Thursday, March 22, 2018

Bowled over at Yang's?

Yang's Braised Chicken Rice
13824 Red Hill Ave.
Tustin, CA 92780

I used to have a rule that I would only review restaurants after they had been around for a year. I had a few reasons for this. One was that the success rate for a new restaurant making it a whole year was actually really low, and I did not want to have a lot of closed restaurants listed alongside the right-hand side of my site. Of course, after almost nine years of writing this blog there inevitably ended up being a fair amount of restaurants that have boarded up their windows and moved along.

Another reason I choose to stay away from new restaurants is the crowds who want to experience things first. These people, who line up at restaurant openings, want either free stuff or they do it because they want to be one of the first to try something new. My course of action is to let these people experience a place first, and once the fervor dies off, then I give it a try. That's the reason we are just now trying Yang's Braised Chicken and Rice.

Yang's was all the rage when they opened their first US location just six months ago in Tustin. The lines were crazy long, with reports of people waiting up to two hours to get their food. Adding to the chaos was the fact that they only made a certain number of their bowls during each meal period. To me, it seemed like more of a hassle than it was worth, but I'm not really a big fan of waiting in lines and crowds in general. I decided I would jot this place down and save it until now.

Yang's has a pretty epic story. In the 30's in the Shandong Province of China, Yang's founder, Xialou Yang opened up a traditional restaurant, but he soon learned that people were only ordering his grandmother's chicken dish, known locally as Huang Man Chicken. So, he scraped the rest of the menu and focused on this chicken bowl, which only features chicken thigh meat, mushrooms, grandma's secret sauce, and depending on which bowl you order, a varying amount of peppers, all of which is served in clay pots. Yang's has grown very quickly in a relatively short amount of time. Since they opened their first restaurant in 2011, they now have over 6,000 locations spread throughout Asia and Australia and look to become just as successful in the US.

We got here at just before half-past six and arrived at a pretty busy restaurant. A good majority of the twenty or so tables were occupied, but most did not have any food on them. We ordered at the counter and snagged one of the freshly cleared tables. A good majority of the people waiting here, especially the family of four to our right really seemed like they were pretty angry with the amount of time that they had to wait for their meals. The father got up at least two times to complain to the girls at the counter. We were more patient, but it did take us about a half hour to get our food, from the time we ordered. Not as quick service as we expected, but no biggie, we had no other plans for this evening. Let's see what all this hoopla was all about.

They offer three kinds of Yang's Braised Chicken Bowls ($9.99), regular, authentic, and spicy. The top picture is a shot of Katie's regular bowl. Notice the absence of the sliced serrano peppers, as she was a little nervous about the spice level. I was also nervous about the spice, so I only went with the authentic one which had the sliced peppers added. The peppers added just a tinge of spice, and I'd probably go with the spicy version next time. This was a very comforting dish. Kind of like a chicken stew, perfect for the slightly chilly night we were eating this. The chicken was nice and tender, and the ratio of the chicken to rice was right about on point. The sauce is what made this dish a winner though. It tied the rice and chicken together wonderfully, with a hint of ginger detected. Do be aware that when this comes out of the kitchen it is extremely hot and will burn your mouth if you do not let it sit for a few minutes.

Yang's is the type of place that I can see us returning to, but with only one dish it will have to be when we are craving it. It would also have to probably be a pretty cool night for us to make the trek back here, as this is definitely colder weather food. I can't see myself eating here in the heat of July. The bowl was good though, and I can see why Yang's has gotten so popular in Asia and Australia. I think they still have some work to do in getting the food out of the kitchen a bit faster, or maybe they were just having an off night. Glad we had the chance to give Yang's a try without having to brave the crowds and risking them running out of food like they did when they first opened.

Out of five springs, (because one of the most visited tourist spots in the Shandong Province, where this restaurant got its start is the 72 Famous Springs), five being best to zero being worst, Yang's Braised Chicken Rice gets 3 springs.

For more information about Yang's Braised Chicken Rice, head to their website here:

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Popping in to Lido Bottle Works

Lido Bottle Works
3408 Via Oporto, Suite 103
Newport Beach, CA 92663

The month of February has been a real kick in the pants for both Katie and I. It started with an unexpected hospital stay for myself, Katie's been having to deal with some craziness at work, and then there's been some other assorted family issues that I'm sure you do not care to hear about. My point is, it was definitely time for Katie and me to get out and have a long overdue date night. Get out and just breathe, and not have to think about some of life's challenges. We chose to do this at Lido Bottle Works.

