Thursday, February 4, 2016

Raising Cane's Has Everyone Talking


Raising Cane's 
26801 Aliso Creek Road
Aliso Viejo, CA 92656

There's a new chicken restaurant invading Southern California. This one has a lot of people excited, especially people from the southern part of the US. I have to admit that I hadn't heard of them before they opened up their first OC location in Costa Mesa late last year. I went to their soft opening, and liked it, but wondered if a chicken finger restaurant would make it here in OC. I've been to their newer location in Aliso Viejo a couple of times now, and judging by the crowds, it appears that Southern California has embraced Raising Cane's.

The story of how Raising Cane's has come to be is a good one. Started by CEO Todd Graves, he started this restaurant by writing up his business plan in college. His professor was less than impressed with it, gave him a bad grade on it, and told him a chicken finger restaurant would never work. Undeterred, he raised the money to open his first restaurant by working in a Southern California refinery, and then working long hours up in Alaska on the salmon boats. He came back to his beloved Louisiana with just enough money to open up his first restaurant, and people loved it. They were open almost around the clock, and people still could not get enough of their chicken fingers.

Back in October, when they opened their first California restaurant in Costa Mesa, they had similar lines. People were clogging up Harbor Boulevard while getting into the lot, the drive-thru line was long, and the inside of the restaurant was bustling as well. When Aliso Viejo opened it was a little more controlled chaos, with the drive-thru line being staged in another part of this large shopping center, and the big dining space of this former Burger King spot, which was torn down and rebuilt, was busy, but there was plenty of seating.

One thing I've noticed about where they have placed their restaurants is that they appear to be coming after Chick-fil-A. Just like the Costa Mesa spot where Chick-fil-A is right across the street, at the Cane's in Aliso, there's a Chick-fil-A right in this same shopping center. Even their new Cane's location, which is yet to open in Orange, is only a block away from their chicken competitor. A very aggressive business strategy in a competitive marketplace. Of course they'll clean up on Sunday's when Chick-fil-A is closed, and people want some poultry. Let's see what's got a lot of people all excited, the chicken at Raising Cane's.


The menu at Raising Cane's is not going to amaze you with its diversity. They do one thing here, and it's chicken fingers. Just like In-N-Out Burger, the folks at Cane's are reluctant to change their menu. In fact, their menu has not changed since they opened over twenty years ago. They have four items available on their menu, a 3, 4, or 6 chicken finger meal, and a chicken sandwich made up of, you guessed it, three chicken fingers. There's also their sides, which include; crinkle cut fries, coleslaw, and Texas toast. Let's take a look at what made up my Box Combo ($7.29) at Raising Cane's.




Of course we have to start things off with what they are most famous for, their Chicken Fingers. On their own, these chicken fingers are a little on the bland side, like a lot of chicken tends to be. Yes, they are freshly made, and tender, but without the Cane's Sauce, they would be kind of boring. The sauce is kind of a peppery version of thousand island dressing, without the pickles. It's made even better with the addition of a packet of hot sauce, that you have to ask from the workers behind the counter. Mixing this in the Cane's Sauce gives it an extra kick, which turns the sauce up a notch. Some might lament the absence of ranch dressing at Cane's, but this sauce goes well with the chicken here, and I haven't even missed my favorite condiment. They do offer honey mustard or ketchup for those of you that are not a fan of the Cane's sauce, but those are your only other options for dipping here at Raising Cane's.



Now on to the sides that are included in the Box Combo, like this Coleslaw. I wasn't really a big fan of this slaw. It's got a kind of soupy texture to it, which is fine with me, but other than that, it's kind of bland. Maybe if they would have made it with their Cane's Sauce it would be better. You should know that if you are not a fan of one of the sides here, you can swap it out for one that you do like. Not a fan of the coleslaw, have extra fries or an extra slice of Texas toast. I'd probably swap out this coleslaw on my next trip to Raising Cane's.


