K Ramen. Burger. Beer.: Innovative Victory

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If you have ever been to a restaurant owned/operated by SBE, you will know that red-carpet treatment is the common denominator no matter what cuisine the restaurant specializes in. The associates all greet you with a warm smile and open arms, making you feel right at home as if you were in your own castle. But every now and then, even royalty needs some time to relax and unwind.

In the manor that is known as Katsuya Glendale, there is a new, almost secret, restaurant located on the second floor: K Ramen. Burger. Beer. Sticking with the chic elegance that Katsuya brings, the familiarity of the S+arck-inspired decor keeps you at ease while giving you a more relaxed atmosphere with communal style benches overlooking the beautiful fountains and shops at The Americana at Brand. As my photographer, Antonio Espino and I were invited to experience the food, it was time to let our hair down and unwind on the patio to begin our journey on the road to complete satiation.

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Although the menu is smaller than the one that can be found at Katsuya, it still offers enough options to satisfy every palate. From panko breaded, extremely tender calamari with wasabi cocktail sauce and 1 pound of sweet and spicy, glazed chicken wings, to Korean-inspired, as well as Japanese-style, ramen, the options are abundant.

 

Panko-Crusted Calamari with Wasabi Cocktail Sauce

Panko-Crusted Calamari with Wasabi Cocktail Sauce

 

1 pound of sweet and spicy Glazed Chicken Wings

1 pound of sweet and spicy Glazed Chicken Wings

If you’re looking for a quick and healthy bite (or maybe you are trying to convince your friend(s) to start eating sushi and are looking for an easy gateway so that you can keep going to Katsuya/K Ramen. Burger. Beer.) the poke bowls are the most ideal choice. The menu offers three amazing choices:

Spicy Creamy Tuna Poke (front): Tuna sashimi and avocado, Ichimi Togarashi (red pepper flakes), and a mild, creamy mayo-based sauce

Spicy Creamy Tuna Poke (front): Tuna sashimi and avocado, Ichimi Togarashi (red pepper flakes), and a mild, creamy mayo-based sauce

 

Albacore in Ponzu Ginger Sauce with Mango and Macadamia: Albacore sashimi and ponzu sauce, shredded coconut, large chunks of macadamia nuts and mangos to add great flavors and texture

Albacore in Ponzu Ginger Sauce with Mango and Macadamia: Albacore sashimi and ponzu sauce, shredded coconut, large chunks of macadamia nuts and mangos to add great flavors and texture

 

Snapper and Kale in Yuzu Ginger Sauce: Red Snapper sashimi, kale, and avocado, finished off in a Yuzu Ginger dressing  for the absolute healthy option, very similar to a salad

Snapper and Kale in Yuzu Ginger Sauce: Red Snapper sashimi, kale, and avocado, finished off in a Yuzu Ginger dressing for the absolute healthy option, very similar to a salad

Let’s say that you are not feeling sushi or sashimi but would rather have a burger and a beer to watch the game with your friends and would rather not feel left out and are not daring enough to bring outside food with you (not that it is allowed, anyway). Well, it just so happens that there are two fantastic burgers right on the menu!

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In addition to the burger, a chicken sandwich is also offered. The Chicken Karaage (prounounced KAH-rah-AH-geh) Sandwich, which is a Japanese-style fried chicken in sandwich form, has the qualities and flavors very similar to a pulled pork sandwich with a crunchy texture. With a lightly dressed slaw, bbq sauce, very similar to tonkatsu sauce (Japanese-style bbq sauce), and tator tots drizzled in duck fat, it is sure to make a winning combo that never disappoints.

 

The Chicken Karaage Sandwich: Chicken karaage, lightly dressed slaw, zesty bbq sauce

The Chicken Karaage Sandwich: Chicken karaage, lightly dressed slaw, zesty bbq sauce

Finally, onto the heavy hitter: Ramen. Not only does K Ramen. Burger. Beer. execute ramen extremely well, but it also offers something a little more unique that is not so easy to find at “traditional” ramen houses: a chicken-based broth. While the Tonkatsu Style Pork Ramen offers the traditional pork broth, the other three types (Black Miso Ramen, Shoyu with Chicken Chashu, and Lobster Ramen) offer a chicken-based broth making it more approachable in a time where diets are extremely particular.

