Thursday, July 12, 2018

Trying to Reveal the Identity of Heroes and Legends

Heroes and Legends
22741 Lambert St.
Lake Forest, CA 92630

This place had a familiar feel to it. You know the kind of feeling that you get when walking into your old elementary school, or maybe a former workplace. This place felt pretty much like the Heroes in Fullerton and Riverside right down to the peanut shells littering the floor, but it's almost like they didn't want to advertise the connection between these places. I even asked our server, who played coy and told me there was a connection, but she's not sure what it is. There's not even a website for this bar and grill. They do know that this is 2018 right?

Another odd thing about Heroes and Legends is that they have been open for two years now, and I'm just finding out about them now. I used to think that I was pretty knowledgeable about restaurants, but they just keep sneaking up on me. I find it funny that I live and work in close proximity to this place, and no one has ever mentioned it to me. It's like a secret that no one wanted to share, even though I'm a big fan of both Heroes in Fullerton and Riverside.

Maybe they are flying under the radar, but not on purpose. When my sister and I arrived here at just after 3pm, we were two of the six customers in the place. As our visit stretched into more regular after work hours, this restaurant and bar never filled up with more than a handful of people at one time. Unheard of for the Riverside or Fullerton locations. When we inquired with our server as to if Heroes and Legends ever really gets busy, she said not really and suggested that a lack of a happy hour might be at the root of it.

The menu here is a little more condensed than its stepsister restaurants, but there is plenty of overlap, even with some of the names. Yes, they have the famous Chili Nachos that come out on a pizza pan and can easily feed three to four people, both menus have the Bud's Chili size burger, and a Southwest Meatloaf is offered here as well. At this location, they do not match the 100 plus taps that the others possess, but they do offer a very respectable 70 beers on tap which is one of the largest I have seen down this way. Now,  I was intrigued to see if the food would be the same as well. Let's check it out.

Okay, a little personal note before we go any further. I've been doing this food blogging thing for coming up on nine years now and in that time my dining partners have graciously allowed me to take numerous pictures of their food before they have dug in. Since they are nice enough to allow me to do this, I, in turn, try not to steer them into getting what I'd like them to get. It's a give and take thing. When my sister inquired about these Fresh Oysters on the Half Shell ($16/market price), I was a little worried about her. She's been dieting and found a new love for oysters a month or so ago. Oysters in a not very busy restaurant and this far from the ocean always makes me nervous, but our server assured her that they were very fresh. Eight rather large oysters came out over ice, with sliced lemon and a combination of cocktail sauce and horseradish. I did try the oysters and they were pretty fresh, not too gritty, and the provided sauces made them go down as easy as oysters can. I'm still not going to get these here on my next visit, but they were fine on this particular day.

No diet for me of course. I went with one of my favorites at Heroes, the Patty Melt ($12.99). It was pretty much the same here at Heroes and Legends. The beef patty is joined on the grilled parmesan by both Swiss and cheddar slices of cheese and grilled onions. I usually like some thousand island dressing on the side with my patty melt, but the juiciness of this negated the need for it. I had asked for this to be medium, but it came out more of a medium rare, which I did not mind. The curly fries were just like the ones at the other locations. Seasoned well, coming out hot, and more than enough to share with my sister who broke her diet by having a couple handfuls of these fries. Sorry to blow your cover sis. Yes, they do charge an extra 75 cents for ranch dressing, which seems to be a bane of contention for a lot of online reviewers, but having curly fries without ranch would be sacrilege. I'll gladly pay the three quarters.

Since my sister was taking me out for a belated birthday meal, some cake had to be had. I'm a big fan of Carrot Cake ($8) and this one was not half bad. I know they did not make this here, but they tried to jazz it up with a little extra icing on top. I appreciated the effort, but the cake was not as moist as it could have been and was served ice cold, which led me to believe it came right out of the fridge. I took half home, let it sit out and it was noticeably better when eaten at room temperature.

I left Heroes and Legends pretty excited about the food that we encountered on this early evening but also perplexed as to why this restaurant and bar is not busier. It could be the business park setting, but more than likely it's the lukewarm reviews they get on Yelp for their service. We had no issues with the service, except at the start of our meal when it took a few minutes to get things rolling as our server wanted to finish her conversation with the bartender. Nothing too tragic, since me and my sister, had some major catching up to do. I look forward to coming back soon and trying more of their menu including their thick cut pastrami sandwich, more of their burgers, and the chili spaghetti. Hopefully, by then I will have learned the secret connection between this place and the other locations. For now, I'm just glad it'll cut down on my long car trips up to Fullerton and Riverside.

Out of five bowls of cereal, (because Lake Forest is the final resting place for William Hanna, producer of all the best cartoons of my youth, and I watched them all with a bowl of cereal in my lap), five being best to zero being worst, Heroes and Legends gets 3 bowls of cereal.

As I mentioned before, Heroes and Legends has no website so you can find out information about them from their Yelp Page here:

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Hoping the Yolks Not on Us

Stacks and Yolks
30281 Golden Lantern
Laguna Niguel, CA 92677

Breakfast can either ruin your whole day or give you the energy to power your way through a productive day. Nevermind the quality of the food you are going to consume at the start of your day,  I'm talking about the amount of food you are going to eat. I have very little willpower when it comes to the first meal of the day, so I usually go big and then want to come back home and take a nap after eating out for breakfast. Not too smart, since I had just woken up about two hours earlier, and I'm pretty much food wasted for the rest of the day.

Checking out Stacks and Yolks, newly opened in Laguna Niguel, I had a feeling I wouldn't be very useful the rest of the day after eating here. So, I decided that if I was going to be down and out for the rest of the day, I was not going to be alone. I enlisted the rest of my family to come and try out the new breakfast spot in town.

Stacks and Yolks is an import from Las Vegas, not that you'd probably know that since their two locations are well off the strip hidden in North Las Vegas. From what I can gather they opened in 2010 under the name Griddle Cakes and changed their name in 2014 to Stacks and Yolks. Their second location opened in 2016, and they have now branched out with an outpost in Laguna Niguel of all places. Maybe one of the owners was tired of the desert heat and wanted to be closer to the beach?

This Laguna Niguel spot, located in the Laguna Heights Marketplace, on the corner of Marina Hills and Golden Lantern has not really had a very auspicious opening. Opened since early this year, I had heard that they had a kitchen fire that had them close for a bit, and their service and food has really taken a beating on Yelp, which has resulted in a 2 and a half star rating, with over 100 reviews and counting so far. I'm not a big fan of Yelp ratings, so we had to give Stacks and Yolks a try for ourselves.

Our party of seven showed up on a recent Sunday morning,  just before nine, and we were met with a nearly empty restaurant, which I thought was a little odd for such a new place. The decor here could best be described as peppy and colorful. There's a patio out front, which did not get used during the entirety of our visit. Inside, there are about fifteen tables, which are spaced a little too close for comfort to each other for my liking.

This is a breakfast-centric restaurant, although they do serve lunch as well until they close at 3pm. The breakfast menu features plenty in the way of different types of pancakes, egg dishes, and a number of house specialties. I had already known what I was going to have before leaving home, so I just had to wait for the rest of our indecisive party to make their selections. They finally did, and this is how everything turned out for us on this visit. 

I was a little surprised that my sister in law Emily went with this Florentine Benedict ($12.99), as she's a very basic eater usually, just opting for a simple egg dish most mornings. She must have been feeling pretty adventurous getting this benedict with its three poached eggs, spinach, tomato, home fries, hollandaise sauce, all perched atop a split English muffin. True to form she only ate a quarter of this, but did take the rest home. She liked this well enough but did not think it was anything above average. The hollandaise sauce was very thick and kind of overpowered the rest of the dish. The poached eggs were overcooked, but she did enjoy the home fries which were hidden underneath. 

Both of my brother in law's got the Lumberjack Breakfast ($13,99) which comes with two buttermilk pancakes, three eggs, home fries, and choice of bacon or sausage. They both thought this was okay, but nothing that really blew them away. Jason felt his pancakes were a little on the doughy side, and could have been a little better if they were left on the griddle a bit longer. Eggs were done the way they had requested and the bacon was cooked nice and crisp. Potatoes were definitely on the dry side and needed to be seasoned up a bit, along with some ketchup added to moisten them up. 

I'm always partial to skillet breakfasts because I feel you get to experience almost all of the breakfast items in the kitchen all on one plate. When I read the description of this Meat Lovers Scramble ($12.99) I knew I was going to order it. Three eggs piled on top of home fries and then topped with the holy trinity of breakfast meats; ham, bacon, and sausage, and then finished off with grated cheese. As if that was not enough, the plate also featured a split biscuit with plenty of gravy. Let's start with the biscuits and gravy. The biscuits seemed to be a little on the stale side, and I'm not sure that they were even made here. The gravy was okay, but no depth of flavor. The scramble was fine, but I expected a little more from it. The breakfast meats kind of canceled each other out and I could not get a really good bite of this massive heaping of food. It might have been better if I had gotten my eggs sunny side up insyead of scrambled because the yolk would have been a good binding agent on this. It was fine, but kind of disappointing because I had expected a bit more from this based on the description on the menu.

Another one of my things when eating out at a breakfast restaurant, I always need a good mix of sweet to go along with my savory dish. On this morning that meant I had to get a Short Stack of Elvis Pancakes ($8.99). These pancakes used a peanut butter batter and were studded with a good amount of chocolate chips and whipped cream. I liked my pancakes, as there was an abundance of chocolate included, but I did not get the slightest tinge of peanut butter from the pancakes themselves. Definitely forgo the short stack here, as these pancakes are about the size of a human head, and one will feed most people easily.

My sister in law Sara loves French Toast ($7.99) and she went big here with three slices, which she shared with her well behaved son, Andrew. Predictably she only ate half a slice, and Andrew was more interested in watching YouTube videos than eating anything. She did claim that the french toast was pretty good, but this is coming from someone that thinks the best Mexican restaurant in OC is Javier's. So misguided is my sister in law Sara.

Katie stuck to her usual when eating breakfast out when she got this Breakfast Burrito ($10.99). This burrito was filled with ham, green peppers, onions, and shredded cheese. She ended up liking this a lot more than she thought she would, but she would get this with avocado next time to boost it up a bit. She was not a big fan of the salsa that was served on the side of this burrito, as she called it salsa that you could get at any supermarket in the Midwest.

With a few exceptions, none of us were all too thrilled with what we had at Stacks and Yolks on this particular morning. Nothing was too awful, but in an area that has quite a few options for good breakfast spots, Stacks and Yolks is going to have to step up their game to compete. Not even close to the great breakfasts at Stacks Pancake House, Paul's Pantry, Mollies Country Kitchen, or What A Dish, but they were probably on par with your local Denny's and definitely better than the atrocious meal I had at the Broken Yolk in Mission Viejo. Service was not awful like a lot of the online reviews have stated, but while we were here there seemed to be one server for each of the occupied tables, so maybe service suffers when they are busier.  True to form, and with the help of the huge portions and my lack of willpower, I was in a food coma for the rest of this Sunday.

Out of five ziggurats, (because one of the most dominant features of the city of Lagua Niguel is the Chet Holifield Federal Building, which resembles a ziggurat), five being best to zero being worst, Stacks and Yolks gets 2.5 ziggurats.