The Fries here are pretty average. I liked the crinkle cut they featured, but they are under seasoned and kind of boring. Only made better when dipped into the Cane's sauce, or maybe if you ask for them well done. I'm also not really a fan of the Texas Toast, but I might be in the minority when it comes to this opinion. My friend Richard, who has accompanied me on most of my trips to Raising Cane's, is in love with this toast. He always skips the coleslaw and gets an extra piece of toast, and I always end up giving him mine as well.

These reviews go pretty quick when the menu is this limited. If you are not a chicken finger person, not in the mood for chicken fingers, or are dining with people that don't like such a restricted menu, you might want to skip Raising Cane's. Even though I said that the chicken is boring on its own, the sauce here makes it worth while to try Cane's. I'm not really a big fan of chicken, but I have found myself craving a trip to Raising Cane's for their chicken fingers, and I never thought that was going to happen. It's something about the freshness of the chicken, the light batter, and most importantly, the sauce. I have a theory about why people from the south are so crazy about this place. It's a little piece of home, here in Southern California. It'd be like In-N-Out putting a restaurant in Boston or Miami, (not that I'm a big fan of In-N-Out, but that's a story for another day). Service has been really good on all of our visits to Raising Cane's. Employees here really seem to care about their customers, and make routine sweeps through the dining area frequently. I'm also a fan that they do a lot of work with local charities, and tailor their restaurants decor to correspond with each city they are  located in. A nice touch, and it helps me understand why people are so crazy over this restaurant, even if I'm just moderately excited by it.

Out of five red sticks, (because this restaurant was founded in the capital of Louisiana, Baton Rouge, which translates to red stick in French), five being best to zero being worst, Raising Cane's gets 2.5 red sticks.

For more information about Raising Cane's, go to their website here: http://raisingcanes.com/


Sunday, January 31, 2016

A Lively Evening at Brio Tuscan Grille


Brio Tuscan Grille
774 Irvine Center Drive
Irvine, CA 92618

I feel kind of bad that I've neglected Brio Tuscan Grille this long. I mean they are right next door to a restaurant that we've written about twice, Del Frisco's Grille. We make at least ten trips a year to the Spectrum, where Brio is located, and have yet to dine here. It always looks so busy and inviting, but we have yet to go inside this restaurant, which has been around for a year and a half now. That was until we got a little nudge.

That nudge was in the form of an invite by the great folks at Brio, to come in and try their latest promotional items, The Tale of Two Risottos. For a limited time Brio is offering two seafood inspired versions of this classic Italian comfort food dish. We could not say no to this great opportunity, and quickly reached out to Brio to say that we could not wait to come in and try them out.

Before we left, I checked out the Brio website, and was surprised to learn that they have so many locations throughout the United States. They operate over 100 restaurants in 22 states, with two of those being in California. This Irvine location is joined by another at Victoria Gardens in Rancho Cucamonga. The focus food wise here is on Northern Italian cuisine, which they prepare with what they hope to be the freshest ingredients, in a lively Italian eatery. I was excited to see what they had in store for us this evening.

We arrived at just before 7pm, and were seated promptly in a comfortable side room, near the bustling kitchen. They nailed the lively atmosphere here. The space has a welcoming quality to it, an upscale vibe, but not in a stuffy way. I was struck by the wide array of people dining here. There were tables of businessmen talking shop, a gaggle of woman enjoying a ladies night out, friends celebrating someones birthday, and me and Katie enjoying a quiet date night, going over each others hectic days at work, which slowly melted away as the night went on at Brio.

The menu is pretty impressive here. What I noticed first and foremost were the prices. They were not as outrageous as I was expecting. No menu item is over the $30 mark, and most entrees are going to set you back less than $20. I made many mental notes of what I would be having here on my next visit to Brio. This trip was all about the risottos though, so let's see how that worked out for us on this evening.


When we were sat, they almost instantaneously sat out this bread basket filled with some crisp pieces of bread and a half a loaf of sourdough. I much preferred the sourdough. It was served warm, and had a great pliable texture. A very nice bread, which came with plenty of butter. The crisp bread was seasoned well, but I could not stop eating the sourdough.






