San Diego’s DaoFu takes home-made to another level

I am always excited when I find a little mom and pop spot regardless of where I am. On a recent trip to San Diego, a friend, who had been to DaoFu previously, brought me here because he thought I would love the food.  He wasn’t wrong. The sign alone intrigued and piqued my curiosity: “Home-made tofu and soy milk.”

The restaurant is small and the cozy nature of it really appealed, not to mention the smiling face of the lady who seated us. I found out later that Maggie is the owner/chef’s wife.

Naturally, on a first visit, I always order way too much food because I want to try everything, but before we even ordered, a complimentary salad arrives with some home made tofu alongside. The beet and raspberry salad dressing — also made in-house — was delightfully tart with a hint of sweetness. The tofu was absolutely incredible. Not only was it texturally pleasing, but it possessed the robust flavors of soy beans that I know and love.

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This is why we wanted to encompass more tofu into our meal. The Lily Flower with Asparagus and Oyster Mushrooms ($12.98) was selected because I love lily flower. It was just a bonus that a wedge of fried tofu was present on the plate. All plates arrive with your choice of white, brown or half/half rice. We opted for brown throughout.

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When asked what spice level you want, don’t go crazy like I did. I told Maggie 10. She put me in my place when she told me 5 was sufficient. We negotiated a 5 for the first dish and later, I went up one level to 6. Seeing I am able to eat habanero-level heat, and a 6 was hot enough, I would like to warn others before they try to order on the Orange County heat level I am accustomed to. Trust Maggie when she tells you it’s hot enough!

We started with some Chicken Salad Rolls ($8.28), a take on the Vietnamese rice paper rolls stuffed with lettuce, mints, cilantro, bean sprouts and rice noodles. They are cut in half and sits on a plate of house sauce similar to the dressing on the salad, but just a hint sweeter.

chicken rolls

Both my friend and I love chicken wings so an order of Garlic Chicken Wings ($8.36) was on the agenda, but first, I had Maggie confirm it wasn’t a sweet sauce the wings were doused in. She assured me it wasn’t. These fried chicken wings are coated with a savory garlic sauce which are perfect on their own, or accompanied with a bowl of steamed rice. So good!

chicken wings

Maggie recommended the next dish, Stuffed Tofu, Eggplant and Peppers ($12.11), what we refer to as ‘yong dao fu’. The tofu, eggplant and peppers are stuffed with fish paste and lightly pan fried before they are topped with a piquant spicy sauce. Typically, fish paste tends to be hard and with a fish ball-like texture. Here, it is soft and complements the vegetables perfectly, especially the tofu.
stuffed vegs
Wild Steamed Red Snapper Rice Pot ($13.88) was positively our favorite. Brown rice is topped with steamed snapper fillets with a sauce seasoned with ginger, garlic, wine, scallion and cilantro. The delicate fish is not inundated with sauce so you’re able to taste it on its own, or, with the sauce-seasoned rice. The shiitake mushroom slices enhanced the flavors providing us with various tastes with each mouthful. We couldn’t stop eating this!
fish rice pot
When we were done, Maggie brought complimentary ice cream (all guests receive this) to us and continued chatting to me in Cantonese. This is when I found out that her husband Eric started making tofu with no experience whatsoever, perfecting it through the years. She is delighted that her customers love their food and especially, the tofu. She explained that the tofu is organic and Eric insists on creating everything from scratch right down to making the noodles they serve. I was bummed I didn’t know about this sooner, but will definitely return and order noodles on my next visit.
There are a ton of vegetarian dishes available which appeal to non-vegetarians as well so there is something for everyone. I wish we had something similar in Orange County, but the closest thing we have is Dao Son, a shop selling home-made tofu in Westminster. There is no Chinese chef in OC making his own tofu and noodles that I know of. Do you?

DaoFu
3332 Adams Avenue
San Diego, CA 92116
Tel: 619-281-6888

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Tavern on 2 tantalizes my tastebuds

If the name Frank De Loach has never crossed your ears before, you’re definitely missing out. This is an unconventional chef who thinks outside of the box, one who is not afraid to play with flavors and bring together ingredients some may not be familiar with. In short, not everyone get his food.  But for those who do, the experience is a sensational one. Chef Frank’s flavor profiles are pretty much on par with mine about 99% of the time. I know he will use enough salt and acid for my palate and that is always something to be happy about.