For those of you that are unaware, Lido Bottle Works is located at the recently revamped Lido Marina Village. This was my first visit back to this center since I was here for a wedding cruise for one of our friends three and a half years ago. Besides the fantastic wedding, what I remember most about that visit was that this shopping plaza was pretty much deserted, with lots of boarded-up shops and construction going on. My only other memory of this area is when I was much younger and would head to the long departed Warehouse Restaurant on club nights to strike out with women, or trying their pretty awesome Sunday brunch. Oh, the memories!

It does seem that this area has turned a corner though. It was still pretty sleepy when we arrived here at 6pm on a recent Saturday night, but they did a great job of renovating this center, and as more places open up it will probably become more lively. There's plenty of fashion, home furnishings, and beauty inspired shopping options at Lido Marina Village, and dining purveyors have slowly set up shop here. The most notable is probably LA hot spot, Nobu. There's also a place that has me intrigued after checking out there menu, Zinque. This trip was all about Lido Bottle Works though.

LBW has gotten raves for their food and bar program. They nabbed top spots on both Edwin's and Anne Marie's top 5 lists of 2017 in the OC Weekly, and they are two food writers that I really admire and respect their opinions. Of course, those raves were before opening chef, Joel Harrington made a beeline for Nashville earlier this year to work in a modern steakhouse in Music City. LBW seems to be left in good hands, with original sous chef, Amy Lebrun now promoted to executive chef. She's recently created a brunch menu and promises that most of the customer's favorites will still be available.

Like I said we got here at 6pm and were seated promptly in their comfy dining room. Maybe because we were so close to the water, but the space brought to mind the feeling of a yacht's cabin, with its wood paneling and view of the water. There's a bar in the middle of the room, with high top tables in the front of the restaurant and a long row of more traditional seating alongside the left-hand side of the restaurant. Tables are spaced a little too close together, but if you are lucky like we were, you will get to know your neighbors like we did. We were sat right next to the most charming two young ladies who were doing a valiant job of going through almost the whole menu at LBW. Speaking of the food, let's see what we ended up getting here.

Pork Belly Bao Buns ($14) were not something that I was expecting to see on the menu here, but there they were, and Katie wanted to give them a try. The spongy bao bun was filled with pork belly and an almost egg sauce sprinkled with togarashi, which is a seven chili seasoning that was used liberally over the buns but did not increase the heat level on these too much if at all depending on your tolerance to spice. The pork belly was done nicely, but it kind of got overshadowed by the steamed bun. I enjoyed the pork belly much more when I plucked it from the steamed bun to eat it on its own.

Probably the most talked about food item at LBW is this Cauliflower ($18) dish, which they should really rename, cauliflower three ways. They pickle it, roast it, and cream it all on this one plate and then add golden raisins and trumpet mushrooms to the top of it. It's arranged as a cauliflower bundt cake, Predictably light, I liked the way the pickled pieces interacted with the cauliflower mousse and the rest of this starter. Worthy of being their signature dish.

I was a little taken aback when Katie got this Bolognese ($24) because I thought she was a lock to try their seafood offering on this evening. She still surprises me even after nine years of being together. Also, surprising was the fact that this pasta dish was just as good as anything you'd get at an Italian restaurant. The tagliatelle was cooked wonderfully al dente, the meat sauce was savory, and the inclusion of the tomato confit and ricotta helped smooth things out. A very well balanced, and satisfying plate of pasta. Excellent choice Katie, I never should have doubted you.

I had heard great things about the LBW Burger ($18) but it kind of left me wanting more. It's not really a good sign when the bun is the best part of a burger experience, but that was the case with this very well crafted wasabi tinged brioche. The beef patty was overcooked and not as juicy as I would have liked, and the black garlic aioli and bacon jam were not prevalent enough to save this burger. The fries were fine, as they had a good crispness to them with plenty of old bay seasoning covering each of them.