Signature Lobster Ramen: Traditional noodles with golden chives, Korean pepper flakes,green onion, marinated egg and a healthy portion of lobster.

Signature Lobster Ramen: Traditional noodles with golden chives, Korean pepper flakes,green onion, marinated egg and a healthy portion of lobster

 

Black Miso Ramen: Similar to black bean noodles, this ramen incorporates thick noodles similar to Tsukemen style ramen with ground chicken ground chicken. Rich and decadent!

Black Miso Ramen: Similar to black bean noodles, this ramen incorporates thick noodles similar to Tsukemen style ramen with ground chicken ground chicken. Rich and decadent!

 

Tonkatsu-style Ramen: Traditional thin noodles, marinated egg, extremely tender pork, seaweed, and ginger

Tonkatsu-style Ramen: Traditional thin noodles, marinated egg, extremely tender pork, seaweed, and ginger

 

Shoyu with Chicken Chashu (top left corner): Offers a lighter soup base, almost similar to udon with the thicker ramen noodles, and generous portions of chicken and a marinated egg

Shoyu with Chicken Chashu (top left corner): Offers a lighter soup base, almost similar to udon with the thicker ramen noodles, and generous portions of chicken and a marinated egg

So if you ever find yourself experiencing hunger while walking around The Americana at Brand like the royalty that you are and want an elegant meal where you can let your hair down, (but will also save you some money that you can spend on your wardrobe… or perhaps another crown/tiara?) try spending some time at K Ramen. Burger. Beer. and enjoy being treated like celebrity in the comfort of seclusion with delicious food.

Pizza Port San Clemente: Slice, Slice, Baby.

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I am sure that most would agree with me saying that pizza is a food that should be considered all that is sacred if it is not already. After all, the food itself has a nonprofit association, “Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana” (aka the “True Neapolitan Pizza Association”) that promotes and protects the “true Neapolitan pizza” in Naples, Italy where it first originated. We are talking about some serious stuff here, people. With the ease of preparation and fast cook-times, it should be no surprise that America quickly adapted to this stye of food as it is easy to eat, approachable, affordable, and provides instant comfort. Whether it be satiating a craving or eating your emotions to get over a breakup, pizza seems to be the solution to all of life’s problems.

With so many styles and interpreted adaptations of pizza, the choices can be more than overwhelming. From New York’s large-sliced, thin-crust pies to Chicago’s famous deep-dish, the combinations are infinite. But, if you are looking for a tried-and-true pizza joint with an authentic California surfer feel, look no further than San Clemente’s best, local pizza spot: Pizza Port.

When you first walk in, it is nearly impossible not to feel a little nostalgic as you are greeted with long, wooden, communal-style benches, surfboards mounted on the wall, a small bar with rotating taps full of great-tasting craft beer, and an upstairs arcade. The laid back atmosphere reminds you of simpler times as locals gather and pack the restaurant throughout the week regardless of what day it is.

The menu is slightly smaller than that of a standard pizza chain, but offers more than enough options and variety to satisfy just about anyone that walks through the door.

Being an ambitious consumer of food, it was difficult to restrain myself from ordering the entire menu. After all, it was only my photographer, Antonio Espino, and I and with my generosity and caring nature, I did not want him to leave hungry.

In order to capture the true essence of their artwork, we decided to order a variety of pies to enjoy the full spectrum:

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Starting with my personal favorite: The Carlsbad.

The Greek-inspired pizza is just different enough to veer away from the traditional tomato sauce-based pizza, but still delicious to where you will reluctantly share. With the sweet acidity from the sundried tomatoes and artichoke hearts, salty kick from the feta, slight smokiness from the mesquite grilled chicken and all powered by the earthy pesto, it is almost impossible to stop eating slice after slice.

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For those that enjoy a cornucopia of flavors, the Monterey is probably for you. With pepperoni, mushrooms, onions and artichoke hearts all mixed in under a layer of amazing mozzarella, you cannot really go wrong with this pie. We decided to go off the grid a bit and added pineapples because we are adults now and we are able to do what we want.

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Sticking with tradition, a side order of spicy twice-baked chicken wings were quickly summoned. The only caution I must warn you about is that these are meaty enough to eat as a meal on its own. With phenomenal crispy skin on the outside and packed with juicy, tender meat on the inside, it is impossible not to take continuous bites, fighting through the scorching pain from the “right out of the oven” heat. Served with celery and carrots (more for the aesthetics in my opinion), enjoy these in between the slices of heavenly pizza.

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Last, but certainly not least: the classic Pepperoni.

Much like the California Roll of sushi restaurants, the classic Pepperoni pizza is the foundation in which everyone secretly judges a pizza joint. With a fantastic crunch from the outer layer of the soft, chewy dough that lies beneath, a perfect amount of cheese that does not annoyingly slide off within the first bite and a beautiful, saltiness from the savory pepperoni, time seems to stop and take you back to your childhood.

All in all, if you want to go to a place where the energy is high, locals are congregating and the beer flows like wine (and the women instinctively flock like the salmon of Capistrano), head down to San Clemente’s local watering hole: Pizza Port.

A Day in LA: Modern-Day Ramen Hood Looking For His Honey

 

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Let’s face it, nobody likes to drive to LA. Not even the people who reside in LA like to drive within the city. But sometimes, just sometimes, there are places that make the traffic worthwhile. With thousands of restaurants to choose from in the greater LA area, it only made sense to start somewhere that has been proven time and time again to completely satisfy the palates of not only LA’s biggest foodies and natives, but critics as well.  And being a huge fan of Asian cuisine (the stereotype sticks with this one), we started with well-known street food: Ramen.

Tsukemen (prounounced TSKEH – men) ramen is a style of ramen in which a hot, reduced broth, tonkotsu (pork bone) in this case, is served along side cool noodles in a separate bowl. This was fortunate for us as we went on a Winter day where temperatures hit a nice and mild 88 degrees and were sweating just walking to the venue. Great idea!

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Tsujita LA Artisan Noodle is a small restaurant located on the corner of Sawtelle Boulevard and Mississippi, only seating around 20-25 to fill to capacity. Luckily for my photographer (Antonio Espino) and I, Wednesday afternoon at 2:30PM is not the most ideal time for tsukemen ramen cravings to coincide (I have heard horror stories about the wait). Service is fast-paced, even before you sit down, and can be intimidating to the inexperienced and anxious.  While waiting, a server not only notified us that we would be seated shortly but also stated that if we already knew what we wanted, that he would have our order placed so that the food arrived once we sat down. This must be the kind of pressure the president of the USA must face on a daily basis. Luckily, the menu is small with a few choices with the largest portion of the menu being directions on how to eat tsukemen ramen (no follow-up test, thank goodness).

After being seated, we ordered quickly while discreetly looking around to get an idea of how to eat this beautiful noodle dish so that we could look like we had the slightest idea of what we were doing. You know, that whole, “Fake it ‘till you make it,” thing.

As we unified ourselves with the loud, Japanese call-and-response between the servers and the chefs, as well as the perpetual slurping of noodles surrounding us, the moment had arrived for us to be initiated into the world of tsukemen ramen.

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At first glance, everything seems normal, except for the fact that the ramen is deconstructed. The “Go big or go home” mentality was implemented in full force as we had both ordered the “Char Siu (barbecued pork) Tsukemen.” The bowl containing the tonkotsu broth, which is reduced for over 48 hours, consists of chopped up pork, a seasoned soft boiled egg (I ordered an extra egg because… I am an adult), green onions, and menma (bamboo shoots). The second bowl consists of the medium hardness noodles, which are in between traditional ramen noodles and udon noodles in size and consistency, four generous pork slices, nori (seaweed) and a lime. Now, this is where it gets important that you read the directions on the menu. Rather than prematurely asking where the nearest margarita bar is, the lime is meant to be squeezed over the noodles after eating a third of the portion to add some acidity as well as more flavor to the broth as it intensifies. Highly recommended.

Within the first bite, we were immediately hooked. As you dip a good amount of noodles into the soup, the warm, thick broth coats the noodles beautifully and instantly gives a full mouthfeel. While alternating bites between the seasoned egg and the pork slices that melt in your mouth, the flavor and intensity will have you promptly reaching back for another helping of noodles. As the combination got more intense, the magic of the lime was used to commence a second wind. This helped introduce some more acidity that was needed toward the end.

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It was not long before we were sitting silently with broth all over our faces, empty bowls in front us while staring off into space in a numb fashion while trying to find a comfortable sitting position with our incredibly full stomachs. It was the look of defeat but not regret. As the food was settling in, we slowly waddled out of the front door to take an incredibly long 50-foot walk… to get dessert. After all, we DO live in America, right?

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Known for their true milk soft serve and generous amounts of honey drizzled over the top, as well as folded into the ice cream,  Honey Mee was a great choice to cool down a bit while still diving into our indulgent side. A very small menu made it incredibly easy to choose from and the venue has some great outside seating to make for some people-watching.

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Finally filled to the brim, it was time walk it all off and to end our day as tourists at 3rd Street Promenade. Shopping and entertainment ensued, all until the sun came up over Santa Monica Blvd. Cheers to you, Sheryl Crow.

Mesa: Starr-gazing

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Modern. Sexy. Fun. With dimly lit, intimate booths and tables laid out strategically around a long, elegant bar to ensure comfort and privacy, you will find yourself quickly engulfed in the sensuality that the ambiance of the dining room alone has to offer as soon as you walk through the front door of Mesa in Costa Mesa.

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But, if you think the experience stops with the decor, I hate to say it, you are wrong. Here, the food has its own seductive nature that ties in beautifully with the atmosphere and it all starts from the top with none other than Executive Chef Niki Starr.

Full of life, charisma, and with a serious passion for cooking, Chef Starr somehow harnesses enough energy to not only start her day at noon to prep food for dinner service, but to also continually execute flawless technique day in and day out for 16 hours. Even during the photoshoot and interview that my photographer, Antonio Espino, and I were conducting, not only was she preparing the kitchen for dinner service, she was also cooking and plating all of the beautiful dishes you are about to see, while hopping in and out of meetings and coordinating with designers (what can’t she do?). One would mistakenly assume that the hard work that she continues to put in would naturally start to deteriorate over time, but if a hotel pan full of second degree burn-inducing short ribs to the face on the third day as an Executive Chef cannot stop her, I highly doubt much really can.

Now, just because she works behind the scenes in the kitchen does not mean you are not able to experience her magic in person. Fortunately, for us, her fierce tenacity paired with her eclectic background in cooking translates seamlessly onto paper in the form of a tightly kept menu.

The shareable, California-inspired menu at Mesa consists mainly of small plates that are easily able to be divided which means you can relax as you do not have to worry about any fighting over portions. From cheese and charcuterie to Angus steaks and Loup De Mer, you will be sure to find something that satisfies your palate. Within these plates, though, is where you will find some beautiful and international twists from Chef Starr’s diverse culinary background as well as her time spent working alongside influential chefs such as Amar Santana. Let the tasting journey begin.

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For our first course, we were fortunate enough to enjoy some guilt-free ahi tacos as our appetizer. The sashimi-grade ahi tuna has a beautiful, tender meatiness that provides a full mouthfeel, complemented by the creamy avocado starting from the first bite. Combine this with the crunch from the refreshing watermelon radish shell and finish off with a some sweet and spicy elements from the ponzu and fresno chiles, and you will be sure to kickstart your flavor journey the correct way.

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As you continue along this path, it is difficult to ignore the soft and light beat of the music that quietly plays in the background as the DJ provides some entertainment. Rather than fight it, it is recommended that you embrace it and become one with the beet… salad. The bass of the whipped burrata provides a smooth foundation while the high notes are hit with sherry shallot vinaigrette and compressed strawberries. While you feel like you are soaring high through the symphony, the pumpernickel soil and the edible pansies keeps you grounded and safe as your taste buds continue to dance.

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Now that the cruise control is on and the mood is just right, it is time to get to the meat of things. Fortunately, there is a fork in the road and you get to decide how this story goes from here. You can drive through the countryside where you can experience the melt-in-your-mouth braised short ribs paired with a crispy sushi rice cake, finished with a bright acidity from the raspberry pork jus that makes you dream of simpler times during the holiday season with momma’s home cooking.

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Or, you can drive along the coast and head south of the border. Here, you will be greeted with grilled shrimp, marinated in smoked paprika and garlic, with fire roasted corn, Bilbao chorizo, roasted heirloom baby tomatoes, and a chimichurri emulsion to turn standard California cuisine into something a little more Cali-ente.

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The expedition gracefully continues on with a final, gentle push in the form of a vanilla bean panna cotta, cashew dust, and macerated berries to satiate the sweet tooth. This adventure does not stop here as you are encouraged to continue with libations and enjoy Starr-gazing through the retractable roof.

San Shi Go: Elegance in Complexity

After working under Celebrity Master Sushi Chef Katsuya Uechi for a few years, I realized that the art and concept behind sushi was a constant learning process. Although the kitchen and the sushi itself is simple from the outside, the word “simple” in a kitchen rarely means easy. From learning the correct way to greet one another upon entering the kitchen to butchering a fish correctly, repetition, sometimes doing the same task for years, and meticulousness was always the key to success.

During my time working with Chef Katsuya, the conversation topic of “fresh” fish came about. Needless to say, after a long, candid conversation, he had made me realize that the concept and definition of sushi being “fresh” has become skewed over the years.

To everyone, fresh implies “new.” For example, fresh fruit means that you just bought it. The fruit was just picked; it’s not old. With this definition, fresh fish/sushi would imply that the fish is only recently out of the water. But, is that what you really want?

“Fresh,” while the term is used very loosely today, is a complicated concept when you talk about food; particularly sushi and fish. While there are flavors and textures that may clearly indicate that a fish is old, it is more than likely not what you are experiencing at some sushi restaurants. Allow me to explain.

In the early stages after a fish is caught, the most common method implemented by some fisheries is to kill the fish by asphyxiation, where it is then butchered and chilled. This process often takes a few minutes to occur and results in a fish experiencing a slow death, which quickly increases the levels of lactic acid and adrenaline in the flesh and muscles due to high stress levels. As a result, this gives the fish a more bitter flavor and also shortens the shelf life.

In contrast, more sophisticated and higher-end fisheries have adapted to a method of harvesting used to preserve the texture and flavor of the fish flesh called “ike jime.”

Ike jime, a practice that originated in Japan, is known as the most humane and quickest technique to kill a fish. This method is useful in preserving the flesh and for it to maintain its integrity. It is said that the best time to eat the fish is right before it reaches rigor mortis (which is ultimately delayed using this process), when the amino acid levels are at their highest as the flesh is more firm and the flavors are maintained. From here, very similar to steaks, the fish is then aged to develop flavor. Some people will argue that it tastes better due to the high glutamic acid, being the main component of umami.

With that said, among all of the sushi restaurants available in Orange County, there is only one spot, out of a very few that will not break the bank, that I have found that sticks to basic, traditional roots of Japanese sushi: San Shi Go in Laguna Beach.

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Located on the second story corner with very little signage of Pacific Coast Highway and Oak street, San Shi Go (which translates into “3, 4, 5” in Japanese) is an easy spot to miss. Reservations are highly recommended, even for the sushi bar, as it is a small, popular restaurant.

My photographer Antonio Espino and I were lucky enough to encounter the restaurant on a slower night so we were able to take our time going through the menu.

The menu is basic with a few specials and a few off-the-menu items that the server will be more than happy to share with you. After ordering a few items from just about each section, the food arrived quickly and at a consistent pace.

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I will not lie; seeing crispy rice with spicy tuna (pictured below the black plate) on a menu makes me giddy like a little schoolgirl. Not only did I work with the original creator of the simple masterpiece (Chef Katsuya) but I am also intrigued about everyone else’s interpretation of the simple dish. This was one of the first dishes we enjoyed and it was a delightful way to begin our journey to gluttony. With the extra crunchy rice balancing out the heat of the spicy tuna, topped off with a spicy mayo, jalapeño, and ponzu, the blend of flavors was comparable to the first time I saw sunlight.

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Red Snapper Special

Next, we moved onto the Red Snapper. Thinly sliced (usuzukuri) Red Snapper, lightly salted with rock salt, and garnished with a Yuzu Pepper citrus paste. The fish was tender with a slight resisting texture, hints of citrus and a subtle, herbaceous spice which was all balanced by the salt. With such harmonious flavors, this delicate dish comes highly recommended to begin the meal to get the appetite flowing.

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California Roll, Spider Roll

 

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Baked Halibut Roll

 

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Spicy Tuna Handroll

Once our appetites were warmed up and running, it was time to move onto the main event: nigiri and their specialty rolls. The one detail that caught my attention about this restaurant that is more commonly overlooked nowadays is that like any traditional Japanese restaurant, wasabi comes customary between the fish and rice, thus, not needing to make a slurry of wasabi and soy sauce, which is usually frowned upon, anyway (this ain’t my first rodeo). Each order of nigiri (rice and fish) comes perfectly seasoned with the correct garnishes to make the experience that much more enjoyable. The rice is beautifully acidic from the vinegar but never dares to overpower the delicate nature of the fish. The standout was most certainly the ama-ebi (raw sweet shrimp) pictured below which was amazingly creamy, slightly sweet, and like always, paired with tempura fried shrimp heads.

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Ama-ebi (raw sweet shrimp)

Normally, I would be one to overlook specialty rolls because I like to think that I am a purist. But if you have met me, you would quickly realize that I would easily be able to spend $500 on a sushi dinner if I did not have any additional support from my good friend, rice (we go way back). Lucky for me, this restaurant has a few specialty rolls worth mentioning: Baked Halibut roll (spin-off of a California roll with baked halibut, and house-made mayo sauce) and their Backflip roll (spicy tuna roll topped with cajun-spiced seared tuna, red chiles, and garnished with Ponzu sauce).

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Tamago (front). Backflip Roll (back).

This journey of flavors sadly came to an end with Tamago (a thin egg omelet which is slightly sweet). After drinking our sorrows away with some sake, it was time to (San Shi) go home.

Carnitas Los Reyes: A meal fit for royalty

Let’s face it, even with the high cost of living, residing in southern California definitely has its perks. We have mild weather, beautiful beaches, mountains, Vegas within driving distance, and last, but certainly not least, the best Mexican food, hands down, that you can find in the nation. Many would agree with me that there is absolutely nothing that compares to the flavor of perfectly grilled carne asada in taco form with cilantro and onions, all to be washed down with a margarita (or Corona… Coronarita, anyone?) on a warm summer night. Am I right, or am I right?

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Now, I am aware of the fact that Mexican food is highly subjective and that there are plenty of opinions about where to find the “best” Mexican food. Over the years, I have asked where the best can be found, and as I listened to everyone’s lists, there was an overwhelming amount of results; some coinciding with others. At the end of those lists, I would calmly ask them, “Have you ever heard of a place called, ‘Carnitas Los Reyes?’” As soon as I had asked that question, about 80% had a look of shock, excitement, and disbelief that I knew. I knew their secret. And I knew where they ate last Summer. I introduce to you, my local hidden gem where you can eat like royalty: Carnitas Los Reyes.

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Located right off of the 55 and Chapman, at the end of a small strip mall with a cramped parking lot and only lit up by a small sign, this restaurant is extremely easy to miss. Much like the Holy Grail in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, the appearance from the outside does not seem like much. But, once you step inside and become one with the small dining area, long lines, and various murals on the walls that make you reminisce of simpler times, you will realize that you have chosen wisely.

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Enough about location, let’s get to the meat, shall we? As you stand in line waiting for your turn to order, you will notice that they have a staff member constantly chopping up new meat that will inevitably end up on your plate. It is very rare that they ever have a pan of meat just sitting there in a warmer (always a great sign). The chicken and chile verde burritos (pictured above) are my personal favorites and have been since I was a child. They are rather substantial in size and are also filled with 75-80% meat so you know you are in for a treat. The usual complements to these burritos are cheese, cilantro, onions, and refried beans and enough juice from the meat to fill a small pool. Modifications to the food are welcome.

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Now, to the real deal: the tacos. At $1.69 per taco, you can eat like royalty with just $10. Each taco (al pastor, carnitas, carne asada pictured above) is necessarily double wrapped in a corn tortilla (remember that juice?) and topped off with cilantro and onions. Nothing more, nothing less. Out of all of the tacos, the reigning champion, in my opinion, is their al pastor (pork marinated in chiles, spices, and pineapple). I mean, when your friend, who is from Mexico and who also happens to be allergic to pineapple, says “I’ll fight through it,” and devours a few al pastor tacos as if it was his last meal (I mean, it could have been but it wasn’t, thankfully), the legitimacy speaks for itself.

 

In conclusion, if you are looking for a Mexican restaurant with no frills, authentic taste, and quality flavor, there is only one place you should go: Mexico. But, if you do not want to drive all the way down there, I highly recommend Carnitas Los Reyes.

 

See you next Wednesday!

Kaya Restaurant: Seoul Searching

With large pockets of Orange County populated by the Asian culture, finding an Asian restaurant these days has become effortless with a myriad of options to choose from. The difficulty, however, is sifting through those options and finding a restaurant that sticks to traditional flavors and home style cooking. After searching high and low, I managed to find a diamond in the rough within a 15-minute drive from where I call home. I introduce to you, the venue that brings me back to simpler times where owning an anti-skip protection CD player made you the cool kid: Kaya Restaurant.

This Korean gem is located in Irvine (surprise, surprise), tucked away in the furthest back corner of a small shopping plaza right off of the 5 freeway and Culver. Unless you have shopped at the underwhelming grocery store that is located right next door or happened to dine at the Caspian Restaurant in the past, you would not even know the restaurant existed.

 

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As you enter, the owner and staff promptly greet you with a warm welcome and seat you immediately, provided the 15-table restaurant is not fully occupied. After ordering, one of the waitresses will bring a variety of side dishes (pictured above surrounding the large bowl) out to complement the meal, known as “ban-chan.” This is a very common practice throughout most Korean restaurants and while the sides themselves may differ from restaurant to restaurant, the concept remains the same so there is no reason to fight the waitress saying that you did not order those items and instead, like love, just let it happen. From the 1 o’clock position moving clockwise the sides are as follows (subject to change): Korean pancake known as “Pajeon” with vegetables, kimchi, cucumber kimchi, spicy (loosely used term in this case) tofu, sweet potatoes, bean sprouts, radish/seaweed salad.

 

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The first dish I ordered is a staple of Korean culture: Dolsot Bibimbap (pronounced “dole-sote bee-beem-bahp”). “Dolsot” translates into “rock pot” while “Bibimbap” translates into “mixed rice.” As you can guess, the rice, along with a mixture of fresh vegetables, meat, and a fried egg, are placed in a searing hot clay pot, which keeps the food at napalm-like temperatures until the very last bite (you have been warned). Mix in the spicy/sweet chili paste sauce (gochujang) and you have the most delicious blend of spicy, sweet, and savory flavors. While this entrée is known for the blend of amazing flavors, the real prize is the crunchy rice that is found at the bottom of the pot from being cooked as you devour this dish.

 

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Remember that scene in Ratatouille where Anton Ego takes a bite into the Ratatouille dish and it immediately takes him back to his childhood? I just happened to have the same flashback experience with this dish (more specifically, the one served at this restaurant): “Dukbokki.” This dish is the most common street food item in Korea, and also the most well known to foreigners, made from the soft and chewy rice cake, the tender fish cake, a sweet, soft crunch from the caramelized onions, and finished off with the aforementioned sweet/spicy chili sauce, gochujang. Out of all of the Dukbokki dishes that I have tried (you would not believe me if I told you how many I have tried), this one tastes identical to the one my momma used to make me when I was a just another kid who ate everything in sight. If you are feeling slightly adventurous and like spicy foods, this is a must!

 

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Lastly, what would a Korean meal be without the famous BBQ? Nothing, I tell ya! Korean short ribs (pictured), also known as “kalbi” are quite possibly the most recognized food amongst the entire cultural cuisine. They are marinated flawlessly to give it a sweet and juicy taste, while being perfectly cooked to pull right off of the bone with a slight char to give it some extra flavor. Whether you want to supplement your meal or if you just are not the adventurous type, this side dish is absolutely perfect for anyone, including kids.

In conclusion, if you want to have a dining experience close to that of a home-cooked meal or are feeling adventurous and want to try something new, Kaya Restaurant comes highly recommended. Plus, just like Mitch Hedberg once said, “Rice is great if you’re hungry and want to eat two thousand of something,” which is something you can brag about to your friends after you are done. Or you can even put that on your résumé.

The Montage: At Your Bacon Call

Before we get started, there are a few things you should know about me: I love breakfast, to the point where I think I may have a problem (do they have support groups?) and I like spending money that I do not have. (Un)fortunately for me, there are restaurants that welcome my kind with open arms. For my first stop, I introduce to you: The Loft Restaurant located on the fourth floor of the stunning Montage Resort in Laguna Beach.

 

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To start, the breakfast cutoff at this restaurant is at 11:00AM. If I know anything about business strategies and how to compete with the mass market, which I do not, I am pretty sure that this generous time period, especially for a 3-meal restaurant, is the sole reason why McDonald’s was forced to offer their own breakfast menu all day. Again, this is my own hypothesis but I am pretty sure I am right.

 

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Starter: Grapefruit. While I was expecting a grapefruit cut in half to be presented with a spoon that has serrated edges, I was pleasantly surprised to find that all of the work had already been done for me. Some mixed fruit was also served with the dish which was an added bonus as well. The grapefruit was perfectly ripe and sitting in so much juice that you could create your own Greyhound cocktail on the side, which is recommended.

 

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Main:Rotisserie Chicken Chilaquiles (tasting portion pictured). Outside of the classic breakfast options, there were a few standout dishes on the menu and this was my personal favorite. The tortilla chips were prepared to a beautiful soft crunch with a slight, flavorful spice from the Pasilla chile sauce, balanced by the combination of avocado crème, jack cheese, and queso fresco, and all topped with the warm, perfectly cooked over-medium egg. The finishing touches were added with pulled rotisserie chicken prepared in-house (pictured below), all washed down with a mimosa, and it was time to go right back to bed for the inevitable afternoon nap.

 

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All in all, if you want to treat yourself to a day of indulgence like you deserve, start the day off correctly with breakfast at The Loft. Not only will you get an incredible meal, but the entire hotel staff will also do a fantastic job of making you feel like royalty by being at your bacon call. Anyone? I’ll see myself out.