Category Archives: restaurant review

Restaurant Review: Wa Dining OKAN

It’s been a hot minute since I’ve done a restaurant review on this blog, as it’s actually a topic I don’t particularly care to write about. In this case, however, I’ll make an exception. After another wonderful meal at the still-under-the-radar homestyle Japanese restaurant, Wa Dining OKAN, I feel compelled to share it with you… even as I hope you never go and make it harder for me to get a reservation!

This place is a real jewel box– tucked away in a strip mall, like all places on Convoy Street, I guess–  OKAN seats a max of 25 people, most of whom are seated around a rectangular bar area where the day’s specials are presented in beautiful earthenware bowls and serving platters. For my birthday this past year, the mister and I were lucky enough to grab seats around the bar– it’s really the way to go to see all the fresh foods of the day, and ogle what the other patrons (mostly Japanese folks, not tourists or puti people) are ordering off the Japanese-language menu (which is way better and more extensive than the English menu, of course!). This time, with our party of four, we were seated at one of the three larger tables in the place, which was still lovely but definitely missing some of the ambience.

The decor inside is warm and inviting, almost like being in someone’s home. The hostesses last weekend, when I went, were in kimonos even– they don’t typically wear them, but it was the 3rd Anniversary celebration weekend for the restaurant, so the outfits were part of the festivities. Enough about the decor though– look at the food!

Wa Dining Okan specializes in small plates, but they offer much more than standard izakaya bar fare. They offer large rice pots, soups, and the like, but I enjoy ordering from the small plates and daily specials, which are always fresh and seasonal. They say they offer “homestyle Japanese cooking,” and I’ll believe them, even if I’ve never eaten in a Japanese person’s home before (anyone wanna invite me over for dinner?). Some of the highlights from this past weekend’s meal (though I’ve never had a dish I didn’t enjoy here) are pictured below.

scallops in sea urchin sauce

The scallop sashimi in sea urchin sauce was so delicate and boldly flavored at the same time– it was my first time eating scallops in the raw, and these had such a briney taste, as if they came directly from the sea to the plate. I didn’t try it, but our friend also raved about the leaf beneath the scallops– turned out it was shiso, which I’ve never had before. Good thing they sell it at the Nijiya market, next door to OKAN, in case I ever get the urge to try some at home.

A dish so good we ordered it twice– fried mochi in broth. I’ve never had mochi prepared this way, and it was wonderful. A great contrast in textures, and the broth was beautiful (as are all the broths made here). Pictured behind are skewers of fried beef tongue, which I’ve had before here and always really enjoy. It’s one of the menu items on the Japanese menu– I’m assuming the restaurant doesn’t think average Americans have the palate for it, and sadly they’re probably right.

A menu staple, and done right here– rice balls with salmon. Though seeing the special being brought to the next table– plain rice balls rolled in sea salt and served with broth– did give me some rice ball envy, that’s for sure.

Dinner at Wa Dining OKAN isn’t cheap, but neither is it outrageous, especially for the quality of food you get. For their third anniversary weekend, all small plates were 30% off, and Sapporo drafts were only $2. They seem to have special events quite often– following them on Facebook or Twitter will keep you abreast of what’s happening.

While I bitch about living in San Diego most days, I will say that there are a growing number of restaurants here that are really good– not just good for San Diego, but good for anywhere else. I’d add Wa Dining OKAN to that list, any time.

 

Wa Dining OKAN
3860 Convoy Street, Suite 110
San Diego, CA 92111
(858) 279-0941

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Sunrises, sunsets

Two weeks ago I went to Hawai’i. I celebrated a wedding, my birthday, but ended the week with a funeral. Let me rewind.

I went to Hawai’i for the first time ever as my friend D’s date to a family wedding. It was a rainy week in Honolulu, so we spent more time eating than sunbathing, but I did manage to get in a few scenic runs and enjoy the beach nonetheless. This being a food blog and all, I’ll show you a few highlights of the week’s eats:

Haupia (coconut cream) malasadas from...

We OD’ed on the malasadas from the famed Leonard’s Bakery. While the haupia was a bit too cream-filled for my liking, the plain sugared malasadas were pure dough-y heaven. D’s family loves these malasadas so much that we brought a  whole box to the wedding as an extra snack! I love a family that loves food as much as I do.

Of course we sampled classic Hawaiian fast food fare: moco loco and pork chops with gravy from Rainbow Drive-in, hot and spicy shrimp from Giovanni’s Shrimp Truck on the North Shore…

and lots of shave ice. While we made sure to make our pilgrimage to Matsumoto’s on the North Shore, I actually preferred the extra smooth and creamy shave ice with custard (aka leche flan!) at Waiola Shave Ice back in Honolulu. The folks at Waiola make their syrups in-house, and were sweet enough to serve me and D. even though we arrived a wee bit after closing time:

coconut and mango flavored shave ice

Two experiences stand out from my brief stint in Honolulu. Both very, very different from each other but amazing just the same.

While D. and I stuck to cheap eats most nights, we made an exception to visit Town, a buzzed-about  eatery that’s supposedly “bringing the locavore movement” single-handedly to Oahu. While I’m not sure I buy all that, and was initially skeptical about a place outside the mainland trying to do “American comfort food” with local ingredients, this meal was truly delicious. So good, in fact, that I’ll share with you photos of nearly the entire meal that D. and I shared.

Simple olives, bread, and a huge pat of butter in olive oil. If you can make this exciting, then I know I’m in for a good meal! We were then served an extremely fresh tuna tartare on tiny grit cakes, and a big bowl of mussels in what tasted like a pure butter sauce:

D. and I split our main course too, but the portion size of my half was plenty. This was the most interesting dish of the night- a beef shank in mole sauce, with hominy and greens. A little bit Southern, with a classic Mexican sauce done fancy, but amazingly it didn’t taste out of place in Hawaii.

We closed out with a yummy chocolate pie, featuring pretzels and sea salt as a contrasting twist! Like my favorite compost cookies from Momofuku, but with more chocolate-y goodness.

Can I just say that the lighting at Town is just made for food bloggers? The pinlights over each table highlighted the food perfectly without creating a glare off the white dishes in photos. Why can’t more restaurants design their lighting schemes with us in mind? 😉

After dinner at Town, I wasn’t sure my birthday dinner two nights later could top it. I wasn’t looking for anything fancy- just a good, solid Malaysian meal, something near impossible to find in the mainland US. A quick Yelp search on my phone pointed the way to the Green Door Cafe, and I knew as soon as I called for a reservation that we were in for something unique. The phone call went something like this (I’m speaking in italics):

Hello?
Is this Green Door Cafe?
Yes, hello.
What time are you open until tonight? We’d like to make a reservation for two if possible.
Um…What time did you want to come?
7:30-8?
Ok, I’ll stay open for you then. 7:30. See you! (Click).

I wasn’t sure what we’d walk into after that conversation, but it definitely piqued our interest. A little more internet sleuthing revealed Green Door Cafe to be a one-woman operation, with a tiny capacity of 8 patrons, but it didn’t fully prepare us for actually meeting Betty and dining here.

When we walked in, the place was totally empty, except for Betty who was sitting behind the counter, texting or otherwise playing with her phone. Behind the counter was a tiny space, a make-shift kitchen like I’d only seen in Hong Kong or Manila back alleys- with a fridge, a propane burner, and a huge rice maker making up the bulk of the space. Betty cooks everything to order, with a tiny menu written on a white board, kept small so she can focus on doing those few things well with local ingredients. At her recommendation, we ordered the Singaporean noodles and the day’s special- chicken with oyster mushrooms, since the mushrooms were fresh from the farmer’s market that day. What were you saying about introducing the locavore movement to Honolulu, propietors of Town?

I wish I had better photos of the food (served in plastic take-out containers with the lids ripped off), but it was just so dim in here. But, in this failed photo of me, you can actually get a good look at the kitchen set up at Green Door, which is the most interesting part:

Betty's kitchen

Totally unpretentious, excellent and fresh Nyonya Malaysian food, for a quarter of what we paid for the meal at Town. I couldn’t ask for anything more… only that I wish we had a place like this in SoCal, so I could get my fix without having to try (and fail!) at cooking it myself.

The day after my birthday, our last full day in Honolulu, D. and I went to tea at the Moana Surfrider, where we had stayed the night before in an unexpectedly-upgraded suite with crazy views of Waikiki and Diamond Head:

We got as far as sniffing and choosing our teas and taking gratuitous photos of ourselves when I got a call.

 

 

I picked it up, wondering why my cousin, whose call I had missed once already that morning, was trying me again. I mean, we’re close enough, but not that close, y’know? I picked up, and before she spoke I already knew something was really wrong. As she told me that my lolo had passed away just a few hours before, I remember thinking that I wish I hadn’t picked up the call and could just enjoy this tea. Shock set in, I actually sat through the tea service and ate the food, then immediately went to rearrange my flights to leave early from HI and to fly home to be with my family.

I definitely wasn’t expecting to spend the end of my birthday week at a funeral home, and I’m still grieving over my grandfather’s passing, so this post is a bit bittersweet. I’ll always remember this Hawai’i trip, for some wonderful times with friends, but also as the last time I spoke with my lolo on the phone (he called me on my birthday) and as just before the worst week of my life thus far.

2011 is certainly proving to be a mixed bag so far.

I heart LA

… Just kidding! I can’t really stand it, or rather, I can’t stand how frustrated I am every single time I drive into the city. The traffic, the smog, and the sprawl really kill me, and I hate how it’s impossible to get around on public transportation. Clearly I like my cities compact and accessible by subway (I miss you, New York), so LA isn’t really for me.

In mid-September, however, I sucked up my anti-LA bias and drove up with my buddy D. for a much-needed one-day food trip. The goal: to stuff as many yummy things in our mouths without breaking the bank, or our Weight Watchers point limit for the week (uh, yeah, more on that later!). I think we succeeded, but I’ll let the photos do most of the talking.

First stop, immediately after getting into the city around noon: Porto’s Bakery, Burbank location. My aunt, who’s lived in the area for 20+ years, turned me onto this place last year, when she presented me with an eye-popping assortment of Cuban pastries as if they were no thing. Clearly, she had no idea my incredible nostalgia for the guava-and-cream cheese pastries, mango cake, and tres leche of my childhood– the one upside of having a Cuban stepfather and living in Miami for a few years as a kid.