Formore information about Stacks and Yolks, head to their website here:

Friday, July 6, 2018

You'll like Brunos Just the Way They Are

Brunos Italian Kitchen
210 West Birch St.
Brea, CA 92821

If you are anything like me, you probably get a lot of offers through email. I have two email accounts, one for personal stuff, and one that I use for all of my promotional stuff. You know, like when you are asked to sign up for the club card at the supermarket, enter an online contest filling out an NCAA basketball bracket for a million dollars that you know you have no chance of winning or even signing up with a restaurant so you can get a free hamburger or dessert on your birthday. We all do it, and I usually like keeping these less meaningful emails separate from more pressing matters.

I bring this up because of the one promo that I must have let slip through the cracks of my personal email, the one from Brunos Italian Kitchen and their sister restaurant, Cha Cha's Latin Kitchen, which is a few doors down from Brunos in Downtown Brea. I get at least four emails a week from these two restaurants, which are linked together by not only geography but by owners Don Myers and Peter Serantoni, a team with decades worth of restaurant experience, with stints at El Torito, Chevy's, Paul Martin's, Scott's Seafood, The Catch, and Roy's Hawaiian, among others. They seem to be the perfect team, with Peter on the culinary side of things, while Don works the business and front of the house operations.

Brunos came to be after Cha Cha's opened in 2009, and Brunos followed suit a short three years later. The inspiration behind Brunos is Peter's time he spent in Venice, Italy as a youth. Bruno was his father and inspiration to pursue food as a career, while his grandmother shared her cooking philosophy and her rustic recipes. This winning combination has gotten tons of positive press from the local food community, and the restaurant is full on most nights. All those email blasts seem to have worked, as we found ourselves here on a busy Saturday evening in downtown Brea.

The rest of Downtown Brea seemed almost deserted on this early Saturday, save for Bruxie, Cha Cha's and Taps. Lending to the apocalyptic vibe was the numerous empty storefronts that once welcomed lots of customers, like the departed Lillie's Q, Tower Records, and the Melting Pot. The badly needed second parking structure behind Buffalo Wild Wings provided parking relief to this area and it was only a short stroll to the jam-packed and rambunctious crowd at Brunos.

I was kind of taken aback by the noise at Brunos, which I eventually got used to. We were seated well inside the darkened restaurant, which had a good number of tables. The premiere seating appears to be the patio in front of the restaurant, nearest the street and seems like it would be excellent for people watching.  The inside portion of the restaurant utilizes numerous wine bottles lining the walls, a partially separated bar along the right-hand side of the restaurant, and hanging light fixtures that function more as decoration than providing light. Even with the large crowd on this evening, the restaurant conveyed a coziness that came around shortly after we acclimated to the environment.

The menu at Brunos is comforting as well. It's broken up into Italian favorites of appetizers, plates of pasta, entrees, and a couple of sides. Pasta is priced from $16 to $23, while the entrees will set you back right around the $25 mark. As my four times a week emails alert me, there's always some kind of specials going on here most nights of the week, (Meatball Monday, Two for Tuesdays, Wine Wednesday, Trio Thursday, Seafood Sundays). We were here on a Saturday, so no specials promos for us, but we were excited to give the food here a try, so let's see how everything turned out for us on this evening.

Bread was of a very sturdy variety here at Brunos. It was served lukewarm with a thick crust and soft and pillowy inside. Good flavor and good chew to it, just what you want in a solid piece of bread. It was made even better with the provided oil and vinegar that has become the standard dipping sauce in any good Italian restaurant these days.

These Arancini ($9) easily have the award for the most colorful appetizer of the year wrapped up, and we're only halfway through the year so far. These lightly fried risotto balls included a little mushroom, mozzarella and fresh herbs inside, and a trio of sauces splattered on the plate. These were definitely lighter than I imagined they would be, but they also lacked the flavor punch I was expecting. Even though it wouldn't have looked as beautiful on the plate, it probably would have helped to have the sauces in a ramekin for easier dipping. This was fine, just a little too subtle from what I was expecting. 

