Monday, May 20, 2019

This Little Pig Feels Right at Home at El Cochinito

El Cochinito
3508 Sunset Blvd. 
Los Angeles, CA 90026

Keen readers of this blog know of my love for Cuban food. Unfortunately, being based in Orange County, there are less than a handful of options for Cuban cuisine there. There's the very solid Bella Cuba in Santa Ana, the good, which includes Habana, Porto's, and Moros, and then there's the extremely overrated Felix in Orange. Other than the occasional Cuban sandwich on a menu, you won't find much more than that in OC.

So, since I was on vacation, we made a little weekend getaway trip to LA. We had a family event the next day, and I have had a Cuban place on my list for a long time now. So we brought along one of my favorites among Katie's cousins, Steve and his somewhat average wife, Yvette, who just happens to be Cuban. She claims to be quite the Cuban food expert and is always ready to have her opinion heard, whether it's right or wrong, as she is wrong almost 90 percent of the time. Along with their wonderful daughter Gabbi, we headed to El Cochinito on Sunset Boulevard.

El Cochinito got my attention when they were mentioned in this well-written article as being one of the top 7 places for Cuban food in LA, and also when they won the award for best Cuban sandwich in the world. Since I feel that Cuban sandwiches are the most balanced of all sandwiches, I quickly added this restaurant to my list, and the perfect time to visit finally came about six months later.

Situated in a small strip of stores, anchored by a Baskin Robbins and a Subway, El Cochinito blends into the scenery almost perfectly so it's hard to spot unless you know it's there. Gladys Gutierrez opened this little restaurant in 1988, but unfortunately, she passed away almost 5 years ago now. It's now run by her grandchildren and has not missed a beat.

We arrived here on a Saturday at 7pm and had about a five-minute wait. The restaurant is long and narrow, and not really conducive to big parties, but they managed to squeeze our party of five in near the back of the restaurant. There's probably ten to fifteen tables here, all of which are ideal for two to four guests. El Cochinito was doing a booming take out business on this evening, as there was a steady stream of people picking up their orders throughout our stay.

El Cochinito means the little pig in Spanish, so pork is definitely well represented on the menu. There are plenty in the way of traditional sandwiches and entrees, desserts, Cuban coffee, Cuban soft drinks, and tropical milkshakes listed on their menu. Prices for entrees range between $13 to $18, and a sandwich will set you back no more than $11. Nice for the wallet, but how would everything taste? Let's check it out.

We attacked this Bread Plate when it was placed on the table before we ordered. Nicely toasted and made even better with plenty of softened butter. The bread had a pleasing crunch as well. They were not shy about bringing us more and did not even charge us the 85 cents that the menu listed.

We were pretty hungry after our short drive from Glendale, so we ordered some Tostones ($5) to start with. These smashed and fried plantains were fine on their own but made even better with the mojo de ajo (garlic sauce). These plantains were fried nicely, with an absence of grease. Well done, but I was more eager for the next item that came out for us. 

The worlds best Cuban sandwich? I have to admit, this Cubano ($11) is the best I have had in California and rivals the few that I've had in Florida. I'm a big supporter of the Cuban sandwich, calling it one of the most balanced sandwiches around. It's a sandwich that has everything. This traditional version included some well flavored and savory ham and pork, Swiss cheese for a little creaminess, mustard added for tang, garlic sauce for a flavor booster, and pickles to round everything out. The bread is nice and crunchy due to toasting, which compresses the insides of the sandwich together to form a flavor bomb when you bite into it. The only thing I did not like about this was that I had to share with Katie. I should have gotten another one for just myself. No wonder El Cochinito won that ridiculously large trophy you see when you walk through the door. They definitely earned it with this sandwich.

Steve and Gabi split this Bistec Empanizado ($17) on this evening. I think Gabi split this with her dad because she was heartsick over an impending breakup with her boyfriend Blaine. Oh, to be 16 again. Anyways, this breaded steak kind of reminded me of a country fried steak, with a little more heft to it. Even though the breading was a little more puffed up than a normal breaded steak, the beef under it was still present. I had one bite and liked this, but I think I might have become bored with it if I had the whole thing. This came with Black Beans and Rice. The beans were rich and flavorful, which maybe had a hint of garlic to them? No complaints from either Steve or Gabi about this, so I assume they were happy campers.

