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 best NEW restaurants 2014

There were so many new restaurant openings this year, way too many to name, and of course, not all of them were all that great. Here are five of my best new restaurants: each has stood out in its own way and I cannot wait to revisit them in 2015.

My only Los Angeles inclusion for 2014 is KazuNori, a little spot in downtown LA which serves Japanese style hand rolls. The restaurant only offers counter seating and reminds me of eateries in New York City, or Apple Pan in LA. You wait until a seat becomes available and then swiftly sit down. By now, you should have ordered on the slip of paper you retrieve by the door. Select three, four or five rolls if you want a sampling. Any additional you desire are available a la carte. We loved the blue crab, scallop and yellowtail. Service is friendly and there is paid underground parking in the same building.

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Whether you call it The Packing House or Anaheim Packing District, this one-stop eating destination is the hot spot to be at. Chef Shachi Mehra’s ADYA is one of the restaurants located within and it is possibly my favorite Indian eatery in OC. The menu is different to what you usually find at Indian restaurants and offers a handful of snacks not found outside of Little India in Artesia. Must-tries include bhel puri, pani puri, and Indian sloppy joes known as pav. Read my post on ADYA here.

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Whenever I see Chef Ryan Adams’ name on something, I immediately know it’ll be stellar. The North Left, which has taken over the old Crosby space in downtown Santa Ana is testament to that. I’ve been several times since it opened this year and brought friends as well. My favorite is the chicken nuggets. Most recently, Chef de Cuisine Aron Habinger added a whole snapper served on a board on the menu and my friends and I relished in picking off every little bit of the fish off the bone. Here’s my post from this summer.

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One of the most spectacular transformations this year was at the Hyatt Huntington Beach. The old restaurant closed end last year and Watertable rose up from the ashes to take its place. The restaurant is not only beautiful, reminiscent of an opulent Spanish hacienda, but the menu consists of simple, yet delicious fare. You can experience Watertable in many ways, but one of my favorites is the bar area where a selection of bar jars are meant to be shared and enjoyed with the house-baked epis which arrive warm to the table. Read about Watertable here.

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Another incredible make-overs this year has got to be Moulin, which took over the old Pascal’s Epicerie location. Owner Laurent Vrignaud’s dream of opening a cafe in OC has been long in the making, and every intricate detail from the knick knacks to the furniture has been collected through the decades. Come for a croque monsieur, or just a coffee and croissant, no matter what your reason is for stopping by, you’l definitely be staying for a while. Read about Moulin here.

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I am excited to see what new, exciting restaurants 2015 will bring to southern California. I look forward to traveling this journey with you in this search. Again, if you have a restaurant you have found, please let me know!

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.

 

 

 

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

Old Town San Diego’s El Agave

I remember the first time I visited San Diego’s Old Town. My son was little then, and I remember walking around, reveling in the historic buildings and most of all, lifting him up so he could watch the women making tortillas by hand through the window of a restaurant. What I also remember is that we ended up eating at a place with mediocre food and I vowed never to eat Mexican food in Old Town again.

That was a long time ago, and while on a recent trip to Old Town, we stopped by El Agave, an establishment which also serves as a tequila museum housing more than 5000 bottles of the agave spirit on display, an impressive 500 of which are available for order.

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I opted to sit on the enclosed patio to take advantage of the natural lighting.

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With all the tequila available, I asked our server to surprise me with a cocktail. I let him know I like spicy and tart flavors and he brought me this. I can’t remember its name, but spicy and tart it definitely is.

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We happily sipped on cocktails while munching on the complimentary chips and salsa provided. The black bean is our favorite, but I suggest not overindulging on this because it is so easy to do.

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One of my favorite things to eat is raw seafood, therefore, Ceviche del Mar ($16) absolutely appealed to my senses. Octopus, shrimp, cherry tomato, baby corn, onion, grilled red pepper, lemon, olive oil and chile morita sauce marry together to create a perfectly tart marinade for the seafood. I want more of the serrano pepper oil served alongside as it lent a lovely kick to the ceviche.

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I love the authenticity of the menu and Ensalada de Nopal ($12), or cactus paddle salad is one good example. Cactus is widely eaten in Mexico and here, it is roasted and then cut into strips before it is assembled into a ring form with diced tomatoes, cilantro, onion, oregano and topped with avocado. You may find it a little ‘slimy’ but no worries, that’s because it’s been tossed with olive oil. Cotija cheese is sprinkled on top to add a salty finish.

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Tlacoyos Cuitlacoche ($16) was probably my least favorite dish of our meal. It wasn’t bad, however, it didn’t stand out. Blue corn masa ‘cakes’ are stuffed with black beans and then topped with cuitlacoche (corn smut, sometimes referred to as huitlacoche),  salsa verde, queso fresco, onion and cilantro. Don’t let cuitlacoche scare you off, it’s actually really tasty, and we’ve eaten it many times before, including a topping on burgers among other things. There just wasn’t enough flavor on this dish for me to want to order it again.

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Therefore, it was just as well we ordered another dish with cuitlacoche in it. Crema de Chile Poblano con Cuitlacoche ($14) is served tableside. A creamy soup seasoned with chile Poblano and cuitlacoche, it is all blended together until smooth and enhanced with spices. A perfect amount of heat accompanied the gorgeous sage-hued concoction. It was so good we were all fighting for the last spoonful!

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I was very surprised by Tacos de Atun ($14) because I generally am not fond of cooked ahi tuna. Here, it is panko-crusted and lightly fried, then topped with parsley, cabbage, red onion and cilantro. The light habanero and agave nectar dressing does not overpower. Served with agave rice and poblano chile strips, these tacos were perfect both in textures and flavors.

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However, the biggest surprise was Enchiladas de Mole ($14). I am very picky when it comes to mole and more often than not, tend to dislike what’s put in front of me. The mole poblano sauce smothering these chicken enchiladas is actually very pleasant. I like its rich, robust flavors, without any of the sweetness usually associated with mole.

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If you’re looking for a unique destination while visiting San Diego, then El Agave is a respectable choice, especially if you’re down around Old Town. Authentic Mexican ingredients are skillfully used to prepare these dishes and present it to a mainstream clientele. I enjoyed my meal here and would love to return for that stunning soup sometime soon.

El Agave — Old Town
2304 San Diego Ave
San Diego, CA 92110
Tel: 619-220-0692

El Agave on Urbanspoon