I’d never been into the storefront before, so was surprised at how huge and bustling the place was– D. summed it up best when she said that she “was expecting a tiny mom-and-pop shop, and then saw the assembly line.” So the ambiance is a little more commercial than we were hoping for, but no matter. The food was banging!

Porto's Cuban Sandwich
We each ordered a classic Cuban sandwich, but given how huge they are, we would’ve been better off splitting one. Good thing I brought a cooler for leftovers and take-aways (I come prepared!), so the hubs had a good dinner that night 😉

Tres leches, porto's
We ended the meal with a perfect, single serving of tres leches each. Just the right amount of sweetness, the cake held up under all that condensed milk, and the crema on top was the right whip, burnt just a touch like I grew up with. Wish I could’ve bought a whole loaf to bring home, but alas, the cooler wasn’t *that* big.

Porto's Guava pastries
With all of the pastries on offer, but a huge line packed full of people yelling out their order deli-style, I kept it simple and ordered half a dozen guava and cream cheese pastries to go. They were gifts, y’all! I only had 1!

After lunch at Porto’s, D. and I went to burn some calories and satisfy our cultural tourist (aka bougie) urges by visiting The Getty Center. They had a fascinating, small but well-curated documentary photography exhibit up, and the architectural porn alone was worth the visit.

getty stairs

Getty
(This view almost makes LA look pretty. Almost.)

vagina topiary
Something about the shape of this topiary made me feel… womanly.

After the Getty, it was snack time! I drove us over to try the Persian ice cream at Saffron & Rose by UCLA. Our server was super helpful and let us taste a ton of flavors. They have the traditional Persian flavors– rosewater, saffron and pistachio– along with fresh fruit flavors (mango, coconut, guava) and the usual ice cream choices.

saffron and rose

I decided to be frugal and do two 1/2 scoops of the guava and the rosewater, while D. got two entire scoops of the saffron/pistachio and rosewater. As we’re both lactose intolerant, I think my stomache was the happier for the smaller portion 😉

As we had a few hours to kill before dinner time, I drove D. to the Santa Monica Pier, since she’d never been before and hey, it’s free! As we were driving down Wilshire, however, the sky, which had been bright and gorgeous up to that point, suddenly darkened. Mist rolled in so quickly it felt like a bad horror movie . We spent our time at the pier shivering and walking quickly through to get back into the car… so much for that.

crazy mist
(me trying to smile despite freezing my butt off).

Finally, it was time for our last LA meal. We had debated beforehand about what would cap our night, and still hadn’t decided by the time dinnertime rolled around. What would it be? A stop at a trendy LA food truck? Salvadorian pupusa joint? Japanese izakaya? Since I had made the choices for the other two stops, D.’s pick won out: Chung Dam Garden BBQ in K-town.

In my past trips to LA, I’d hit up random places in Koreatown, always to be disappointed. My lack of local’s knowledge about the good spots resulted in bland kimchi, cold tea, and dirty tables. Thankfully, D. had done her research and we struck gold. On the second floor of a clean little Korean strip mall, Chung Dam was quiet, clean, and just the laid-back atmosphere we needed at the end of a long day of eating. The service was excellent- they knew it was our first time, and aimed to please.

The two of us ended up splitting a Kimchi Chigae (kimchi stew with pork and vegetables, cooked in a stone pot) and for the barbeque, the Chadolbagi (brisket). It was plenty for the two of us, especially with the the kimchi and other banchan being refilled on a constant basis. I had been worried about ruining my diet with this meal, but it actually turned out to be healthier than our first stop at Porto’s.

chang dam

 

 

ban chan
(Gorgeous right?)

By the time dinner ended around 8:30, D. and I were pretty wiped and ready to head back to San Diego, but it wasn’t the end of the night yet! My friend M., who’s originally from LA but is in school up in Seattle, was in town for the week; It had been a year since we last hung out (we spent all last summer together in Madison), so of course I had to spend some catching-up time with my girl! We ended up at some random bar in Los Feliz, had a beer, and chitted our chat. By 11:30, I was back on the road back to SD, and at 2:30am (crazy traffic on the 5! don’t even ask) I was back in my bed.

Was it worth it, driving for hours in LA traffic and smog, just for a few good eats? Hell yes! Will I be doing it again any time soon? Not planning on it! But we’ll see… those Cuban pastries may call me back yet.

Eating Well in Wisconsin

Hey y’all! Once again, I dropped off the face of the planet and still am behind on updates. But hey! I’m in a new state for the summer and will be sharing with you all my crazy adventures in food and drink in Madison, Wisconsin! Try not to get too excited 😉

Why Wisconsin, you must be asking. After all, yours truly is a bicoastal baby– I shuttle between the northeast and SoCal with reckless abandon– and have never been to the Midwest (not even Chicago!) before now. But I’ll be here, and for two whole months too, as I’m taking language classes at UW Madison this summer before jetting off to the Philippines with the hubs at the end of August. So until then, it’ll probably be Wisconsin all the time… and maybe with some Chicago thrown in too.