Caesar Salad ($9) is my jam, and this one at Bruno's was pretty impressive. Whole leaf romaine was placed on the plate and drizzled with an oil and vinegar Caesar dressing, a few croutons, and a white anchovy placed on top for a dramatic effect. I'm usually more partial to a creamy Caesar dressing, but this one was excellent and really clung to each inch of the very fresh romaine. A few extra croutons would have been appreciated, along with chopped up romaine, but still, this Caesar was a winner.

Entrees were out fairly quickly, and first up was Katie's choice on this early evening, the Pappardelle Bruno ($20). This dish brought to mind an Italian version of beef stroganoff, but without the overbearing sauce that comes on that dish. The pappardelle noodles were some of the freshest we have had, while the short rib was shredded nicely, very tender and juicy. Not overly heavy, this was a very satisfying plate which has Katie excited for more trips to Brunos to explore more of their menu very soon.

Not the most gorgeous of lasagnas, but my mom really enjoyed this Lasagna al Forno ($18). This was a little different than my mom was used to, it had a delicious bechamel sauce included with a very well done bolognese sauce. The pasta was fresh and lots of cheese was used in this A very comforting lasagna that my mom could not finish, so my dad ate it for lunch the next day.

My dad had zeroed in on this Shrimp and Blue Crab Fettuccine ($23) when he perused the menu at home before arriving at Brunos. This was a very interesting dish to me and was not exactly what I had envisioned when it came to the table. Yes, there was shrimp and shredded blue crab along with fresh fettuccine included. The sauce was a Meyer lemon cream, which predictably went well with the seafood in here, and was pretty subtle but still present. They also added some texture with the addition of cut-up asparagus and the flavor was enhanced even more with the addition of garlic, fennel, and some basil oil. The dish was finished off with an Asian flair when it was topped with citrus tobiko, a flying fish roe that was a risky move with someone like my dad, but it worked out fine here as he cleared his plate in record time.

I have gotten into a routine when eating in Italian restaurants recently. I usually order a pasta dish with a white or cream sauce and then order an extra meatball in marinara, then mix the meatball and the sauce together to create a kind of pink sauce. I did the same here at Brunos with their Rigatoni Alfredo 2.0 ($17.50) as my pasta dish. I'm not sure what the 1.0 version of this was like, but this 2.0 version was hard to beat. Like everyone else at the table, I have to agree that the pasta was indeed fresh here, with a nice tenderness to it. The alfredo sauce was not too heavy but did not sacrifice flavor, and I enjoyed the duo of the mushrooms and the pancetta, but of course, some extra pancetta would have been appreciated. Once I mixed in the meatball and the marinara this dish was just as good as before. The meatball was nice and tender, while the marinara added a nice homey feel to the alfredo sauce. It was just as good the next day for lunch and was the envy of lots of my coworkers.

Desserts were on the house because my mom had let it slip that we were celebrating my birthday a week late, and their impending anniversary the next day. Our server brought us a Raspberry Brown Butter Torte ($7.50) and a Budino al Caramello ($7.50). The favorite of our table was the budino, which featured a layer of caramel pudding, chocolate ganache, and a dollop of whipped cream on top. A little hard to get all three layers in one bite, but when it was accomplished it was magical. The torte was fine, but I'm not much of a raspberry/fruit kind of guy. I did enjoy the base of this though, with its limoncello cream, brown butter shortbread, and salted caramel drizzle that was streaked across the plate. The budino was just better, and I did eat the neglected torte when the budino was all gone.

Brunos was a nice change of pace from Americanized Italian restaurants, with their very heavy red sauces and lots of cheese. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy that kind of Italian food as well, but leaving Brunos I did not feel overly bloated and could stay up and watch a few things on Netflix when we got home, instead of crashing by 8pm. The food here was fresh and light, but still flavorful, which is a difficult balance to achieve. Chef Peter has done his grandmother's recipes proud of the food that we experienced on this evening. Service was professional and cordial. Glad we finally made it to Brunos after all these years, next we might even take them up on one of their great deals during the week. I know I'll definitely get an email or two about them.

Out of five grenades, (because one of the most famous Bruno's in the world is Bruno Mars and one of his first of many number one hits was the song Grenade, which reached number one in 2010) five being best to zero being worst, Brunos Italian Kitchen gets 3.5 grenades.

For more information about Brunos Italian Kitchen, head to their website here:

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Not Just Blowing Smoke at Fire Breather BBQ

Fire Breather BBQ
22722 Lambert St. #1702
Lake Forest, CA 92630

I have used this blog many times to lament the fact that there is no good barbecue where I live in South OC. The best, in my opinion, is probably Wood Ranch, but the rest is really subpar. I've had a few decent meals at Lucille's, but most of the time it's been at the best mediocre. Dickey's was really impressive when they first opened up down here, but they have gone downhill fast. Bad to the Bone in San Juan gets a lot of love from people, but I've found their stuff to be bone dry, like sandpaper going down. Texas BBQ on El Toro Road? Unedible.

When my good friend David asked where I wanted to head for dinner for my birthday, I recalled seeing Fire Breather BBQ when I was picking up sandwiches at Philly's Best next door. The unmistakable aroma of barbecued meats hit my face when I entered to pick up a menu on that trip. It must have stuck with me because I told David we would be meeting at Fire Breather. To be honest, I had been burned many times by barbecue restaurants down here, so I did not really come in here with such high hopes. Big mistake.

We arrived at Fire Breather at 5:30 on a recent Friday evening. This is not a fancy barbecue restaurant. Ordering is done at the counter, and the food is brought out soon after that. There are less than ten tables inside, and a couple of small tables out in front of this strip center restaurant. The decor inside is pretty non-existent, save for the large wagon wheel with hanging lights in the center of the room and a wall with artificial turf fastened to it.

The menu at FireBreather is pretty sparse as well. They offer five kinds of meat for their one, two, or three combo meat plates. There are also two sandwiches, (brisket and pulled pork), five sides, and the rest of the menu is rounded out by kettle chips and bottled beverages.  That's basically it, straightforward and to the point, which you can get away with if your barbecue is good. Let's see if that's the case here.

Starting things off for us is the Pulled Pork BBQ Sammy ($12) that tempted Katie. This sandwich came with plenty of pulled pork piled on a Hawaiian burger roll. The meat comes without sauce, and it's up to you as to how much you want to add. Not that this pork needed any. It was moist, with a nice subtle smoke to it. The smoke was not overbearing, and there was not a bad bite during the short life of this sandwich. The sandwiches come with Apple Slaw and your choice of one side, Katie got the Potato Salad, which she was over the moon about. She felt this was one of the better potato salads she has had in a long while. It was chunky style, with plenty of celery and red onion included. Just like grandma used to make. 

There would be no doubt what I'd be having on this evening at Fire Breather's, the Beast Mode Combo ($24). I like getting to try as much as possible on one plate, and this was a perfect choice here. It also helped that David was going to be paying, thanks, buddy. For my three portions of meat, I went with brisket, baby back ribs, and pulled pork. All were fantastic. I consider brisket to be the king of barbecue meats and a good indicator of if a place is going to be any good or not. Fire Breather passed this test with flying colors. The brisket was tender, with a small ribbon of fat running through it which added a nice flavor boost. The outside bark was flavorful with the rub that they use. Exactly what I look for in brisket. The ribs featured a nice looking smoke ring on them and were meaty, while the pork pulled easily from the bone with just a little tug. Just like Katie's sandwich, the pulled pork continued to shine. I liked that there were some different textures included with this pile of pork. You get some of the crispy ends along with the moist inside cuts. For my side item, I went with the bbq beans, which were fine, but did not elevate to anything other than average. Maybe some cut up brisket in these would have made these better.

David probably didn't want me to feel like I was the only one eating a ton of food here, so he also went the Beast Mode ($24) route at Fire Breather. He picked brisket, tri-tip, and pulled pork. Tri-tip can be a pretty tricky barbecue meat to get, as it is easy for it to come out dry and flavorless. Not the case here. It was meaty and flavored nicely with a combination of a nice rub and a tinge of smoke. Easily one of the best tri-tips I have had in a long while, even though David just allowed me to have one slice. For his side item, he selected the mixed veggies, which I did not get a chance to try.

Fire Breather BBQ should be the place that you head when you are in South OC and want good barbecue. I was pretty impressed with all of the meats that we tried on this trip here, as they are not just South OC good, they are some of the best we have had in all of Orange County. The sides were a little disappointing to me, as they were all pretty basic. Maybe they don't have room in this storefront to make mac and cheese, mashed potatoes, or greens. This is definitely a family run business, as the very friendly woman at the counter, Kat is one of the owner's wife, and she had her very cute infant behind the counter with her. They are very proud of the barbecue they serve here and have every right to be. Be aware that they are closed on Sunday and Monday, so you only have five days to get your barbecue fix. Based on just this one visit, I can now declare the South OC curse of bad barbecue is broken.

Out of five kisses, (because the co-lead singer and bassist of Kiss, Gene Simmons was famous for breathing fire on stage at their concerts), five being best to zero being worst, Fire Breather BBQ gets a strong 3.5 kisses.

For more information about Fire Breather BBQ, head to their website here:

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Birthday Dinner at Garduno's Ristorante

Garduno's Ristorante
398 East 17th Street
Costa Mesa, CA 92627

As I get older, birthdays seem to mean a little less to me. You would think it would be just the opposite because with each birthday it brings you closer to the end. I know, that's too dark of a thing to write on a restaurant review site, but it's true. As the early part of June rolls around, and Katie inevitably asks what I want to do for my birthday, I usually want to forgo hanging out with family and friends that want to make a big deal about my latest trip around the sun. I just want to have a low key day, try a restaurant that I have yet to try, with just my beautiful wife by my side.

That's what we ended up doing on this beautiful Sunday early evening in OC. We napped a little in the afternoon, drove to the beach and walked the boardwalk between the Newport and Balboa piers, and then we had planned on eating at one of the restaurants back in Newport. Unfortunately, where we wanted to eat was packed with people watching the NBA Finals, and we could not get a seat for at least a half of NBA basketball, which meant easily another two hours. So we decided to get out of the packed Newport area and headed slightly inland to Costa Mesa.

That's when it hit me that I had a dentist appointment coming up, and my fantastic dentist would ask me for the sixth straight appointment if I had tried one of his favorite Italian restaurants in Costa Mesa yet. Not wanting to disappoint the guy with the sharp implements mere inches away from my open mouth, I decided it would be best to have my birthday dinner at Garduno's Ristorante.

We were just coming from walking at the beach and were unsure if we were dressed appropriately enough to eat here, so we cautiously walked through the door and were put at ease with the red and white checkered tablecloths, wallpapered walls, and the overall general hominess of the place. It also helped assure us since there was only one other table occupied during our entire visit at Garduno's.

Garduno's has been around since 1988 and is situated in the same food rich shopping center as Sidecar Doughnuts, Pie-Not, Mi Casa Mexican Restaurant, and Shirley's Bagels. The menu at Garduno's is pretty much what you would expect from an Italian restaurant in these parts. They have a handful of appetizers to choose from, veal, chicken, baked dishes, and different types of pasta to select from. They make all of their pasta every day and have 14 varieties of sauce to pick from. Pretty impressive from such a small place. I was intrigued and excited to see what my dentist has been talking about the last three years.

Bread came out rather quickly after we had ordered. This was a pretty good representation of Italian sliced bread. It was a bit crusty on the outside and soft on the inside, and it came out warmed with butter packets that were easy to spread since they were heated up a bit by the warm bread.

I don't think I have seen Mozzarella Fritta ($7.95) served like this before. This fried mozzarella was sliced like a thick piece of french toast, breaded, and bathed in a creamy tomato sauce. I guess this is the more grown-up version of mozzarella sticks that lurk on the menus of almost every restaurant around. This was a very good starter. The cheese had a nice stringy quality to it and was not as heavy as I would have expected. The breading had a slight crunch to it, while the sauce was a good version of a blush sauce.

I'm always happy when a salad is included with a meal, and that was the case here at Garduno's, even with the pasta dishes. This House Salad included a nice mix of greens, red cabbage, tomatoes, shredded carrots, olives, cucumber wedges, peppercinis, mozzarella cheese, and a very tangy Italian dressing. The produce was fresh and I definitely appreciated the variety of the veggies in this, but the Italian dressing was too tangy for both Katie and I. A lot of people love this dressing in the online reviews I have read so it might have just been this batch that had too much tang.

When we first started dating I made a carbonara for Katie, and she claims that it helped cement her love for me, which I'm not so sure that's the case, but that's what she claims anyway. She tried the Carbonara ($19.90 which includes a $2.95 upcharge for picking tortellini as her pasta) on this evening at Garduno's. This was a very creamy version of a carbonara sauce. It did include peas, pancetta bacon, and mushrooms, and ended up being quite good. I'm not a big fan of tortellini, but Katie liked it with this dish, even though it did not bring to mind other traditional carbonara dishes she has had in the past. This came out scalding hot, and as it cooled the sauce kind of grew on me. I even scraped her bowl clean and mixed it with half of my meal that I took home for work the next day.

For my birthday dinner, I went with the Meat Lasagna ($15.95). This was a very saucy, yet meaty version of a lasagna. They use a mix of ground brisket and chuck, then add parmesan, mozzarella, and ricotta cheeses to this almost noodle-less lasagna. There might have been a couple of pasta sheets in here, but they were kind of overwhelmed by the very thick tomato sauce and meat. Not that I didn't mind the extra abundance of meat in this, it just would have been nice to have it be a little more balanced. I've gotten into the habit of ordering Meatballs ($3.90 for 2) at every Italian restaurant I've eaten at lately. These were not a bad version whatsoever. They had a nice texture to them, not too firm, but still loose enough to break easily using a fork. They had a good flavor and went well when I added one of them to my already meaty lasagna.

What would a birthday dinner be without dessert? I'm not usually too excited by Italian desserts. Not really a fan of tiramisu or cannolis, but these Gelato Truffles ($5.95) hit the spot. These were described perfectly on the menu as large bonbons. We had the Mint and the Salted Caramel variety. These worked out perfectly for Katie and I as I liked the mint one, while she was content with the salted caramel bonbon. These were about the same size as a racquetball, with some pretty decent gelato included inside the chocolate shelled scoop that resembled the Magic Shell we used as kids.

Garduno's ended up being a very adequate spot for my birthday dinner. I wouldn't say that it blew us away, but it's a good neighborhood Italian restaurant and one that we would visit fairly frequently if we lived nearby. In an area where there is some pretty stiff competition for Italian food, (Mama D's, Filomena's, North Italia, and others), Garduno's kind of gets lost in the shuffle, but they are worthy of a visit. Service during our stay was a bit awkward, but in the end, our server kept things moving along at a decent clip. Glad I can finally report back to my dentist that I made it here after nearly three years of him asking me. Now maybe he'll take it easy on me with all of those root canals.

Out of five crazy chickens, (because the largest employer in the city of Costa Mesa is El Pollo Loco), five being best to zero being worst, Garduno's Ristorante gets 3 crazy chickens.

For more information about Garduno's Ristorante, head to their website here: