Thursday, July 17, 2014

Having a Great Time at the OC Fair Food Showcase

OC Fair Food Showcase
88 Fair Drive
Costa Mesa, CA 92626

Unless you have been living under a rock, and have not seen the massive coverage, the OC Fair opened last Friday, (July 11th), and runs until August 10th. That's 23 days, (the OC Fair is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays), of rides, music, demonstrations, carnival games, shopping, exhibits, farm animals, and of course food. All of the other stuff is great, but if you know me, I am excited by the food at the fair. It seems like every year the vendors top themselves. I was very excited to see what they had in store for us this year.

We got to the OC Fair early last Sunday for the OC Fair Food Showcase, where the vendors show off their latest and greatest food concoctions to the OC food media. I had never been to the fair this early in the day, and man it was nice beating the crowds here. Parking was a breeze, the food smelled great, and as an added bonus, when you come to the OC Fair by 11AM on weekends, you get in for a much reduced price of $3, which is a great deal.

Both Katie and I did not eat before this event, and we also had a light dinner the night before, so I was more than ready to eat a lot at this food showcase. First up is Pink's, which is a Hollywood legend since 1939. I have yet to make it to their iconic location in LA, but if these hot dogs are any indication, I'll have to make it their soon. They had three dogs for us to choose from. Their famous Pink's Chili Cheese Snoop Dog, Emeril Bam Dog, (mustard, bacon, jalapenos, onion, cheese, and coleslaw), and the Colonel Klink Kraut Dog, (mustard, sauerkraut, Swiss cheese, and pastrami). Quite honestly, all of these were very good, but if I had to choose the best one to have, it was the Emeril Dog, which had a lot going on with it. The hot dogs above proclaim that, "Pink's Loves OC", and I think the feeling is definitely mutual.

Anyone can have a regular turkey leg at the fair. There are even bacon wrapped turkey legs to gnaw on, but if you are going to go that far, you might as well go all the way and have a Deep Fried Bacon Wrapped Turkey Leg from the Bacon A-Fair booth. This was pretty awesome. I loved the crunchy outside, the bacon added big time flavor, and the turkey was surprisingly moist. Unpredictably, Katie's favorite item of the showcase was the Deep Fried Jack Daniels Churro. No need to be 21 to order this, as the whiskey gets cooked off in the fryer, but the Jack Daniels flavor lingers in this nicely fried churro. Topped with a syrup and whipped cream, this made Katie a very happy girl.

The fantastic Lori Southerland represented two booths at the OC Fair, the first of which was Grantsburgers, and their famous Chile Relleno Pretzel Burger. It was hard limiting myself to just a half of this burger, as it was so good. This double patty burger was blanketed with cheese, plenty of avocado, and a mild chile relleno. A burger that was not dry, and had plenty of big time flavors going on here. If you gotta have a burger at the OC Fair, this is the one to get.

The other booth Lori was promoting was the Tasti Chips booth, which I had never experienced before. Judging from the applause that this booth received, I could only guess that I'm probably the last person to try these chips. I'll not make that mistake again. These Garlic Parmesan Shakers were fried perfectly, and with my love of kettle chips, they were right up my alley.

Now this is fair food to the max. Chicken Charlie's is probably the most prolific booth at the OC Fair. When you hear about crazy, over the top fried creations, it's usually offered at Chicken Charlie's. New this year are the Deep Fried Chicken Skin and the Deep Fried Doritos. I've never been too fond of Doritos, but these were really tasty. Served with a ranch dressing, these were kind of addictive. As for the chicken skin, this is a natural, because the best part of fried chicken is the skin, so why not do away with the chicken? Genius. Probably so bad for you, but the OC Fair only goes on for 23 days, so that leaves 342 days that I won't be eating this fried skin. Pretty good reasoning, huh?

I'd argue that pickles are one of the most polarizing food items around. I had a friend that if there was a pickle on his plate, he would send back the entire plate, because he detested even the pickle juice that much. I like pickles, but could see how they can overpower foods. Pickle lovers will have to hit up the Pickle O' Pete's booth to get their fill of these pickled cucumbers. We tried the Pickle Dog, which can best be described as a hot dog, encased inside a pickle, and then fired in a corn dog batter. This actually worked for me. I liked the contrasting layers, the sweet corn batter, the briny pickle taste, and the beefy hot dog inside. Also from Pickle O' Pete's, we tried the Pickle Chips. These were paired nicely with ranch dressing, which is my favorite way to eat fried pickles.

The charismatic Dominic Palmieri was also showcasing two booths on this day, the first one being the iconic Biggy's Meat Market. The Big Daddy Corndog and the Big Garlic Herbed Chicken on a Sick were spotlighted on this afternoon. This corndog uses a nice sausage inside of it, and they were nice enough to have smaller samples for us to try, even though I ate two of these. The chicken on a stick was very tender, and was probably one of the healthiest things we ate on this day. Dominic was so nice to hold the chicken up, so you could get a feel for how big it really is. I also think he just wanted to be in the picture also.

The other booth Dominic was representing was the Fair Fix and Fried A Fair booth, with gave us another of Katie's favorite items from this afternoon, the Pecan Pie on a Stick. This actually tasted just like you would imagine. The pecan pie filling is sweet and nutty at the same time, then held together by a sweeter than a corn dog batter, then it is dusted lightly with powdered sugar. Not too bad, and I'd really like to see this filling used in a real pecan pie.

This is what I envision heaven to look like. Texas Donuts would get the nod from me, if I had to pick a favorite from this OC Fair Food Showcase. To anyone that knows me, they know I am a donut freak, and these were pretty tasty. The new one this year is the Cherry Pop Rocks Donut, which was overly sweet, but I liked the novelty of eating the Pop Rocks, which I haven't done in about 35 plus years. The Reese's Peanut Butter Donut combined two of my favorite items into one, which is never a bad thing. My favorite donut though was, the Banana Chocolate Cream Donut. This one was topped with sliced bananas, whipped cream, and chocolate, then there was also a Bavarian cream inside. Wow, this blew me away. So good. Texas Donut representative, Vicky Hohnbaum says that the Maple Bacon Donut is their best seller, but I will guess that this banana cream one will give it a run for its money this year.

After our OC Fair Food Showcase was done, we were lead to the center of the fair, and allowed to enter the Legendary Gelato booth. There we were given a cup of some great gelato. It was getting hot, so going inside the booth was great, but was made even better by all the sample tastes we were given. It was hard to pick just one, but I liked the Chocolate Mint the best. Very nice to have something sweet and cool after all that fried food.

After our gelato, we cruised around the OC Fair a bit, trying to walk off the effects of all the food we had just consumed. We always like checking out the animals. Plenty of little piglets running around, or as is the case when we were here, they were napping. Also liked checking out the cows, goats and sheep too.

On our way out of the OC Fair, we walked into the Parade of Products Building, so I could get some Cinnamon Rolls for breakfast the next day. These are my favorite cinnamon rolls at the fair, although I am told that I need to try the ones that are outside as well. Luckily, this will not be my last time at the OC Fair this year.

We would like to thank all of the vendors for providing us with so much great food to sample. Everything was fantastic, and you all were so nice to answer all of our goofy questions. I would also like to thank all of our fellow food media friends that went on this culinary journey with us. You all make going to these events so much fun. Lastly, we would like to thank the wonderful Robin Wachner, Communications Director for the OC Fair and Event Center. She put together this OC Fair Food Showcase, and we could not have been happier to attend. Thanks for the invite Robin, it was an awesome day.

The OC Fair runs through August 10th, and for more information, go to their website here:

Monday, July 14, 2014

Food Fit for a King(pin) at Tavern+Bowl

Costa Mesa 55 Tavern+Bowl
1875 Newport Blvd. Ste. L1-11
Costa Mesa, CA 92627

I will admit that I was burned out, and probably still am since I did not even bring my own ball and shoes here, even though I knew I would be bowling. The last time I held a bowling ball was in April. That might not seem like a long time to most of you, but for me it is. I had been in a bowling league for seven or eight years. Every Monday night we trudged up to Anaheim to bowl. I made it worth my wild, as I would also make time to see my parents and family while we were up this way, but it just got to be too much. I wanted freedom from the obligation, so we decided to take an indefinite break from bowling, until we got the invite to come to Costa Mesa 55 Tavern+Bowl.

Tavern+Bowl is located in the rebranded "The Triangle", which of course most of you still know as Triangle Square, which is located at the end of the 55 Freeway. Gone are all the retail shops, now there are new restaurants and entertainment venues. Saddle Ranch, Black Knight Gastro Lounge, and the much anticipated La Vida Cantina, which will open up shortly, have joined long time resident Yard House to bring new life to this often troubled center, which has appeared to turn the corner based on all the foot traffic we experienced on this recent Wednesday night. Tavern+Bowl can probably be credited with some of that turn around here as well.

Tavern+Bowl has been opened since early March, but this is not their only location they operate. This is now their fourth spot, with the other three all being in San Diego County. General Manager Ray Ha says, "we are a sports bar first, but with a bowling alley". This space is big. They occupy over 14,000 square feet of space, have 26 TVs, they can get almost any game imaginable, including UFC fights, and have ten state of the art bowling lanes, with an easy to use and fun scoring system. Katie really had a great time switching between themes during our bowling battle.

Just as I had finished getting my first turkey of the night, (I'm totally lying about that), drinks started making their way to our table. Not only does Tavern+Bowl have 40 beers on tap, they also have 12 specialty cocktails that go for $10 each. The first one we got to try was the Spare Pear. This one starts with Grey Goose vodka, then Saint Germain Elderflower Liqueur, grapefruit juice, fresh lemon, and agave nectar are added to the mix. The result is a very refreshing cocktail that did not conjure up hints of pear flavor, but more an adult version of lemonade. I guess it's easier to rhyme pear than lemon. My second beverage of the night was the waitress recommended, Gin Setter Martini. This sweet drink utilizes Hendrick's Gin, fresh lime juice, muddled green apple, and cucumber. The first few sips of this drink were pretty good, but then I kind of got tired of its sweetness. I did not have the Lovers' Lane, but our wonderful hostess, Jane allowed me to have a sip of hers. This layered drink uses Skyy Infusions Raspberry Vodka, champagne, a passion fruit puree, and grenadine. My favorite cocktail of the night was the Comin' In Hot. This drink was right up my alley, pun intended. Jalapeno Infused Espolon Tequila, orange liqueur, cilantro, fresh sour, and pineapple juice combined to make this awesome cocktail. The jalapeno was definitely noticeable, but then it was softened with the pineapple and orange flavor. I liked this drink because it had many layers to it.

Since I was starting to feel a little tipsy, and my bowling game was suffering, I was very happy when the food started to make its way out of the kitchen for us. Looking over the menu, this is not your typical bowling alley cuisine. The reason for this, they have a legit Executive Chef here, the great Scott Raczek. Scott worked at a little restaurant that some of you may remember, the awesome Mr. Stox in Anaheim. He was their Executive Chef for 26 years, so you can say he knows a thing or two about great food. The first thing he brought out for us was the BBQ Pulled Pork Mac 'N' Cheese ($13.95). This was some pretty gourmet mac n cheese. Chef Scott uses macaroni with a three cheese sauce, which is then topped with BBQ glazed pulled pork, fried onion strings, and a truffle oil drizzle. I really liked the different textures this dish had to offer. The crunch of the onion, the very well made pork added a nice meatiness, and the creaminess from the cheese sauce made each bite of this a little different, which kept me interested. Also of note, the truffle oil used here was just the right amount, so it did not overpower this dish. A very delicate balance to achieve.

Another surprise on this evening were these Lobster Roll Sliders ($5.95). These are supposedly their founders favorite, and after eating more than my fair share of these, I can see why. A very well made chilled lobster salad is mixed with red onion and celery to create a rich and satisfying slider. These actually had some pretty big hunks of lobster in them, which was great. Not to ruin the rest of this post, but these were my favorite item of the night.

I've been seeing Grilled Marinated Artichokes ($5.95) on a lot of menus recently, and it's probably because they taste so darn good. That was the case with this one too. What made this artichoke for me was the tarragon aioli that came out with it. A very good dipping sauce, it brought this artichoke to life. Such a simple dish, but brought to another level by this aioli.

If you would have told me when I started this blog, that I'd be eating oysters in a bowling alley, and actually liking them, I'd have thought you were nuts, but that's what happened on this night. The Grilled Oysters Kilpatrick ($10.95) are glazed with a honey bourbon garlic butter, and then topped with bacon breadcrumbs. This kind of reminded me of escargot with all of the butter, and everything. The oysters here were pretty fresh, and bigger than I thought they would be. Even oyster novice, Katie was pretty satisfied with this, but her limit was only one.

Sushi is also represented on the appetizer menu at Tavern+Bowl, with this Flash Fried Ahi Tuna Roll ($10.95). Sushi purist may scoff at this version of sushi, but this is exactly the kind of sushi that I like. They use saku tuna, which is served with a yin and yang sauce. I liked the contrast of the crunchy outer portion of this roll, with the smooth and fresh tuna inside the roll. I forgot what the sauces were that came with this, but both were very good.

You all have probably had pizza at a bowling alley, but probably never flatbread pizzas like these. We got to try two of the five flatbreads offered here at Tavern+Bowl. The first one was The Munson ($11.95). Not sure how it got its name, I should have asked, but man was this a good flatbread. It kind of had the breakfast pizza kind of vibe going on here, with fried eggs, bacon, arugula, a four cheese blend, and just a touch of white truffle oil. The Tavern Margherita ($12.95) was Katie's favorite of the two. It had oven dried tomatoes, burrata cheese, a basil puree, and the same four cheese blend as the other flatbread. I really liked that the dough stayed nice and crisp, the toppings were all very fresh, and the flavors really popped. Not going to be able to go back to eating cardboard pizza from regular bowling alleys anymore.

We also were lucky enough to try a few of their entrees, like this Cedar Planked Roasted Salmon ($18.95). Chef Scott really worked his magic here. This salmon was so tender and flavorful, it almost made me forget that I'm not the worlds biggest fan of salmon. It was buttery, but you could still taste the salmon. It was served alongside a heirloom tomato salsa, lemon beurre blanc, tri-colored fingerling potatoes, and asparagus. The veggies here were farmers market fresh and prepared wonderfully.

The last item we tried were these Filet Mignon Steak Tacos ($13.95). These tacos had a lot going on inside of them. They start with a chimichurri marinated grilled steak which was very tender, and cooked to a very pleasing medium rare. Then joining the steak in the corn tortilla was an avocado relish, and cotija cheese. These were great. The steak was of course the main attraction here, but the avocado and cheese were also instrumental in making these tacos a winner. Jane has had these every time she has been here, and never tires of them. After eating these, I can see that would be the case for me as well.

When it was dessert time, I was pretty full, so I could not enjoy these as much as I would have liked. The Butterscotch Creme Brulee ($5.95) was probably my favorite, maybe because it was the lightest of the bunch. In my opinion butterscotch is not used enough in desserts, so when I do have it, I really enjoy it. This was a very well made, and smooth creme brulee, with a subtle butterscotch flavor to it. This was served with shortbread cookies, which I felt were a little too dense. The Triple Threat Chocolate Brownie ($6.95) is something that I could easily order on my next trip here. This brownie had a cookie dough center, which took me a little by surprise, and was topped with vanilla bean ice cream and a burnt bourbon caramel sauce. Not as crazy sweet as some brownie sundaes have been known to be, this had a nice balance to it. The Fresh Fruit Dessert Pizza ($6.95) was okay, but I'm not into fruit desserts. With this one they used puff pastry as the crust, then it's topped with strawberries with a citrus cream, vanilla ice cream, and a white chocolate ganache drizzle. Katie liked this, but felt it was hard to get all the elements in one bite when sharing this with four people.

I have to admit that I was pretty skeptical coming to Tavern+Bowl, but Chef Scott really impressed me with his menu. I had told some people at work that I was going to be coming here, and they thought the food was going to be typical bowling alley cuisine, which as you can see it was not. I really liked everything that we consumed on this night, and we look forward to coming back here again soon. Maybe once I get over my bowling burn out phase, we might even come here to bowl a few games.

I would really like to thank everyone at Costa Mesa 55 Tavern+Bowl for their great hospitality on this night. The wait staff and food runners were right on top of things for us all night. I would also like to thank General Manager Ray Ha for making us feel so welcome, and answering all of our silly questions. Of course this visit would not have been as fantastic as it was, without Chef Scott's wonderful food that he brought out for us. Chef Scott you have elevated not only bowling alley grub, but also sports bar fare as well. We were very impressed with your menu and execution. We lastly would like to thank PR superstar, Jane Gillespie from JGPR for thinking of inviting us to this great event. We had a wonderful time Jane.

For more information about Costa Mesa 55 Tavern+Bowl, go to their website here:

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