Even though El Cochinito is known for its pork dishes, it's even in their name, Yvette wanted to give their Palomilla ($16) a try. This is a thin steak, which I think is sirloin, and it is covered with sauteed onions on top. Hard to please Yvette said this was not as good as her mom's, but she did admit it was one of the better ones she's had in a restaurant. Of course, she was selfish and did not share with anyone, so I'll take her word for it. The Madures were delicious here, and I'm not usually even a big fan of plantains, but these struck just the right balance of sweetness for my palate.

The Lechon Asado ($18) is listed as a house specialty, and after I tasted this, I can see why. This is the best pork dish I've had in a while, and I tend to order pork quite often. I've heard they roast their pork for ten hours, and it shows in the finished product. The shredded pork is nice and tender, very flavorful, and had just the right amount of little pieces of fat running through it. Not a bad bite on the plate. This came with some Congri, which is a mixture of black beans and rice, which is the way to go here. Also sharing the plate was some Yuca, which I have never liked, but this version was excellent. It was not dry and starchy like others I have had. A very impressive plate.

Flan ($6) is not something I've ever been too fond of. I only usually order it if there's nothing else on a dessert menu I like. This is one that I would get again and again. This was the best flan I've ever had. It was the perfect texture, had a very good caramel sauce, and was just the right amount of sweet. We all agreed that this was a special flan, and we never agree on anything.

Special is definitely the way I'd describe this visit to El Cochinito. Quite simply, this was the best Cuban meal I have had in California, and they definitely rival the Cuban restaurants I've been to in Florida. They even recently opened a spot in West Palm Beach, so they are not afraid of going toe to toe with the Cuban cuisine heavyweights. No complaints with the food or service on this evening. They took really good care of us, even though we had Yvette at our table. The only drawback I can see about this place is that their parking lot is extremely small, and I'm sure it's frustrating at peak times. It will be very difficult coming back up this way again and not stopping by for one of the worlds best Cuban sandwiches.

Out of five reservoirs, (because this restaurant is located in the Silver Lake section of Los Angeles which is named after a local politician who helped build the reservoir that surrounds this area), five being best to zero being worst, El Cochinito gets 4 solid reservoirs. 

 For more information about El Cochinito, head to their website here:

Friday, May 17, 2019

WR Kitchen and Bar Now Open in Laguna Niguel

WR Kitchen and Bar
28061 Greenfield Dr.
Laguna Niguel, CA 92677

I'm not sure if you've noticed or not, (more than likely you have since this is a restaurant blog), but the cost of eating out has been going up rather steadily the last couple of years. Katie and I used to be able to get two meals off of the $50 gift cards my parents get us for Christmas every year from Chili's, Islands, BJ's, and Ruby's. These days those same $50 cards get us one meal, and then we still have to put some money towards the tip. As a result of this and the impending dollar increase to the minimum wage for the next three years, upscale casual restaurants are going to have to find some creative ways to adjust.

Sure you can replace wait staff with I Pads on the tables, or maybe do the whole Chipotle ordering process where you go through an assembly line while getting your food, and then you are left to your own devices once you get to a table. With labor costs rising, a lot of your favorite restaurants are going to be tinkering with ways to keep menu prices manageable, while not sacrificing service. One of my favorite restaurant chains is being proactive about all of this and recently opened a new concept right near where we live. We were recently invited to try it out before their grand opening a few days later.

The team behind Wood Ranch has not just been sitting on their hands in these unpredictable times. They have studied their guests dining preferences and tried to figure out ways to keep menu prices down. WR Kitchen and Bar is the results of all of their studies and consumer surveys. This initial location in Laguna Niguel will be followed by another in the Bressi Ranch section of Carlsbad later this year.

WR Kitchen and Bar is situated in the old Knowlwood's spot, which sat vacant for a good long while. After a major remodel, the restaurant is definitely not recognizable from its days when there were the Knowlwood's mediocre burgers and other subpar food coming out of the kitchen. As you walk in the door to WR, you'll notice a long 16 seat, fully stocked bar, which is also where you order your food. A water and soda station are to the left of the bar. After ordering you gather your own utensils and napkins at the service carts and find somewhere to sit at this 140 eat eatery. With the table tracker, you were given when ordering, your food will be brought out to you whether you are seated inside, or on their covered patio. They are shooting for the food to be delivered within an eight to ten-minute window after ordering.

