Friday, September 13, 2019

The Great OC Barbecue Shortage Is Coming to an End

Jav's BBQ
500 South Anaheim Blvd. #D
Anaheim, CA 92805

It's happening people! After a decade of writing this restaurant blog and lamenting the fact that there are very few above-average places to get barbecue in OC, we now have several places dotting our great county. Unfortunately for me, most of them are north of Irvine, a little bit more of a trek from where I live in South OC, but for good barbecue, I'll definitely drive.

As of right now, my favorite barbecue places are The SmoKING Ribs in Garden Grove,  Firestarter Barbecue in Lake Forest, Leadbelly's in Fullerton, Blake's Place in Anaheim, Meat Up Barbecue in Placentia, and the long-departed Lillie's Q in Brea. Guess they aren't coming back to OC after all. I was hoping that this visit to Jav's BBQ could add another restaurant to my favorite barbecue list.

I heard about Jav's from my cousin Kevin, who works at KTLA as a sound guy. I was not watching at the time, but he texted me and told me that the guys from Jav's were in the studio and made food for all the crew. Kevo told me that we had to check them out, that their barbecue was amazing. This coming from a guy that is very particular about his food. I'll leave it at that.

Anyways, it took us quite a few months to finally find the time to make it to Jav's BBQ. We combined this trip with a long-overdue double date night with our very good friends Rebecca and Martin. I've known them for over 25 years, met her at work, and they have become life long friends ever since. They had never been to this area of Anaheim, which includes the Anaheim Packing District, Farmer's Park, Center Street Promenade, and the Make Building which houses Jav's and a few other businesses situated on the corner of Santa Ana and Anaheim Boulevard, right across the street from the always busy Packing District.

Javier Gomez is the man behind Jav's BBQ. He was born and raised in Anaheim and has spent most of life studying barbecue from around the country. He's used what he's learned to bring what he hopes is great barbecue to the people of his hometown. Jav's BBQ started as a caterer and was selling their barbecue at the Anaheim Farmer's Market on Thursdays. They opened their brick and mortar spot in early 2018 and have gotten glowing reviews for their meats that are always cooked for at least 12 hours over an all-wood pit.

Their menu is like a greatest hits of the barbecue world.  They offer six proteins, which they sell by the pound or you can get them as a plate, and they come with two sides. There are three sandwiches to choose from and they also offer wings, pulled pork nachos, and fries. Sides are what you've come to expect at a place that serves barbecue. Their restaurant is really more of just a counter, and then you take your food and find a spot at one of the tables in the common area of the center of the building. Enough chatter, let's see if we would be able to add Jav's BBQ to our list of great barbecue in OC.

A Pulled Pork Sandwich ($12.48) was Katie's choice on this early evening and will lead us off. This was a pretty good-sized pulled pork sandwich, with a nice looking brioche bun. They did not skimp on the delicious pork here, as it was falling out of the sandwich when she picked it up. She described the pork as tender and juicy, with just the right amount of smokiness. Katie was also a fan of the coleslaw here, as it was a vinegar-based version, which had a nice tang to it.

My goal at every barbecue restaurant is the same, try as much of the menu as I can on one plate. I had the Two Meat Plate ($19.76) and added a Sausage Link ($3.64) just for good measure. These three portions of meat were pretty incredible. If I had to pick a clear winner it would be the brisket for the gold. One of the best I've had. Nice smoke ring running around the outside edge of each slice, just enough of a ribbon of fat to boost the flavor, and not dry at all. The pork back ribs nab the silver medal here. Each of the four ribs was tender and easily pulled off of the bone with a little tug. The outside had a nice crust to it, while the meat inside was just the right amount of moist. A lot of meat on these as well. The sausage link had a nice snap to its casing and a little bit of heat was present at the end of each bite. The sides should not be ignored at Jav's BBQ. I got the Brussel sprouts and the mac n cheese. The sprouts were honey glazed which was a good contrast with the earthy green bulbs. The mac n cheese was some of the best I have had in a long while. Elbow noodles were used here and they were coated with a very good cheese sauce that clung to the noodles perfectly. The cheese was not too runny, which is a big pet peeve of mine when it comes to mac n cheese. I almost went and got a pint of this to take home for lunch the next day. I really should have but I would have had to lug it around while we went to the Packing District after dinner.

Martin is a pretty straight shooter when it comes to what he likes. He did not really debate at all when he picked the Chicken Plate ($15.60). Chicken is never something that I'd eat when at a barbecue joint, but different strokes for different folks. Martin was generous enough to allow me to try a piece of his chicken, and it was surprisingly moist and juicy. For his two sides, he went with coleslaw and creamed corn. The coleslaw was alright, but the cream corn shined here. It was a tad sweet, but not like the famous one at Gulliver's. I liked the slight subtleness of this one and it conveyed a hominess that I enjoyed.

Last but not least, Rebecca finishes things off for us on this evening with her Tri-Tip Sandwich ($13.52). The meat was cooked just about medium rare, which allowed for it to be very tender and nicely spiced on the ends. Again, they did not skimp on the amount of meat included with this sandwich. Rebecca definitely had plenty to keep herself occupied with this rather large sandwich. For her side items, she opted for the Baked BBQ Beans and cornbread. I did not get a chance to try the beans, but she really enjoyed them. The only slight hiccup of the evening was probably the cornbread. It was a little on the dry side, too dense, and really did not have too much in the way of flavor. Maybe the jalapeno version might have been the better option.

If you've read this far, you might have noticed that I have not mentioned barbecue sauce yet. They have it, but as it says on their website, they urge you to taste the meat, not the sauce. The meats here are so good you will find yourself only using a little bit of their sauce. That's the mark of great barbecue, and this really is great. Yes, the prices are a bit high, but barbecue always costs a bit more than you'd expect, and this is definitely worth it. The serving sizes are pretty solid as well. Since it's open seating here for all the places in this building, I could imagine that peak times could be a bit of a hassle to find a place to sit, so be prepared for that. This was a good tip from my cousin who lives in LA, about what I think is the best barbecue I've had to date in OC. Thanks, Kevo.

Out of five catcher's masks, (because whenever I hear the name Javy, it brings to mind the Atlanta Braves catcher from the '90s, Javy Lopez), five being best to zero being worst, Jav's BBQ gets 4 catcher masks.

For more information about Jav's BBQ, head to their website here:

Friday, September 6, 2019

Welcome to OC Vaka Burger

Vaka Burger
1705 Flight Way 
Tustin, CA 92782

Nothing gets me quite as pumped as a new burger spot coming to OC. Okay, maybe a week off from work, but you get what I'm saying here, I really love burgers. Especially if that burger concept was really crazy popular somewhere else before they came to OC. That's the case with Vaka Burger, which came across my radar when I saw a review about their glorious burgers when they were serving them to the hungry people of Whittier.

Brad A. Johnson, who also really loves a good burger, wrote in the Orange County Register that the burgers here could be the best he has ever tasted. He has also named Vaka Burger as one of the top ten places for cheap eats in OC. High praise, but I have been burned a few times by some of his recommendations, so I had to check out Vaka Burger for myself.

If you haven't heard, there's a new food hall in the city of Tustin. Located pretty close to the corner of Barranca and Red Hill, Mess Hall is situated right next to three soon to be inhabited office buildings.  The two times I've been here the food hall was filled with plenty of people exploring the 9 stalls. I can only imagine that once these office buildings are filled with hungry workers, Mess Hall is only going to get even busier.

Vaka Burger started out as a popular food truck back in 2013. Two years later they set up shop in a Boyle Heights liquor store, where they grew to cult status. After a disagreement with the liquor store owners, they opened a spot in Whittier, where their iconic rise continued. That location closed as they went back to another liquor store in Boyle Heights. Then, lucky for all of us in OC, they took one of the stalls at Mess Hall and hopefully they will be here for a long while.

As I mentioned earlier, I have visited Mess Hall two times now, both trips at right about 11:30 to try to avoid the lunchtime rush, which I highly advise. Vaka is easily the most popular of all the food purveyors, which also include Slapfish, Big Parm, Sandwich Society, a Greek spot, a chicken sandwich stand called Fowl Play, Fonda Moderna, Saigon Kitchen, a coffee and tea spot, and a full bar. I've tried some of the other food stalls, but will probably review them later. For now, I was all about Vaka Burger.

The Vaka Burger menu features nine burgers, two sandwiches, sides, a salad, and wings. Prices range between $10 to $13 for their burgers and they come ala carte. Sides will set you back $3 to $7. Now that you've got the lay of the land here, let's see our thoughts on this much-hyped burger spot.

Starting things off on visit number one was my dad's pick, the Blu Burger ($13). This burger was right up his alley. It came with some soft blue cheese, mushrooms coated in a balsamic glaze, butter lettuce, and garlic aioli. My dad was in love with this burger. He called this one of the better burgers he has had in OC. He loved the way the blue cheese was present but did not overpower the very rich 6 ounces of grass-fed beef. The burger patty was the star of the show, and the condiments and toppings complimented it awesomely. Definitely a great start to our visit.

I kind of panicked when it was my turn to order at Vaka Burger. I showed up to Mess Hall knowing what I was going to order and then switched it up at the last moment. This El Porky Burger ($13) made me do an about-face when I saw that the menu said it contains two proteins; a hamburger patty and pork belly medallions. I was sold. Also added to the mix were sliced provolone cheese, caramelized onions, and a good amount of barbecue sauce. Definitely, a knife and fork burger, although I did give it a try with my hands at first. I think the barbecue sauce kind of overpowered everything here. It was hard to get an idea of how good the pork and beef were on this. The bread is worth spotlighting here. Even with this being a very messy burger, the bun maintained its structural integrity, while staying soft and pliable. A great accomplishment to whoever provides their buns at Vaka Burger.

My niece Lillie, like most kids, is pretty basic when it comes to the food that they like to eat. She got the Lencho Jr, Burger ($5) from the kid's section of the menu. This cheeseburger featured sharp cheddar cheese and she 86'd the ketchup that usually comes on this. Even though there were no condiments on this, it really showcased the quality of their burgers. The beef is ground nicely, comes out juicy, and is of very high quality. I thought the sharp cheddar was an odd choice for a kid's burger, but no complaints from very picky Lillie, who usually leaves half of her food uneaten, but that was not the case here at Vaka Burger.

Lillie's kid's meal came with fries, which were nice and thin, but kind of unremarkable to me. They were your basic fast-food fries, even though the menu states that they are twice-fried. The lone blemish on our first trip to Vaka Burger was the Dirty Fries ($6) I had ordered. Here they use the same fries as Lillie's meal but top them with feta cheese, Russian dressing, caramelized onions, and garlic aioli to finish them off.  These came out lukewarm at best and were not helped out any by an overabundance of feta cheese, which overwhelmed here. If the menu did not alert me to the fact that there was Russian dressing and garlic aioli included here, I never would have known. Again, this was my only disappointment with visit number one.

Visit number two started out with these Maui Rings ($6). These were the reason that two trips to Vaka were needed. We had these on our first visit, but my pictures of them were unusable. Not really a shame, since it gave me a second chance to have these awesome rings. They are huge and they give you plenty to share with anyone you choose to bring here. The outer portion has a nice crunchy beer batter, which breaks away easily from the large onion underneath when bitten into. I liked the smaller ones a bit better, as they were even extra crunchy. They gave me both housemade ketchup and garlic aioli for dipping sauces, both of which were good. Just wish they had ranch dressing, which I imagine would be even better with these definitely above-average rings. 

I went a little more subdued on this visit to Vaka, with the Truff Burger ($13). This burger featured arugula, sharp white cheddar cheese, caramelized onions, truffle oil, and garlic aioli. I really liked this burger. The truffle was very present, the cheese melted over the patty perfectly, and I could actually taste the garlic aioli on this. A little too much arugula, but it did help to cut the richness of this burger. Truffle lover? Then this one is all you.

Even though we did not have any kids with us on this trip, I had to order the Lechon Jr, ($5). I figured for five dollars, plus you get fries, it's a pretty good deal worth having. This time they gave me sharp white cheddar instead of the yellow sharp cheddar they had put on the earlier kid's burger. Maybe they were out of the yellow. This was a very good burger nonetheless. As you can see from the picture above, there was plenty of cheese on this, the ketchup added a nice and pleasant flavor, and the beef was again first-rate and coked to a delicious medium. Definitely the best bargain at this food hall.

Vaka Burger did not disappoint. It's easy to see why this is the most popular of all the food stalls here at Mess Hall. The burgers are in the upper echelon of the ones I have had in OC. I actually think that I'll include them in my mythical Mount Hamburgermore of OC Burgers, which now includes G Burger, Burger Parlor, Hopdoddy, and now Vaka Burger. The burgers are really excellent, but I do wish they were a little more flexible when it comes to customization when building your perfect burger. Reading their Yelp reviews, that's one of the things that people complain about the most, while the other is price. Which is really silly when you think about it. I went to Wendy's today for lunch, got a large-sized combo, and spent  $12 for a far inferior burger and fries there. I'd gladly pay the extra $8 for the quality of the burger and onion rings at Vaka when I'm near the Tustin area. No issues with the service on either of these two visits. Glad the hype was warranted, and I hope Vaka Burger has a very long tenure in OC.

Out of five outriggers, (because the term vaka is used to describe the multihull seafaring vessels popular in the South Pacific), five being best to zero being worst, Vaka Burger gets 3.5 outriggers. 

Vaka Burger does not have a website, so check out their Yelp page for more information by clicking here:

Monday, August 26, 2019

Getting Our Fill at Filomena's

Filomena's Italian Kitchen
2400 Newport Blvd. 
Costa Mesa, CA 92627

I guess you never truly know where you are going to end up when you head out your front door. Katie and I were headed out for long-overdue date night down in Newport on a recent Saturday. I had made reservations at a restaurant I have wanted to try forever. We even got all the way down there and were trying to find parking when my cell phone rang.

It was the restaurant we were going to, and they informed us that they had lost power due to a transformer blowing up, and they were not sure when they were going to be up and running. I was pretty surprised that they had taken the time to call us and let us know, a very nice touch. Now the question was where to eat now? We were quickly getting off the very busy Balboa Penninsula when it hit me that we should try another spot on my restaurant wishlist, Filomena's Italian Kitchen.

We had run across the food at Filoomena's many times at food and wine festivals we had attended. Their food that they were passing out was always very tasty, almost a rarity at these food festivals. It shouldn't be shocking that Filomena's food was so great when you consider the accolades that they have achieved in their six-plus years of being in business.

They have named one of the 75 best places to eat in OC by Brad Johnson, the notoriously tough restaurant critic of the Orange County Register three times in the last four years. Filomena's has also gotten rave reviews for their pizza, as they were listed as number four on the Orange Coast Magazine's list of best pizzas in OC. Their customers have even gotten into the act, bestowing a very respectable four-star rating on Yelp with over 500 reviews written.

The woman behind this restaurant is Chef Linda Johnsen. She grew up in South Philly, loved going to the Italian Market, and learned to make the perfect pasta and sauce from her aunt Rosemary and this restaurants' namesake, her grandmother, Filomena. In 2017, Chef Linda expanded to incorporate a true Italian deli and market as well. Here they sell imported meat and cheeses, salads, pre-packaged dinners, gelato, cookies, pastries, and more. Since we had about a fifteen-minute wait before the OC Fair concert-goers headed out to catch their show, we had plenty to keep us occupied in the market until a table was made available to us.

The menu at Filomena's is just what you'd expect from an Italian restaurant in OC. There are a good amount of starters, salads, a varied selection of pasta dishes, five seafood offerings, more hefty entree options, and their award-winning pizzas to round things out. Prices for entrees and pasta dishes range between $13 to $25, very reasonable. Let's see if our unexpected change of plans turned out to be a blessing.

Just like in almost all Italian restaurants in OC, bread service was our first stop at Filomena's on this evening. They use a crusty Italian style bread in their breadbasket. It had a thick crust, while the inside was light and airy. This came with very nice garlic butter, which was easily spreadable, a big plus in my book. The garlic was not too overwhelming, more on the subtle side, but not lacking in flavor. A difficult balance to achieve with an ingredient as strong as garlic.

From the starter section of the menu, I convinced Katie that we needed to try the Sausage and Meatballs ($12). This iron skillet contained two golf ball-sized meatballs and two sausages topped with melted mozzarella and light and fluffy ricotta cheese perched on top like whipped cream. I liked the well-crafted sausage between the two portions of meat here. The meatball needed to be a tad more tender and flavored a bit more, which the cheeses and sauce definitely helped with. A solid, heavy starter for big eaters. 

When a salad is listed on a menu as going for less than $10, it usually entices me into ordering it, even if we were already having an appetizer. It must have gotten Katie as well since she tried the House Salad ($8). This salad came with iceberg lettuce as its base and then is enhanced with tomatoes, cucumbers, onion, sweet peppers, and carrots with a house vinaigrette serving as the dressing. Katie felt this was a very good starter salad, with its fresh ingredients and very good vinaigrette. Way better than the much-ballyhooed salad at Olive Garden. Why do people still eat there?

I'm always game for a Caesar Salad ($7) as many of you long-time readers know from my probably hundreds that I've eaten in the last ten years. This one at Filomena's had an excellent parmesan cheese, but fell flat when it came to the croutons, which were hard and flavorless. The dressing also needed to be a bit more present. Definitely not the worst I've had, but room for improvement. 

Katie zeroed in on her meal very quickly at Filomena's. She went with the very popular Pappardelle Bolognese ($18). Reading the online reviews, this gets a lot of love from the regulars here. They got this one right. This was pretty much a perfect plate of pasta. The pappardelle pasta was fresh and cooked just right. The meaty ragu was absolutely delicious. Just the right amount of meat and sauce in this to keep us interested throughout the very short time the food was on this plate. She ate this very quickly, with some assistance from me.

Definitely not one of the most photogenic of dishes, but I wanted to give their Veal Saltimbocca ($25) a try on this evening. I've had a pretty average streak of veal in Italian restaurants lately. I always think if you are going to pay the extra money for veal, it should be exceptionally tender. Lately, that has not been the case when I've ordered it in Italian restaurants, including this trip to Filomena's. This veal was not as tender as I hoped it would be, and the prosciutto really overwhelmed with a very salty taste to it. The sauce was good, and this really mellowed when I had it for lunch the next day. Definitely better the day after. I'm still in search of a veal dish that can rival the one I had at Pina's Bistro in Tustin four years ago.

Even though there were a few minor hiccups during our visit to Filomena's, both Katie and I left here wishing that we had an Italian restaurant like this in our neighborhood. With a menu as varied as this, it will probably take a few more visits to come up with my perfect meal here, even though that bolognese was fantastic and I've thought about it a number of times since our trip to Filomena's. The garlic bread, pizzas, lasagna, and other pasta dishes are in my sights for future visits. Another thing this restaurant has going for it is their hospitality. We had two servers during our stay, and they provided some of the best service we have received in a restaurant in quite some time. They met our every need and answered all of our queries seamlessly. Even though we had not originally intended to eat at Filomena's on this evening, we are very happy we ended up here, and look forward to coming back again soon.

Out of five miracles, (because the night of our visit was also the night when Smokey Robinson was playing at the OC Fair, and his former band was called The Miracles), five being best to zero being worst, Filomena's Italian Kitchen gets 3 miracles.

For more information about Filomena's Italian Kitchen, head to their website here:

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Not Overlooking Sancho Anymore

Sancho's Tacos
1101 South El Camino Real 
San Clemente, CA 92672

Since we live in the land of great Mexican food, it's understandable if some places get overlooked. That's kind of how I feel about Sancho's Tacos. I had recently heard about them from a coworker, who had asked if I had tried them. I said I had not, and immediately looked up their info.

Just checking out their locations I was a little surprised I had not eaten at one of their four OC locations, (they also have an outpost in Oceanside for those of you reading this farther south). Sancho's has locations in some of my favorite cities; Newport, Huntington, Laguna Niguel, and the city where we visit almost weekly to walk the beach trail, San Clemente. I actually had to use Google Maps to find out where their spots were in these cities. I decided right then that we needed to try them out the next time we were in San Clemente, and that happened just a few days later.

Sancho's Tacos is a little south of the majority of the business district in San Clemente. Just past Ralph's on El Camino, and sandwiched between a florist and Biggies Burgers. You can't miss the huge sign that stands above El Camino Real in this part of town. Parking is a bit tricky at this former site of Taste of China. They have just eight regular parking spots, and we did observe people parking at other nearby businesses, and walking here when there were no spots available.

We arrived here at just before 6pm on a recent Sunday and were met with a pretty full restaurant. There are three tables inside, and the majority of the seating options are located outside, maybe another ten or so tables. Ordering is done at the counter, and then the food is brought out to you. Their menu includes plenty in the way of tacos, burritos, breakfast, nachos, a quesadilla, and loaded fries. As far as prices, only one item breaks the ten-dollar threshold, and that's the surf and turf burrito, which goes for $10.25, just an extra quarter.

I thought we were living right when we snagged the last parking spot in the small lot and found an empty table out in front of the restaurant. That luck ended when we were informed that they were out of both guacamole and carnitas on this early Sunday evening. We were cool about it, but we did hear other customers grumble rather loudly about it. Enough about what we couldn't have, let's see what we did consume after our walk at the beach trail.

Katie started off with two tacos this evening. The Yardbird ($2.99) is the one in the middle picture, while the Flounder Pounder ($3.25) is the one right above. The chicken taco came with cubed grilled chicken, onions, cilantro, sour cream, and something called chubby sauce. The fish taco came with grilled fish, cilantro, cabbage, crema, chubby sauce, and salsa verde. Both tacos came on sturdy corn tortillas. Katie felt these were great representations of tacos you'd want to eat near the beach. The fish taco was her slight favorite, as the fish was moist and the condiments complemented it nicely. The chicken had a good flavor to it and they put so much in it that she had enough chicken for a second taco. Okay, maybe a street sized taco, but a taco nonetheless. 

Part one of my meal, since my preferred carnitas were not an option on this evening, was the first taco listed on their menu, the OG ($3.20). They use tri-tip here and dress the taco simply with cilantro, sour cream, chubby sauce, and onions. I liked the flavor and tenderness of the tri-tip in this. They were not shy about using a good amount of meat in this either. The simple condiment selection really let the tri-tip be the star here. Even though I was bummed there was no carnitas available, this was a great alternative.

For the second part of my meal, I went the burrito route with this Surf and Turf Burrito ($10.25). This had both shrimp and tri-tip, along with rice, beans, cheddar and jack cheeses, sour cream, cabbage, and pico de gallo. I liked this burrito but it did have a few issues. The tri-tip in this seemed like it was different than the taco I had. The beef was in bigger hunks and not marinated in the same stuff as what was in my taco. The result was a blander burrito. The shrimp was fine, but this needed that spark from the tri-tip. This also came out rather lukewarm, and in the early evening shade, it cooled very quickly. Very girthy, this did end up filling me up.

Katie was still a little hungry after her two tacos, so we decided to split their Pounders Carnal Fish Taco ($4.25). Glad we did. This was probably the best of the bunch, just edging out the tri-tip taco I had. This flour tortilla came out loaded up with pieces of fried fish, red and green cabbage, crema, pico de gallo, and some of their chubby sauce. The fish on this was fried nicely, with a crispy outer crunch and flaky and tender white fish underneath. The crunch of the cabbage and the combination of the chipotle and sour cream rounded this out rather nicely. A very well done fish taco, one of the better ones we've had recently.

This initial visit to Sancho's has really piqued my interest to return here very soon. I've heard good things about their breakfast burrito, and of course, I need to try their carnitas as well. I thought the prices were pretty good, considering the size of their tacos and burritos. I've also heard that they have a Taco Tuesday deal from 4 to 8, where some of their tacos are offered at $2 each. This might not be the most comfortable of restaurants to eat at, with most of the seating being outside and the rather small parking lot situation, but we will definitely be back very soon. Sancho's Tacos will not be overlooked by us anymore.

Out of five horses, (because one of the most successful racehorses of the early 19th century was an English horse named Sancho, which won 8 of his 12 races), five being best to zero being worst, Sancho's Tacos gets 3 horses.

For more information about Sancho's Tacos, head to their website here:

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Vacation Time in Torrance?

King's Hawaiian Bakery and Restaurant
2808 Sepulveda Blvd. 
Torrance, CA 90505

Summertime is for vacations. It seems like almost everyone that I know has gotten out of town at some point during this summer. I've seen my friend's Facebook posts about their summer trips to Italy, Colombia, Vegas, Japan, Miami, Alaska, and more. Even my friend Carol, who I was dining with on this particular afternoon is headed to Chicago at the end of this month, and she never goes anywhere. I have extreme travel envy at this point. I was hoping that a birthday lunch for Carol at King's Hawaiian Bakery and Restaurant in Torrance would transport me to the South Pacific, at least for an hour or two.

The King's Hawaiian story begins in 1950 in Hilo, Hawaii. This is where founder Robert Taira opened his first bakery, before moving his family business to the more metropolis Honolulu. His bakery restaurant became pretty well known for their Portuguese sweet bread, which would eventually become known as King's Hawaiian Bread. The mainland was introduced to this famous bread in 1977 when they opened their first factory in Torrance. This restaurant and bakery followed in 1988. In 2001 they opened The Local Place, which is a fast-casual version of their original restaurant and bakery.

Now that you are all caught up on their history, let's get back to our visit. As I mentioned earlier, it was my good friend Carol's birthday, and since she now resides in Torrance, it has given us a chance to visit some restaurants up this way. Besides Gen BBQ, King's Hawaiian is the most reviewed restaurant on Yelp in this South Bay city. Close to 3,000 reviews and a mighty impressive four-star rating.

The outside of the restaurant, which sits alongside busy Sepulveda Boulevard kind of reminded me of the house on Fantasy Island, for the few of you that remember that 70's and 80's TV show. Once inside I was a little taken aback by the very large bakery case. This could be one of the largest bakery cases I have ever seen. They had plenty of cakes, pies, cookies, donuts, muffins, pastries, large displays of their Hawaiian Bread, and other assorted desserts. I did not know this before coming here, but they also do quite a large amount of wedding cakes as well. Very impressive, but we were here for some more substantial food after my long drive.

Breakfast is served every day before 2pm, but some items are available all day long. Lunch begins at 11, and they have plenty in the way of choices; appetizer, Hawaiian bowls, Hawaiian local favorites, combination plates, burgers, sandwiches, noodles, and fried rice dishes. Prices hover right around the $12 mark for breakfast and lunch and dinner options will set you back on average $14. Let's see if my trip up the 405 Freeway to King's Hawaiian could help ease the vacation envy I have of all of my friend's vacation plans. 

Probably not shocking to anyone, but once you are seated you are brought out a six-pack of Hawaiian Rolls to start things off with. These came out warm, but with only two pads of butter, I had one and we packaged up the rest so Carol could take them home to her sister.

While looking at the menu, Carol had made mention of the Macadamia Nut Onion Rings ($11.25) and since it was her birthday, we needed to give them a try. This plate of rings could have easily served four. These were a very solid onion ring. The breading did not pull away from the thick onion underneath, which is my biggest pet peeve with onion rings. The panko and macadamia nut breading was very sturdy, but maybe due to the deep-frying, the macadamia nuts did not really come through flavor-wise for me. The ranch dressing and barbecue sauce were fine, but I was maybe hoping they would have gotten a little more creative with their sauces and done a sweet and spicy pineapple dip or something else. Still, if you are a fan of the onion rings, these are a must-order for you.

Carol very rarely goes out to eat for breakfast, so when we try new places, she likes to give breakfast a try. At King's Hawaiian, she tried what I assume is one of their most popular breakfast plates, the Big Island Breakfast ($11.75). This breakfast combination plate comes with two eggs, three strips of bacon, and their famous King's Hawaiian French Toast. The eggs were cooked to her desired wishes and the bacon was nice and crisp. I tried a bite of her french toast and thought it was fine, but it did not blow me away. Decent, but nothing that really made me think I needed to have more than one bite, which is a good thing since Carol ate all of this rather quickly. Man, that 73-year-old woman can eat.

When people talk about breakfast dishes from Hawaii, Loco Moco ($11.75) is definitely what I think of. This was a pretty traditional version, which starts with white rice as its base and is then topped with a hamburger patty, brown gravy, and two over-easy eggs. A few of my bites of this were good, but this needed more gravy to bring it all together. The hamburger patty also needed to be seasoned a bit more to make it pop. The best part of this dish was the scoop of potato macaroni salad that came with this. It's the perfect mash-up for people who are fans of both macaroni and potato salad.

I was a bit disappointed with my visit to King's Hawaiian. I think I expected a bit more than just an average coffee shop. Nothing was totally awful, but nothing was really so great that it would make me want to drive up here again from OC. I can see why people like this place though. It does kind of put you in a vacation mood by helping you recall a long-ago vacation that you might have had in the South Pacific. There's definitely more traditional and better Hawaiian restaurants out there to eat at. King's, based on what we had on this visit, appears to me to be Hawaiian food for the masses, which probably is the key to their popularity.

Out of five cups of coffee, (because the state of Hawaii is the only US State which grows everyone's favorite morning pick me up), five being best to zero being worst, King's Hawaiian Bakery and Restaurant gets 2.5 cups of coffee.

For more information about King's Hawaiian Bakery and Restaurant, head to their website here:

Friday, August 9, 2019

Hoping Every Dog Has Its Day at Park Bench Cafe

Park Bench Cafe
17732 Goldenwest Street
Huntington Beach, CA 92647

My year-long nightmare with a boss that was the worst I have had in my 31-year career was finally over a month ago. I don't think this guy could manage to find his way out of a paper bag even if it was kept open for him. He was so awful that the best vacation we got was when he left to go on vacation. This guy was so unpopular that even his shadow refused to follow him. Have I gotten across how I felt about this guy yet? Anyways, he's gone and I could not be happier.

I bring this up because it means a change in my schedule most weeks. I have been getting a steady amount of Sundays off, which means both Katie and I have time to go on walks and of course, find some breakfast spots to try. I've had this one, Park Bench Cafe on my list ever since I read a cover story about old school breakfast joints in Orange County in the OC Weekly early last year. I made note of the ones I have not dined at and made a vow to visit all that I could in a timely fashion. Thanks to my ex-boss, I guess a year and a half is now a timely fashion. Thanks, guy.

Park Beach Cafe just barely qualifies as an old school place, since it was opened in 1988 by husband and wife team, Mike and Christie Bartusick. They were two young kids in their early twenties that had the vision to turn a shuttered bait and tackle shop in Huntington Beach Central Park into an outdoor cafe. Then in 1993 lightning struck twice when they had the idea to make their cafe dog-friendly and create a menu for dogs. This caused quite a stir in the media, and if it happened now, instead of in 1993, they would have said this went viral. Park Bench Cafe and the city of Huntington Beach gained a lot of attention for this action, being called one of the most dog-friendly cities and restaurants in the US by lots of media outlets.

The couple has done what many considered a one in a million shot and are still operating the Park Bench Cafe, along with another breakfast and lunch spot right at the beach, their sister restaurant to this one, Kokomos Surfside Grill, which is just south of the Huntington Beach Pier. I have never been there, but checking out their website it doesn't look like that restaurant has the dog menu, which includes the Bow Wow Wow, (cut up chicken filet), the Hound Dog Heaven, (simply ground beef), or the Rover Easy, (two fried eggs).

Katie and I do not have a dog, but we like walks in the park and the walk from the Huntington Beach Library to Park Bench Cafe was pretty flat, woodsy in parts, and shaded by plenty of trees. When we arrived at the restaurant on this particular Sunday at 10am we were quoted a wait time of 45 minutes to an hour, so we strolled around the remaining part of the park, and within 35 minutes they called Katie's cell and told us our table was ready.

We were sat at a long picnic table with an umbrella for shade, with another couple who had just been seated. Even though we were seated at the same table, there was enough distance between us that it did not feel too awkward eating with strangers. The human menu at Park Bench reads like pretty much every breakfast menu in OC. There's plenty of egg combinations, benedicts, items from the griddle, and scrambles. The lunch side of the menu, which is also served all-day has plenty of sandwiches, burgers, and salads to choose from. We were definitely feeling breakfast on this late morning, so here's how everything shook out for Park Bench Cafe.

Cinnamon Rolls have always been one of my favorite things to have for breakfast, ever since I was a little kid, so when I see one on a breakfast menu, I am immediately drawn to it. This Cinnamon Roll ($5.75) came out warm, with plenty of icing, and easily fed both Katie and me. I liked this cinnamon roll, but it could have been better. It was a little on the doughy side and maybe needed to be baked a bit more. The icing also could have been a touch sweeter for my taste. Still, this was a nice start to our meal while we waited for our entrees to come out.

Both Katie and I got scrambles on this morning. She had the Park Scramble ($12.25) which included scrambled eggs, sliced mushrooms, onions, and bacon. She ate a good deal of this rather big sized plate. It was good, but she had wished for more flavor to come with each bite. She called this kind of flat. She did enjoy the home fries that she got as a side item. They were nice and crisp around the edges and softer in the middle, just you want your potatoes to turn out. The wheat toast she got was fine too. 

As is my custom when eating at a breakfast spot for the first time, I generally just order the item with the most ingredients in it, and at Park Bench Cafe that would be the Farm Breakfast ($13.99). This plate of food starts with a base of crispy home fries, scrambled eggs, bacon, grilled onions, mushrooms, melted jack, and cheddar cheeses, and avocado placed on top of it. Basically, this was Katie's meal, but without the avocado and with the home fries situated on the side instead of underneath the eggs and everything else. This was fine, but it lacked that big pop I thought it would have had. It also would have helped if this had been served hot instead of closer to lukewarm. I did like that this was very filling, and the home fries were cooked very crispy, which added a nice crunch to this. I did end up taking half of it home for breakfast the next day. This came with my choice of toast, which I got sourdough, and it was okay.

Park Bench Cafe was a solid breakfast spot, but food-wise nothing about it really made it stand out for us. It was a cool spot if you are in the area, want to eat outdoors, or if you want your dog to eat with you. Again, the food was fine, but not anything we couldn't get closer to home. Service was pretty solid, as they had plenty of servers for their 150 or so guests. So glad my old boss has moved on, and hopefully, Katie and I will get some weekend days off so we can discover more breakfast spots around OC. Oh yeah, don't worry about my old boss reading this and getting all angry. I'm pretty sure the guy doesn't even know how to read, I mean judging from the work I observed from him. Yep, I'm still a little bitter.

Out of five Frisbees (because Huntington Beach Central Park, where this restaurant is situated, is home to the only disc golf course in OC), five being best to zero being worst, Park Bench Cafe gets 2.5 Frisbees.

For more information about Park Bench Cafe, head to their website here: