Normally, when I write about food, I write about mostly the positives. If I have somewhat of a bad experience, I leave that at the door, thinking that maybe it was just a bad night for the restaurant. But this is a tale of one city-----Mission Viejo----and three restaurants. A cautionary tale, for it was the experience before I could even order food that serves to enlighten you, dear reader. Indeed, it was the best of times, it was the worst of times.
Twas one of those nights, the nights we know so well, when the day just gets out of hand and the evening's meal and libations get spoiled by the events of the day. This night, all my dinner plans went awry. The only solution, at 8:10 in the PM, was to pick up some takeout food on the way home from the visit to the Shops at Mission Viejo. My task was such----to bring home a quick meal, something to satisfy the cravings that I had been informed of----------some ribs. Gone were the plans for the visit to Lucille's and only the dreaded words “pick up anything”. Fortunately, I knew that there was a rib place at the corner of Marguerite and Crown Valley Parkways. With that thought in mind, my heart lifted as I saw a solution to the heavy weight placed upon me. At 10 after 8 o'clock, I pulled into the mini-mall where EJ's is located. The music was shaking the windows, so I thought that there must be a merry party going on inside. As I opened the door, a telltale scent hit my nose. Not, as I had so unwisely presumed, the aroma of ribs covered with a mouthwatering sauce. Instead, the scent was-----bleach! As I walked in, I saw someone mopping up. I yelled above the music, “are you open?”. Still, with the lilting sounds of heavy metal rap hip-hop in the foreground, I heard, “no”. Okay, I thought. I asked for the establishment's menu, at least to peruse their offerings for the next time we had a craving for ribs-----at least for the midday repast. I was given one, and with that, I bade the worker adieu.
A sign directly across from me beckoned-----“OPEN”. It was at Crown Valley Chinese Restaurant, a place that I had dined from in the past but had been unimpressed with. On the other hand, I knew that many restaurants of this type had pork spareribs, so I went in. For you, gentle reader, the ones who have not read my reviews of Chinese dining, I beg forgiveness. I grew up eating Chinese food-----my family's twice a year pilgrimage to Chinatown, to eat at the Grandview Gardens on Hill Street in downtown Los Angeles; one of the highlights of my childhood. Later, as I learned to drive the four-wheeled combustion-driven motorcar that so defines our life these days, I drove to Mon Kee and Yang Chow for food—not chop suey and chow mein, but rather the regional specialties both places were known for. Next, I travelled some, deciding the best food I had in Europe was not coq au vin or Homard l'Amoricaine, but the Chinois food at a small Chinese restaurant in the Montmartre district of Paris' 18th arrondissement, perchance the same area frequented by Monsieur Defarge. Later on, during my campus days at a well known University very close to downtown, I would stop everyday at the Chinese Bakery on Alpine Street, to imbibe a daily cup of coffee and some Chinese pastries with some denizens of Chinatown, grizzled Chinese who came to enjoy seeing and talking with the Anglo who came in, ordered what they did, and was never afraid to try something they suggested. Perhaps you have even read my rambling words about Capital Seafood, the min-chain that is now my benchmark for fine Chinese regional specialties and fresh-from-the-tank seafood. Thus, when I walked in and asked for the To-Go menu, I was looking at it with the eyes of someone not entirely unawares of the intricacies of Chinese cuisine.
I interrupted my perusal of their menu as my eyes fixated on the daily special board. “Beef Stew Noodle Soup $6.95”. Since I had been craving some Vietnamese Bứn Bò Huế (the delicious spicy beef and pork Central Vietnamese noodle soup) the past few days and had not dined on Shabu Shabu for several weeks, I asked the proprietor to tell me about it. And yes, dear reader-----she did tell me something. “Asian soup, Americans no like taste. Not for you”. I had magically been transported from Mission Viejo to the land of the Soup Nazi. Just then, a young waitress walked up to the counter where I stood. They exchanged some words and I got a funny look. To put them at ease, I told them that I knew Chinese food and that I regularly dined at Capital Seafood in Irvine for my Chinese food. The response, much to my enlightenment, was this---“we no do much seafood”, after which they chatted in Chinese and gave me a few unfriendly looks. I quickly bade them farewell and removed myself from the establishment.
