Sunday, February 16, 2020

Island Hoping in La Palma

Isla Cuban Latin Kitchen and Rum Bar
30 Centerpointe Drive #12
La Palma, CA 90623

I might have a problem. It's a problem I'm more than happy to have, but a problem nonetheless. I am addicted to Cuban food. The main problem is that there are not too many Cuban places to eat in OC. My unofficial count is at about 7 restaurants that I'd consider strictly Cuban. Yes, there are some spots that kind of verge on Cuban cuisine, but they also have other food that they specialize in.

Of the seven Cuban restaurants in OC, I have been to five of them so far, and my favorites have been Bella Cuba, Moros, and Habana, in that order. Porto's, of course, is a classic, and you couldn't get me to go back to Felix in Orange again because the two times I have visited, their food has been bone dry. If you are looking for the best I have had in Southern Californa it's definitely El Cochinito in Silver Lake. I was definitely intrigued as to where newcomer Isla Cuban Latin Kitchen and Rum Bar was going to end up on my list of OC Cuban spots.

I had read a review about Isla in the now-defunct, but not forgotten OC Weekly, and a glowing review in the OC Register, where the only complaint Brad Johnson could muster was about the noise level inside the restaurant, (he was not wrong about that). Isla is a family-owned restaurant, with items from not only Cuba, but also the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, and Mexico. The matriarch of the family, Senora Deysi, is the inspiration for the food that they serve at Isla.

I had made 5pm reservations on a recent Saturday to meet up with my parents here. Reservations are definitely the way to go, as the restaurant and enclosed front patio filled up rather quickly during our visit. There are maybe twenty or so tables inside, another ten on the patio, and a ten-seat bar off to the right-hand side of the restaurant. The dining room is lit with hanging chandeliers and the obligatory pictures of Cuba adorning the walls. A pleasing kind of art deco vibe fills the space.

The menu reads like a greatest hits of Cuban cuisine. It starts with seven traditional appetizers, there's a quartet of soups and salads, beef, chicken, pork, and seafood entrees, a Mofongo, and sandwiches, which are unfortunately only available from 11 to 5pm. Since we were seated at exactly 5:03 it prevented my mom from having the only thing that she had her heart set on this evening, a Cuban sandwich. Even a request from our server to the kitchen yielded an emphatic no that they would not be making a sandwich three minutes past their 5pm cutoff time. Apparently, they lock up their sandwich ingredients in a time activated safe, which will only be opened at 11am on the next day. At this point, my mom checked out, and would not be eating anything at Isla on this evening. Not a great start to our meal. Let's see if the night could be salvaged with what the other three of us ordered.

It's a Cuban restaurant, so no chips and salsa insight, but instead you get Plantain and Yucca Chips with Garlic Sauce to start out with. I enjoyed the plantains, more than the yucca chips. The real star here was the garlic sauce, which actually made even the blander yucca chips taste good. 

Out of the seven tapas options, we settled on the Empanadas ($10) which are offered with either beef or chicken. We went with chicken. Even though I'm more partial to beef, I really enjoyed the empanada that I consumed way too quickly. It was filled with plenty of chicken and the two sauces served with this were pretty stellar. The green was my favorite by just a bit.

My dad is pretty unpredictable with what he usually gets in restaurants. I never know what he's leaning towards until he orders. On this evening he could not resist the Salmon A La Parrilla ($22). I have a love-hate relationship with salmon. It's either really good or it's not to my liking at all. This was definitely the former. It was cooked perfectly, the garlic sauce was delicious, and I was a little whistful that I did not get the salmon. My dad's only complaint was the black beans and rice, which he did not really care for, although he did not give me a reason why.

Katie is a lot more predictable when it comes to guessing what she's going to order. I knew she would be having a chicken entree, and I was proved correct when she went with the Pollo Asado Isla ($19). This chicken was slow roasted and utilized the same excellent garlic mojo sauce that topped the salmon. She loved the tender chicken, but it was the garlic sauce that made her swoon with delight. She called this classic comfort food. The black beans rounded this out nicely.

I came here expecting to get the Bistec Encebollado, but our server really talked up this Lechon Asado ($19) and being a big fan of pork, that's the way I went. This was the best version I have had in OC. The menu description claims that this pork is marinated for two days, and after my first bite, I knew it was true. The pork is roasted wonderfully and topped with more of that garlic mojo sauce that I could not get enough of. I actually liked the black beans and rice. I mixed them together to form a kind of congri. The black beans were full of flavor and really livened up the white rice. The plantains were sweet but subtly, just the way I like them. A very good meal.

Dessert would be our last hurrah at Isla, and I decided on the Tres Leches Cake ($7). This very traditional Cuban dessert failed to impress. I did not mind the moistness of this, as that's what you expect when getting this dessert. I did mind the blandness that each bite brought to my taste buds. A way too mild taste and the frosting did not help out here either. Looking online, we should have maybe gone with the flan instead.

Even with the sandwich snafu at the start of our visit, I left Isla pretty impressed with the food that I experienced on this evening. All three of our entrees and empanadas were great and made me definitely want to come back again soon to try their sandwiches, (before 5 of course), and also try one of their beef dishes. Our server Raymundo handled a difficult situation at the start of our visit as well as could have been expected. No complaints about his service on this evening. Where does Isla rank as far as Cuban food in OC? I'd put them right near the top, if not the best. I'd have to go back to Bella Cuba again to see if it's just as good as it was back when we visited over eight years ago. Yes, it's difficult for us to make it back to a restaurant once we visit, with my ever-growing lists of restaurants I want to experience. I am very grateful for another OC Cuban option that will help satisfy my Cuban food addiction.

Out of five cows, (because the city of La Palma was once named Dairyland, and they have a cow on their city seal to commemorate this), five being best to zero being worst, Isla Cuban Latin Kitchen and Rum Bar gets 3.5 cows.

For more information about Isla Cuban Latin Kitchen and Rum Bar, check out their website here:

Friday, February 14, 2020

Cuckoo for Cuca's?

Cuca's Mexican Food
26676 Portola Parkway
Foothill Ranch, CA 92610

It's pretty easy to come up with a reason that most of the restaurant blogs that I used to read religiously are not producing any more new content. One word, Instagram. It's just easier to take a picture, write a short comment about it, and then let the likes roll in. A lot easier than the six hours or so that it takes me to write a single restaurant review. Yes, I'm a slow writer and get distracted rather easily.

Out of all the social media platforms that I use, I agree that Instagram, or The Gram, as the kids call it, is the best. It's the most visual of all media, which helps when you are photographing food. Also, unlike Facebook and Twitter, there's a lot less opinion being floated about, and little to no politics mentioned. A big plus especially in this election year. I've also noticed that people are a lot more polite on IG, and I have even gotten some great tips from many of my followers.

That's the reason we found our way to Cuca's in Foothill Ranch. It was probably a few years back now when one of my followers mentioned that I needed to give this place a try. It just so happened that we were walking around Lake Mission Viejo with our good friends Mazi and Marita, and were looking for somewhere to eat after our 3-mile jaunt. It hit me that we were in the vicinity of Cuca's, so that's where we headed to replenish after our grueling workout.

Cuca's is situated just off Portola Parkway, in the same shopping plaza as Denny's, Outback Steakhouse, and right next door to Planet Fitness. I was surprised to learn that this is part of a seven-unit chain that started in 1989 in the Inland Empire. It's truly a family-run business, as Cuca and her three daughters have opened new restaurants as the years have passed by, including one inside Buffalo Bills in Primm, Nevada.

This Foothill Ranch spot is the only one in OC and is run by her daughter Emerald and her husband Amir, who reside in nearby Rancho Santa Margarita. They opened it seven years ago, and have amassed quite a loyal following. The menu is highlighted by combination plates, burritos, tamales, burgers?, ala carte options, and daily specials, which includes a taco Tuesday special where you can get crispy tacos for $1.75 and soft tacos for just over $2. Unfortunately, we were here on a Thursday, so no taco Tuesday for us. Let's check out what did end up having though.

Long time readers of this blog know that Katie always orders Guacamole ($5.95) when we are in a Mexican restaurant, and that streak continued here at Cuca's. This was a decent version of her favorite dip. The consistency was spot on, but I'd like it to be seasoned a bit more. The chips here are very good. A little thicker than most, with a nice crunch to them. Kind of like the ones at Jalapenos, but without the lard after taste.

Marita was feeling the taco vibe at Cuca's with this trifecta of tacos. She selected two of the Carne Asada ($3.19 each) and a Carnitas Taco ($3.19). The carne asada was dressed with chopped cilantro and cabbage, while the carnitas came topped with pico de gallo and red onion. Both Marita and Mazi, who got the same tacos praised these. They loved the flavors, felt there was enough meat on them, and would get these again, but next time maybe get these as a combo plate so they could have some rice and beans.

Katie started her culinary journey at Cuca's with Taquitos ($5.29). These come three to an order, sprinkled with grated cheese, and a dollop of guacamole on the side. You have a choice of either beef or chicken, and she went with the chicken version. These were fried well but lacked the greasy tinge that I was expecting, which is a good thing. I'd definitely get these but would opt for beef. 

Katie also got one of the Daily Specials ($6.25) which comes with your choice of two items and a small drink. No beans and rice with this one. She selected a Soft Chicken Taco and a Hard Shelled Chicken Taco as her two items. She's pretty much a chicken-aholic if you could not tell from all of the poultry she ordered at Cuca's. Both of these were very solid in her opinion, with the chicken being pretty moist and flavored well. She liked the crunch of the hard taco best. Both could have had a little more chicken included in them, but she was overly happy with her meal. 

Combination plates are my jam, so I can try many different things on one plate. Combo plates give me a better representation of the food that a restaurant serves. At Cuca's, I got this 3 Item Combination Plate ($10.29) which featured a cheese enchilada, two beef taquitos, and a carne asada taco. I really liked everything on this overflowing plate, but if pressed, I'd say the cheese enchilada was the best here. A very good enchilada sauce surrounded the cheesy enchilada nicely. I concur with Mazi and Marita that the carne asada taco was delicious, but I would have liked it even better with some cheese added to it. The taquitos were fried nicely and had a good amount of shredded beef inside them. The refried beans were better than the rice, but I usually feel this is the case at most Mexican restaurants. Overall, a very comforting plate and one that I would totally get again.

All four of us left Cuca's pretty impressed with everything that we had on this evening and eager to come back and try more. One of the better fast-casual Mexican restaurants we have encountered in South OC. The food tasted fresh, not too greasy, and they had a decent variety available. Prices seemed more than fair for the amount of food that you get. Cuca's will definitely help quell your Mexican food cravings if you are in the area. We did note that they were closing up earlier than their posted 9pm time, as we witnessed two customers turned away just after 8, so definitely be aware of that. Seriously glad to get this tip about this place on Instagram, and if you follow me on IG and want us to try a spot, just reach out and we will get around to going there eventually.

Out of five ghost-monsters, (because in Spanish speaking countries a cuca is a female version of the mythical boogeyman), five being best to zero being worst, Cuca's Mexican Food gets 3 solid ghost-monsters.

For more information about Cuca's Mexican Food, head to their website here:

Friday, February 7, 2020

Burntzilla Is on the Loose

14413 Culver Drive
Irvine, CA 92606

The new year, so full of promise and hope for a great 365 days ahead. As is our custom, Katie and I spend the first day of the year together. We go out for a walk, thinking in the back of our minds that we will make this a habit and walk a few miles every day and that usually only lasts until January 3rd. We also try to hit up a spot on my restaurant wishlist to start off the new year.

Our first pick ended up being closed, and our second selection was also shuttered on the first day of the year. Did no one want to take our money? The third restaurant we ended up finding ultimately was the charm, as we finally got to experience a place I'd wanted to try for a long while, Burntzilla in Irvine.

Burntzilla is a collaboration between two of what some might argue are the most successful OC based food trucks. I'd probably go with Slapfish as the most noteworthy truck, but the Burnt Truck and Dogzilla are right up there as well. This partnership combines the Burnt Truck's modern take on classics in slider form while adding Dogzilla's Asian twist on its mini hot dogs. After our walk and our misses with closed restaurants on this New Years' day, I was pretty excited to finally have my first meal of the year.

The Burntzilla menu features 8 sliders, four mini hot dogs, one salad option, and a quintet of sides. There are also two combo options, which allow the indecisive to pick two or three sliders or dogs, depending on how hungry you are, along with an order of fries and a drink. I was a little intimidated by all the choices at first, but quickly zeroed in on what I was going to be having. We ordered from the very cheerful counter girl and found a seat out in front of their restaurant, soaking up the sun while we waited nearly five minutes for our food to arrive.

Yeah, our new year never includes the pretense of diet food. Katie selected the Golden Combo ($11 with upgraded loaded fries) for her maiden meal of 2020. With this combo, you get to choose two sliders or zillas, fries, and a drink. Katie went with the BLT Slider and the Banh Mi Zilla. She enjoyed both of these. The BLT came with exactly what you'd expect from any BLT, but they also added a jalapeno aioli, which gave it a little kick. She added some avocado which added a nice textural element. A good choice for lighter eaters. The Vietnamese inspired Banh Mi came with a wonton wrapped spicy chicken link, pickled carrots and radish, jalapeno cilantro, and garlic aioli to finish it off. She liked all the layers of texture on this. The pickled veggies dominated a bit, but the chicken link was one of the best she has had. It did not even taste like chicken. The Irish Nachos were more to her liking than mine. The fries are topped with a sharp and pepper jack cheese sauce, a few squirts of sour cream, crumbled bacon, and chopped green onion. I'm not big on cheese sauce for my loaded fries, instead opting for melted grated cheese, but Katie liked these more than the tater tots you will see in a moment. I also found that these were not layered well enough, as the bottom portion of the container was just plain fries. 

I had the Big Combo ($13) which came with my choice of three sliders or zillas, along with tater tots, and a beverage. I also got an extra Slider ($3) on the side. The best of the bunch for me was the Nashville Style Hot Chicken which cranked up the heat with a spicy, crunchy breading on the chicken, along with a house pickle slaw and spicy thousand island dressing. The Street Dog grabs the silver medal, as it continued the heat trend wth its bacon-wrapped spicy link, avocado, jalapeno cream, pico de gallo, and a little crunch from some tortilla strips placed on top. Really a lot going on with this textural-wise, and the flavors did not drown each other out like I thought they would. The BBQ Pulled Pork snags the bronze as the third best. The pork was dressed in a barbecue sauce, which overpowered the entire slider, so that was all you ended up tasting. Not awful, but I would have liked the pork to be the star of the show instead of the bbq sauce. The worst by a long shot was the Cheeseburger, which looks probably like the best based on the pictures above. The Angus beef patty, American cheese, grilled onions, and avocado spread really failed to make an impression. Very dull. Tater Tots are always very comforting to me, and these were no exception. They could have been a bit more crunchy, but still good.

Burntzilla ended up being a very solid choice for our first meal of the year. I liked almost everything that we had here, and would definitely come back and try more of their stuff. From what it looks like online, they rotate items on and off of their menu rather frequently, which probably helps keep things fresh for their devoted customers. I do wish that they had bigger versions of their food. A few bites of their Nashville hot chicken sandwich was not enough. I also would have gotten a bigger version of their street dog if it were available, which from the pictures I have seen of their menu on Yelp from a few years ago, it appears bigger versions used to be available, but not presently. Service was cordial and unobtrusive. I've heard parking in this shopping center can be a little challenging, but since the Trader Joe's was closed on New Year's, we had no problems with parking, but something to be mindful of.

Out of five rakes, (because the city of Irvine has nearly 80,000 trees within its borders, and I imagine they need plenty of rakes to clean up around the city), five being best to zero being worst, Burntzilla gets 3 rakes. 

For more information about Burntzilla, head on over to their website here:

Thursday, January 30, 2020

Ono Grinds at AI Pono Cafe in Costa Mesa

Ai Pono Cafe
283 East 17th Street
Costa Mesa, CA 92627

If I could pick one food trend that I hope would hit it big this decade, it would be plant-based proteins. Okay, I just wanted to make sure you were actually reading this, instead of just checking out the pictures. It would definitely be Hawaiian food. I've been to a number of Hawaiian restaurants, and even the worst, (King's Hawaiian) had some redeeming value.

A few reasons I'm all in when it comes to food from our 50th state. I love all Hawaiian meats, they also improved on boring potato and macaroni salad by combining the two, and even though the mai tai was invented in Oakland, the Hawaiians improved upon it to make it their own and it's impossible to go to the islands and not partake in one or a bunch of them.

So, I get a little pumped up when I hear about a new Hawaiian restaurant opening in OC. I get even more excited when I have read numerous reviews about how great it is. Full disclosure, I had Ai Pono Cafe's food once before when they were renting space at The Hood Kitchen, which is in an industrial park right near John Wayne Airport. I loved what I had that initial visit, but their hours and days they were operating were too limited, so I decided to wait until they had their own spot, and were open more hours.

I had no doubt that this would happen for Ai Pono Cafe, and nearly three months ago it did. They now have their own stand-alone restaurant on the restaurant rich 17th Street in Costa Mesa. They are right across the street from Sidecar Doughnuts and Mi Casa, and in the same shopping plaza as Burger Lounge and Ross Dress For Less. They replace the now-departed Aloha Poke Company. Their hours have greatly improved, as they are now open for lunch from 11 to 3, and then open again for dinner service from 5 till 9 every day except for Sunday.

Started as a meal prep spot, the owners of Ai Pono and Hawaiian natives, Gene and Dana feel that Hawaiian food has gotten a bit muddled these days. They want to share what true Hawaiian street food entails. Dana is in charge of the front of the house operations, while Gene, who previously worked as Executive Chef and Partner at Roy's, is manning the kitchen. He's created a menu that features plenty in the way of bowls, salads, plates, and a variety of chicken dishes.

Unlike their space by the airport, this spot is much roomier and features plenty of artwork along the walls that showcase their passion for their home state. Ordering is done at the register, you grab a seat at one of their picnic tables, and the food is brought out to you. I had no doubt that the food was going to be just as good as what I had at their other place and I was pretty excited to share it with Katie and her brother and his fiancee. Let's dig into their real Hawaiian street food.

Starting things off will be beautiful Rachel's selection on this evening, the Hawaii Famous Fried Chicken ($13.80). Before my trip here I did not know that Hawaii was famous for fried chicken, but apparently they are. These two big chicken thighs are dipped in their guava chili pepper sauce. Rachel is not overly talkative when it comes to gushing about food, but she really seemed to enjoy this. The chicken looked really good from across the table, and I will probably get this the next time I visit. This was also served with a scoop of both mac salad and hapa rice, and a little green salad dressed with a vinaigrette.

Ai Pono has combo meals, which they call Utu Bang Bang ($16) Not sure what that translates to, but this option allows the indecisive like Katie to create their perfect meal. Katie went with the Shoyu Poke and Kawai As Why Chicken Katsu as her picks. She was extremely happy with her meal. The chicken katsu was lightly breaded, tender, and with the little drizzle of a sweet soy reduction over the top, it was perfectly balanced. The poke was some of the freshest she has had and not overdressed like you get at all of those assembly line poke spots that have invaded almost every shopping center in OC. The plate was rounded out with fried noodles, mac salad, and a scoop of hapa rice. Even though she enjoyed this meal, she'd maybe try one of the seven other options next time. 

I approached my visit to Ai Pono Cafe as I do almost any restaurant I go to, pick the item that allows you to try the most things on one plate. At Ai Pono, that means I got the Mento Bento ($18.50). This is basically the greatest hits from their kitchen. You get tastes of their Portuguese sausage, ahi katsu, spam, muy Thai shrimp, and teriyaki chicken. My favorite of the bunch was the sausage, which had a crispy casing and an excellent flavor to it. The chicken teriyaki was also superb, and way more elevated than what you could ever get at Flame Broiler of your bowl restaurant of choice. I was a little surprised by the ahi katsu, which came with a pleasing tinge of hot mustard that I was not expecting but still enjoyed. The shrimp was great as well, but beware that they leave the shell on, so take it off before eating. This comes with rice, which was okay but was overshadowed by the fried noodles and the mac salad, one of the best I have had. This is definitely the way to go if you are unsure of what to have on your initial visit to Ai Pono Cafe. 

I added a Spam Musubi ($3) to my meal. I must confess that this was my first time having one. I know, late to the party as usual. I thought it was okay. The rice really overwhelmed here, and I ended up just taking some of the rice out and it was a lot more enjoyable. I'm not the world's biggest fan of Spam, and I suggest that if you're like me, don't turn your nose up to it like I did for all these years. It's not so bad.

At Ai Pono Cafe, you can taste and feel the authenticity of their food. It's not gimmicky, just good honest Hawaiian cuisine that I could see being served anywhere in the Aloha State. During our visit, I observed a good amount of people, many of whom I assumed to be Hawaiian enjoying their meals and thanking Chef Gene for a little taste of their home that's nearly 2,500 miles away. Be on alert for some specials that they run occasionally, which are featured on their Instagram page, here. They have had a fusion taco and a burrito offered, both of which looked awesome. Service on this evening was pretty low key, but still a warm and inviting atmosphere. Definitely, the aloha spirit is alive and well here in Costa Mesa.

Out of five Humuhumu-Nukunuku-A-Pua'a's (which just happens to be Hawaii's state fish), five being best to zero being worst, Ai Pono Cafe gets 3.5  Humuhumu-Nukunuku-A-Pua'a's. 

Ai Pono Cafe does not have a restaurant website, but you can find info about them here:

Friday, January 24, 2020

Wonderful Sandwiches, Wine, and Weeping in Temecula

Meritage Restaurant at Callaway Winery
32720 Rancho California Road
Temecula, CA 92591

I told some of the people from work that I was going to be going on my first wine tasting trip to Temecula recently. Most were shocked that I had never been before. To be honest, I'm not really a big fan of wine. I do not appreciate it as much as I know I should. I also know that wine and food complement each other, but I'm more into hard liquor than either beer or wine.

The reason for my maiden voyage to wine country Temecula? It was my good friend Cynthia's 40th birthday, and her fantastic husband had rented a party bus from OC to shuttle us and twenty of her other friends to three wineries. As with most booze trips, things started out kind of slowly, but by the second winery, everyone was feeling pretty buzzed. We were even treated to a breakup and reuniting by one of the couples on our bus. This breakup/makeup cycle happened probably six times and was the train wreck that we, unfortunately, could not take our eyes off of, well, because we were on a bus with them.

Luckily, our bus pulled into the Callaway Winery, where we had reservations at their Meritage Restaurant for a late lunch. It was not only a chance for all of us to sober up a bit but a chance to get away from the constant bickering of the couple that was ruining what was supposed to be a great day for Cynthia as she joined the 40-year club. Lunch was definitely what we all needed.

After we got off the bus, I was awestruck by the beauty of the Callaway Winery, which sits on top of a hill in the heart of the Temecula wine country. Impossible to take a horrible picture with these views. The Meritage is basically a tiered, climate-controlled patio. On this rather chilly day, we were actually pretty comfortable sitting near the window, with the views washing away the drama of the bus ride.

From what I've been able to learn in doing some research, Meritage has been at the Callaway Winery since 2008 and replaced a restaurant called Allie's. They suffered from some pretty stinging reviews in their early history, but a change of chef has benefited them recently. The reason for the turnaround can be attributed to the arrival of Chef Anthony Bar, who came aboard a few months ago. He went to culinary school in France and has worked in fine dining restaurants in France, St. Martin, Texas, and Clifton's Cafeteria in Los Angeles. He also has done some consulting, which is where his OC connection comes in, as he provided support and guidance at Moulin in Newport Beach.

The new menu is very compact. There are eight starters, three sandwiches, seven entrees, and five salads to choose from. I was a little surprised that they had the same menu for both lunch and dinner. Entrees are definitely on the pricier side, with them ranging between $28 to $40. The appetizers run from $16 to $22. Enough of the background here, let's hope this lunch helps us get a little sober and helps decrease the tensions between our two bickering lovebirds.

Even though it's only 22 miles away in a straight line, it seems like the ocean is a long way from Temecula. I sometimes feel a little uneasy getting seafood from what I perceive to be so far from the ocean. Katie and I decided to chance it since we were both very hungry and I spied these Lump Crab Cakes ($20) on another table when we walked in. Glad we did. The tender white crab meat was placed on a very good citrus dijon aioli. The crab cakes were delicious, fresh, and not overwhelmed with any filler. I was afraid that the dijon was going to overpower, but it paired nicely with the crab. Very well done.

Out of the three sandwiches offered, the Chicken ($18) sounded like it would be the most to my liking. The organic chicken breast was joined by crispy bacon, creamy avocado, tomato, lettuce, and a balsamic drizzle. The menu states that the bread used here is pain de mie, but it was not as soft and reminded me more of a ciabatta instead. Nonetheless, it was a good sandwich. The bacon was prominent and the chicken was not overcooked. I wish they had provided maybe an aioli or some mayo as a condiment, but still a solid chicken sandwich. The fries were fine but could have been a little crisper. 

I think Katie had really wanted the chicken sandwich as well, but she knew that I was going to be writing a review of this restaurant, so she had to get something different for varieties sake. The sacrifices a restaurant blogger's wife has to make. Thanks so much, Katie. Her second option was the Fish Salad Sandwich ($18). I believe this fish sandwich was made with yellowtail, but I could be wrong about that. Whatever it was, it was definitely better than I had imagined. This elevated tuna sandwich came with hard-boiled eggs, tomato, guacamole, and what I wish was on my sandwich, a housemade mayo. The fish was fresh and mellow, the hard-boiled egg seemed weird but worked well, and guacamole is never a bad thing. This came with a side salad which I did not try. 

Sadly, dessert was not going to be an option on this late afternoon, due to a scene that one of the fighting lovebirds made in the restaurant and the fact that we were going over our allotted time with our bus driver, who had another trip planned later in the evening. Even with all the chaos going on with our fellow party guests, both Katie and I really enjoyed the food we consumed at Meritage. Just based on the lunch that we experienced, they are definitely going in the right direction here. If we are out this way again, we'd for sure come back and try Chef Bar's entrees. Make note that they are only open for dinner Friday through Sunday. Service was great, considering how challenging it is to serve 20 people who have been drinking all day. The lovebirds? They broke up about three more times on our way back to OC and when we were dropped off, he was last seen walking home by himself. Yes, they got back together the very next day. True love. 

Out of five hot air balloons, (because Temecula is famous for their Balloon and Wine Festival held the first weekend in June), five being best to zero being worst, Meritage at Callaway Winery gets 3 solid hot air balloons.

For more information about Meritage at Callaway Winery, head to their website here:

Thursday, January 23, 2020

History Lesson and Dinner at El Cholo

El Cholo 
8200 East Santa Ana Canyon Road
Anaheim, CA 92808

Yes, I know this is my third straight Mexican restaurant review. No, I am not turning this into Orange County Mexican Restaurants, although I do wish Christian would come back and write some new reviews, but, I guess he's a little busy with Naugle's comeback. It's just as the weather turns a bit cooler, it makes me yearn for some Mexican food to warm me up. Also, it was my mom's birthday, and she was looking for a place we haven't been to for a long while. Enter the historic El Cholo.

I say historic because El Cholo has been operating since 1923, with only a short break when they shut their doors due to food rationing during World War 2 and did not want to sacrifice food quality. They may have been the first Southern California restaurant to feature nachos on their menu (1959), added combo plates way back in 1938, and at one time were the world's largest user of Jose Cuervo 1800 tequila.

All of this as they remained a family business, now in their third generation of family ownership. OC restaurant legend Ron Salisbury is the grandson of the original owners of El Cholo #1 in Los Angeles. They have now grown to six locations, with three of these in OC, (La Habra and Corona Del Mar are the other two). Ron also picked up three other restaurant concepts to join the El Cholo family; Louie's on the Bay and The Cannery, both situated in Newport Beach, and the legendary Cat and the Custard Cup in La Habra.

This Anaheim Hills spot opened in 2013 and used to be the site of another Mexican restaurant, Chevy's. Remember them? Anyways, back to the present day, we arrived here on a Monday evening around 6. This big restaurant was half full, and our party of 9 was seated comfortably off by ourselves in a corner of the restaurant. The menu is pretty much just like every other Mexican restaurant in Southern California. Appetizers, enchiladas, combo plates, and specialties of the house are listed here. What I enjoy most about their menu is that they list the year that they started selling that particular item right next to it. Like they did not start selling fish tacos until 2001, fajitas made the menu in 1984, and it took until 1977 that they added a burrito. It's kind of a history of when different kinds of Mexican food became popular. Enough buildup, let's see how my mom's birthday dinner choice turned out for everyone.

First, a shot of the Chips and Salsa we were served on this evening. The chips were light, but not much to them. The salsa was kind of the same. Not enough spice to it, but I did like the consistency that it had. Lots of chunk to it, but it needed a pop of flavor to be considered good in my book.

Katie and I were a little bit late to dinner, so we missed the tableside presentation of this Guacamole Molcajete Style ($12.95). Just like the salsa, this needed some seasoning to make it taste anything better than bland. It's a shame really because the consistency was there, but it failed to stand out.

The combo meals started coming out for us fast and furiously and Katie got hers first. She went with the No. 1 ($17.95) which is a Rolled Beef Taco and a Chicken Enchilada, which was a two-dollar upcharge. She had heard this was the thing to get at El Cholo. Katie thought the rolled beef taco was better than the enchilada, which she thought was bland. Combo meals are rounded out with Spanish rice and refried beans.

My dad got the No. 2 Combo ($15.95) which comes with a Chili Relleno and a Cheese Enchilada. He liked the relleno a lot, as it had a little kick to it and was filled with plenty of cheese. The cheese enchilada was good, but he wished it would have had a little extra sauce. Beans were fine, but he called the rice just filler. He was not a fan of it.

The birthday girl went with a One Item Combo ($9.95) and picked a Cheese Enchilada as her one item. She seemed pretty pleased with this. It had plenty of cheese and she really enjoyed the cheese topping the refried beans. Glad this plate could make my mom happy on her big day.

My sister and brother in law broke our streak of combo plates when they split this Fiesta Platter ($15.95). This comes with a big mound of nachos and is then surrounded with chimichangas, crab and beef taquitos, quesadilla segments, and sour cream and guacamole on the side. Predictably they had plenty to take home.

As usual, when I'm eating at a place for the first time, I'm going to get the plate that allows me to try the most things. At El Cholo that would be the Taste of History ($19.23). This came with four of their most popular items; a Chile Relleno, Cheese Enchilada, Pork Tamale, and a Rolled Beef Taco. All of them were kind of average. I think they all kind of tasted like each other, which is a little bizarre to me. Nothing really stood out on this plate for me. The rice and beans were just hanging out. I was not overly impressed, but on the bright side, I was not overly disappointed either. I guess that's something.

Not the most adventurous of eaters, like she is with boyfriends, my niece Kaylie got these two plain Chicken Soft Tacos ($5.95). She requested just chicken and cheese and they complied with her wishes. They looked really boring from across the table, but this was the way she wanted them and it seemed like she was pretty happy with the result. Glad I grew out of my picky eating phase by the time I was her age. Maybe someday she will like other things on her tacos like hot sauce or even lettuce. Here's hoping that she grows a little more courageous in her food exploration in the next few years.

Another picky eater is my niece Lillie. I took a quick shot of her Kid's Taco Plate ($6.95) before it was whisked away because she had wanted her taco with no lettuce and tomato. Man, this younger generation. I did not bother taking a picture when it came back, but she seemed pretty content and even ate a good majority of her beans and rice. Great job Brownie Booster.

El Cholo was not horrible, but nothing I had here would make me want to come back anytime soon. I'd put this restaurant right there with El Torito and Alcapulco's based on their food, and just a tad below what you can get at El Ranchito or Rodrigo's. I love the history here and how they celebrate it, but the meals themselves were pretty average. We live in an area where great to very good Mexican food is readily available, so I'm not entirely sure why people like these chain Mexican restaurants so much. Maybe it's familiarity or convenience, which are my guesses. Service was good on this evening, as our server made sure our party of nine had everything that we needed during our stay. Sorry again for the three Mexican restaurant reviews in a row, but anything for mom on her birthday.

Out of five traffic signals, (because not only was 1923 the year that this restaurant opened, it's also the year that the traffic signal was invented), five being best to zero being worst, El Cholo gets 2.5 traffic signals.

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