When you meet Chef Frank, you won’t be surprised that his gastropub-style cuisine is deliciously comforting, however, it is his Asian-inspired dishes that blows my mind. My first experience with Chef Frank’s Asian-style food creations was at Early Bird in Fullerton. His love for Asian flavors, plus the myriad of tastes he picked up during his travels to southeast Asia invigorated him to design — and they are often works of art — incredible pairings of flavors he was moved by.

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Chef Frank is now at Tavern on 2 in Long Beach, where most of the customers order the burgers. We had one as well — Tavern Burger ($14). The pattie is a perfect medium rare. Each bite provided me with a hint of sweetness from the caramelized onions, richness from the St Andre brie and freshness from the arugula. The savory ketchup did a great job by adding some salty tart finish. The burger is good. Damn good. It is not surprising that about 70% of the restaurant had one on the table — there are four beef burgers, one ahi and one veggie on the menu.

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Another favorite is Chef Frank’s version of Short Rib Poutine ($14). Yes, there are those who are sticklers for authentic poutine, and then, there are those who haven’t a clue what real poutine is. I kind of fall in between. I’ll love it if it tastes good. The version here has braised short rib which would probably amass a complete furor from some. Ask for it with only gravy and Wisconsin cheese curds if you feel your purist side emerging — I eat it without much short rib and prefer only gravy and curds with my fries. It is definitely very tasty.

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Don’t grimace at this next dish, Sticky Pigtails ($9), if you like ribs, you’ll most probably like this. The minute I bite into it, a wave of nostalgia comes over me. The sauce tastes exactly like my mother’s sweet and sour ribs except she uses Chinese dark vinegar. Here, it is a blend of hoisin and oyster sauces with lime and a few other things thrown in. Sticky they definitely are, and mouthpuckering as well, but it’s all good.

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However, what I am here for are for the dishes the rest of the clientele may not be ordering at a “tavern”. The blackboard features seasonal dishes such as Summer Peaches ($11), where lusciously sweet peaches are tossed with cubes of smoked mozzarella, radicchio, baby kale, Thai basil, white balsamic, and sprinkled with cocoa crumbs. At first, I’m like “what the hell is this….” but once you eat it with each of the ingredients on the plate — I highly suggest dipping your mozzarella into it — you will get a burst of the cocoa on your palate and go “oh! wow!”

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Hamachi Crudo ($12) is another blackboard special and is so simple and refreshing. Interspersed between slices of strawberries, jicama sticks, cilantro and shards of lime zest, the fish possesses hints of the jalapeno vin it is marinated in. Subtle and not overpowering, the hamachi is left to shine. Naturally, I wanted just a little more citrus, but that’s just me.

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If I am dining alone, the Seared Ahi Tuna ($16) salad would make for a perfect dish for one. If you’re there with others, you can share it — unless you’re with me, then I would hog the entire bowl. Chunks of seared ahi tuna is tossed in a Vietnamese dressing along with soba noodles, Thai basil, cilantro, radish, cucumber, red onions, cabbage and scallions. This is one of those items I am not able to stop eating. The perfect pairings of salty and tart is simply outstanding.

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I suggest you eat this meal from light to heavy, although, the salads and fish dishes make for the perfect palate cleanser in between the heavier options. I just prefer to not cloud my mouth with the richer foods before I eat salad and fish. I hope you will visit Tavern on 2 and check out what Chef Frank is doing. I always know I’m going to be highly satisfied whenever I leave a meal that he has prepared.

Tavern on 2
5110 E 2nd Street
Long Beach, CA 90803
Tel: 562-856-4000

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Lantern Cafe has decent oxtail pho

Aside

My friends and I are always thrilled to check out a new restaurant. My girlfriend who lives in the area spotted this new Vietnamese restaurant and we decided it was going to be our next lunch destination. I meet up with these gals once every few weeks and it’s not only a time for us to share a meal, but also, share the on- goings in our lives we wanted to talk about. Lantern Cafe was a no-frills place located in the same strip mall as The Meat House. The decor is sparse but it was clean and service attentive.

We started with Spring Rolls (Gỏi cuốn $4.50), fresh rolls stuffed with shrimp, pork, vermecelli rolled in rice paper. The accompanying hoisin based sauce is good, topped with crushed peanuts.

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The Spring Rolls (chả giò $4.95) are fried perfectly crispy and I like them rolled with the lettuce and cilantro they provide you with on the plate. The nuoc mam dipping sauce is mild and subtle but sufficed especially with a squirt of sriracha.

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I saw Lotus Stem Salad (Gỏi Ngó Sen $9.95) on the menu and was immediately excited. Unfortunately, this was the only disappointing dish we ordered (or should I say, “I ordered”) as the lotus stems were scarce and there was a ton of daikon cut the same size as the lotus stem tossed in to make it look like there was more. They were generous with the cha siu (barbecued pork) and shrimp, but I wanted more lotus stem and there wasn’t much of it — yes I picked through it!

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We were very excited about Oxtail Pho (Phở Duôi Bò $7.75) on the menu. Very few restaurants outside of Westminster serve oxtail pho, and having said that, only a handful of the thousands of restaurants in Little Saigon offer oxtail pho. The one here is decent and the broth is flavorful. There wasn’t much MSG detected either so that’s a plus!

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I’m a huge fan of Claypot Rice (Cơm Tay Cầm $8.75) so to find it here was great. The toppings on the rice were flavorful with chicken, shrimp, and vegetables including baby corn. I was hoping for some crispy rice on the bottom of the claypot but there was none to be found.

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Combination Chow Fun (Hủ Tiếu Xào Thập Cẩm $9.50) was actually very tasty albeit some of the noodles were clumped up. One thing I noticed is they do not skimp on ingredients. There was ample chicken, vegetables and cha siu (barbecued pork) on the plate.

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The food here is decent. Little Saigon it definitely is not, but when I don’t feel like driving out there, this place suffices, especially when I’m in the mood for oxtail pho.

Lantern Cafe
103 E 17th Street
Costa Mesa, CA 92627
Tel: 949-515-9090

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Starfish won me over with soup … and more

I’ve never been a fan of Asian fusion, but something happened this year. I found myself surprised by some non-traditional Asian cuisine and even liking some of the westernized food on offer. Starfish Laguna is one of those places.

I recently visited again and was drawn to the Hot and Sour Soup ($5), filled with organic pressed tofu,bamboo, shiitake mushroom and finished off with egg drop. I added a spoonful of sambal oelek for more heat, but it was a stellar bowl of hot and sour! — lunch specials come with soup and egg roll.

I was enticed by the description of the Singapore Bamboo Roll ($7) — soy seasoned bamboo, carrot, jicama, cilatro, thai basil served with a roasted peanut hoisin dipping sauce. I was so happy that it tasted exactly as I’d expected it to! The rolls are so refreshing with crunchy vegetables stuffed inside. I can eat two orders of these on my own — easily!

Another item I enjoyed were the Korean Galbi Tacos ($9), served three to an order. The barbequed sesame soy seasoned natural angus beef was flavorful and the spicy gochujang aioli added a nice kick to them. Pickled daikon soothed out the flavors by adding some crunchy tartness.

I love eggplant and insisted on ordering Japanese Eggplant ($10) slow braised with house made sambal, Sichuan peppercorns and bell peppers. I was disappointed. Not only was there no hint of the Sichuan peppercorns’ numbing effects, but the dish was surprisingly bland. We all agreed this was our least favorite item.

Garlic Noodle ($10), priced the same at the one at AnQi was a much larger portion dotted with wild mushrooms, vine ripened tomato and bean sprouts and was so much more flavorful. I will take this over AnQi’s “famous” garlic noodles any day even though the noodles here are much thinner and not as garlicky.

One of my favorite dishes was Beef and Coke Farms Broccoli di Ciccio ($12) a sauteed item with garlic, rice wine and soy. I can eat this with a bowl of steaming hot rice and call it a day.

We ended with Thai Fried Rice ($12), a quite tasty combination of wild gulf shrimp, Chinese sausage, edamame, egg and cabbage. Not your traditional fried rice by any means, but will appeal to both kids and adults alike!

Yes it’s not traditional or authentic Asian fare, but if it’s tasty I’ll eat it AND enjoy it. Just like PF Chang’s, Starfish Laguna has definitely caught my attention with their twist on food I grew up eating. I will be back again for those Bamboo Rolls, hot and sour soup and the beef with broccoli!

I have a $50 giftcard to giveaway to one lucky reader. Tell me what your favorite Chinese dish is and make sure you include your FULL name & email address. “Like” Starfish Laguna and diary of a Mad Hungry Woman‘s Facebook pages, leave a 2nd comment to let us know and you will be entered for a 2nd chance to win.

Starfish Laguna
30832 Pacific Coast Hwy
Laguna Beach, CA 92651
Tel: 949-715-9200

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Pho Ellie — diamond in the rough

I rarely go to Fullerton but on this occasion my BFF Sunny and I were attending to some business in the area and lost track of time. By the time we realized, our stomachs were growling, and needed food STAT, but neither of us had the energy to venture far from where we were in search of a place to eat. What to do?

Luckily, within walking distance of where we were at was a Vietnamese place and even though I didn’t have time to check on Yelp (they have a 3 and a half star average) we decided to give it a shot anyway, at least to satiate the hunger pangs for the moment.

BFF is from Indonesia so she commented on the sign outside Pho Ellie stating they serve “halal” meat. This means the restaurant caters to Muslims who ordinarily aren’t able to eat the beef served in regular restaurants. There is also no pork on the menu.

I am always skeptical when it comes to really clean and new looking Vietnamese restaurants. I guess I’m just used to getting great food at hole-in-the-wall joints in lil Saigon and most of the nicer places tend to cater to the masses rather than staying true to their roots.

We were famished and ordered a lot. I figured if we don’t finish it, we can just take it home. What’s the big deal, right?

We started with Ellie’s spring rolls ($3.95), two rolls arrived looking rather dismal because they were limp and uninspiring, not tightly wrapped like they normally are. We took a bite and were surprised at how good they tasted.

Filled with chicken, lettuce, shrimp and served with a not-too-sweet dipping sauce, they were definitely a tasty start even if they weren’t as aesthetically a work of art. We laughed about pre-judging them on their looks and devoured them rather quickly.

Rare steak and brisket pho ($5.75) is next and comes piping hot. The broth is dark and the aroma of star anise fills the air. I took a sip of it marveling at how flavorful and rich it tasted without being greasy.

They are not stingy on the meat either and a plate of fresh herbal condiments graces the table to add to the al dente pho noodles. We were both surprised that pho of this caliber can be found outside of lil Saigon (why can’t that be the same for Irvine?).

Grilled shrimp and egg roll rice vermicelli ($6.95) or bun, is smaller in size than places I frequent, but again, everything from the grilled shrimp and the fried eggrolls are cooked to perfection and seasoned well.

Vegetables such as cucumbers, cilantro and lettuce add a great freshness, while pickled daikon and carrots tasted homemade. The crushed peanuts are ample and together, created a really delicious plate!

Our final dish of lemongrass chicken rice plate ($6.95) is a stir fry of chicken strips in a lemongrass sauce, served with a deliciously fragrant butter, garlic and parsley rice.

Although the soy dipping sauce is great over the rice, it is not needed to help enhance the already flavorful chicken and caramelized onions.

Not surprisingly, BFF and I polished off EVERYTHING. This always happens whenever we’re together — she’ll say she’s not hungry so don’t order a lot, or she’ll say “that’s too much”, but ends up eating more than I do and she’s half my size!

Pho Ellie is a hidden gem. I’m glad we gave it a shot, otherwise we would’ve missed out on some very tasty fare.

Pho Ellie
765 S State College Blvd
Fullerton, CA 92831
Tel: 714-879-1004

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