As first timers to Brio, we were advised that trying the Bruschetta Quattro ($15.95) would be a wise move for us, and that advice proved to be correct. This is a sampling of their four most popular bruschettas, and it's easy to see why they are so well liked. Both Katie and my favorite was the sliced steak version, which also included Gorgonzola, arugula, charred tomato, and Parmesan. The steak was tender, and the big flavors played together nicely on the well toasted bread base. I also really enjoyed the version with the applewood bacon, tomato jam, ricotta cheese, Parmesan, and basil to to round it out. Not sure where it came from, but this had a good spice to it, which lingered awhile after consuming this. Other bruschetta versions included a roasted red pepper version and the chef's seasonal bruschetta, which featured shrimp and a delectable sauce. A very good start to our time at Brio.



I kind of cringed when Katie ordered this Kale Caesar Salad ($7.25). Kale and I have a very stormy relationship. To be honest, I'm really not much of a fan, and was afraid that the kale would ruin one of my favorite salads. I'm pleased to announce, that I was wrong about this. This was one kale dish I could get down with no trouble. The marinated kale was joined with a whole cavalcade of items; pancetta, chopped egg, tomatoes, tricolore lettuce, Parmesan, and drizzled with a very good Caesar dressing. First and foremost, this was a good sized salad, the produce was fresh, and the kale was not as bitter as others we have had. A good take on a Caesar salad. I'm still estranged from kale, but this dish has at least opened up a dialogue between us two.



Lobster Bisque ($6.95) is always a good option, and that was the case here at Brio as well. This velvety soup came with a sauteed shrimp garnish in the middle of the bowl. This soup was predictably rich and flavorful, and I almost found myself licking the bowl after I was done with it. I had to control myself, since we had our entrees coming up next.



Our first of the two entrees was this Sea Scallops and Ratatouille Risotto ($19.95). The ratatouille is made up of some roasted eggplant, tomatoes, red peppers, zucchini, basil, and Reggieano cheese. The risotto really picked up each of these flavors, and was topped with five good sized scallops. The scallops were fork tender, and cooked well. The risotto shines here, and is not just a vessel for the scallops and other items. Katie loved the heartiness of this meal, which was just what the doctor ordered on this chilly evening.




When this Cold Water Lobster Tail with Shrimp Risotto ($19.95) hit the table, I let out an audible gasp. I could hardly wait to dig in to the lobster, but the shrimp risotto was also worth some admiration. Along with the shrimp, this risotto contained mushrooms, asparagus, roasted red peppers, basil, and Parmesan. Big time favor explosion here, and then you add the sweet and tender lobster, and it makes this dish a winner. Who could ever imagine lobster being this affordable? I ended up only finishing half of this, as I really wanted to savor this as I ate it. It was just as good the next day for lunch, and had a lot of coworkers envious that they did not have lobster for lunch.



We definitely did not need it, but could not resist this Torta Di Cioccolata ($6.95). This kind of chocolate lave cake was like three desserts in one. You of course had the moist, chocolate cake on the outside, and inside was an almost pudding like texture of the warm cake, which is then topped with a generous serving of vanilla bean gelato. Katie was pretty full by this point, so I was lucky enough to be able to eat most of this, which I did in record time. I liked mixing the warm center with the vanilla gelato. A great way to end our meal at Brio. 

We left here full, and content on this evening. Brio really impressed me on our inaugural visit here. Not only was the food good, but the value was too great to ignore, especially for the lobster dish that I had. The feel of the restaurant was like an upgraded Macaroni Grill, and of course the food was upgraded as well. We really felt like we were dining in a fine dining restaurant, at way more reasonable prices. Even though the prices were reasonable, the food was elevated at Brio. The service we experienced on this evening also deserves some accolades. Our server Shelia has been at this location of Brio since they opened, and all of her knowledge, suggestions, and attention that she lavished upon us has made us even bigger fans of Brio.