So, just to start: some greatest hits from this week’s noshing in downtown Madison:

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Sirwota with injera from the Buraka cart, located on State St right at the mouth of UW.
One of the cutest things I’ve ever seen in street food: every day, all day, several mobile carts decorated like little houses sit at the main entrance to the UW campus, serving up foods and drinks from around the world. There’s a Puerto Rican/ Caribbean cart, the Buraka (the local Eritrean/Ethiopian restaurant) cart, a smoothie and juice cart run by an adorable Hmong woman, and a Chinese cart, among others. $7 got me this portion of sirwota, a beef stewed in a spicy sauce with potatoes, over injera. I wasn’t expecting greatness but I gotta say, it was pretty damn tasty. Good job, cart!

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Brats with mashed potatoes, sauerkraut, and applesauce at the Great Dane.

The Great Dane is something of a local institution here in Madison. It’s a sprawling brewery pub, complete with a sweet game room with gorgeous wood pool tables and a damn classy shuffleboard deck (is it called a deck? A table? Whatever.) Given the omnipresence of brats in Madison, I figured I might as well order some here. They didn’t disappoint. Very clean and smooth filling, clean casing, and all around solid. The sauerkraut and mash were perfect, too. I wasn’t in love with the applesauce, because I just realized that I like the cheap Motts variety better than the real deal. So sue me. Some things you just get used to even if they are mass-produced and shelved!

I also had a very nice “Scotch-style ale” brewed by Great Dane in-house. Loved this. Nice and dark without feeling too heavy. It had a clean finish, with a hit of nut flavor without tasting like a nut brown ale or like a porter. I’ll definitely be ordering this if it’s on tap again the next time.

While I enjoyed my dinner, I noticed the food and beer selection at the Great Dane is a bit hit-or-miss. Some friends made the mistake of ordering their “Chai spice lager” which tasted nothing like Chai nor lager and totally like a jalapeno-flavored batch of pisswater. I’ve honestly never tasted a beer quite this intentionally terrible. The only thing I could say is: this is definitely a case of a brewmaster gone a little too far. Maybe he was stoned when he thought this up? In any case, stay far far away from any “spiced” beer here and stick to their regular line-up!

I also had two meals at Dotty Dumpling’s Dowry this week– the other, more oddly named, institution here in Madison. They’re known for their burgers, and they didn’t disappoint. A little on the greasy side, with regular old white buns, these little burgers do the job. They’re made of high quality meat, no muss no fuss, with a lot of different cheeses and toppings as options. The fried cheese curds– my first experience with cheese curds ever– were disappointing, but only because I expected them to “squeak.” Otherwise, they were also a yummy batch of friend deliciousness. To complete the trifecta of fried-ness, you must try the fried mac and cheese wedges. Seriously- these were YUM. Sadly, I have no photos of my meals here (two already, I need to slow down!) but they are forthcoming once some people decide to email me their copies. Ahem.

Something tells me that I’m going to have to try really, really hard this summer to be a healthy eater. There are definitely lots of fresh options available (and I’ll be posting about that next!), but the preponderance of cheesy and fried foods here is staggering, not to mention the wealth of local brews on tap. Good thing I’ll be walking everywhere (car-free summer!), but I think it’s time to invest in a good pair of running shoes, too…


Great Dane Pub

downtown Madison location:
123 East Doty Street
Madison, WI 53703
608.284.0000

Most Improved: The Linkery

Hello, lovelies. Hope you’re all enjoying the holiday… I wish I could say I was, but alas, am down to the wire on a major project so have been working through the weekend. That being said, I did make time for a date night with the Mister on Friday, and decided to pop on over to the Linkery in North Park.

Linkery just celebrated their one-year anniversary at their 30th street location this weekend, but they’ve been around a bit longer than that. Since they opened in the old space, the Mister and I have been popping by every six months or so, to see what they’ve been up to. After our last visit in the fall, the Mister and I came to a sad consensus: that, despite its aspirations, the Linkery was just failing to excite us any more.

Lo and behold, they must’ve read our minds, because after this last trip, we’re more thrilled with the Linkery than we’ve ever been before. A big part of this is their expanded menu– where it was fresh sausage all the time before, they’ve now thankfully diversified, and with great success.

Win No. 1: Seafood!

Linkery oysters

Where the Linkery once had a huge black hole, they’ve now filled with some beautiful seafood. These Baja oysters were incredibly sweet and very clean- no briny flavor, no sediment. It was served with lime and three minuets- green garlic, and two others I’m forgetting just now. The ‘pink one’ was very nice– fruit based, I think. Six for $13

Score No. 2: More weird cuts o’ meat!

pickled pigs ear

Pickled Pigs Ear. Yep, you heard me right. Hey, it was $2 and who doesn’t like an adventure? It was served with just a touch of hot sauce, a nice complement to offset the acidity of the pickling juice. I enjoyed these, but the Mister wasn’t a fan. I guess you have to be used to the texture of soft cartilage– a bit like tripe, actually.

The excellent Linkery blog had alerted me beforehand to the restaurant’s featuring of stone fruit throughout the weekend, so of course I knew we had to order this:

lonzino and peaches

Hampshire pork lonzino, wrapped around raw Snow Queen peaches, with a bit of Brooks cherries on the side and a very light splash of olive oil. $7 for three pieces (the Mister ate one before I could snap the picture) and worth it– the pork was fantastic. I actually liked the pork better without the peaches, but eaten with the cherries. That stone fruit *was* beautiful, guys. Great find.

Finally, it was time for the mains. And this is where the Linkery has really improved the most. See, in past incarnations (or at least the previous times we’ve been there), the menu has primarily revolved around whatever three or four fresh links they had for the day– you’d choose your link(s), and a preparation- in a ‘picnic plate,’ as part of a choucroute, etc. There was a smattering of other options- I think a burger or two, maybe a few interesting sides– but that really felt like it. I could be wrong, but if there were other main dish options, they certainly weren’t interesting enough for us to remember.

But now it feels like a whole new game. Several vegetarian options, an entire section for burgers and sandwiches, five or six different main entree options (and not all featuring sausage!), a section for flatbreads… I could go on. Very exciting growth, and I was so excited to keep it light on the sausage for a change. I know, it’s probably sacrilege, but since the Mister’s been making his own sausage at home, I think I’ve been getting spoiled.

Oh, right. So back to our dinner. The Mister, consummate New Englander he is, couldn’t resist the boiled seafood:

lowcountry boil

This “lowcountry boil” was the priciest item on the menu, topping out at $29, but it was a whole lotta plate for that price. Lots of fresh manila clams and slamming shrimp, along with corn, two kinds of potatoes, and a heaping helping of corn bread. They did us right and served it on a large flat tin plate, with wax paper.

As good as that was, I think my entree was the stand out of the night:

grass fed Talure beef

Tulare cherry-braised grass fed beef ($20).

Forgive the graininess of the photo (it was dark in there!) and just try to imagine succulent cuts of organic beef, with a bit of a crust but falling -apart soft, in a sauce so delicate it could be an aus jus if not for the extra bit of sweetness from the Tulare cherries. The fresh baby carrots and red potatoes were roasted to perfection as well, and just…. damn. So friggin’ good.

I made it through about half of my dish before giving up, and would’ve left it at that except for the dessert menu. I just had to try the LICS:

LICS

And that would be a Lardo Ice Cream Sandwich. With a slice of carmelized bacon on top. Um. Seriously. I think that alone was a week’s worth of cholesterol and fat intake. It tasted a bit like olive oil gelato only, you know, made with animal fat instead. So much for healthy eating! But oh, so so worth it… or at least half of it.

The Linkery’s also built up their wine and beer list quite a bit since our last visit. They have a large selection of local brews and wine– very nice selection, and I enjoyed my Cucapá Obscura beer (from Mexicali) a lot. Nice brown ale in the German style, like Bohemia and other good Mexican browns.

At the end of the night, our grand total came out to about $130- not cheap, but not bad for the quality of food we had eaten. At the Linkery, all tables pay an upfront 18% charge, so they don’t accept extra tips. If tips are left, they donate it to a local charity. Sweet deal, I think.

I’ve always really appreciated what the Linkery’s been doing for the San Diego food and bar scene. They’ve always put local meats and produce first, and cook seasonally based on what’s available at market. Now that they’ve diversified the menu, we’ll definitely be back more often. And hey, you gotta love a restaurant that’s as keen on blogging as we fatties foodies are! Pay them a visit and let me know what’s on your menu!

The Linkery
3794 30th St
San Diego, CA
619. 255. 8778

Things to Say Goodbye to, pt. 1: Sweet Balls of Dough

I’ve vowed that this summer will be the summer of good eating. I’ve made a commitment not just to putting as much fresh, non-processed foods into my body, but to also be cutting down on red meats, fats, and all those yummy things that are no good for my waistline. It’s going to be a challenge, since this summer I’ll be living someplace well known for particular indulgences (more on that later!), but one that is long overdue! (I’ve been cooking tofu more and more often, people. This is huge.)

So, a fond farewell to you, yummy donuts at Donut Haven, that faded-pink Vietnamese-owned donut shop in the strip mall in Hillcrest. You were a lovely treat on occasional Sunday mornings, but you will have to go.

No more peeking into the glass counters, seeing what was new and fresh for the day…

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Goodbye to walking in with the Mister, ordering two pieces each of the doughy deliciousness, and while carrying the red tray with sweets over to the table, being told by a very drunk and disheveled old white man that “of course you could eat all of that, since all women are greedy whores.” Ah, the memories, so sweet…

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I will always remember trying to eat more than one donut or eclair or other treat at a time, and miserably failing… unless the donuts were plain glazed, in which case, I would emerge the champion. A battle for the ages, no longer.

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Oh, Donut Haven. How much will I miss thee. Your donuts were so good that I would brave your perpetually burned, scalding-hot coffee served in tiny cups with no insulation, and the barrage of drunk bums that like to frequent you as well, any hour of the day and night. Goodbye, goodbye. I do hope that you’ll find new friends to replace me soon. Something tells me you already have…

Donut Haven
420 Robinson Avenue, Suite F
San Diego, CA 92103

Seafood in the Desert

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There are just some things you’re not supposed to do. For me, the thought of eating seafood when located more than 2 hours away from the nearest body of water is a no-no. My people are from islands, what can I say?

But the Mister and I made an exception last month, when we were in Palm Springs the night before going to Coachella. Did you think I’d go camping? Ha! We enjoyed ourselves the night before our all-day scorch fest, er, music festival experience with some cold beers, good food, and sleep in a comfortable air-conditioned hotel room.

After a disappointing first foray into the Palm Springs food scene last December (nothing good came out of that trip, at least not for my taste buds), I was praying we’d find a winner in Shanghai Red’s Oyster Bar, the back bar to the popular Fisherman’s Market and Grill complex in downtown Palm Springs. And complex it is– you have to wind your way past the hostess stand, through the courtyards of the two main restaurants, to a back entrance, where you’ll find the narrow bar of Shanghai Red’s. It’s a bit of a hustle, but if you’re lucky (like we were), you’ll get a hi-boy table for two and proceed to get your grub on.

Don’t get it twisted– this is an oyster bar, straight up. No fancy table cloths (hardly any tables), cheap beers ($2 Singhas!), late-night appetizer specials, and fast service. The Mister and I kept it simple: a shared order of the sampler platter (pictured above) with raw oysters, crab legs, mussels, shrimp, and clams; two bowls of clam chowder; and multiple orders of shrimp and grilled fish tacos.

The clam chowder was solid, and was thoroughly enjoyed, along with the raw platter:

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But I wish we hadn’t ordered it, because I was nearly stuffed by the time the fish tacos arrived. I’d heard about Shanghai Red’s fish tacos before, and all the hype is true. Definitely in the top 3 for fish tacos I’ve had in my life. So lightly battered, very fresh white fish– the consistency and thickness was actually close to a very well done order of fish-n-chips. It was a damn shame we had to leave some tacos behind. Damn shame.

This place is pretty no-nonsense, and I like it that way. A far improvement over the overwrought establishments littering downtown Palm Springs, and you can definitely make a night of it here– on weekends, a band plays in the courtyard and the place gets packed. Good times.

Oh, and here’s a gratuitous Coachella picture, just to prove that we were there:

the Yeah Yeah Yeahs

the Yeah Yeah Yeahs

Shanghai Red’s Oyster Bar
235 S. Indian Canyon Drive
Palm Springs, CA 92262
760.322.9293

A Good Irish Breakfast is Hard to Find

Way back on May 2nd, the Mister and I were in Philly for a brief 24 hours, celebrating the wedding our some buddies of ours. Fresh off the red-eye and starving, we cried at the thought of wasting our only real meal in Philly on hotel breakfast; so with the company of our buddy G, we ventured out into the Old City neighborhood of Philadelphia, just a few blocks from our hotel in Society Hill.

We passed by a Filipino restaurant, that looked super bougie… or at least, was once super bougie. Of course it was closed due to fire code violations. Dang! There were a couple of other places advertising brunch, but nothing that looked remotely interesting or any better than our free hotel breakfast, until we landed in front of the Plough & The Stars.

Things going for it:
1. Irish pub with a name referencing the IRA (the Mister is a bit of a history buff on the Troubles)
2. Good pricing for the food
3. Alcohol, lots of it.

I’ll have to say we weren’t disappointed. Really, it wasn’t the most amazing Irish breakfast I’ve ever had, but it was pretty damn solid. A few pictures to whet your appetite:

basket o' breads

basket o' breads

non-Irish but delicious tapas plate ($8, maybe)

non-Irish but delicious tapas plate ($8, maybe)

shepard's pie ($10)

shepherd's pie ($10)

Irish breakfast ($12)

Irish breakfast ($12)

Add to that a few (excellent) Irish coffees for the boys, a “Bayou Bloody Mary” for me (one of several Blood Mary options on their extensive cocktail and whisky lists), and we were set. I will say that the Mister was disappointed in the portion size of his Irish breakfast, especially of the puddings, and I have to agree. For two bucks less, I felt like I got a lot more from my shepherd’s pie– it was far too large for me to finish, and I have a bigger appetite (and waistline, sigh) than the Mister. That shepherd’s pie was good, I tell you. That whipped potato on top was pure carbo-liciousness.

I hear the Plough gets really crowded at night when it becomes a full-fledged bar; I believe it, just based on the slightly dank smell that all bars have in the AM. The interior of the Plough is pretty damn cool as well– it’s in an old theater space, with an upstairs alcove looking over the rest of the main bar area. This isn’t the best picture, but here’s the view from our table on the bottom floor:

P1030218

Overall, I was pretty pleased with our brunch here– it certainly did the trick of tiding us over until the wedding reception that night!

Plough & the Stars
123 Chestnut St
Philadelphia, PA 19106
215.733.0300

Momofuku Ssam Bar = best. lunch. ever.

I’m a terrible food blogger. You should all know this up front. I haven’t even finished blogging my first NY food binge from March, and here I am again in the city eating MORE. Not to mention all the other things I’ve tried in the meantime. Crap.

To make it up to you, I’m going to tell you a little story. One about the best lunch ever, the one I had today with the Mister at Momofuku Ssam Bar. But (here I am again, being all terrible), I don’t have any pictures for you. I know. Seriously.

Why no food porn? Considering that I take pictures of the most mundane meals, and here I am at one of the most hyped restaurants in the city with nothing? It might be that I saw a clip of Bourdain and David Chang of Momofuku that totally ripped food bloggers a new one. It might be that Robyn, the Girl Who Ate Everything, has enough gorgeous images of everything we ate, plus better stories of the Momofuku than I do. Or it might be that me and the Mister were so busy orgasmically savoring the food that taking time to snap photos seemed too big a sacrilege. In any case, I have no photos of our amaaaazing lunch, so you will just have to use your imagination for now.

I know the economy is shit-tastic, but here’s where Momofuku is your friend. The $25 prix fixe is a ridiculously low price for the sheer amount of food we had, and you *will* have leftovers, even if sharing between two, like we did. Lunch = less crowded, less expensive, more awesome. Get it?

I ordered: pork buns + spicy chinese sausage and rice cakes + thai ice tea parfait

The mister had: kimchi apple salad + braised beef brisket + blondie pie

I’d been hearing about the pork buns from everyone for months, and they did not disappoint. The pork belly was cooked perfectly and everything just melts in your mouth. I took a chance with the sausage and rice cakes, and was rewarded. It looked like a hash and was sheer fatty delight. The rice cakes were just the right density, with a little bit of crunch on the outside and the sausage was out of its casings and just mixed together with the shallots, garlic, hot peppers, and whatever other magical seasonings they put in it for pure taste sensation. The portion of the main (rice cake) dish was HUGE, so I can’t wait to heat some up for dinner tonight, too. Mmm.

Meanwhile, the mister’s orders were just as fantastic. I’d actually asked him to order the kimchi apple salad, even though he’s a little allergic to raw apples, because we were sharing everything family-style. I didn’t know what to expect with this one– raw apples marinated/coated in kimchi seasoning and onions, topped with slabs of crispy fried bacon, basil, and a dressing (ranch-esque) on the side. It looked crazy, and was a bitch to eat with chopsticks, but WOW. The play of the fresh apples and spicy kimchi flavors with the richness of the bacon and dressing was such a treat. I might have to try and copy this at home. Nom nom nom.

The beef brisket main the mister ordered was actually like a pho– brisket with rice noodles in broth with scallions and other green things. It could have been totally average if not for the just-right brisket (nice crust, good texture against the smoothness of the rest of the soup) and full beef flavor of the broth. Another win there.

By the time dessert came, we were totally defeated. Still, for the sake of this blog (ha), we soldiered on. The blondie pie with cashew topping was good, if a little too dense for my taste. The thai ice tea parfait was BANGING, however. It was very similar to the root beer parfait we had at Cochon, actually, only presented much differently. I still don’t know how these chefs turn liquids into gels (i’m sure it’s some kind of molecular gastronomy thing I don’t have the will to learn about), but the results are always heavenly. The parfait is a signature dish at Momofuku, and for good reason. Don’t miss out on that one.

Other components of our meal: We started out with some incredible tender, impossibly fresh hamachi with a wasabi spread for $16, a bottle of South Korean OB Beer (basic lager, $5) for me, and a $7 Saison-style ale by these Chicago brewers (the mister wrote down the name of the brewery, I’ll update it later when I find out!). And while the hamachi is totally worth it, I probably wouldn’t have felt so gut-bustingly full at the end of the meal if we had skipped it.

I was worried we wouldn’t get seats, but going to Ssam bar on a rainy Monday during lunch time was perfect. Just a few solo diners and two couples were there when we arrived around noon; by the time we left at 1:30, the two larger tables were filled, but there was no wait for a table and the service remained impeccable. Add to that an ‘eclectic’ soundtrack wafting through the restaurant (it literally sounds like the Mister’s iPod on shuffle, which could be a good or terrible thing, depending on your taste), and our lunch here was just about… perfect. (I know, I can’t help it with the repetition. It was really that good.)

So yes. That’s all I have to say about our long-awaited meal at Momofuku Ssam Bar. I know it’s not the same without the attending photos, but uh… click on Robyn’s posts to see the pictures of what I’m talking about! I’m telling you, this place is worth it. Union Square and east village denizens, you are some lucky bastards for having this place in the ‘hood.

Momofuku Ssam Bar
207 2nd Avenue
New York, NY 10003

Easter Brunch @ Alchemy

I just love food-related holidays. Yes, I know it’s an oxymoron of sorts– don’t all holidays involve food of some kind?– but you know that some are better for fatties foodies than others. Thanksgiving, obviously. Christmas dinner, for those of you of the Jesus persuasion.

For my family, Easter brunch was the motherlode. First, it was the only holiday during which it was perfectly acceptable, or even preferred, to not have to cook the food ourselves. This gave us free license to hit up the biggest Easter buffet possible, and load up without having to prep, cook, or (most importantly, from a child’s perspective) clean at the end of it all. I’m sure this may be different in the motherland (aka the Philippines) but for my Americanized family in Florida, hitting up the buffet at the Hilton was where it was at.

No surprise that out of all the weekend brunches in the year, Easter brunch is my favorite.

Unfortunately, it’s also notoriously overpriced, and even the most humble of local establishments is packed to the gills with other holiday eaters looking for some brunch, too. The Mister was tasked with finding a suitable brunch location this year, and when he told me he’d booked reservations at a new place he found on Google, I have to admit I was a little skeptical.

Alchemy is the newest resto in South Park, the gentrifying neighborhood that everyone’s been saying is going to “blow up any minute now” (in the positive sense, not the combustive), for the past several years. Especially in this economy, though, any new place in the neighborhood is going to have to work very hard to keep people coming, and it looks like the Alchemy folks are pulling out the big guns to make this place happen. (Forgive me for all the violent metaphors, I’ve been reading about war all morning for the class I’m teaching on Monday).

The space itself is beautifully designed– it’s a very open yet still intimate space, and with a lot of custom features from the undulating mahogany bar to the giant silver sculpture in the middle of the room. [I particularly liked the bathroom sinks, myself]. We were seated in a back corner table, and though the restaurant was nearly full, I wasn’t distracted by other guests’ conversations at all (a pet peeve of mine and the Mister’s like no other).

For Easter, they put together a very generous 3-course prix fixe menu: $25 for three tapas/appetizers (you get all three), a choice of entree, and dessert. For an additional $10, they were offering a beverage pairing (with generous pourings, too).

Here were the three mini-appetizers (I hate saying tapas, if it’s not the real deal). For this course, I had a passion fruit bellini, and could actually taste the champagne– yay!

Alchemy granola

The deconstructed granola was delicious, but very difficult to eat. I felt like this was a Top Chef challenge, and could imagine Colicchio berating them for unnecessary pretension. I also would have preferred a plain yogurt, as the strawberry flavored variety actually masked the flavor of the real strawberries and fruits on the plate.

Alchemy omelette

A Spanish omelet, prepared in a traditional manner. I don’t know if this was intentional or just a matter of poor execution, but the omelet itself was nearly flavorless unless eaten with a good handful of greens, which were drizzed in a nice olive oil and vinegar with seasonings. If nothing else, it made sure that the Mister ate all his veggies, which is a near-impossible feat.

Alchemy asparagus espresso

A white asparagus ‘espresso,’ with bacon cracklings on top. I just had to laugh during the presentation of this– our poor waitress kept trying to convince us to eat it “despite its unique presentation,” as if soup served in small drink containers had never been tried before! A reminder just how behind San Diego is in terms of food trends– I actually find this trend to be both passe and, again, totally pretentious. The soup was delicious, however– perfectly seasoned, just the right temperature for sipping, with the bacon adding just the right among of texture and saltiness. By far the best starter of the meal.

Then it was time for the mains. There were about five different options, if I remember correctly, ranging from more breakfast-y choices to the more savory. As our reservation was on the later side (1pm), we went for the heavy stuff. The Mister’s choice:

Alchemy shrimp and grits

Shrimp and grits. Very large, grilled shrimp over a bed of very smoothly pureed grits. Shrimp were very fresh and flavorful, and the grits well seasoned though a bit too smooth for my taste. Alas, nothing will ever compare to the texture of the grits at Cochon— how I still dream of them!

And my choice, paired with a standard Rioja (nothing special, but solid):

Alchemy lamb

A leg of lamb, with mint-infused couscous as the side. This dish was… how do I put it? Oh, yes. Amazing. Falling off the bone, with a beautiful glaze. I’m not quite sure, but it tasted very much like it was cooked Moroccan-style in a tagine, especially with the way it was presented with the couscous. The couscous was a bit too minty for my taste, though it too had great texture. I really liked this twist on the American classic ‘lamb with mint’ which I’ve never found particularly interesting.

After I finished demolishing my lamb, it was time for dessert. The Mister went with classic beignets, served with powdered sugar and a dash of chocolate. A bit on the small side, but maybe we are just too used to Cafe du Monde’s!

Alchemy beignets

I decided on a cheese plate, despite my love of sweets, mainly because I wanted the Madeira that would be paired with it. Imagine my disappointment to receive this plate:

Alchemy cheese plate

Totally monochromatic, with no bread, olives, oil, or anything resembling a pairing. Really? Honestly, even saltine crackers would be better than nothing. Remedial cheese plate rules were broken in so many ways here. There was one soft and three hard cheese with very similar taste profiles, and while the cheese itself was fresh, I was bored by the second bite and had it boxed to go. I would rather eat these at home with my accouterments than have the empty calories and no satisfaction at the restaurant. I truly hope this was a fluke and they had an off day with the cheese– otherwise, they need a lesson from a cheesemonger, stat!

Tragic cheese plate aside, I was very pleased with our brunch at Alchemy, not the least because of the price. We’re planning on returning soon for dinner, especially to try more of the beer and spirits from their impressive bar. Another selling point: their kitchen is open late, until 11pm most nights, and serving until midnight on Fridays and Saturdays! How I miss late night dinners out, another thing San Diego is still behind on doing.

Alchemy’s a new restaurant, and I’d love to see them thrive. You can tell from the care put into the space alone just how much of a labor of love this restaurant is.

Have any of you been to Alchemy? Share your comments here!

Alchemy
1503 30th Street
San Diego, CA 92102
619.255.0616

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