Thus, with a heavy heart, I gave up my search for the fabled “rib”. Before I exited the mini-mall, however, I spied several establishments. I had had sushi twice in the last week, so that was out. Mexican was the meal of choice only two nights before, so I sought out the open sign that said “Jojo's Pizza Kitchen”. As I walked in, they were also cleaning up, but the gentleman there was quick to welcome me in. Thus, I saw the first friendly face in my night's search for food to redeem myself at home. I asked about the pizza (I had seen a sign on the front door for a special that had quickly piqued my interest) and the gentlemen told me about the special, a 12” pizza with two toppings of your choice. With hopes of redemption at hand, I called to make the offer of (one topping for you and one for me. Forthwith, I began to order my pizza------half my choice and half hers. Sensing impending discord, the kindly gentleman advised me that we could get the pizza with half her choice and half mine. With those words, I committed to all mushroom, with half green pepper and half Italian sausage. My dilemma solved, I sat down for a glass of one of the establishment's fine beers on draught. Before my last swig of the pale nectar, my pizza was ready. As I bid a fond farewell to the gentlemen who manned this fine dining place, the words of some famous Bard slipped into my head, and before I knew it, I saluted them with “I'll be baaaack”. And thus my tale comes to an end. The pizza was delicious, the crust not paper thin but not thick either. The toppings were generous and the sauce and cheese flavorful. I had redeemed myself, as well as having found a pizza place worthy of the name “Pizza Kitchen”. So, my tale of woe ends on a positive note, my esteemed reader. Not only had I found a gentleman in action, but also a restaurant to replace the pizza parlor that I had decided had lost their touch for making fine pizza. And to you, the soul of Dickens past, I beg forgiveness for this parody. But as they say, “it is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better restaurant that I go to, than I have ever known.”
With apologies to Charles Dickens---any misquotes are intentional but done with reverence.
JoJo's Pizza Kitchen
27620 Marguerite Parkway #G
Mission Viejo, CA 92692
Sometimes my favorite way of planning a dinner is to just wee what's on special in the market. It was my lucky day when the had a package of veal shanks on special. Normally, they are not very affordable, but this gave me a good head start on an affordable gourmet dinner. I love osso buco but make it only rarely. When I do, there are several ways I can do it. Cook it all in the oven, a half-day process. I can do it in the pressure cooker, which really cuts down the time to under an hour. And sometimes I do a combo of the two, undercooking the meat slightly and then finishing in the oven, yielding a nicely browned product and enabling me to roast potatoes along with it. Today, though, I was going all pressure cooker. I didn't have enough potatoes to roast, but going through the produce bin, found 3 turnips I had picked up but not used yet. Along with the 4 small Yukon Gold potatoes I had, I thought I could make things work.
First I peeled the potatoes and turnips and quartered them. I started boiling some water for them. My idea was to mash them, hoping the combination would work well. I boiled them with a clove of garlic and set the drained items aside, covered, for later.
When I do Osso Buco, I keep it simple. First I julienned some carrot and celery. I thinly sliced some garlic and onions to go along too as my mirepoix. One of my nice purchases on my return from my Oregon trip last year was a nice bottle of local olive oil. I had stopped for a 5 minute stop at a place called the Olive Pit, in Corning CA. Over an hour later, after trying samples of probably 40 olive oils, balsamic vinegars, olives and other goodies that they have in their tasting room, I walked out with bottles of regular olive oil, EVOO and both white and black truffle oil.
I had both their special EVOO as well as a milder oil for cooking, a fine EVOO for finishing dishes and enough types of pickles, olives and pickled okra to supply friends with plenty of souvenirs.
So I used some of the good cold-pressed olive oil from the local trees in NoCal to brown the shanks, which I had salted, peppered and dusted with flour. They browned nicely and I removed them from the pressure cooker.
I added more olive oil to the brown bits, lowered the temp and added my mirepoix.I sauteed them until they had softened somewhat. In the meantime, I chopped up a bunch of fresh parsley and a few cloves of garlic and put it in a bowl with a good dose of zested lemon peel. This gremolata was both to be tossed into the cooking pot and also be used as a garnish on the osso buco.
After the veggies had softened, I used a bit of wine to scrape up the browned stuff. I used a Curran 2007 Gewurtztraminer, finding that whites go better with osso buco. Besides, it's one of my favorite wines, so I was planning on opening something good to drink. Might as well cook with a good wine too!
I chopped up some fresh basil and added it, diced up a fresh tomato and then tossed some of the gremolata on top. I added the browned shanks back on top of the veggies, poured in some more wine, added sea salt, fresh cracked black Tellicherry pepper, thyme, tomato paste and some beef broth and sealed up the pot. I've had this pressure cooker for about 15 years and love what I can do with it and how it works. I brought it up to pressure and set the timer for 45 minutes.
On to the next part of the project. I poured myself a glass of the wine and prepared some snow peas in the pod for steaming. I then took the potatoes and turnips, mashed them with cream, butter, salt and pepper (ok, so this is not a dietetic meal!) and set them aside to keep warm.
I decided this was not a meal for paper plates and got out the china. Good food seems to taste better on nice dinnerware.
Forty five minutes later I removed the pressure cooker from the heat. I usually use the quick method of opening the pot so I placed it in the sink and ran cold water over it until the pressure dropped enough to open it. What a beautiful sight and aroma! I put the pot back on low heat with another few spoonfuls of the gremolata for a few minutes to thicken the sauce a little more.
The drained potatoes, turnip and garlic went into a small pot along with cream, butter salt and pepper. As soon as the cream and butter had warmed I took it back off and mashed it all top a nice consistency. The snow peas went into the microwave steamer. I've found that for simple fresh steamed veggies the microwave does them perfectly. The shanks were ready. It was time to plate.
The peas and the mashed potatoes/turnips went on the china first. Each plate got a shank, with the mirepoix veggies on the side and the sauce spooned on top. Topping it all was a final toss of the fresh gremolata. The scent wafted through the room. I could hardly wait to take a bite.
The veal was meltingly tender, with a thick, flavorful sauce. The mirepoix had cooked down into a delicious accompaniment to it. The richness of the osso buco was accented by the fresh flavor of the gremolata. It was nicely balanced and went well with another glass of the Gewurtztraminer. The mashed turnips and potatoes were a surprise, one of those “sum of the parts” type dishes where the combination turns out perfect.
Eventually, I got to the “prize” of the osso buco---the marrow. Rich does not describe it. Words cannot describe it. It was a few forkfuls of insane goodness. I ran the tip of the steak knife into the opening of the bone to get out every last drop.
Afterwards, sipping another glass of the Gewurztraminer, I thought over had the meal had gone together. Considering that when I walked into the market I had no plan of what to make, the dinner had gone exceedingly well, proving again that sometimes impromptu planning can work out great!
Interactive. It is a word that has become very common these days. One of the best uses of it is in the phrase, “interactive dining experience”. These days, good food is only part of the experience. Service, certainly. But the majority of diners these days are looking for a fun experience. Something not just served to eat, but a dining experience where you participate in the prep of your meal, as well as sharing and comparing. One of the best examples of this is shabu shabu. It is a Japanese expression that means “swish swish”, describing the way you actually cook your meal. It’s fun for two, and much more fun for four. And as at a sushi bar, there are regular conversations about what the person next to you is having, the sauce they like, the sake……..and they might be with someone you’ve never met.
Orange County has had shabu shabu restaurants for years, but they have really hit their stride in the last few years with the latest generation of purveyors. You can now find them in South County and all the way up to the Northern fringes. Huntington Beach, Irvine, Mission Viejo and Fullerton are just a few of the cities you can find them. For the ultimate experience, however, I keep going back to Shabu Shabu Bar in Tustin. Located in a large strip mall, the place catches your eye as you drive up.
t is good to show up early, because even with two huge bars inside, there is still usually a wait at dinner hour. With that comes a warning-----this is not a fast meal. It’s a time to have fun, savor good food, visit with friends, try some new things and laugh with everyone. This is an exceedingly popular place, and with good reason. There is great food, a lively crowd and lots of excitement in the air.
We showed up around 5:30 on Friday evening. We were promptly greeted and led to our friends who had already arrived. This was a chance to teach some newbies of the hoys of shabu shabu. They had already ordered their sake. Shabu Shabu Bar has a whole sake book, from ten dollars for a carafe of cold sake up to $145.00 for the super-premiums. Cries of “Kampai” (cheers) and other toasts and we were on our way.
When you sit down, you notice several things. Two dry bowls, one empty and the other with black and while sesame seeds and a pestle so you can grind them as finely as you like (I’m a texture kinda guy and just give them enough grinding to release the oils in the seed). Right in front of you is also a hot pot filled with boiling water.
Your shabu shabu chef fills the empty bowl with ponzu, a lemon and soy based sauce. The sesame bowl gets their house-made shaubu shabu sauce, a thick rich sesame paste and soy dipping sauce that the blending with the seeds makes your own. But wait! You can add to either sauce some extremely hot Japanese pepper drops. A more mild shaken condiment with Japanese and shisito peppers mixed with ginger and seaweed. And each pair of seats has between then a little condiment dish filled with scallions and crushed garlic, ready to bring it the sauces up to your taste. This is definitely the land of “Have it your way".
We proceeded to order some appetizers. Perfectly fried gyoza dumplings came first with a nice dipping sauce.
We also ordered a large steamed edamame, the soybeans not only dusted with the usual salt but slso some hot chili powder that definitely took it to the next level. They went great with the two orders of sake that we shared. As opposed to sushi bars, most of the sake here is ice cold. It’s very refreshing and very sippable.
As with many places like this, it’s a golden opportunity to try different things.
I ordered the platter consisting of thinly sliced prime beef with some awesome Kurobata pork.
Two of my companions ordered the beef and shrimp combo platters.
The last one ordered the chicken platter.
Mind you, these are not cooked yet. You will be the cook. My prime had some amazing marbling in it. The shrimp looked delicious too as did the chicken. Overall,the choices run from ribeye steak for $17.99 to prime steak, progressing upwards until you get to the true Wagyu beef for $145.00. Oh, I do want to try that ome day!
Our veggies cane first. Some sliced Nappa Cabbage, carrot, onion, spinach, tofu with a different type of Japanese seaweed on it and even some carrot. There was a gorgeous spiral-cut mushroom cap and decoratively sliced scallion. Also on the platter were fresh udon noodles, not to be touched until the end.
The harder veggies such as carrot and some of the cabbage pieces went in first. After a few minutes in the “Jacuzzi” some of the cabbage pieces could come out, ready to be dipped in one of the two cool sauces depending on your tastes. I enjoy interchanging them. There was also a choice of white or brown rice with the meal. I’ve seen shabu bars where you are pretty much left on your own, but here the shabu shabu chefs make sure that you know how to do it. They help you with the sauces, suggest which sauces go with which meat and vegetables and generally made the novices in our party feel comfortable as they learned how to “shabu shabu”.
The meat platters showed up after we had started the veggies. This is really where “swish swish” comes. In. You don’t want to overcook the beef, fish, chicken beef or shrimp. You take a piece, swish it in the broth, and when it’s done to your liking, into a sauce and then your mouth.
This is where it really gets fun, trying your neighbor’s shrimp or giving a piece of pork to someone you don’t know. You can make your sauce spicy, garlicky or plain. It’s your choice! Just keep dipping, swishing and eating. Eventually you’ll only have the noodles left.
Well, you’re sitting back, pleasantly stuffed. No room in the belly. And then the shabu shabu chef asks if you are ready for the soup!
This is where the chef again shows their expertise. They take your noodles and cook them in what has become a rich broth from your meat and veggies. Some spices and special sauces are added. Soon, you are presented with a bowl with a delicious udon soup. Your mind tells you that you are too full for it, but as soon as you take the first sip, all is forgotten.
Every bit of soup disappears, seasoned to perfection. Your shabu shabu experience is over. At least until the next time!
As we laughed, and walked towards to front door, we wove our way through a large crowd , waiting on a rainy night to get in. It was a perfect evening for shabu shabu.
And when you have that craving, there is no finer place than the Shabu Shabu Bar in Tustin.
Shabu Shabu Bar
1945 E 17th St,
Santa Ana, CA 92705-8603
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Every once in a while it’s nice to have a group or family dinner out. When that occurs, there is nothing better than one of the numerous varieties of Asian restaurants, since they are made to order for sharing many dishes. Tonight was such a night. Diho Siam is a small (maybe 18 tables total) Thai‐Chinese restaurant, with four locations in OC. We converged on them, and they were up to the task.
Soup is always a necessity at a Thai restaurant. We ordered the Tom Kha, a hot and sour coconut soup with chicken, brought to the table in a hot pot with the flame just peeking out of the chimney.
It was rich and thick, and when I added some of the little green peppers off the condiment tray, had just the right amount of zing.
The appetizer came with the soup. I had ordered Tofu Taud, something that I had never had before but it sounded like it was worth a try. What we got was a plate of tofu triangles, deep fried so they were nice and crispy on the outside but soft and tender on the inside. The contrast was amazing. They were not battered, but must have used a cornstarch dusting before they were fried to achieve that perfect exterior. The sauce they came with was a sweet and tangy one full of chunks of peanuts. Of all the dishes this day, this is definitely the one I would order all the time. Absolutely delicious!
Next came a Thai specialty, Som Tum. It’s a salad made with green and orange papaya, lettuce and fresh green beans. Topping it was a spicy lime dressing. Not the best one I’ve ever had, but the green beans were a really nice touch.
The main dishes started their parade to the table. First was a vegetarian dish, Mixed Vegetable Delight. All sorts of veggies, including my favorite snow peas, as well as tofu were stir‐fried in this dish.
Chicken with Chilis and Thai Basil added a nice punch to the meal.
Accompanying that was the Yellow Curry with Chicken. A good if somewhat standard dish, with potatoes and onions.
More impressive was the Sweet and Sour Thai Style Shrimp. It had the right amount of spiciness and the shrimp were cooked perfectly. The pineapple added a nice touch, and the cucumbers, onion, tomato and bell pepper gave the proper veggie accompaniment to the dish.
With seven hungry eaters, the dishes kept coming. Pad Thai is one of the definitive Thai dishes, and they had a good version at Diho Siam.
Diho Siam has a Chinese menu also and you have the option of ordering from that too. One of our group is a big fan of Orange Peel Chicken, so that came also. It was nicely battered and certainly a decent version of the dish.
We were getting close to the end. The last dish that was placed before us was Thai Chicken with Cashew Nuts. The onions and roasted chilis gave a pleasant heat to this dish. And there was always that condiment tray with four types of chilis to kick it up if you wanted to.
No one had much room left by dessert time, but Diho Siam has a seasonal dish of Sticky Rice with Fresh Papaya and Cashews that we can’t pass up if it’s available. It was a perfect ending to the feast.
I still make the occasional pilgrimage to Thai Nakorn in Stanton if I want a no‐holds‐barred authentic and incendiary Thai meal, but it’s certainly nice to have Diho Siam close by when the urge strikes and you want a pleasant, tasty Thai‐style dinner. Having the Chinese menu available also opens up a nice chance to try contrasting dishes of a variety you would not normally get. The waitstaff is always pleasant and the food a delight.
27001 La Paz Road,
Mission Viejo, CA 92691
Well here I go. I've been documenting my travels and adventures in food on other websites, but I thought I'd start putting them all in one place. Come on and join me on my adventures!
I even will throw in some of my cooking for those who like food porn. Maybe not recipes, but lots of good food and basic ideas of how to make it.