We sampled a trio of the desserts at LBW. The first was the Caramel Apple Cake ($9) which was light on caramel and apple, but still had a pleasant moistness to the cake, and the sweet soy ice cream was an interesting choice but did not really boost this dessert to an elevated level. After my first bite of the Chocolate Mousse ($9) I was kind of underwhelmed, but as I ate this I ended up really warming up to it. The olive oil and sea salt kept me interested, and the smooth chocolate and malted little balls were an excellent textural yin and yang. The best of the bunch was the Vietnamese Coffee Panna Cotta ($9) which I probably would not have ordered just based on the fact that I'm not a big coffee fan, but the bite that I had was delicious. It combines Abuelita Mexican hot chocolate and macadamia nuts to go along with a very well done pannacotta. Special thanks to our awesome table neighbors for offering us a bite of their dessert, and for allowing us to crash your night out celebrating your father. It was great getting a chance to meet you, and I was pretty impressed with all the food you guys put away.

There were some hits and misses on this evening, but on the whole, I enjoyed our time at Lido Bottle Works. I kind of get the feeling that LBW is n the midst of a transitional period, in which new chef Amy Lebrun will make some changes to the menu when it transitions seasonally. It will be interesting to see how it all plays out. As for now, there are some definite things you need to try on this menu, like the cauliflower starter, the pasta dish, and I hear their seafood options are amazing, and the seafood comes from the Dory Fishing Fleet Market at the nearby Newport Beach Pier, so you know the fish is crazy fresh. Service on this evening was fantastic, and the vibe here was definitely down to earth, which is kind of rare in this area of Newport. So happy that we could have a much-needed date night, and hope that the rest of the year is a smooth ride for us.

Out of five anchors, (because nearby Lido Isle is home to the Lido Isle Yacht club, which I'm sure has some pretty big ships with large anchors), five being best to zero being worst, Lido Bottle Works gets 3 anchors.

For more information about Lido Bottle Works, head to their website here:

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Breaking Bread at Bosscat's Brunch

Bosscat Kitchen and Libations
4647 MacArthur Blvd. 
Newport Beach, CA 92660

It's hard to believe that it had been nearly three and a half years since we had visited Bosscat Kitchen and Libations. We had a very solid dinner here, and I have been seeing a lot of shenanigans online about their Sunday brunch over the last few years. The food and the atmosphere I saw in their Instagram posts really intrigued me, so when Angel and Rebekah tasked me with finding a brunch spot for the four of us, it was an easy decision to head to Bosscat Kitchen.

There was one problem. I had waited until Wednesday to make brunch reservations and was told that there were no reservations available, but we were welcome to wait in line and be seated when a table became available. No problem, Katie and I got here extra early and waited in line with about sixty to seventy-five others who failed to plan ahead, like myself. When the doors opened at 11, both the reservation line and the standby line got seated rather quickly. We were told that we had to finish our meal in an hour and a half, which would be no problem since we did not want to hang out with Angel any longer than that.

Bosscat Kitchen is situated a stone's throw away from John Wayne Airport and shares a wall with Ten Asian Bistro on MacArthur. They have been open for four years, and in that time they have won rave reviews for their pork belly poutine, red velvet churros, and their brunch. This is not your typical quiet, sleepy brunch restaurant. It's a young, hip spot, with a DJ spinning a wide array of tunes on the corner of the patio, mimosas and bloody mary's flowing on just about every table, and over the top menu items, many of which bring to mind the fair food that you'd see at the nearby OC Fair in mid July.

Bosscat Kitchen is helmed by executive chef Peter Petro who has been here since the start, which is kind of rare to see in these days of musical chefs. Business must be good for the owners of Bosscat. Not only do they have a line of sixty people waiting out front for a table for brunch a half hour before they open, but they also have a location that opened last year in Houston, and another restaurant concept which debuted earlier last month, also in the Houston area. Since we only had an hour and a half to eat before our table would be turned over to the next party with reservations, let's take a look at what we ate here on this Sunday morning.

See what I was saying about not your typical brunch? Katie and I started with The King ($15). This Elvis inspired breakfast dish had blue suede pancakes as its base, which was really just pancakes that were dyed blue, a maple peanut butter sauce, a few pieces of crumbled bacon, and a banana cream pudding? As you can see from the picture above, I think they forgot to add the banana pudding, which would have helped this out a lot. The maple peanut sauce was very good, but they really skimped out on the crumbled bacon, which is not the way this dish is presented in the numerous pictures on Yelp. Without the banana pudding, lack of bacon, and a blue dye that surprised us later, this was kind of a lackluster start to our brunch. 

Angel and Rebekah did not want to be outdone by Katie and me, so they also started with a sweet option to start off their brunch session, the "Fruity Pebbles" French Toast ($14). Again, this one kind of left us underwhelmed. The french toast was done nicely, but there was not nearly enough of the condensed milk glaze or bacon that the menu promised. Without these, this was just a photo op showcasing the Fruity Pebbles on french toast. Disappointing, and again, nothing like the other pictures you see on their Yelp page. 

I cringed a bit when Angel ordered this Crawfish Queso and Eggs ($15) as his brunch entree. I thought there was no way that this could deliver a great crawfish experience, but I was wrong. This skillet was packed with delicious crawfish, plenty of crunchy Fritos, a lick your plate clean Hatch chili sauce, and sunny side up eggs to tie everything together. It would be hard for me not to get this on my next trip to Bosscat. I loved the different textural components of this, and the flavors were amazing. Great choice Angel.

This is another one straight from the fairgrounds, the Sticky Bun Breakfast Burger ($16). I really had no intention of getting this until I was looking at their Instagram feed before leaving the house, and the burger looked so good. Yes, that is burger patty topped with Canadian bacon, Gruyere cheese, and a duck fat fried egg, sandwiched between a sliced in half sticky bun. Just for good measure, I also added the optional scoop of vanilla ice cream to finish this off. There was a lot going on here. After taking these pictures I moved the ice cream off to the side to eat for later. The sticky bun was very good, reminded me of the ones I get from the fair, and did a better job than I imagined it would of keeping everything together on this burger. The fried egg was a little overcooked and did not feature very much of the runny yolk that I would have liked on this. The burger portion of this was pretty solid, so I'd probably just opt for their Bosscat burger the next time I'm here.

Rebekah went with a more traditional breakfast option at Bosscat, this Chorizo and Potato Benedict ($13). This skillet started with a milk biscuit as its foundation and then built upwards with a slow cooked egg, potatoes, chorizo, and a topping of fried chicken hollandaise sauce. I liked the contrast between the crispy potatoes, the airy biscuits, and the bringing it all together of the hollandaise sauce. The chorizo was kind of secondary here, but this was still a winning dish.

I really enjoyed the couple of bites that Katie allowed me to have of her breakfast entree, the Short Rib Chilaquiles ($15). This skillet was brimming with deliciousness. Plenty of tender shredded short rib, tortilla chips, a duck fat fried egg, avocado, cheese, and sour cream were melded together with a very delicious red sauce, which Katie felt was very spicy, and I found it to be just right. She's got a pretty low tolerance for spice. A nap-inducing meal that left us both very satisfied, and was one of the better chilaquiles we have had in some time.  

Okay, there were some misses on this visit to Bosscat, but I still really enjoyed our time here. The sweet items were the ones that we had the most problems with, but the savory stuff more than made up for the lackluster french toast and pancakes. I'd have a hard time picking between the crawfish dish and the chilaquiles on my next visit here, but I do have my eye on the chicken fried steak and the loco moco as well. Angel was a little put off by the crowd here, but I liked the young, exuberant customers on this particular early afternoon. Everyone seemed to be having a great time and making the most of their Sunday-Funday. As was the case when we ate here for dinner three years ago, the service on this visit was fantastic. Our server Danielle could not have been better, and she even offered to move us to another spot if we were not done with our meal before our hour and a half time limit. Very nice people here, and we will make this one of our frequent brunch spots. 

Out of five rockets, (in honor of the new Bosscat Kitchen in the city of Houston, which has one official nickname, Space City, and of course you have to explore space in a rocket), five being best to zero being worst, Bosscat Kitchen and Libations gets 3 rockets.

For more information about Bosscat Kitchen, head to their website here:

Monday, March 12, 2018

Chocolate Chip Cookie Quest Continues

Portola Coffee Roasters/ Mr. Holmes Bakehouse
2493 Park Avenue
Tustin, CA 92782

I'm not anything close to a coffee drinker. My wife Katie drinks enough coffee for the both of us. In fact, that's an understatement, she drinks enough coffee for about ten people. Her caffeine addiction is so bad that when she goes through the drive-thru at any of our local Starbuck's, they know her name and order just by her saying good morning through the speaker. Yesh, she's a little obsessed with coffee.

Katie is also a big fan of Portola Coffee Roasters, and she usually stops by here when we are at SOCO, Union Market in Mission Viejo, and this particular Portola outpost in the Union Market at the District at Tustin Legacy. She always enjoys what she gets here, and usually just gets me an ice water.

On this particular trip though, Katie was at work and I was with my good friend Danny finishing up a long overdue lunch.  We had walked by the bakery case at Portola on our way to eat, and we both made a mental note to have dessert at Portola.

Both of us have been on a quest to find the best cookie in Orange County. So far Danny's best is the chocolate chip cookie from Urban Plates. I have to admit it is a pretty solid cookie, and what makes this even crazier is that this cookie is not made with butter, but Earth Balance margarine. I never would have known, except it's listed on their description on the menu. My best cookie so far is the ones from Paderia Bakehouse in Fountain Valley. Their Peanut Butter Chocolate cookie is the thing dreams are made of, and at 6 ounces it will definitely fill you up. We were both beyond excited to give the cookies at Portola a try.

The cookies here are made by Mr. Holmes Bakehouse, which used to have a booth at Union Market, but now they sell their baked goods through Portola. From what I can gather Mr. Holmes started in San Fransisco and has expanded south to LA and now they even have an outpost in South Korea. Mr. Holmes delivers baked goods from their Highland Park location to each of the six Portola Coffee Roasters each day, with the exception of the Orange location inside the Provisions Market. Sorry, no baked goods for the good folks of Orange. Anyways, let's see if Mr. Holmes could top our best cookie list.

Okay, not a cookie, but we could not resist trying this Chocolate Cream Donut ($3.50). It reminded me of a malasada, but they call it a donut here. It's rolled in sugar, filled with a very light, but flavorful chocolate cream, and its hole is plugged with a candied nut.  This was way better than I expected it to be. The donut portion was soft and fresh, while the chocolate cream was not too overpowering. A very nice start to our experience at Mr. Holmes.

I'm usually partial to chocolate chip cookies, but we wanted to give this Cornflake Cookie ($3) a shot. We are glad we did. This unique cookie combined cornflake cereal and brown butter toffee to form a fantastic combination. The cookie was soft but held its form wonderfully. The taste was kind of like these cookies that my mom makes for Christmas but way better. Sorry, mom. After I finished this cookie, I knew it would be my favorite from Mr. Holmes, but I still was not going to pass up an opportunity to try the chocolate chip.

This Chocolate Chunk Cookie ($3) was very good as well. At first, I thought the sea salt topping this was a little too much, but it really worked well with the well-made cookie underneath. They got the delicate balance just right. The cookie was softer than I usually like, but the high-quality chocolate chips and the buttery taste made up for it. A solid representation of a chocolate chip cookie, and one that I'll always look for when swinging by the Portola Coffee Roasters.

For Danny, this was the best cookie he has had. He was beyond giddy with the cookies here, and I was not that far behind in his excitement. They are definitely in my top 3, with only the ones from Paderia Bakehouse and Susie Cakes surpassing it, so far. If you have been having a problem getting to Portola before they run out, they will hold them for you as long as you contact them the day before and commit to getting a box of six cookies. Trust me, you will want six for sure. These cookies were so good, it almost made me wish that I was more of a coffee drinker. Fortunately, I live with one of the biggest coffee lovers on the planet, so I know I'll have plenty of opportunities to get these cookies on one of Katie's numerous visits to Portola Coffee Roasters.

Out of five magnifying glasses, (because the most famous Holmes I could think of was the fictional detective, Sherlock, who used a magnifying glass to help solve some crimes), five being best to zero being worst, Mr. Holmes Bakehouse gets 3.5 magnifying glasses.

For more information about Portola Coffee Roasters, click here: and for info about Mr. Holmes Bakehouse, click here:

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Far Out Lunch at the Kroft

The Kroft
2493 Park Avenue
Tustin, CA 92782

I feel like there's never enough time to catch up with the restaurant scene in Orange County. There are always new places to try, and restaurants that have been around for awhile that I haven't made it out to yet. The Kroft is one of those places.

It still amazes me that I had not been to The Kroft yet. They describe themselves as comfort food reinvented, and that, along with their Instagram photos definitely have had my attention for a while now. I decided it was time for action. I had a long overdue lunch date with my good friend Danny planned, and he'd be driving, so I decided we'd be heading to The Kroft at the Union Market in Tustin.

The Kroft opened in 2014 at the Anaheim Packing House. They instantly drew raves for their sandwiches and poutines, which actually feature real cheese curds, something that most so-called poutines almost always lack around these parts. High on the heels of their success at their first location, they opened their second spot at the Union Market in Tustin, which for those of you that are not aware, is at the Tustin at District Legacy. There are also plans for a Los Angeles outpost in the very near future.

Back to this visit though. My good friend Danny and I arrived at the Union Market just before lunchtime, and I was relieved to find that the lunchtime rush had not filtered in yet. In fact, it was never too crazy busy during our stay on this Thursday afternoon. The Kroft is situated towards the back of the Union Market, right near the Portola Coffee Roasters. Their menu features sides, poutines, and sandwiches. Prices hover around the $10 mark, which is not as bad as I was thinking it was going to be. Let's see how our first trip to The Kroft turned out.

Okay, Danny and I went a little crazy with our fry situation at The Kroft. Danny wanted to give their regular French Fries ($4) a try, while I went a little wilder and had the Country Fried Chicken Poutine ($9). The fries on their own were pretty good. They are twice fried, which I almost always feel provides a better fry, which is crunchy on the outside but leaves the inside pillowy soft. That was the case here. The fries were made even better with the garlic mayo dipping sauce that I got. A good amount of garlic made this a winning sauce. The fried chicken poutine was good, but I expected a bit more out of it. The fries were good, but this needed more country gravy to tie it all together. The chicken nuggets were kind of a disconnect for me as well. They were too big to be eaten in one bite and also difficult to cut with the plastic forks and knives that are used here. Since this was my first time having real cheese curds, I do have to admit that I liked them a lot. I can't wait to try their original poutine on my next visit.

Danny really seemed to struggle with a decision on what sandwich to have on this afternoon, but he finally settled on the Prime Rib Dip ($12). This sandwich came with plenty of sliced prime rib, a horseradish mayo, and caramelized onions all on a french roll. I did not get a chance to try this, but it looked pretty solid from where I was sitting. Danny was a little underwhelmed by the sandwich, but still said it was good. Very hard to please that guy.

I was a little more decisive when it was my turn to order my sandwich, the Porchetta ($10) would be my pick for this afternoon. A triple threat of pork is included on this, pork belly, loin, and cracklings. The pork is supported by a seasoned arugula, salsa verde, and caramelized onions. Predictably the pork is the star of this sandwich. I enjoyed the texture the cracklings provided, and the pork was done well. I would ask for more salsa verde next time, and arugula, whether seasoned or not is never going to be one of my favorite things on a sandwich. I ended up taking half of this home for lunch the next day and I'm not sure if the flavors had a chance to meld together more or not, but I actually liked the sandwich better the day after. The ciabatta and other breads they use are stellar.

The cuisine at The Kroft is right up my alley. I liked everything well enough, but I was not blown away by anything that we had on this one visit. I'll definitely be back though, as their Instagram feed always features some great shots, and I do want to try their other three sandwiches and more of their loaded fries and poutines. It's hard not comparing this restaurant to the guys over at Burnt Crumbs. Based on this one visit, I have to give the edge to Burnt Crumbs, as I liked their fries and sandwiches better. The service at The Kroft was very pleasant, as the girl at the register was very nice and gave us her suggestions of what we should have. I'm glad I finally got the chance to try this place, but as is the case with restaurants in Orange County, there's no time to rest because there's always a new place to try.

Out of five hats, (because I could not go through this whole post without mentioning one of my favorite shows from my childhood, Lidsville, which was a live action show created by the Kroft Brothers in the early 70's), five being best to zero being worst, The Kroft gets 3 hats.

For info on the Kroft, head to their website here:

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Getting Some Chicken Fried Steak with a Little Help from My Friends

Friends Cafe
17391 17th Street 
Tustin, CA 92780

It was my second week off of work, and I was craving a good breakfast. I would also be meeting my sister, who lives in Yorba Linda, and since I reside in South OC, we decided to meet halfway, which puts us somewhere in the middle of OC. I searched my restaurant wishlist and found Friends Cafe in Tustin.

I had jotted this place down because it was one of the last restaurant reviews by Gustavo Arellano in the OC Weekly, and more importantly, he gave them glowing praise for their country fried steak, which is one of my favorite breakfast dishes, but it's very rare to find a good one. With Gustavo's recommendation, I had very high hopes for Friend's Cafe.

One of the things that I loved about Gustavo's restaurant reviews was that they were always little out of the way places, restaurants that do not have a PR person, and thus would not get all the restaurant bloggers, Instagrammers, and other food influencers to walk through the door looking for a free meal in exchange for being highlighted on their overinflated IG accounts. These are the kind of restaurants I love to write about, places that real people go to, and not just because the food looks so pretty.

Friends Cafe is located right across the street from El Torito on 17th Street, and in the same shopping center as a Dollar Tree, Marshalls, and a Dickey's BBQ. Opened since June of last year, this restaurant is way bigger than it appears from the outside. The dining room is almost cavernous, with a high ceiling, well-spaced tables, and comfy booths lining the walls of the restaurant. There's even a ten-seat bar so you can glimpse the inner workings of the kitchen. The decor is very modest, with a few pictures of California landmarks adorning the walls, and three large TV's which most customers ignored on this weekday morning.

For a restaurant that's only opened until 3pm, I was a little surprised that they had so many sandwiches, burgers, appetizers, and wraps available on their menu. We were here for breakfast, so we focused on their egg dishes, pancakes and french toast, benedicts, and other breakfast specialties. I knew what I'd be having, so let's see how the country fried steak would end up treating me.

Country Fried Steak and Eggs ($13.79) is one of the most photogenic of breakfast foods. The fried steak peeking out from underneath the blanket of gravy, and the pop of color from the sunny side up eggs is breathtaking to me. Hopefully, you share my view, or at this point, you just think I'm some crazed breakfast lunatic. Gustavo was right, this was a pretty strong contender for the best country fried steak in OC. The serving size of the steak was bigger than my outstretched hand, had a good crunchy layer of batter, and was tender underneath. The gravy was seasoned well and had a good thickness to it. I hate when gravy is too runny. The plate was rounded out with a giant heaping of hash browns, which I mixed with my eggs. A very solid, stick to your ribs first meal of the day.

My sister has been working very hard to maintain her new year's resolution, and I applaud her willpower as she had to endure watching me inhale my country fried steak, while she ate this Chilled Fresh Fruit ($6.95). The fruit selection on this day was blueberries, cantaloupe, and honeydew. The fruit was incredibly fresh, and she could not finish the whole thing, so she boxed it up to eat later at home.

Friends Cafe was a great little find, which I might have never heard of if it wasn't for Gustavo's review in the OC Weekly. I'll definitely miss his Hole In the Wall column, but I look forward to seeing what's next for him. As for the country fried steak at Friends Cafe, I'd have to say, like Gustavo, it was very good but not as good as the one I had at Paul's Coffee Shop in Fountain Valley eight years ago, but it was close. I also hear that they have some killer potato pancakes, which I'll have to try the next time I'm up this way for breakfast.

Out of five coffee mugs, (not only because I'm sure they sell lots of coffee here, but because the TV show Friends was for a large part set in a coffee shop), five being best to zero being worst, Friends Cafe gets 3 coffee mugs.

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

Friday, February 23, 2018

Hoping R.T.E. Can Improve the Food Cred at the Kaleidoscope

27741 Crown Valley Parkway #329-23
Mission Viejo, CA 92691

It's hard to review a restaurant that is located in the Kaleidoscope and not mention my thoughts of what is wrong with this shopping center, which is situated overlooking the 5 Freeway in Mission Viejo. It's especially difficult now since you can see that the people that run this center, some would say cursed shopping center, are really trying.

We've made a few recent trips here and the escalators have been working fine each time, which was a big gripe I've had with this two-level shopping center. Yes, the lighting in the underground parking structure is something right out of a horror movie, and the lack of good retail stores and giant anchor retailers is something that is really holding this center back. You can still see them trying to make this ill-conceived center work.

Besides the functioning escalators, the big addition at the Kaleidoscope is, of course, Union Market, which is a collection of small, independent retailers, and more importantly to me, specialty restaurant and food purveyors. I'd guess that the biggest draw to Union Market is the Portola Coffee Roasters, and for me, a non-coffee drinker, the fantastic Mr. Holmes baked goods that they sell there. The cornflake cookie and the salted chocolate chip are amazingly good, as long as you get there early enough to grab them before they sell out. This visit to Union Market was not for coffee or cookies, but to give one of their restaurants a try and meet up with my aunt and uncle for a long overdue dinner. We decided to give R.T.E. a try.

R.T.E. stands for Ready To Eat, and this is a barbecue on a stick restaurant. With the exception of their ramen and sides, everything comes on short skewers here. The skewer portion of the menu is divided into three parts, land, ocean, and garden. Prices range between $1.95 to $4.95 for the scallops, and they do offer a combo which includes three skewers, pickles, and your choice of rice or salad. They also offer a happy hour in which pre-selected skewers are priced at a dollar off, and so are all the sides. Happy hour is every day from 4 to 7pm. Other menu items include sides like salads, peppers, rice, tater tots and more. They also have a couple of dessert items, and be sure to check the chalkboards behind the bar for other specials they are running. Let's see what we ended up ordering on this evening.

The food at R.T.E.came out to us in waves and the first group was some of the sides that we had ordered. It might have been because I was pretty hungry, but the Tater Tots ($5) really satisfied. These little barrels of potato came out perfectly, crunchy on the outside and soft inside, with a touch of truffle sea salt to keep things interesting. The House Salad ($6) was underwhelming. A spring mix of leafy greens was paired with a very mild sesame dressing. The dressing needed to be punched up a bit in the flavor department to make it more noticeable. The Shishito Peppers ($6) were a pleasant surprise. They were lightly fried, dusted with a little sea salt and had a great flavor. There were a couple peppers in there that really packed some heat. The Edamame ($4) was fine, but I did not really get my fair share of them because my cousin Chris had a big pile of the empty edamame pods stacked on his plate, almost to eye level. Thanks for sharing Chris.

The main part of our meal came out all at once on a platter. The meats, Short Rib ($3.95), Pork Belly ($2.95), and Chicken Thigh ($2.95) were all pretty solid, but I was hoping for a little more meat on these. They were very thin. The Cherry Tomatoes ($2.95) were not my favorite, but I'm not really a tomato kind of guy, even though I did try one of them. The Zucchini ($1.95) was more my style. I liked the light seasoning that they used and the grill marks added a nice subtle flavor.

Both Katie and my aunt Hiroko got a Bowl of Tonkotsu Ramen to go along with their skewers. Hiroko is a ramen expert, and she really enjoyed this version, which is not on the regular menu but was listed as one of the specials on the blackboards behind the bar. It featured a hard-boiled egg and plenty of green onion. A perfect vehicle for a rather chilly evening.

To be honest, I was not totally full after our skewers, so Katie went back up to get me a few more meat options, and she also came back with a few more things. I liked the Brussels Sprouts ($2.95) but thought they needed to be cooked a little more, as they were kind of hard to bite through. The Fried Plantains ($3.95) were mushy, but Katie seemed to like them well enough. The Hojaldre ($2) which is listed on the menu as a Panamanian fry bread was good, but it needed a little something else to go along with it. The second round of sides ended up not being as good as our first.

R.T.E. was good, but not really great for big eaters like me. I liked the food here, but I did not think it was a great value for what we paid. Not sure how we ended up paying $95 for our first round of food, even though it was happy hour. With the five of us it worked out to almost $20 per person, and I still had to go back and have another two chicken skewers and some of the sides that Katie got on her second go around. The sides, for the most part, were okay, but the standouts for me were the peppers and the tater tots. As far as the proteins, the red meat options were best, but the pork belly was overcooked and did not have that characteristic pork belly feel that I have come to love. One thing that did shine at R.T.E. was the people that they have working here. Service was first rate, and they made sure we had everything that we needed during our stay, even though we were seated behind the restaurant, out of their eyesight. Pretty impressed. Just like we are impressed with some of the changes going on in the Kaleidoscope Shopping Center within the past year. At least they can say that they are not the worst shopping center in OC anymore, that honor now goes to the Anaheim Garden Walk by a mile.

Out of five remote controls, (because RTE is also the abbreviation for the public broadcasting system of Ireland), five being best to zero being worst, R.T.E. gets 2.5 remote controls.

For more information about R.T.E., head to their website here: