start. Here is my last post from 2013.

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I found Rice Paper Bistro last year and it was one of my top 10 picks of 2013. This little spot sticks out like a sore thumb in the run-down strip mall it is situated in, but has remained a favorite in 2014. Step inside and you will be surprised at its modern feel and creative menu. My favorites are the ong choy salad, fried frogs legs and my latest indulgence, beef with ginger and scallion. The specials board is often dotted with new and innovative dishes you’ll absolutely adore. Here’s my post from 2013.

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On cold days like these, my favorite thing to do is visit Tang 190 for one of its hearty Korean soups. Here, you can indulge in bone soup (sullungtang) which has that milky look from simmering for hours on end. Enjoy a spicy beef soup (yukgejang) or my son’s favorite, bibimbap (beef stone pot rice). The Napa cabbage miso beef bone soup is currently my favorite. Read about Tang 190 here.

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Whenever I’m up in the Silverlake area of Los Angeles, Pine and Crane is a must-stop even if I am actually up there for a meal — I will order take-out to enjoy the next day. This little fast casual spot has been my favorite Chinese eatery this year with its tasty ma po tofu, 3-cups chicken, beef roll, dumplings and more. What I love most about the restaurant is its ability to create these traditional Chinese dishes but without the greasiness. We need Pine and Crane in OC! Read about them here.

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Stay tuned next week for more “best of” lists of 2014!

 

 

5 favorite “repeat offenders” of 2014

This year, I’m doing something slightly different from previous years. Instead of my 10 best restaurants of the year, I will be featuring some of my favorites in specific categories.  I start with the five best “repeat offenders”, and these are non-Asian restaurants which I will return to over and over again just because I can’t get enough of it.

One of my San Diego favorites is Cafe 21, now in its new location just a few doors down. It is bigger, better and virtually impossible to garner a seat on the weekends. From breakfast, lunch, to innovative dinner items, the menu is eclectic and ever surprising. Chef Leyla is creative both in the kitchen as well as the dining room — she designed the dining room herself. Together with her husband Alex, Cafe 21 has become one of those places my San Diegan friends are now calling their to-go-spot. You can read about my last visit here.

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When it comes to Orange County favorites, Anepalco’s is always my suggestion whenever friends ask me where they should go for dinner. Although I did not do a post on them this year, I visit regularly especially when I have out-of-town guests and know the food will always be amazing and consistent. Chef Daniel Godinez is always adding new dishes to the menu and with the addition of the bar this year, you will find some delicious concoctions created by mixologist Cesar Cerrudo. Here is my last post from 2013.

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The Ranch Restaurant & Saloon never fails to impress when it comes to service and a menu that’s always consistently good. OC Restaurant Week is a perfect time to try them out if you haven’t already, but make sure you get your reservations in early because they fill up quickly. This restaurant has deserved a mention in my year end round-ups several years running because it simply is one of the best. You can read about our visit during OC Restaurant Week early this year by clicking here.

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Another repeat favorite is Pizzeria Ortica in Costa Mesa. No words are needed! Chef Justin Miller turns out some of the best Italian cuisine Orange County has to offer. Here’s a post I wrote from their Valentine’s Day dinner this year.

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If you’re looking for breakfast or brunch, Break of Dawn wins hands down and it is also one of those places we return to over and over again. Chef Dee Nguyen’s menu is ever changing, always innovative and creative. Bacon and eggs are served but not in the way you’re accustomed to. You can read my post from this year when the restaurant moved to its new location in the same plaza.

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Stay tuned to my next post where I will feature some of my favorite Asian restaurants in southern California.

 

 

 

Brick Pizzeria: not just a pizza joint

I first encountered Brick Pizzeria at the Orange Coast Magazine’s 10 Best Restaurants event this year. There wasn’t any food to try that evening, so I moved along and didn’t pay much thought to it. Months later, a reader of mine was raving about this restaurant and I thought it was about time to try them out.

Over the course of several months, I have visited Brick a handful of times. It started because I was lunching with a girlfriend who lives in Oceanside and we were looking for a half way point to meet. We were blown away by how good — REALLY GOOD — everything was. Start with some cocktails, they’re pretty good too.

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I then returned with a group of friends for lunch a month later and managed to eat through an array of dishes before returning yet again for another round.

There is a wood-fire oven where a lot of things are prepared, including the hand-made pizzas. However, Brick Pizzeria is somewhat of a misnomer. Yes, pizzas are a thing here, such as this Salsiccia ($16) topped with house-made sausage — house made is a word readily used on the menu because pretty much EVERYTHING is — caramelized fennel and fennel pollen among other things.

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But please don’t just stop at the pizzas. I know it is natural to automatically expect you’ll order pizza when you come to Brick Pizzeria, but let me just clear that up right now. It is MUCH more than just a pizza joint, SO much more.

If you’re in the mood for a salad to share, the Caesar Salad ($11) is insanely good. So simple and not overly dressed — one of my pet peeves — the leaves are left whole which adds an extra crispness to the mouthfeel. Of course, one of my favorite ingredients — anchovies — are also included.

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Right now, the autumnal produce are at its peak which means a lot of fall flavors and colors are showing up on menus across the board. I highly suggest starting with Roasted Acorn Squash Antipasti ($14), a dish I’ve had a few times, but definitely one to share. The squash is roasted until soft, then a dollop of burrata is placed inside. Crunchy roasted hazelnuts, crispy sage and a drizzle of balsamic are all this simple, yet satisfying dish requires.

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Ricotta and Farm Egg Raviolo ($12) had me at first bite. When you break into the raviolo, an oozing farm egg rushes out and creates an even richer sauce when combined with the truffle butter, spinach puree and grana spuma. There’s usually crispy pancetta on the plate but I don’t remember why there isn’t any on this one. Once again, so simple, but absolutely to-die-for.

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If you’re looking for a vegetarian offering, Crispy Zucchini Blossoms ($11) is incredible. Generally, after the delicate zucchini blossoms have been stuffed with an herb ricotta and fried, I find it a tad too heavy. But not here! The perfect amount of ricotta sits within, while the coating is so light it never overwhelms. Served with a house-made marinara sauce, you’ll find yourself sopping every last bit up with the foccacia they serve.

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What puts Brick in a category along with many fine restaurants in OC is that Chef David Pratt will take an entire pig, break it down, and use every bit of it on the menu. But that’s not all, he also hand makes all the pasta so I highly recommend ordering at least one of them.

Orrecchiette ($16/$23) is one of the first I try with house-made sausage, flowering broccoli, a medley of mushrooms and a sprinkling of pecorino cheese. I think this might be one of my favorites on the menu.

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But then again, there is the Pappardelle ($18/$26) tossed in a rich veal ragu and topped with grana padano parmesan. It is so satisfying we fight to get a second bite among our group. I love the mouthfeel of this pasta as it moves around my mouth. It is perfectly seasoned — just like everything else — which, most of you know, is of utmost importance to me.

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Don’t forget the Spaghetti Carbonara ($15/$22) — not like any carbonara I’ve ever made! The ingredients are few, but pork belly confit is one and that alone should tell you how this extraordinary this humble pasta will taste. There are no words when we are eating this, just ooos and ahhhs.

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I am so intrigued by Cocoa Buccatini ($17/$24), so on another visit, I try this. Cocoa is added to the pasta dough when Chef Pratt makes the buccatini and add to that duck ragu, hen of the woods mushrooms, mascarpone and marjoram and this is the best fall dish ever. If you didn’t know there was cocoa in the pasta, you probably wouldn’t be able to guess what it is, except for the fact that it is familiar. (I apologize I don’t have a photo for this).

But there is more! Brick Meatballs ($14/$21) is possibly one of the most popular dishes on the menu and rightfully so. The meatballs are hand-made, then seared in the wood-fire brick oven and then slowly cooked until done. A luscious marinara accompanies these texturally perfect meatballs topped with pecorino. I like them as is served with grilled house-made focaccia, but the kids might probably enjoy it with a side of pasta instead.

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David Pratt is not only one of the best chefs Orange County has, but one of the most humble. If you’ve ever visited Brick Pizzeria, you will find him quietly focusing on his craft in the open kitchen. He is a man of few words — until you get to know him — and stays very low key. I found out from one of my visits that he serves the needy a hot meal he personally prepares on Thanksgiving day every year. I volunteered to help.

On Thanksgiving morning, I brought my son to Brick Pizzeria where so many of Chef David’s family, friends, even the staff, showed up to greet, serve, bus and welcome the guests. My son helped serve and I know he was deeply touched and moved by the energy in the room that day. I know I was. We chatted to many of the guests who expressed gratitude towards the acceptance, generosity and kindness Chef David has shown towards them.

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San Clemente is a 30-minute drive from Irvine, but I will gladly do it just for the food alone. If you see Chef David in the kitchen, say hi and shake his hand. I don’t always agree with Brad Johnson, but when it comes to Brick, I concur 100%. Chef David is truly deserving of all the accolades bestowed upon him.

Brick Pizzeria
216 N El Camino Real
San Clemente, CA 92672
Tel: 949-429-1199

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respectable Lao cuisine at Sang Dao – San Diego

It is rare to find Laotian food in southern California, let alone Orange County and San Diego. Therefore, when friends tell me how good Sang Dao is (I have bookmarked it for years!) it is time to visit. Situated in a strange little plaza, the parking can be frustrating, however, we get there early — they open at 10.30am — and have no problem finding a spot.

It is difficult for a restaurant to serve a completely Laotian menu mostly due to the lack of knowledge with the cuisines, so you’ll find most menus will lean heavily towards the more familiar northern Thai (or Issan) dishes as well. What I love about food from this region is that it is not sweet like that of central Thailand.

Of course the friend who brings me here gets right down and immediately orders Som Tum ($6.95), papaya salad Lao style. Shredded papaya is tossed together with chile, tomato, dried shrimp, green beans, lime juice but be careful Lao style is highly pungent with a fermented fish sauce that might be offensive to those who are uninitiated. If you aren’t sure, order the Thai style just to be safe. The papaya is nicely marinated but still retains a lovely crunch. It is indeed pungent.

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We quickly get down to business, ordering a table full of dishes. We all partake in choosing our meal and since everyone loves chicken wings, Golden Wings ($7.95) is a must. They are perfection, juicy and moist on the inside, so crispy on the outside. Be careful as they will scorch your lips. The sauce is a tad too sweet for me, so I use another which accompanies our next dish.

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Pla Tod ($9.95) is a crispy whole fried fish topped with cilantro and garlic. It is so flavorful we devour it, asking for more of the aromatic, tart dipping sauce we are using with everything. I end up buying some to bring home it is THAT good.

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One of my best friend’s mom makes jungle curry and it is so spicy and delicious, I have not found one as good as hers outside of Thailand. Jungle Curry Soup ($8.95) here is decent, definitely not as spicy, but still very good. It is filled with ingredients you will usually find in a curry, such as Thai eggplant, mushrooms, baby corn to name a few, but without coconut milk.

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Beef Salad is one of the staples whenever we visit a Laos/Thai establishment, but today, I order Neua Num Tok ($8.95), a similar dish but sprinkled and tossed with toasted rice powder. The charbroiled steak is packed with flavor while the salad is beautifully seasoned with chile and lime juice. The rice powder thickens and coats the entire dish when mixed in and combined with the juices. We want another but have so much food on the table.

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Khao Peak Sen ($6.95), a thick home made rice noodle soup with pork blood, chicken, green onion and cilantro is new to me, but one of my dining companions orders this because it is one of his favorites. The chicken soup is hearty and so packed with flavor. The crispy fried shallots take it to another level. That ubiquitous sauce we use on everything makes for a great seasoning when mixed into the soup, however, we later find out that the myriad of condiments on the table are yours for the taking to create your own flavors.

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I love southeast Asian cuisine and Sang Dao definitely hits the mark. Between them and Vientiane here in Orange County, I’m set when it comes to northern Thai/Lao cuisine.

Sang Dao
5421 El Cajon Blvd
San Diego, CA 92115
Tel: 619-263-0914

Sang Dao on Urbanspoon

Harlow’s Kitchen & Craft Bar

I’ve been watching my friends post photos of their meals at Harlow’s, month after month on Facebook, and those months have turned into more than a year, so it is definitely time to pay them a visit. The restaurant is cozy, with several dining rooms to suit your every occasion. We sit in the room adjacent to the bar which is bustling from the activity from the bar itself.

Our server Marc brings us a loaf of freshly baked bread with house-churned butter. Delicious and addicting, it is so hard to eat only one piece, but I do, and then, I push it away to the other side of the table. So dangerous!

DSC06036Almost everything is made in-house including the syrups and mixes for the craft cocktails on offer. We are intrigued by the house-made ginger beer and decide that a Moscow Mule is definitely the way to start. Besides the Mule, I opt for something with tequila in it and the Harlow’s version of margarita is suggested (cocktails range between $10 and $12).

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The menu is straightforward, featuring seasonal ingredients and simple preparation. Seasonal Oysters ($15/6pc) is a great way to start — well, not for me — and Kusshi from the Pacific Northwest is the featured oyster of the night. My dining companion relish them with delight!

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The Caprese Flatbread ($12) is a must try. The baby heirloom tomatoes are ripe and bursting with flavor, while burrata adds creaminess. The flatbread itself is lovely too, crispy and not at all dry, just the way I like my flatbreads/pizzas. Arugula pesto is an added bonus to an already delicious appetizer.

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I love Tuna Tartare ($17) and here, it is well-seasoned and topped with black tobiko. The quail egg adds an element of lusciousness to the tartare, but it is the housemade sriracha which wins my heart. Hints of ginger, a lovely heat with a touch of tartness adds a kick to the whole dish. Served with rounds of crispy taro chips.

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While I’m not usually fond of salads, Harvest Salad ($9) was rather pleasant. The spicy bitter flavors of arugula melded well with the sweetness of the roasted apples and pears. Add to that crunchy watermelon radish and you have a really lovely salad. The cider vinaigrette is subtle and never overpowers.

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For entrees, there is Seasonal White Fish ($26), which changes regularly. On this particular evening, it is grilled sturgeon accompanied with a sweet pea puree, radish arugula salad and a delightful tempura cauliflower which I wish I had the room to finish.

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However, it is the Colorado Rib Eye Cap ($38) which won me over. Yes, the sturgeon was delicious, and ordinarily, I will always choose seafood over meat, but the beautiful char on the steak is incredible and so utterly packed with flavor, I am not able to stop eating it. The charred tomatoes and Bloomsdale spinach are nice accoutrements, but it is the demi glace that is to-die-for.

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Not that we needed any extra food, but if you’re in the mood for sides, definitely order the Brussels Sprouts ($8) with house cured pork lardons!

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Harlow’s is not only a great neighborhood eatery, but also, one which offers a stellar menu which will definitely entice me to drive to. The dishes are simple, yet well thought out, and the generous portions means you’ll never leave hungry. Harlow’s is a south county gem worth noticing (if you haven’t already).

Harlow’s Kitchen
31111 Rancho Viejo Road
San Juan Capistrano, CA 92675
Tel: 949-240-8100

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