If you would like to experience the Tale of Two Risotto promotion, you have to hurry. It will only be around until March 27th. From our experience at Brio though, even if you do not make it in to have this fantastic deal, you will definitely find something on this menu to make you and your stomach happy. A special thanks to everyone that made this visit so enjoyable. Everyone we encountered on this evening was so pleasant, and really made us feel welcome.

If you would like to keep up to date with all of the happenings at Brio, or find your nearest location, head to their website here: http://www.brioitalian.com/index.html

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Our Eyes and Stomachs are Smiling at Muldoon's


Muldoon's Irish Pub
202 Newport Center Drive
Newport Beach, CA 92660

At the very start of this year, my old computer took a dump on me. I was a little bummed about it because it was the computer that I started this blog on, the computer where I first contacted my now wife, Katie, and of course I lost some pictures and documents that I did not have enough time to recover before the motherboard burned up.

One of the things I was most bummed about losing was my, "Restaurant Wishlist", that I had compiled since the inception of this blog. Anytime I ran across a newspaper article, another restaurant blog, or even readers tips, I would jot down the name of the restaurant, and also where I had heard about a certain place, and who told me about it. I remember a few from my old list, including the place we would be dining at this evening, Muldoon's Irish Pub.

Nick, one of my sister-in-law's friends, was the one who suggested that we visit Muldoon's a few years ago. Sorry it took us so long to get to your suggestion Nick. We picked this restaurant not just because it was recommended to us, but also because we are in the midst of Newport Beach Restaurant Week, and their menu looked real promising. Restaurant weeks are great chances for restaurants to shine, and showcase their creativity and culinary prowess. Muldoon's had a four course meal for $30 a person, which is a steal when you consider that entrees alone are priced at $20 by themselves here, so this menu got me excited.

I was also excited because Muldoon's brings to mind a simpler time in my life. Two decades ago when I lived in the area with my two best friends, we would come here two, three, or more times a week. We would always hangout in the pub, enjoy some cocktails, and participate in darts. Back then it was all about drinking and chasing skirts, now it's more about having a great date night with my wife, and enjoying a great dinner. This was in fact the first time I would be eating in the dining room in all my many visits to Muldoon's. Let's see if I should have been focusing more on the food, instead of the adult beverages for all those years.



Meals at Muldoon's always start off with Irish Soda Bread. I've had mixed experiences with this bread in the past. At some places the bread is really hard and dense, while others make a more sweetened version, which I enjoy more. This one at Muldoon's was not in your face sweet, but I still enjoyed it because it was lighter than most, and the raisins stayed out of my way. We also enjoyed the generous slab of Irish butter that came out with this. Very creamy, and it really added to the bread.



On the restaurant week menu, this was listed as an appetizer, but I thought of this Smoked Salmon on a Potato Pancake more as an amuse bouche. I almost took this down in one bite. I enjoyed this, even though I thought it was weird to combine salmon with a fried potato. The potato was fried nicely, lacked grease, and had a good favor. The salmon was fresh, and was good on it's own, but was a little overpowered when combined with the pancake.



On to course number two, and Katie selected the Pub Salad ($8.95) to start with. This good sized side salad included greens, shredded carrots, cucumbers, and as a little twist, sunflower seeds. Katie was pretty happy with this salad, and loved the inclusion of the sunflower seeds. The blue cheese dressing was on point, and the produce was fresh. All you could want from a side salad.



Since Katie had the salad, that left me with the Soup of the Day ($7.95), which just happened to be Split Pea. This was a pretty good version of this classic soup. It could have been made better by adding more ham or some bacon, and it could have been creamier, but it did its job fine on this evening.



When Katie's entree hit the table, we could not believe the serving size of this Fish and Chips ($19.95). Five good sized pieces of wild snapper, fried perfectly, with a nice crunchy batter, and a moist, flaky fish inside. One of the better fish and chips we have had recently. It was made even better with a very well done tarter sauce for dipping. The fries were tasty and plentiful. Katie said this could have been made better with some malt vinegar, but our waiter never brought any out, and she could not stop herself from eating this before we saw him again.



There were three other items for me to choose from the entree portion of Muldoon's restaurant week menu, and I think I made the right choice by picking this Sheppard's Pie ($21). This very Irish meal was deceptively filling. I kind of thought it was on the small size, until I could not finish it, and had to take half of it home for lunch the next day. A well seasoned meat and veggie base was topped with some really good mashed potatoes to create this comfort food classic. Be forewarned if you order this, it will come out scalding hot, so be sure to let it cool for awhile.



Even though we were quite full by this point, we still had dessert coming for us. Katie selected the Irish Berry Trifle ($11) to end her meal at Muldoon's. This European take on a shortcake had layers of vanilla bean custard, whipped cream, cake, and berries strewn about it. For fruit lovers, like Katie, this was a wonderful way to end her meal. I much prefer chocolate when having desserts, so the Mini Dark Chocolate Sundae ($7.50) would be my choice on this evening. Vanilla ice cream, whipped cream, and See's crushed toffee were the basis for this dessert. I would have liked some hot fudge included here, but still a decent sundae.

Both Katie and I left Muldoon's very happy, and full. At $30 each for dinner, this is wonderful place to come for restaurant week. By my rudimentary calculations, this meal would have cost us well over $80, so that's a savings of at least ten dollars per person. What I enjoy most about Muldoon's is that I had the feeling that this is how the pubs are in Ireland, even though I have never been there. It's not too gimmicky, their Irishness is subtle, and not thrown in your face like a lot of other spots that claim to be Irish pubs are guilty of. The food here was pretty stellar for pub fare, and we would not hesitate to come back and try some of their other items, Irish or not, on our next visit to this Newport Beach gem. We even had the added treat of having a nightcap in the pub, where the great Sean Kelly helms the bar five nights a week, just like he's done for over 25 plus years now, and back when I used to be a regular here. I dare even say, he remembers my drink every time I come back to see him. I'm glad I remembered that Nick suggested we visit Muldoon's, and I look forward to starting my new restaurant wishlist.

Out of five hill-forts, (because the name Muldoon means hill-fort), five being best to zero being worst, Muldoon's Irish Pub gets 3.5 hill-forts.

To find out more about Muldoon's Irish Pub, head to their website here: http://www.muldoonspub.com/ 

Muldoon's Irish Pub Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Friday, January 22, 2016

Another Year Older and Another Thai Restaurant


Bhan Baitong Thai Cuisine
23808 Mercury Road
Lake Forest, CA 92630

I guess we now have a tradition with David, my friend at work. His birthday rolls around right after the holidays, and the last three years we have taken him out for his birthday. David is a great worker, and he makes my job infinitely easier than it would be without him being there. I always ask him where he wants to go for his birthday dinner, and he always makes me pick. The life of a food blogger, I guess. This year I picked a place none of us had been to, Bhan Baitong Thai Cuisine in Lake Forest.

This restaurant is located in the same shopping complex as quite a few other restaurants. Sammy's Original, Nory's Peruvian, and Tutto Famigilia, are some of the food places that have piqued my interest in this out of the way shopping center. For those of you that are still lost, it's in the same shopping center as Boot Barn, and where the Black Angus used to be off of the 5 Freeway.

I picked this restaurant because I know that David likes Thai food, and they get a pretty high rating on Yelp, 4 stars with over 300 reviews. At first I thought I had made a mistake with my pick, as when we walked in at 6, the place was deserted. As the night wore on though, the phone rang non stop with to go orders, and when we left at 7:30, the restaurant was packed with hungry customers.

The menu at Bhan Baitong is pretty much what you would expect from a Thai restaurant. There are a good number of appetizers, curries, noodle dishes, soups, chicken and beef entrees. I had a hard time deciding what to order here, as I do not really have a go to favorite at Thai restaurants. I kind of just let what I'm feeling on a particular night kind of guide me. Let's see if this would be the night that I found my all-time favorite Thai food item.



Over the three years that we have gone out for David's birthday, he always starts with a Thai Iced Tea ($2.75). He enjoyed this one, and made it last all throughout his meal. He's not really much into being too descriptive about his food, so I assume this was to his liking.



David's a pretty big eater, so two appetizers were definitely in order, the first of which were these Fried Wontons ($5.95). These were not very remarkable. They were fried nicely, with a decent crunch to them, but there was nothing to the insides. There was a small amount of chicken inside, about the size of a dime, and it of course did not make an impression. The best part of this was the provided sweet and sour sauce, which added some flavor to the fried wontons. This appetizer was a miss for us on this evening.



What wasn't a miss for us, was this Chicken Satay ($8.95). This chicken was flavored wonderfully, grilled, and placed on a stick, the way that all food tastes better. It was served with one of the better peanut sauces I have had. They did not skimp on the amount of chicken here, like they did with the wontons. A much better appetizer choice.


Katie wanted something to warm her up on this rather chilly evening, so she tried the Tom Yum Soup ($5.95). I have a sneaky suspicion that this was not the soup she had wanted to order. After our trip to Lotus of Siam in Vegas, she has been searching for an equally great OC version of their Tom Kha Soup. This soup was good, came out volcano hot, and had some chicken included in this slightly sour soup. Good, but she'll probably get the Tom Kha here next time.


We might as well start our entrees off with the birthday boy's selection, the Mussamun ($8.95). David had this curry which contained potatoes, onion, carrot, beef, and peanuts. He really enjoyed this, but would get this spicier next time. He had this medium spiced, and it contained no kick to it at all. It's always a crap shoot when you are eating in a Thai restaurant for the first time, and they ask how spicy you want things. Some places are really tentative about adding spice, while others really over do it. I'd say Bhan Baitong is like the former, where they add spice sparingly, so you can feel safe going up a spice level, and still enjoy your meal.  Lesson learned David.




A lot of people on Yelp were talking about this Pumpkin Curry ($8.95 plus $2 for a cup of Brown Rice), so it was not too hard for me to choose what to have on this evening. The most difficult part was deciding on having chicken or beef in it, and the beef won out after seeking the advice of the waitress. This pumpkin curry was delicious, with a real smooth texture, slight pumpkin tinge to it, and some pretty tender beef. I asked for this spicy, and it came with the perfect amount of heat. Not overwhelming, but still enough spice to have you notice it. A very delicate balance to achieve. A balance they did not achieve here was the amount of rice to the pumpkin curry. I would have asked for more rice, but did not feel like paying four dollars for two cups of rice. A little outrageous in my opinion. Probably the best entree of the night that we had.


Last but not least is Katie's dinner, the Pad See Ewe ($9.95). This beef and flat noodle dish came with a brown sauce which Katie thought was a little on the thin side, as compared to the ones she has had in the past. I liked this dish, but had hoped she would have gotten this with more spice than her requested mild spice designation. A good sized portion for under ten dollars though.

David's birthday dinner was a complete success. We got together outside of work, and had some pretty good Thai food. Bhan Baitong is not the best Thai food we have had, but it's definitely worth a visit if you are near the area. The dining room is well lit, has a modern feel to it, and makes the patrons feel comfortable inside of it. Service was a little spotty on this evening, as they were pretty busy with just two servers, so drinks did sit empty for stretches at a time. I still have not found my perfect Thai food item to eat, but I look forward to exploring more Thai food in the future, and not just on David's birthdays.

Out of five elephants, (because this large animal is one of the national symbols of the country of Thailand), five being best to zero being worst, Bhan Baitong Thai Cuisine gets 3 elephants.

For more information about Bhan Baitong Thai Cuisine, go to their website here: http://bhanbaitong.com/

Bhan Baitong Thai Cuisine Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

 
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