Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Living the Burger Dream in HB?

The American Dream
21058 Pacific Coast Highway #130
Huntington Beach, CA 92648

It's been quite some time since we have reviewed a burger spot. Okay, it was only two months ago, but that's a long time between burger reviews on this restaurant review site. Needless to say, I was craving a burger, and it didn't help that the Orange Coast Magazine's edition of best burgers has been sitting on my desk, staring me in the face for weeks now. My burger cravings have gotten so bad that I had to turn the magazine over.

The American Dream was not listed in the Orange Coast article of best burgers, but that doesn't mean they don't get some very high praise. They nabbed the number 2 spot on the OC Register's best burgers of 2017 list by famed Restaurant Critic Brad A Johnson. He also called their fries the best in all the county. Very high praise for a guy that has written over and over about french fries. I was pretty excited to give this place a try, and we took my parents along as well.

This would be my parents first trip to Pacific City, which is situated just south of the Huntington Beach Pier. Pacific City is a pretty impressive shopping center, with a good many shops and restaurants that we have wanted to try. The American Dream is situated in Lot 579, which is the food hall here, but they have their own seating area.

I don't really know too much about who started The American Dream as their website is pretty much bare bones. They list their address and have a few pictures of their burgers, and that's pretty much it. No menu, no history, or other locations listed. Very rare these days to not have a functioning website, but I did check out their menu on Yelp. They offer fries and appetizers, six burgers, a chicken sandwich, and three salads. They also feature about 60 beers on tap and 10 wines to choose from. No drinking for me on this evening, even though I was with my parents. Let's check out the food we had at The American Dream.

I was a little surprised to see Buffalo Cauliflower ($8) on the menu here, as fried cauliflower is a mainstay on most Persian restaurant menus, and one of our favorite things to get when we are having Persian food. We had to give it a try for sure. This was a big serving size and the four of us had a hard time finishing it off. The fried cauliflower was tossed with some buffalo sauce and served with some carrot and celery sticks. I really enjoyed this appetizer, although some of the pieces of cauliflower needed to be cut down in size so we could dip them into the provided ranch and blue cheese dressing. Not as greasy as I was expecting, this was a good start to our meal.

The burgers do not come with fries at The American Dream, so we got these Truffle Fries ($7) as another appetizer. The fries are definitely hand cut and not frozen, which is a big plus in my book. They kind of reminded me of the fries at Islands, but a little crisper, and with bigger sized fries than you get at Islands. These fries came with black truffle salt, truffle oil, garlic, parmesan, and parsley. I'm always a little too worried that the truffle is going to be overwhelming, but that wasn't the case here, as the garlic was the prevailing flavor. The fries come with your choice of their dipping sauces. We tried the ranch, garlic aioli, and blue cheese, all of which were pretty solid, but did not stand out any more than any others we have had. I liked that they allowed you to have as many sauces as you would like to try. I'll be trying their spicy aioli and their thousand island dressing on my next visit. 

After our apps disappeared rather quickly our burgers were up next starting with my mom's choice, the 55 Chevy ($12). This is their most basic burger on the menu. It comes with lettuce, tomato, pickles, red onion, and cheddar cheese. It was not as big as I was expecting, but was the perfect size for my mom, who split this and another sandwich you'll see in a bit with Katie. My mom liked this simple burger well enough, but Katie thought it was kind of average, and nothing about it really stood out. She admits she's not really a burger person though.

This Pastrami Burger ($14) is the burger that Brad Johnson had rated as the number two burger in all of OC, and this would be my dad's pick on this evening. He loved this burger, calling it one of the best he has had. My dad is really particular about his pastrami, needing it to be sliced really thin for some reason. I personally like a thicker pastrami so you can taste it better. Along with the pastrami on this burger was some cheddar cheese, pickles, mustard, and some rather spicy horseradish cream that caught me a bit off guard. I really liked this burger as well. The spicy condiments, the salty pastrami with the cheddar, and the very good chuck brisket patty made this a winner for me. Also, a very solid toasted bun held everything together well.

Since my dad had gotten the pastrami burger I decided to try this Chorizo Chili Burger ($15). With this one, it starts with their signature chuck brisket patty and then is topped with some chorizo chili, lettuce, tomato, cheddar, avocado, and spicy aioli. I'd probably get this without any of the produce next time and maybe add some red onion. I'm not really a fan of lettuce and tomato on a chili burger. The chorizo chili had a little kick to it which I appreciated. I also thought it was a little weird to have avocado on this, but it worked out nicely. The toppings overshadowed the burger, but I was not complaining after eating this one. 

I guess Katie did not get the memo that we were all having burgers on this evening, as she selected this Buffalo Fried Chicken Sandwich ($12). The lone chicken sandwich on the American Dream menu comes with some blue cheese slaw, pickles, and a buffalo sauced fried chicken breast. Katie was pretty pleased with this one. She liked the slight spiciness from the buffalo sauce, the chicken was tender, and the slaw added a nice crunch. She had wished that the blue cheese was a little more prevalent. Still, she would definitely get this again and maybe ask for a side of blue cheese dressing for dipping.

After leaving The American Dream I started thinking about our visit. This is a very solid burger spot, one of the upper echelons of burger venues in OC, but it can't crack my top four list. Close though. American Dream reminded me a lot of Hopdoddy, but just not as good in my opinion. I usually get the chili burger there, and I like it a smidge better than the one I had at Ameican Dream. I'd definitely come back here when I'm at Pacific City though. Service was pretty good on this evening. No major issues at all. Glad I could break my burger drought, and I now look forward to tackling more of the best burgers in OC.

Out of five white picket fences, (because the American dream for some people is a home with a white picket fence in front of it), five being best to zero being worst, The American Dream gets 3 white picket fences.

For more information about The American Dream, head to their website here: http://www.theamericandreamhb.com/ or for way better info about this restaurant, go to their Yelp page here: https://www.yelp.com/biz/the-american-dream-huntington-beach

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Inhabiting Citizen Kitchen

Citizen Kitchen
1500 South Raymond Ave.
Fullerton, CA 92831

I always feel sorry for chefs that operate restaurants in hotels. Yes, they have a captive audience of ever-changing guests, but it has got to be a challenge getting locals to find out about your restaurant. With tourists, you never really get the loyal following that other restaurants require to survive. For travelers you also have to kind of dumb down the menu, or should I say make food that appeals to the masses. Executive Chef Zach Geerson is attempting to break that mold.

For those of you that are not aware, Citizen Kitchen is located in the Hotel Fullerton, which can be seen as you crawl along the 91 Freeway going westbound. For the past two-plus years it has been home to Chef Zach Geerson, a Florida native who left the Sunshine State to pursue a degree from the Culinary Insitute of America. OC diners might remember him as the Executive Chef at Tempo Urban Kitchen in Brea, a position he attained after just two months at that restaurant.

Now firmly entrenched at Citizen Kitchen, Chef Zach is pretty much the man in charge of everything here. He, of course, oversees the menu and the food but also has taken charge of the cocktail menu and handling the rest of the staff. As if there's not enough on his plate already, he's also got another restaurant opening up on the other side of the hotel, but more on that later.

For this media dinner, I had the wonderful opportunity to invite my sister along. I always enjoy sharing with my friends and family a little of what I am lucky enough to experience on a semi-regular basis. We met in the spacious parking lot and found Citizen Kitchen by walking through the lobby and listening to the other guests already enjoying their plates. Chef Zach's menu can best be described as global, with many influences from around the world. Even if something looks like it's pretty pedestrian, there's a pretty good bet that there's a twist in there somewhere. Let's see what Chef Zach had in store for us on this evening.

Since it was a trek coming to Fullerton from South OC, a drink was definitely in order. The first of my two cocktails was the Canned Heat ($10). I'm always drawn to a spicy cocktail and this one did not disappoint. It uses Ancho Reyes Chile Liqueur and some Illegal Mezcal as its base and then is softened just a bit with some orange and lime, and then finished off with some chili powder streaked across the rim of the glass. A very smooth beverage, which had a good balance between spice, sweetness, and the alcohol in it. 

The Bread Service at Citizen Kitchen had us food people raving, and not just because we were hungry. The bread is made in-house, and it was light and airy. I overheard that the butter is left out for an extended amount of time, but I'm not sure for how long. It was some of the creamiest I have had, and it spread very nicely over the bread. I had more than my fair share of it on this evening.

The plates started coming out of the kitchen at a furious pace now, starting with these Kimchi Crab Rolls ($9). For kimchi lovers, this starter is a must order. These rolls were filled with kimchi crab, a light touch of cream cheese, and topped with yuzu teriyaki and green onions. I liked these, even though I'm not really a big kimchi fan. The crab was kind of overpowered by the kimchi, but the yuzu kind of balanced things out for me.

I really enjoyed the Truffle'd Fries ($6) at Citizen Kitchen. They were smashed fingerling potatoes dusted with parmesan Reggiano and parsley and then served with a house ketchup and one of the better chile pesto aiolis I have had the pleasure of consuming. The potatoes were fried perfectly with a nice crunch to the outer shell and a fluffy potato underneath. The parmesan was a nice touch that helped the truffle to not overpower. 

When this hit the table I did not really know what to make of it. My immediate thought was how we were going to cut it in fifths so we could all try it. We somehow managed, This Stuffed Crepe ($10) was filled with sweet potato and served on top of a lemongrass and grapefruit salad. Not something that I would normally order, but I'm pretty glad I got to try it.

Much more to my liking was this Short Rib Agnolotti ($14). Short ribs are one of those things that you see on a menu and you just know it's going to be good. That was the case with this short rib and noodle dish. Very comforting, and accentuated with some fennel and garlic to round it out. I could definitely see some hotel guests eating this after a long day of sightseeing.

Chef Zach put a different spin on the usual mac and cheese dish with his creation, the Sweet Potato Gnocchi ($11). The gnocchi was bathed in a parmesan fondue sauce and then seasoned with some lemon and rosemary with breadcrumbs added for texture. I thought the sweet potato was going to be odd, but to tell the truth, I think he could have put an old shoe in there with that excellent cheese sauce and it would have tasted great. He could have had a lighter touch with the breadcrumbs to allow the fondue to shine even more.

Shrimp is always a favorite of mine, so I was pretty excited to see this Shrimp Escabeche ($15) make its way out to us. The shrimp was done simply with some fennel and thyme and accompanied by a grilled piece of bread that was excellent for dipping into the sauce after devouring the shrimp. 

A first for my sister, this was her first time having boar, which she was not too excited about trying, but we finally got her to give it a whirl. With this Wild Boar Pipian Rojo ($13) Chef Zach takes us south of the border with this Mexican inspired dish. The boar was coated in a red mole sauce made with what I believed to be pumpkin seeds. Also thrown into the mix were some red onion, roasted grapes, and coriander. I liked the multi-layered flavors of this dish. The boar was fine, but I could not really get a good handle on it with everything else going on here. It just kind of tasted like pork to me.

Octopus, in my opinion, is one of the most underused items on menus in OC. Chef Zach has tried to rectify this with his Grilled Spanish Octopus ($14). This was presented wonderfully and the octopus came with a very well done black garlic barbecue sauce, some chile, and some pressed fingerling potatoes. The octopus reminded me of one I had at Splashes in Laguna a few years back but at half the price.

With all this food coming out, it was definitely time for another cocktail. This time I went for the Sour Skittle ($12). This one used a mixture of Spirit Works Gin and 329 Lager and was then finished with some pomegranate and lemon. Usually, when something on a menu says spicy, sweet, or sour it's kind of muted. That was not the case with this beverage, it was sour. The only thing that broke up the sour was the candy coating the rim. This might be more for those people that enjoy really sour things, so I'll stick with my Canned Heat cocktail that I had earlier on future visits to Citizen Kitchen. 

Pizza was next on our agenda. The Ham and Cheese Pizza ($13) was the better of the two. A mellow parmesan cream and burrata teamed up with some thinly sliced serrano ham to top this good quality pizza crust. I liked the creaminess of the cheeses and of course the saltiness of the ham, but what made this pizza for me was the pizza dough. It was crisp and light but still added to the pizza, instead of detracting from it. I'm definitely biased against fruit on pizza, so I already had dismissed the Orchard Pizza ($10) when it was sat in front of us. Sliced apples, a fig jam, and hazelnuts made this feel more like a dessert pizza than an entree. It was fine, but I still stand by my thoughts that fruit does not belong on pizza. I'm looking at you pineapple.

I really enjoyed the look of this Citizen Burger ($17). It kind of reminded me of a fancier version of a Big Mac. Chef Zach has two burgers on his menu, this Citizen Burger ($17) and his base model, which he calls a boring burger. This burger is kimchi focused with kimchi mayo and house-made kimchi included, and then it's topped with a fried egg. I liked the burger but found the kimchi overwhelmed here. The fries were of course still outstanding, especially with the provided pesto aioli. Good stuff.

The last entree of the evening for us was the Braised Beef Short Rib ($29). The short rib was predictably tender and flavorful and bathed in a very good sauce. It was ringed around a moat of polenta which went well with the beef. A nice finish to our evening.

As I mentioned earlier, Chef Zach has a new passion project in the works, and it is also going to be located at the Hotel Fullerton. His new restaurant is going to be called Journeyman and it's taking over where a Chinese restaurant was located a few years back. The owner of the Hotel Fullerton has given Chef Zach full range on what to do with this restaurant. While we were there a couple weeks ago it was still going through the construction phase, but we were told it was going to be ready for opening in December. They were pouring the flooring the next day we were there, and so far everything looked great.

Chef Zach gave us a little taste of what to expect from his Journeyman menu. I'd describe what we tried as very daring and a little out of the box. Guests are in for a very interesting evening at Journeyman. The food here is not like anything else we have had in the area, and it will be exciting to see how it is received once it is open. It kind of reminds me of how Tempo Urban Kitchen used to be when they first opened. They had a menu that changed daily, so you never knew what was going to be on it next. I'm very eager to see how Journeyman evolves once they are open for business.

We'd like to thank Chef Zach Geerson and the rest of his team at Citizen Kitchen for this wonderful opportunity to experience their food and get a special sneak peek at the new Journeyman Restaurant, which will be opening in December. We loved your passion and it was a real pleasure getting the chance to meet you and see you in your element. I'd also like to thank my tablemates, who are some of the best food influencers around, and live up to the saying that food people are some of the best people around. Very true with this group. Also thanks to my sister for joining me on this food adventure, it's always a blast to hang out with you.

For more information about Citizen Kitchen, head to their website here: http://ckfullerton.com/

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Our First Trip to Little Arabia

Little Arabia Lebanese Bakery and Cuisine
638 S. Brookhurst St. 
Anaheim, CA 92804

It's been a grind at work lately. New manager, the holidays are fast approaching, and people are getting crankier as they have more to do. Around this time of year, it's easy to get in a rut after a long day at work and just want to stay at home, lock the front door behind you, and not have to have any interaction with people for the rest of the day. I have to realize that's not fair to Katie plus it's not good for this restaurant blog. The three pages of restaurants I want to try is never going to shrink if we stay home all the time. So we decided to head out on a Saturday night to cross another one off the list.

Our destination on this early fall evening was Little Arabia Bakery and Cuisine. I had heard some pretty good things about their shwarma, and I know Katie is crazy for that and the garlic sauce that is found in lots of Lebanese restaurants. For those that are not sure, like me, shwarma is a lot like gyro meat, as it's cooked on a slowly moving spit, which allows it to cooks in its own juices. Shwarma is spiced differently though and not served with tzatziki sauce like its cousin the gyro.

Little Arabia Lebanese Bakery and cuisine is situated in a corner of a shopping center anchored by an old-school Stater Bros. Market at the intersection of  Brookhurst and Orange Avenue, just north of Ball Road in Anaheim. We arrived at just before 5 on a recent Saturday evening. There was ample parking and we had our pick of tables when we walked in the restaurant. During our stay the booths filled up around us, but at no time would I say that they were busy.

There's a nice fenced patio out front, but we elected to eat inside. The interior of the restaurant was inviting, with a number of booths lining the far wall, and a good many tables in the center of the dining area. If you are getting food to go you order at the register, and for dining in guests you'll be directed to a table and a server will take your order. The menu at Little Arabia has all of your Mediterranean favorites. There's plenty of hot and cold appetizers, sandwiches, plates, and savory pies to choose from. They even offer pizza for those who are a little skittish about trying something new. I was going to forgo the pizza but still had a tough time making my meal decision. Let's see if Little Arabia was worth the drive up from South OC.

Starting things off for us were some of the baked goods that were featured prominently in the display case near the register. At $1.49 each these were a great way to start our meal. We got one each of the Mini Spinach Boat, Mini Cheese Boat, and a Mini Balabaki Square, which was filled with meat. My favorite of the three was the plain cheese, which had the tanginess of parmesan cheese, which mellowed into a smooth and creamy cheese. The spinach was nicely done, but the spinach could have been a little more prominent. The meat one missed the mark for me. It was spiced a little too much and did not let the meat shine. I really liked the dough that encased these, as it was soft and light and did not interfere with the contents of these baked goods. Worth a try for sure.

Katie had no problem deciding what to get at Little Arabia, as she eagerly anticipated this Chicken Shwarma Plate ($13.99). This massive pile of seasoned chicken really impressed, and that's coming from me, who is not really a big fan of chicken. It was tender, juicy, and seasoned well. Definitely the best chicken shwarma I have had, not that I have had a ton in my day. The garlic sauce was a tad too light with the garlic but did the trick. I knew there was no way Katie would be able to finish this all, so I had it for lunch the next day and it even held up then. Wonderfully done.

Whenever I'm in doubt about what to order, I always lean towards a combo meal, so I can at least get a good lay of the land if I'm going to end up visiting a restaurant again. At Little Arabia, I selected this Combo Plate ($17.99) as my meal on this evening. With this one you get either a beef or lamb skewer, I picked the lamb, a ground beef, and a chicken skewer. Not normally my thing, but the chicken one was my favorite of the three. It was seasoned like Katie's shwarma but in cubed form. It went nicely with the garlic paste. The lamb and the ground beef skewers were both slightly overcooked, but I still enjoyed them well enough. The rice was full of flavor and spiced with something I was not expecting but kind of warmed up to. It had a subtle sweetness to it. The hummus was silky smooth and I found myself using it to jazz up the ground beef and the lamb. I did not really get into the salad here, but it seemed fresh.

Both Katie and I enjoyed our time at Little Arabia. We have had slightly better Mediterranean food in OC, but this was a very solid visit and worth your time if you are in the area and craving some shwarma. It's definitely the thing to get here. Next time I'll try the beef. We felt very welcome during our stay, and the service was cordial, but they did seem to forget about us a bit when they got a little busier. Prices seemed fair when you consider the serving size of the food that you get with each meal. Glad I dragged myself out of the house to come here. Good food is what will definitely get me through this hectic holiday season.

Out of five briefcases, (because the first law school in the world was built in Lebanon, and all lawyers use briefcases), five being best to zero being worst, Little Arabia Lebanese Bakery and Cuisine gets 3 briefcases.

For more information about Little Arabia Lebanese Bakery and Cuisine, head to their website here: http://littlearabiarestaurant.yolasite.com/