Speaking of the food at WR, they have a lot of your favorites from Wood Ranch but have also added some new items to distinguish themselves from their sister restaurant. Their famous Crispy Shredded Onions are on their snack menu, but they have also added a crispy Buffalo Cauliflower and a Brisket Caramel Popcorn, which we will feature in due time. WR has five salads to choose from, including their wildly popular BBQ Chopped Salad, which is available with protein add-ons. The famous Wood Ranch barbecue meats are available ala carte in varying sizes. Rounding out the rest of the menu are some tacos, sandwiches, and sides, which are meant to be shared. Let's check out what we ate at this friends and family preview event.

Here's a quick overview of some of what we were able to sample on this evening. Yes, I went home bursting at the seams. Let's take a closer look at everything.

I admit I tried this Brisket Caramel Popcorn ($6) just because I wanted to see what it came out looking like. After a few bites, I realized this was not just a novelty item thrown on a menu to get people talking about it on social media. It really worked. Fans of sweet and savory will not want to miss this one. A very good caramel coated popcorn is studded with pieces of rich brisket. I found my perfect bite of this consisted of three pieces of popped corn and two shards of brisket. A unique little snack to start off with at WR Kitchen and Bar.

I'm not sure, but I'd bet this is the most popular salad at Wood Ranch and it will probably be the same story at WR Kitchen and Bar. The BBQ Chopped Salad ($10) contains a whole cavalcade of things in it. The base is mixed greens which are joined in the bowl with some tomatoes, carrots, black beans, tortilla strips for crunch, roasted corn, jack cheese, cilantro, scallions, and a mix of both ranch and bbq sauce. Very vibrant and fresh flavors in each bite. Easily made into an entree for a few dollars more with the addition of a protein.

The specialty section of the WR Kitchen and Bar menu contains a lot of your favorite barbecue and other heftier items from Wood Ranch. Here you have the option to control how much you want of each item, with weights ranging between a quarter of a pound to a full pound for heftier eaters, like myself. The Baby Back Ribs ($14) are offered as four or eight bones, or a whole slab. These were gently brushed with sauce, came out nicely tender, and were gone almost immediately after they were sat down at our table.

I know it might be a little hard to veer from the barbecue at WR Kitchen, but these tacos are screaming for attention. The Smoked Brisket Taco ($14) was wonderful. The oak smoked brisket was joined in the very well made organic corn tortilla with some mashed potato, cabbage, cilantro, and a habanero peach barbecue sauce which added a touch of sweet and then a little heat on the back end. The meat was predictably good and flavorful, and I was afraid I was going to miss the absence of cheese, but the potato was a great substitute, adding a bit of creaminess and moisture to the taco. Very well done and my favorite item of the afternoon.

Sandwiches are a great option at WR Kitchen and Bar, especially this Western Tri-Tip Sandwich ($12). I say that they are a great option, but due to my love of their barbecue, this was my first time having this sandwich. I'm now a convert. So good with its award-winning tri-tip, Monterey jack cheese, onions, and peppers. It comes with an au jus for dipping which makes this one part cheesesteak and part french dip. The bread absorbs the au jus nicely creating a flavor bomb with the insides of the sandwich.

Not that we needed them, but Executive Partner Alex Benes was eager to show off their Fiery Chicken Tacos ($12), and after the delicious brisket tacos, we were not going to argue. These packed a punch with a chili garlic sauce that had a heat that lingered after each bite. Definitely inspired by the bahn mi sandwich, these tacos included picked carrots and onions, cilantro, cucumbers, radishes, and of course chicken. Great textures and that chili sauce made these a must for anyone that likes things a little spicy.

Sides are not to be ignored at WR Kitchen. We tried two of their 11 offerings, the Lauren's Favorite Mac and Cheese ($4) and the Roasted Brussels Sprouts ($4). The mac and cheese is a classic with a  thick cheese sauce over the noodles. I definitely preferred the brussels sprouts, which picked up some flavor from the grill and had a great balsamic glaze that was present but did not interfere with the crispy sprouts. I've got my eye on the Garlic Roasted Cauliflower and the Mashed Potatoes on my next visit.

One of my favorite desserts of all time is something I always look forward to when I eat at Wood Ranch. Unfortunately, the Oreo Cookie Crunch is not available here at WR Kitchen, but they have another stellar dessert that I'm crazy about, Warm Butter Cake ($6). I've always described this as a Twinkie on steroids. Rich and buttery with a nice crunchy outer portion make for an awesome representation of this. Ice cream topping this would make it even better, but alas, no ice cream is available.

I think the guys behind Wood Ranch have another winner on their hands with WR Kitchen and Bar. In these uncertain times, you have to consider guests preferences, keep menus prices from skyrocketing, consider labor costs, and still turn out fantastic food to keep people coming back. Based on this one visit, I think WR Kitchen has achieved that delicate balance. It will be interesting to see how the community reacts to this version of a brand that they love so well. I know we will be back frequently when we have those hunger pangs for barbecue.

For more information about WR Kitchen and Bar, head to their website here:

Thursday, May 9, 2019

Pino's Cucina the Only Italian in Town

Pino's Cucina
27522 Antonio Parkway
Ladera Ranch, CA 92694

The end of April and the first part of June is the start of the busy time for both Katie an I. It starts with our anniversary in mid-April, and then the family birthdays, anniversaries, the usual Mother's and Father's Days keep us very busy through the middle of June. One of the few benefits to this stretch of time is that it gives us an opportunity to try some new restaurants, often with someone else picking up the tab.

That brings us to this visit to Pino's Cucina in Ladera Ranch. Katie's mom wanted me to find somewhere local for Katie's birthday and I was more than happy to oblige. I did a quick search of nearby restaurants on Yelp and found this place with a very respectable 4 and a half star rating, over 200 reviews, and a chef with quite the pedigree.

Chef Pino grew up in Sicily, learning his way around the kitchen from his mom, Giovanna. He left Italy to travel the world as a chef for Princess Cruises for nearly a decade. After the cruise ship stint, he settled down in Orange County in 1995 and has been here ever since. He's worked at Stella's Serious Italian in Dana Point, Antonello Ristorante, and Nello Cucina in Costa Mesa, and has now moved inland a bit to be the head chef at his namesake restaurant. The owners, Frank Domicolo, (Pino's nephew), and Giovanni Magro (Pino's longtime friend) round out the team at Pino's with their own experiences of working in casual and fine dining establishments in both Europe and here in the states.

Pino's Cucina, which opened two years ago, is located right next door to the 24-hour local favorite, Corky's. I believe before Pino's took over this used to be a vegetarian restaurant. Predictably, I never came here when it was the veggie place. The restaurant is a little bigger than it appears from the outside, with maybe twenty or so tables, a few pictures of Italy on the walls, a high ceiling, and a Renaldo Juventus jersey being prominently displayed on the back wall. 

The menu at Pino's is probably what you've come to expect at an Italian restaurant. There are plenty in the way of pasta options, with close to twenty being offered, along with more substantial entrees featuring chicken, veal, beef, and seafood available for guests that want a little more heft to their meals. Entrees range between $18 to $35 and pasta dishes go for $14 to $25 for a lobster ravioli. There's also soups, salads, and starters for customers to consider as well. Enough with the buildup, let's check out what we ate on this one of many birthday dinners for my beloved Katie.

Most Italian restaurants will start you out with a bread basket and Pino's Cucina was no different. They use a soft ciabatta bread cut into manageable cubes, just the perfect size for dipping into the provided olive oil and balsamic vinegar. The waitstaff was very efficient about refilling the bread and dipping sauces with great regularity throughout our stay.

Man, we have been having some good luck with salads recently, and that trend continued at Pino's. Salads are not included with entrees or pasta dishes, but that should not stop you from getting a salad here. This Caesar ($7) was pretty traditional with its chopped romaine, croutons, very good Caesar dressing and thick squares of parmesan. It had the perfect amount of dressing coating each leaf of romaine and the cuts of parmesan were plentiful and added a nice touch. Both Katie and her mom were pretty pleased with their House Salads ($7) of mixed greens, tomatoes, cucumbers, croutons, parmesan, and a fresh basil tomato vinaigrette. Katie praised the freshness of the produce in this salad, while her mom remarked that it was a pretty good size for a dinner salad.

For some reason, none of the appetizers really spoke to me this evening, so I acquiesced and let Katie select one that she wanted to try. She selected the Arancini ($12), which she claims that we have had at another restaurant before, but I had no recollection of it until I did a search of our blog and saw that we had arancini at Bruno's in Brea last summer. Sorry for doubting you, Katie. These at Pino's were definitely shaped differently than the ones we had a year earlier. These were cone-shaped compared to the ping pong ball sized ones we had at Bruno's. These were filled with rice, meat sauce, mozzarella, and peas and then deep fried. I thought these were just okay. They needed more of a pop of flavor for me to take notice. Not awful, but nothing that memorable.

I'm always intrigued by what Katie's mom, Lynn orders when we go out to eat. It's almost always something that I would not expect, like this Chicken Piccata ($18). She was all set to get the Chicken Marsala, but her neighbor convinced her that the piccata was the way to go at Pino's. She was happy she went with her neighbor's advice. This lightly breaded chicken was nice and tender in a traditional, yet delicious piccata sauce made up of garlic, white wine, lemon, shallots, and capers. This also came with a dollop of mashed potatoes and some squash.

I was going back and forth about what I wanted on this evening and eventually settled on this Mushroom and Sausage Risotto ($19). This was a very earthy dish with the presence of the mushrooms and with little bursts of flavor from the sausage coming through each bite. The risotto was cooked nicely also. I thought I got shortchanged when I saw the serving size of this, but it ended up being more than enough, as it was very filling.

The birthday girl opted to get one of the first things I ever made for her when we first started dating, Spaghetti Carbonara ($18). She claims that my carbonara is still the best she's had, which I know is not really true. This one was way better than mine. The cream sauce finished with egg yolk was rich and decadent. The chopped pancetta added a little heft to the dish and the parmesan tied it all together. A very comforting and filling version of a classic dish that means a lot to Katie and made her very happy this birthday dinner.

There were three options for dessert, and not being a big fan of cannolis or tiramisu, that left us with the Profiteroles ($7) on this evening. These were fine cream puffs but did not really blow me away. The outer portion of these seemed a little too tough and there was not nearly enough of the chocolate drizzle on the plate to make it useful for dipping. The inside cream was soft and sweet and was definitely the best part of this dessert.

Even though our ending dessert failed to impress, we loved our visit to Pino's Cucina, each of us vowing to return very soon. I did a quick search of full-service Italian restaurants in Ladera Ranch, and it only yielded one result, Pino's. But this restaurant is good enough to be included on any list of great Italian restaurants in South OC. The Italian cuisine served here is definitely authentic and done just like you'd expect from someone that learned to cook from their mother in Southern Italy. Service was pleasant and efficient and we were even treated to a visit to our table by Pino himself, which was an excellent treat. Pino's was a great choice for one of Kaie's birthday dinners and getting us ready for lots of family time in the upcoming two months.

Out of five zebras, (because it is easy to see from the decorations hanging on the walls, that they love the Series A team Juventus here, and their mascot is a zebra), five being best to zero being worst, Pino's Cucina gets a very strong 3.5 zebras.

 For more information about Pino's Cucina, head to their website by clicking here:

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Woodfire Kabob Grill Breaks the Curse of the Old Elephant Bar Spot

Woodfire Kabob Grill
24155 Laguna Hills Mall #1055
Laguna Hills, CA 92653

I never thought I would be walking through this restaurant door again. The restaurant that houses Woodfire Kabob Grill in Laguna Hills used to be home to one of the worst restaurants I have ever been to, the Elephant Bar. The food there was so awful that I rated it as one of the ten worst restaurants two years in a row. I'm wondering how they still have seven locations in operation, but I'm just happy that OC has none left so we can be spared their awful cuisine. Sorry Torrance, you still have to avoid Elephant Bar. Good luck.

Another reason I was not sure I would be coming back to this address is the simple fact that the Laguna Hills Mall is all but a shell of its former self, and its existence is very much in doubt. It was going to be torn down and rebranded as the Five Lagunas, but that project has been suspended. They have recently been holding public meetings to decide what to do with this space, so everything is still pretty much up in the air.  Luckily, the restaurants surrounding the abandoned mall are still operating, for now, so we headed to Woodfire Kabob Grill to give them a try.

Woodfire Kabob has been in operation for close to half a year now, and with the uncertainty of their space, I'm not sure how long they will be here. Even with all of this uncertainty, Woodfire has garnered some very good reviews both online and in print media. Their Yelp rating is a mighty impressive four and a half stars with over 200 reviews. They have been featured in both the OC Weekly and the OC Register with glowing reviews for their Mediterranean cuisine. With praise like this, we quickly grabbed our new friends Mazi and Marita and headed to Woodfire on a recent Wednesday evening.

They have not done too much to the dining space of the old Elephant Bar. The restaurant is huge, with a tinge of a jungle theme running through it. There's a big bar in the front portion of the house, but with no liquor license, it's just wasted space now. The menu at Woodfire Kabob is full of kabobs predictably, but there is also other lesser known Mediterranian specialties, appetizers, and for people that are not into this kind of food, there are even burgers, hot dogs, and chicken strip options. Prices for entrees range between $14 to $28 with some suggesting that plates are able to be shared between two people. No sharing for me this evening since I was pretty hungry, so let's see how everything turned out for the four of us.

Before we had even ordered, this plate and basket of bread were brought out to the table. From reading Edwin's always excellent restaurant reviews, I learned that this plate is called Noon Panir Sabzi, which translates to Bread Cheese Herbs, and is commonly eaten for breakfast in Iran. It is paired with a basket of lavash, which is thinner than pita, but still a great vessel to help you build your perfect wrap from the feta cheese, sliced cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, and walnuts. Be sure to check out Edwin's more comprehensive review in the OC Weekly by clicking here.

Whenever we are in a Mediterranian restaurant, Hummus ($5.99) is a must order. This was a very solid version of one of our favorite dips. It was very smooth, with a slick of olive oil floating on top of it. It was not the most flavorful we have had, but I liked the subtleness of it. This also came with plenty of the lavash to dip with.

Let's start the entree portion of the night with what I had, the Koobideh Combo Plate ($14.99). This came with one skewer of ground chicken and another one of ground beef. Think of it like a seasoned meatloaf in strip form. This was a good sized plate which also came with roasted tomato, onion, and a big scoop of basmati rice. The meats were tender and the seasonings were on point. I actually saved half of this for lunch the next day and it was just as good. The rice was excellent and I liked mixing it with a little bit of the hummus in alternating forkfuls. I would have liked a little more in the way of the roasted veggies, but this ended up being one of the better Mediterranian plates I've had.

Mazi went with the Barg Kabob Plate ($21.99) for his main meal on this evening. At Woodfire they use tender filet mignon to create this delicious strip of meat, which Mazi was generous enough to share a slice of this with all of us. I'm going to be getting this on my next trip here. I was a little surprised it was not in chunks, but it did not affect the taste at all. Mazi has pretty much grown up on Mediterranean food, and he was pretty impressed with the meal he had here. High praise.

Katie kept the kabob train rolling with this Chicken Soltani Kabob Plate ($20.99). This combo plate included a ground chicken koobideh and a chicken kabob. Katie, much to her surprise enjoyed the ground chicken better than the regular chicken kabob. The seasoning on both was good, but the chunks of chicken were not as tender as she would have liked. The koobideh was moist and flavorful throughout. She loved the rice and roasted veggies as well. She would have liked a garlic sauce to go along with this, but it was not offered here.

Last but not least was Marita's selection on this evening, the Fesenjoon Plate ($18.99). This was a walnut and pomegranate sauce with chicken breast. Kind of like a stew to me. The sauce was a little nuttier than I thought it would be, but it worked well with the chicken. Our major gripe with this, especially from Marita was that there was not too much in the way of chicken in this. Unlike the other meals we had up until this point, this one was skimpy in comparison. After she shared with the three of us, she was left with a couple of bites and then had to resort to picking of Mazi's plate. This ended up being the only hiccup of our evening at Woodfire.

I was pretty happy leaving Woodfire, something that I'm sure rarely happened when this used to be home to the Elephant Bar. It definitely never happened when I left this building before Woodfire opened up here. These were some of the best kabobs I have had in recent memory and I look forward to many more visits to Woodfire to explore more of their menu. Service was fine, as there were not a lot of people here, but our server was a little slow in checking back on us and with refills. Prices seemed more than fair, especially when you consider how much food you actually get, except for Marita's selection on this evening. Even though their location is in peril, to say the least, we look forward to many more trips to Woodfire in the very near future.

Out of five mint juleps, (because it's the official cocktail of the Kentucky Derby and when the Laguna Hills Mall opened in 1973, Secretariat had the most dominant win in that races long history, winning by 31 lengths) five being best to zero being worst, Woodfire Kabob Grill gets 3.5 mint juleps.

For more information about Woodfire Kabob Grill, head to their website here:

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Anniversary Dinner at the New Steakhouse in Town

Davio's Northern Italian Steakhouse
18420 Von Karman Ave. #100
Irvine, CA 92612

They said it would never last. The odds were stacked against two young kids who met online, had never had much luck in love, and never dreamed that either of them would have any chance to get married. But we showed them on April 18th, as Katie and I celebrated our fourth year as man and wife.

Okay, to be honest, no one ever really said that we had no shot at wedded bliss. As soon as we started dating each other six years prior to our wedding, we were never apart. Our friends and family instantly saw our chemistry and knew we belonged together. She was just what I needed, and I was what she needed. A perfect match if there ever was one, and we never thought it would happen for us.

Alright, you did not come here to read about some mediocre love story, you want to know about our thoughts on another OC restaurant. We got you. Since it was our anniversary, and it coincided with the arrival of our copy of Orange Coast Magazine being delivered, and their cover story this month just happened to be about the best new restaurants in OC, I let Katie choose one of them for us to try. After a little bit of debate, she chose to celebrate our anniversary at Davio's in Irvine.

Davio's Northen Italian Steakhouse comes to us from the East Coast, or Boston specifically. This ten unit restaurant chain got its start back in 1985 when Steve DiFillippo purchased a family restaurant named Davio's in Boston's Back Bay area. After some tweaking to the menu, wine list, and other touches, Davio's soon became a hit with critics and guests alike. Their philosophy was to make everything from scratch, with the finest ingredients possible, and then feature a polished and attentive front of the house staff.

In October of last year, Davio's moved west to open in the former Prego spot, right next to the Irvine Towers in Irvine. The team includes General Manager Michael DiFillippo, son of owner Steve, and Executive Chef Istvan Toth, who is Hungarian born and raised, worked in some of New York's busiest kitchens and has been with Davio's since 2013. I was intrigued to find out what Davio's was all about on this evening.

We arrived here ten minutes before our half past six reservation time and were seated in the half-empty dining room. The layout of this restaurant is pretty much the same as when it was Prego, with ample spacing between tables, an open kitchen where you can spy the kitchen staff manning the grill and preparing plates of pasta, and a couple of private dining areas which can be requested by guests. It does appear that they lightened things up a bit by adding some white paint to the walls, to go along with the white table cloths and linens.

The two-page menu features a wide selection of items, some you would expect from a steakhouse others you wouldn't.  They offer ala carte steaks and seafood, fifteen sides meant for sharing, a handful of salad options and a seafood tower for however many people you have dining with you. What I didn't expect to see were so many options in the way of pasta dishes, which can also be ordered as an appetizer, dinners that come with sides, (almost unheard of these days in a steak restaurant), and a grouping of spring rolls, which are really more in the way of an egg roll, rather than what you'd find in Garden Grove's great Vietnamese restaurants. I was excited to try out the food here and after four years of being married to Katie, I felt I deserved this great meal. Kidding, of course, just wanted to make sure you were still with me.

When these Popovers were first brought out I was not too enthused. They brought to my mind the bland, overhyped Yorkshire pudding that goes largely ignored when I get it with my prime rib at most places. After my first bite of this popover that negative connotation quickly went away. These were nothing like that. They had a great taste to them, were still airy inside, but had more depth than the usual Yorkshire pudding that has haunted me for a long while. These were very filling and after our second one each, we had to tell them to stop bringing them out. Great butter with these too.

Our server Jermaine suggested we try the American Kobe Beef Meatballs ($15) as a starter. He did not steer us wrong. These come two to an order and were almost tennis ball sized. Very nice and tender, the beef really shined here with a nice clean taste to it. The red sauce was the perfect balance between acidic and sweet, while the caciocavallo cheese that came blanketed over each meatball was nice and mellow. Also, cheers to Davio's for calling these American Kobe, instead of just Kobe, which makes you think that the beef comes from Japan. Too many restaurants do this kind of underhanded tactic.

Continuing our Italian portion of our meal, we decided we'd try out one of their pasta dishes, which are offered as a meal, or as an appetizer portion. The appetizer size of this Sausage and Rigatoni ($15) was the perfect size for splitting between Katie and myself. The above shot is just my share of this, which they graciously split for us in the kitchen. A very nice touch. This was one of the better pasta dishes I have had in recent memory. The pasta was obviously made fresh here and had a great texture to it. I loved the sausage and the creamy burrata they used in this, with just a touch of truffle oil for an added richness Wonderful.

Now the main event for me, the 18 Ounce Prime Aged Ribeye ($54). The ribeye has long been my favorite steak to try when I'm in a steak restaurant for the first time. I use it as a benchmark to judge a steakhouse. This one was not my favorite. It was a good sized piece of meat, but I had a few issues with it. I know that some fat is to be expected when having a ribeye, as that's where a lot of the flavor comes from, but this one had an excessive amount. I also felt the meat needed to be flavored a lot more. It could not stand on its own, as I needed to ask for some Bernaise sauce and their not very tasty Davio's steak sauce to wake this up a bit. On the positive side, it was cooked to my desired medium rare and the half that I took home for dinner the next day was better after I trimmed the fat away and added extra sauce to it. Disappointing ribeye though.

Whenever we eat in a steak restaurant, I always cringe when Katie orders, because she always wants her steak to be medium well, which is actually an improvement over when we first started dating and she would want her beef cooked well done. At least she's grown a bit in that respect. On this trip to Davio's, she went with the 8 Ounce Center Cut Filet Mignon ($45). I'm usually hesitant to try her steaks because they are too overcooked for my taste, but I did try this one, and it wasn't bad. It definitely had more flavor than my ribeye, which is something I was not expecting and it was tender, even though it was medium well. A mark of someone that knows how to cook a steak. She loved this steak and the roasted garlic that came with it. She got their gorgonzola sauce to go with the steak and it was the best of all the sauces we tried here. Good flavor to it, but balanced enough that it let the filet be the star of the show.

Since we had eaten so much prior to our main meals, we decided to only get one side to go with our entrees. The Creamy Potatoes ($9) would be that side. These were some pretty good mashed potatoes, and they were definitely buttery. Next time we will definitely try their horseradish mashed potatoes, macaroni n' cheese, or brussels sprouts.

Call me weird, but I was not too enthused with the dessert cart at Davio's. A lot of their desserts were espresso based, and as I'm not really fond of coffee, we decided to skip dessert, but they brought us this complimentary dessert plate in honor of our anniversary. A very nice gesture.

So what to make of Davio's? I'd place them outside of my OC steakhouse Mount Rushmore based on this visit. The ribeye I had here does not compare to the ones I've had at Mastro's, Capital Grille, Ruth Chris, or Sellane Steak Tavern. The steak lacked that wow factor and seemed to be of an inferior quality to the other steak places that  I mentioned above. I did however like the Italian items that they offer here. The pasta and meatballs were right up there with what they serve at some of the best Italian restaurants in OC. Dessert options need a little more diversity in my opinion, like maybe a butter cake? Service was some of the best we've had in a long while. Our server Jermaine was personable, easy to talk with and kept tabs on all of his tables with ease. The rest of the staff made a great effort to keep things moving along at a leisurely, but efficient pace and make sure that each of their guests had their every need met.  It will be interesting to see how Davio's will fit into the already crowded OC steakhouse market in the future. Just like it will be interesting to see how long Katie will be able to put up with being married to me.

Out of five Boston cream donuts, (because that's is the official donut of the state of Massachusettes, where Davio's hails from), five being best to zero being worst, Davio's gets 3.5 Boston cream donuts.

For more information about Davio's, you can check them out here: