Thursday, December 1, 2016

Back to Black Angus

Black Angus Steakhouse
1350 North Tustin Ave.
Santa Ana, CA 92705

People ask me all the time where I'm going to be eating in the next few days. I guess that after doing this blog for seven years, my friends and family now know me as the restaurant guy. When I told people we were going to be eating at Black Angus, more than one person thought they had gone out of business. I think the main reason for this is based on where I work. I work in South OC, and our only Black Angus, in Lake Forest, shuttered about six years ago. After this lunch though, I can assure everyone that Black Angus is alive and kicking, and still serving some pretty impressive steaks and other items.

We were recently invited in to the Black Angus located on Tustin Avenue, right across from Western Medical Center. This partially hidden spot has been here for years, churning out steaks, seafood, salads, and starters for decades. In fact, my sister got her start bar tending in this very location, back in the Square Cow Fun Bar days, which were many years ago. I had some pretty good times coming here when I used to work nearby, and took full advantage of their great happy hour specials. Being back here really brought back a flood of memories.

Speaking of specials, they still have some good ones going on. Their coupons in the Sunday circulars are legendary, and offer many great deals. Black Angus also still has a killer happy hour, which runs from 3 to 7, Monday through Friday, and goes all day on Tuesdays and Sundays in their re-branded Bulls Eye Bar. Happy hour specials are plentiful here, with many options available in the $4, $5, and $6 price levels, while people with heartier appetites will want to take advantage of their Wagon Wheel Sampler Platter, which is $5 off during this truly happy time for your wallet.

Not much has changed in the dining room of your local Black Angus. They still have the western motif going on here, with some of my favorite booths in any restaurant. The high backed, southwestern patterned booths offer one of the most private, and comfortable dining experiences out there. A table where you can take a break from your hectic day, and immerse yourself in the aromas of steak wafting through the busy, yet quietly relaxing restaurant.

On this particular afternoon, I brought along my good friend Ozker, who had not been to Black Angus for a good many years. We were greeted by District Manager, Jeff Gadberry, who is a 40 year employee of Black Angus, and a man that knows this company inside and out. His excitement over the food and beverages we were going to be having was infectious. He really got both Ozker and I pumped up for what was in store for us.

Black Angus is really committed to overhauling their beverage program, by introducing cocktails made with seasonal ingredients, that will show new patrons, and long time customers that they are not just living on their storied past, but want to feature fresh and modern cocktails. These two hand crafted drinks are on their new fall  menu, which debuted earlier this month. The top picture was my favorite of these two, the Jack's Berry Margarita ($8.75). This is a different spin on your typical margarita. They pair Sauza Blue Reposado tequila, with Jack Daniels, a fresh lime agave mix, a splash of cranberry, and then garnish this with whiskey spiked cranberries. I really enjoyed this take on a margarita, because it did not feature the sweet and sour feel of humdrum margaritas. The Jack Daniels was front and center, but the tequila and the cranberry helped balance this out a bit. Not being a Jack fan, I was a little less enthusiastic about the straight forward Old Fashioned Jack ($11.25). This was a heavy pour of Jack Daniels, which was joined in the glass by some very flavorful orange-cinnamon bitters, which sweetened up the Jack. I loved the inclusion of the bitters here, which do not get used nearly enough. Glad to see Black Angus rectifying that.

Since we started with two drinks, we definitely needed to balance that out with some food, and out first for us were these Fire Grilled Fresh Artichokes ($9.99). This would be Ozker's first time having artichokes, and he's now hooked. Usually artichokes are too much work, for too little of a payout, but these had a lot of the pulpy portion of the pedal included, which was made even better by the sauces served with this. I could not decide which one of these house made sauces I enjoyed better. I alternated evenly between the lemon aioli and the pesto mayo. Really a good starter.

Since we had our first food at Black Angus, I guess it was time for another round of drinks. I felt like we were on vacation. This round of drinks was definitely way more up my alley. Lately I've been all about Moscow Mules, and at Black Angus they have different variations on the usual ginger beer, vodka, and lime beverage. I was given the Tennessee Mule ($8.25) to try. Again, I'm no fan of Jack, but this was a nice spin on your typical Moscow Mule, which used lemon instead of lime, substituted Jack for tequila, and then was finished off with Q Ginger Beer. For JD fans, this is sure to be a winner. I also got to sample the Tropical White Sangria ($8.00). White wine, spiced rum, pineapple, mango, and a hint of citrus brought to mind the tropics, and the earlier part of my day melted away, sip by sip.

So I was four drinks in, and had only had artichokes up until this point, so it was definitely time for some more food, and Black Angus delivered with this very solid BBQ Chopped Chicken Salad ($14.99). I'm always a little skeptical about chicken in restaurants, because most of the time they overcook it into shoe leather, but that was not the case here. This tender and juicy chicken was joined in this salad with diced tomatoes, black beans, corn, cheese, tortilla strips, chopped greens, ranch dressing, and a drizzle of barbecue sauce. I couldn't get enough of this southwestern inspired salad, and took a good deal of it home for dinner later on that night, and it held up perfectly.

Now this is what Black Angus is known for. Also on their fall menu, this Big Ranch 20 Ounce T-Bone ($32.99) will satisfy any meat eater you may know. You get two steaks for the price of one with this, as the New York strip and the filet are framed by the T-bone. Ozker and I could not get enough of this. It came to our table cooked perfectly medium rare, was well marbled, and full of flavor. With this dinner, you get to choose two sides, and we went with the grilled asparagus and the au gratin potatoes. Both of these sides were superbly done. I loved that the asparagus was grilled, and it really absorbed a lot of flavor from the grill. The potatoes had a real comfort food feel to them, and I enjoyed the crunch from the broiled bread crumbs on top of this. Added a nice textural component that went well with the rich and cheesy potatoes underneath.

My steak of choice when I'm in a steak restaurant, is the Ribeye ($28.99). This 16 ounce chunk of meat had all the characteristics that I love about this cut of beef. It had some fat running through it, which provided big bursts of flavor, and it was also made even better with the addition of bistro butter, which is offered for a dollar extra, and would be well worth it at double the price. For this entree we got their very satisfying Roasted Brussels Sprouts, which were done nicely in a brown butter, and the homey Mac and Cheese. Ozker would not stop raving about this mac and cheese version, and quickly claimed it when we were boxing up our leftovers.

It had been about five minutes since they had brought out a cocktail, so it was definitely time for another one. This was my favorite beverage of the afternoon, the Hand Shaken Mojito ($8.50). At Black Angus they offer four styles of this Cuban cocktail; mango, berry, ginger, and this one, the classic. It had a clean, refreshing tinge to it, and was one of the better versions I have had. Very well done by the bartenders at Black Angus.

Just when I thought we were done, we were presented with this Large Cold Water Atlantic Lobster Tail ($32.99). There's nothing like the audible gasp that you hear when a lobster tail is placed on a table, and Ozker and I could not stifle our excitement over this lobster. It was fork tender, had a slight sweetness to it, and went down like a warm blanket when dunked in the drawn butter. A very impressive end to the entree portion of our meals.

The last item on the Black Angus fall menu is a must for people who love pumpkin everything, and I know there's lots of you out there. This Pumpkin Cheesecake ($6.50) was heralded by Ozker as being one of the best he has ever had. The graham cracker crust is the base for the autumn inspired pumpkin filling. I liked that the pumpkin seasonings were all present, but were not all in your face. Very good, but next time I'm going to have to give their carrot cake a try.

So now you can see that the reports of Black Angus's death were greatly exaggerated. To be honest, I came in here not really expecting too much, but I was pleasantly surprised by our meal, and would not hesitate to return very soon. Black Angus is a great option for people that want to get more value for their money, than they would be able to get at one of the high end steakhouses that serves everything ala carte. Here, the 21 day aged steaks not only includes the beef, but also comes with two side items, and their legendary warm molasses bread as well. They even offer their Campfire Feast, which includes an appetizer and dessert for 2, for less than $30 a person. That won't even get you in the door at those high end steakhouses. This will definitely not be our last time at Black Angus.

We would like to thank everyone at Black Angus for this fun and delicious afternoon. It was great seeing everyone's passion for this restaurant that has been around for over 50 years, and it's very commendable to see that they are changing with the times, while still keeping lots of things the same. We would personally like to thank District Manager Jeff Gadberry for the wonderful hospitality, and taking the time out of his busy day to share his vision and passion for this iconic brand. We really enjoyed getting to meet you, and getting to know your team at this Santa Ana Black Angus location. We also would like to thank PR guru, Jill Fox at JCutler Media Group for coordinating this visit, and for setting this up. It was great working with you Jill.

If you would like to find your local Black Angus, or would like more information, you should check out their website here:

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Does SmoKING Ribs Take the Barbecue Crown?

The SmoKING Ribs
14211 Euclid St. 
Garden Grove, CA 92840

When I told people I would be heading to Garden Grove for dinner, most just assumed I'd be having Vietnamese, Mexican, Korean, or trying one of those Cajun seafood spots where you get the whole shebang. I got a bunch of double takes when I told them I'd be getting barbecue, and I had heard great things about the restaurant we were headed to. My Instagram feed has been filled with mouth watering pictures of the meats here, their Yelp page is filled with lots of positive reviews and five star ratings, and I have read some really good things in the press, so it was just a matter of time until we made it to The SmoKING Ribs.

The man behind this restaurant is Kenny Tran, who used to love grilling in his backyard, but found it to be pretty labor intensive, with all the flipping and making sure things were not getting too over done. He found that he did not have enough time to enjoy beer while grilling, so he started out smoking a chicken, which gave him plenty of time to enjoy a beer or two while the meat was in the smoker, and that's how he got his start as a barbecue master.

That was 1999, and in 2010 he started his own barbecue catering company, Bolsa Barbaque. They still do a lot of catering, but this was the springboard for his first and only brick and mortar restaurant. The SmoKING Ribs is the first restaurant Kenny Tran has ever worked at, and he's jumped in with both feet, since he's the owner, pit master, and almost every other job you can think of in a restaurant.

The location of this barbecue restaurant is a little odd, in the same sleepy shopping center as a Vietnamese coffee shop, a pharmacy, and a nail salon, and next to the more bustling strip mall that houses the ever popular Boiling Crab, which always seems to have a long line out the door. We arrived here at 5 pm on a recent Saturday to meet our good friends Duc and Minerva, who pen one of the more enjoyable reads, Much Ado About Fooding. At this early dinner hour it was no problem getting a table right away, but we've heard that this small, ten table eatery does get packed, so be advised of that.

The menu at SmoKING Ribs is pretty compact, but all the essentials are here. They offer six kinds of meat, a couple sandwiches, nine sides, and five starters, which are half price during their happy hour, which runs weekdays, from 2 to 5:30. I was a little disappointed that there are no combo meals offered here, as that's usually what I like to order to get a good lay of the land when eating at a place for the first time. Fortunately for us, there were four of us in our party, and we coordinated what all of us would be having, so we got a good cross section of the menu. Let's see if this restaurant is worth all of the hype it has been generating.

Since we were waiting for Minerva and Duc to arrive, because they were running a little late, Katie and I decided to order their much ballyhooed Candied Bacon ($2) to start off with. I've heard this runs out pretty early, so I was pretty eager to give it a try. I thought it was good, but I kind of missed the smokey flavor of regular bacon, since this was way more on the sweeter side. Different, but not something I would probably get again.

I guess we were really hungry while waiting for Minerva and Duc, because we also tried their Blueberry Cornbread ($4), which is also one of the choices that you can pick for your side items with an entree. I would definitely get this again. Part muffin, part cornbread, and totally delicious. This was like the best of a blueberry muffin and cornbread all in one. Plenty of blueberries in this, and not too crumbly, like a lot of cornbread tends to be. I did wish that the butter was a little softer, so it could spread more evenly, but other than that, this was a very good side, and made me eager to see what else was in store for us this evening.

Our food started making its way out to us in waves, the first of which was Minerva's selection on this early evening, the Pulled Pork ($13). This mound of shredded pork came with two sides, and she went with Corn on the Cob and Onion Rings. Minerva liked the pork, but since she went to school in North Carolina, she's used to the real deal barbecue, and she stated that this was good for OC barbecue, but not like anything she's had back east. She said it was a little too mushy, but I liked the pieces I tried off of her plate. I left the corn on the cob alone, but the onion rings were fantastic. Very crunchy breading, well fried, and the onion on the inside was prominent. I think these are one of my favorite onion rings around OC.

When Katie's dinner hit the table, there was an audible gasp of excitement. This Angus Short Rib ($24) is only available Friday through Sunday after 5 pm, and is made in a limited supply, so get here early enough to make sure they don't run out before you get yours. Short rib is always tender, and that was definitely the case here. I liked the understated amount of smokiness that attached itself to the beef on this evening. This good sized rib had a nice ribbon of fat running through it, which also helped boost its flavor profile. For her side items, Katie went with the Smoked Beans and Coleslaw, which were both winners. The beans were more soup like, than baked beans, which I thought I was not going to enjoy, but they turned out to have plenty of beef in them, and a great depth of flavor. The coleslaw had a great crunchy texture to the red cabbage used, and was liberally dressed, just the way I like it. Another winner of a plate.

The hits just kept on coming at SmoKING Ribs, with my plate, the Angus Beef Brisket ($21). I really enjoyed the brisket, but a few pieces were a little on the dry side, but for the most part, this was solid beef. I really enjoyed the barbecue sauce that they offer here. They have a sweet sauce, but the one that got me humming was their habanero sauce, which really packed a punch, without overwhelming the meat. My table mates thought it was a little too hot, but that was rectified by mixing it with the sweeter sauce. Really kicked this brisket up a few notches. The side items I chose rocked. The Mac and Cheese had the right consistency of noodles to cheese, and I liked the inclusion of the bread crumbs on top of this, which added a little texture. The Mashed Potatoes were a good, solid version of this classic side dish, which was not too lumpy or runny.

You can't come to a place called the SmoKING Ribs and not get ribs, so here's a shot of the Pork Ribs ($30). Besides the short rib, this was my favorite meat item of the night. The ribs were tender, had a great reddish hue from the smoke ring around the outside of them, and came with a slight glaze of barbecue sauce, which caramelized on the smoker. The two side items chosen with this plate were the French Fries and the Twice Baked Potato. I did not get a chance to give the potato a try, but it looked real good from across the table. The fries were done well here, with a crispy outer shell, and soft potato inside.

Both Katie and I added a Hot Link ($2) to our meals. This tube of meat had a nice slow burn to it, and  I liked the snap of the casing, along with the sausage on the inside. Well worth the extra two dollars, and this went well with the provided barbecue sauce.

I left SmoKING Ribs pretty impressed, and now understand why this restaurant gets so much positive press. So where does this restaurant rank in the hierarchy of barbecue restaurants in OC? It's pretty high up there in my opinion, with only Lillie' Q, Blake's Place, Smokey Fred's and Leadbelly's being better, but of course these rankings can change based on my next visit to any one of these spots. I do wish they offered combo plates here, as it would help make my decision on what to eat here next much easier. There were some very minor hiccups with the meats here, but the side items were all pretty stellar. Some might feel that the prices are a little on the high side, but you'll definitely have leftovers, so if you think about it like you're paying for two meals, it makes it much more manageable. The service on this evening was pretty good, and they definitely got busier as the night went on. With the addition of the SmoKING Rib, people might start thinking about the city of Garden Grove as a barbecue destination.

Out of five strawberries, (because I always think of this fruit whenever I'm in this area, since they hold the Strawberry Festival here every Memorial Day Weekend), five being best to zero being worst, The SmoKING Ribs gets 3.5 strawberries.

For more information about The SmoKING Ribs, head to their website here:

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Yet Another Reason to Visit Downtown Fullerton

D Vine
132 West Commonwealth Ave. 
Fullerton, CA 92832

I know a lot of people are not too keen on Downtown Fullerton. It gets a bad rap for being a little rambunctious as the clock advances towards the wee hours of the night, or early morning. I've also heard some grumbling about the lack of parking around the downtown area. I personally have always had a great time in this restaurant rich mecca. Now with the new parking structure right across from one of my favorite spots in this area, Heroes, parking is a snap.

It had been awhile since we had made it up here on a Saturday night, and Fullerton was humming with activity, as usual when we arrived in this area at about 7 pm. What had brought us up this way? We were invited to try out D Vine, with our good friends Tom, from Toms' Foodie Blog, and his irrepressible other half, Daniele, from Dani's Decadent Deals. We always love hanging out with these crazy kids, and getting a chance to try a much raved about restaurant is an added bonus.

D Vine, which is located right in the heart of the action of Downtown Fullerton, near Heroes, Joe's, and Roscoe's has been in this spot for over a year now. They also have a Brea location, which has been around a bit longer, as they just celebrated their 4 year anniversary. Much of the credit for their longevity in the tough restaurant business can probably be credited to the dynamic duo who runs this restaurant, Lena Quezada and Chef Walid Alarja.

These two met five years ago, and quickly formed a friendship over their passion to bring the finest Mediterranean cuisine to the people of North OC. Lena, who formerly worked in real estate, seems to be in charge of the business side of things, while Bethlehem native, Chef Walid, who has over thirty years in the culinary arts under his belt, has control of the kitchen. They also let us in on a little secret that they may have another future location in the works, but did not give us any other details. Something to look forward to perhaps.

Back in the here and now though, we arrived at the Fullerton location of D Vine, and I was immediately hit by the liveliness of the space, which used to house a bank in its past incarnation. The restaurant is kind of three parts in one. They have 8,000 square feet of space, which includes a large banquet room, a comfortable patio, which is the perfect spot to take in the craziness that is Downtown Fullerton on most nights, and of course their dining area, which is where we were seated.

Taking advantage of the nightlife in this area, D Vine has joined the fray, by creating a lounge, which starts at 10 on Fridays and Saturdays, and goes until 2 am, with a DJ and full bar. Of course I am long in bed by the time that party gets going, (yes I feel that old), but I was told it's a pretty chill vibe here on weekend nights at D Vine, and the lounge experience has been attracting many late night revelers. As for us, not exactly early birds, but we did get to partake in the beautiful Tanya perform her belly dance routine, and she even got Katie and Daniele to dance with her. Watching all of this dancing really got me hungry, and lucky for us, the food started coming out.

When you sit down at D Vine you are presented with Fried Pita Chips, Olive Oil and Za'atar as a welcoming gift. Just like when we are in a Mexican restaurant, and the chips and salsa are set before me, I could not stop eating these. The pita chips had a good crunch to them, and were thinner than I thought they would have been. I used the olive oil to bind the Za'atar to the chips, which was a unique treat. They also sell Za'atar for you to take home for $5, which Dani took full advantage of.

Since I would be spending the evening with the very energetic Dani, I felt I should treat myself to a beer, and it was my first time trying Almaza, which is a popular Lebanese beer. Not a fan of heavy beers, this Almaza really hit the spot for me. This pilsner had a good clean taste, with a slight citrus finish near the end of each sip. Definitely made listening to Daniele much more enjoyable. Kidding of course Daniele, or am I?

We ordered two cheese based appetizers to start things out at D Vine, the first of which was this Cheese Fatayer ($7). With this one they stuffed some Mediterranean cheeses into a pocket dough, and then lightly fry it. Kind of like fried mozzarella, but of course lighter. I enjoyed the slight crunch to the dough, and the subtle flavor of the cheese did not overpower here. Tasty.

To finish out our daily double cheese odyssey, we also went with this Cheese Platter ($12), which featured Halloum and Nabulsi cheeses, which I hear are pretty common cheeses in the Mediterranean area. These cheeses were garnished with some cucumber. I'm not really a fan of cheese platters, so this was not really my cup of tea. I love cheese, but I'm not a fan of having it in hunks by itself. The rest of them all seemed to like this though.

This beautiful platter was way more in my wheelhouse. Out next for us was the crowd pleasing D Vine Mezza ($15). Their menu proclaims that this is great for sharing, but that's a lie. I wanted this all for myself. This platter comes with a grand slam of items; hummus, baba ghanoush, Mediterranean salad, and turshi. The hummus here is very creamy, and one of the better ones I have had, although I'd like to see if they could make a spicy version on my next visit here. The baba ghanoush, which is seasoned eggplant was my favorite item of the four. Great earthy flavor, with some wonderful spices added. This went quickly between the four of us. I was not so sure that I was going to like the turshi, which is a combination of pickles, turnips, and olives, but I enjoyed the pickles and turnips very much. Kind of brought to mind the pickle platters you get in good Jewish delis. The Mediterranean salad impressed also, with its combination of cucumbers, bell peppers, onion, tomato, parsley, and lettuce, all dressed simply with lemon juice, house spices, and olive oil. Very fresh, and I liked how the veggies all stayed crisp through their very short stay on this plate.

This is a sampling of two of the items off of the D Vine entree menu, which allowed us to try a little more of everything they have to offer. These Lamb Chops ($15) were insanely delicious. They were cooked perfectly tender, and spiced with just the right balance, so it did not interfere with the natural flavor of the lamb. I did not care who was looking, but I had to get every last piece off the bones. It was worth it. The Half Chicken ($15) takes 25 minuted to prepare, but with chicken this juicy, it's worth the wait. I'm always a little skittish about chicken in restaurants, because it's almost always overcooked, but not the case at D Vine. Chef Walid definitely knows his way around a bird, and this poultry was brought to life with the best garlic sauce we have had to date in OC. Katie's been on the lookout for one that compares to one by her old work out in Ontario, and she has finally found it here at D Vine. This garlic sauce is also available for sale, so I know what I'm getting Katie for Christmas.

The most popular item on the D Vine menu is understandably, the Chicken Shawarma ($12). This chicken dish blew us away. I made a little sandwich with the provided pita bread and garlic sauce, which was awesome. The entrees here come with one cold appetizer and rice, but you can sub out the rice, and for an extra dollar and get another cold appetizer. I was hoping for more baba ghanoush, but they gave us a white cabbage salad, which resembled coleslaw in looks, but not in taste, and my favorite of the two, a beet salad. This fresh beet salad was prepared only using olive oil, lemon juice and salt to coat the cubed beets. Very tasty, and made me think that I don't eat beets nearly enough.

Dessert would be our last hurrah on this visit to D Vine, and they finished things off with a bang for us. Again, this is two desserts on one plate, the first of which is the Ashta Ice Cream ($6) in the center of the plate. They offer four different flavors of ice cream, and we were given the rose water flavor, which included crushed pistachios on top of it. I thought the rose was going to be too overpowering, but it hung around the background just enough. The Layalee Lubnan ($6) is not something I would generally order, but it was good nonetheless. It uses a base of semolina pudding, and is then topped with whipped cream, crushed pistachios, and a simple syrup. This is the perfect dessert for people that are not too fond of overly sweetened desserts.

It's easy to see why D Vine has gotten lots of praise from all the food blogs that I regularly read. The food was pretty stellar, and I really liked the ambiance here as well. The chicken dishes, hummus, baba ghanoush, lamb chops, garlic sauce, and beet salad were all standouts for me on this evening, and we will definitely be back to try some, or all of these in the near future. The price point was pretty impressive at D Vine as well. No entrees approach the $20 mark, and they also offer plenty of sandwiches and kebabs, which were also pretty reasonable. I was also impressed that they are becoming part of the surrounding community, by incorporating the late night lounge, full bar, and cigar lounge into their restaurant. D Vine is definitely another reason that can be added to my list of why I love Downtown Fullerton.

We would like to thank Lena and Chef Walid for their generosity and hospitality on this evening. We loved getting a chance to meet you, try your delicious cuisine, and share your passion for your restaurant. We would also like to thank everyone else at D Vine, who made our stay very enjoyable. Lastly, we would like to thank the great Bob Bradley, for coordinating this visit, and making sure we could share this restaurant with all of you.

For more information about D Vine, head to their website here:

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