Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Yet Another Reason to Head to DTSA

4th Street Market
201 E. 4th St.
Santa Ana, CA 92701

It seems like the latest food trend is the neighborhood dining hall. There are a number that have sprouted up recently in OC. I feel ashamed as a food blogger that we have not gone to the Anaheim Packing District yet, and I do not feel that we have explored the OC Mix at SOCO nearly enough. Our list of restaurants to hit up is dotted with many places at that center. There's also the Union Market in Tustin, which we have walked through recently, which has great potential, but there's not nearly enough places open there yet, and not sure they will be opening anytime soon. So to get some of my food cred back, we made a date with our good friends to explore the newly opened 4th Street Market in Santa Ana.

If you haven't made it to Downtown Santa Ana in a long while, you're really missing out. This area probably has the greatest concentration of our favorite restaurants that I can think of off the top of my head. We have had so many great restaurant memories made here, like C4 Deli, Chapter One, Lola Gaspar, The Crosby, and Mil Jugos. We also have some memories in the making when we eventually visit Playground, the North Left, and Pop's Cafe. This night though, was all about 4th Street Market.

Opened almost two months ago, the buzz for this culinary wonderland keeps growing. Every time I see someone on Twitter post that they are there, or I check out my Instagram feed, seeing some of the great food being served at the 4th Street Market, I get a little pang of jealousy that I am not the one enjoying that food. Located at the corner of 4th Street and Bush, this used to be home to the Santa Ana Swap Meet, but now it's home to 15 retailers, a demonstration kitchen, a community market, a European style butcher shop, and everyone's favorite coffee purveyor, Portola Coffee, which has a very prominent spot in the front of the market.

We arrived here at 6pm on a Wednesday night. The market definitely has a vibrancy about it. Kind of a hip feel to it, without being too hipster. While we were waiting for our friends to arrive, we browsed through the Honor Roll Market. They had some locally grown produce, hot sauces, spices, and some handmade soaps that caught our attention. There's also Dough Exchange, which is hawking baked goods, from the guys behind Playground. At this late hour, the case was kind of barren, but from what we saw, it looked promising.

Our friends finally arrived, and we made a lap around the market, making notes on what we wanted to consume. There were five of us, so we decided to use the divide and conquer technique. We set up shop in one of the seating alcoves, and everyone spread out to order what they wanted. Kind of a little overwhelming, but we all decided to share what everyone brought back to the table. Let's take a look at our selections on this evening.

When we made our first lap around the market, we ran into a familiar face, Danny Godeninez, who is part owner of Ink Waffles, and of course the famous Anepalco's. Every time we see him, he's willing to take the time to talk food with us, and his passion for business is inspiring. For his latest venture he's teamed up with Jaritza Gonzalez to introduce their version of a waffle sandwich. Not just a Bruxie knock off, these sandwiches are larger, and really go for it with innovative varieties, including this Waffle Laki ($9.50). This sandwich was filled with a very well done lamb, lettuce, tomatoes, french fries, and tzatziki sauce. I loved the lamb here, but the waffle was so overloaded that it was kind of a mess to eat. It didn't really hold its sandwich shape for too long. Still really good, and we look forward to trying some of their other six sandwich offerings on our next visit.

One of my favorite booths of the night was Stockyard Sandwich Company. Owner Phil Burden, formerly of The Grilled Cheese Spot, had us oohing and ahhing when we tried both versions of his Naughty Totties ($8) . They have two versions of what they call this, "poutine-ish" item, pork and beef. A little hard to photograph in the container it came in, you need to do yourself a favor and try these tater tots that are topped with carnitas or short rib, a fried egg, cheese, and country gravy. Not sure which version I liked better, but I'm going to love to do another taste test soon. The Westside Cheese Lurker ($10) is also worth getting. This sandwich came with braised short rib, bacon, grilled onion, barbecue sauce, chipotle aioli, pepper jack cheese, and jalapeno. As you might expect, big time flavor on this one. It was served with house made potato chips. A real winner on this night.

I never had the pleasure of eating at Civic before they closed up, but if Joe Melendez's new venture, Mar is any indication, I really missed out. We picked two items from this seafood focused menu. Their Ceviche of the Day ($8) happened to be a Mahi Mahi in a mango habanero salsa on this evening. The fish was fresh, but a little too much liquid in this serving. I also would have liked a little more spice. This was more on the sweet side, with just a little note of spice on the back end of each bite. Katie could not stop raving about the Poke ($10) here. She of course loved the cubes of rich ahi tuna accented with garlic, ginger, green onions, sesame seeds, and topped with avocado, but she was also enamored with the zucchini carrot noodles this was served on top of. She loved this option, and would get this again in a heartbeat.

I'm not really into food trucks, because I'm not into hunting down my food when I'm hungry. One truck I had always heard good things about though was Dos Chino's. Lucky for us food truck snobs, there's no need to hunt them down now since they will be at 4th Street Market permanently. Katie wanted to give their Latin/Asian mashup a try, so she had their Vietnamese Roasted Pork Tacos ($7 for two). These tacos brought these two food cultures together wonderfully. Inside the corn tortilla is a five spice roasted pork belly, pickled carrots, daikon, and jalapenos, and then a touch of green salsa. The result was a wonderful fusion taco that will have us exploring more of their menu next time.

I've had some real good experiences with fried chicken recently. It all started when I went to Disneyland and had their version at the Plaza Inn. It continued when I went to my buddies house, and he treated us to his version of this southern classic dish. This Fried Chicken Combo ($10) completed the trifecta of great fried chicken. This fried chicken was delicious, and had a sweet sauce that did not overpower, and let the chicken shine. It was moist, without being greasy. Very impressive. This combo was also rounded out by a unique Chipotle Potato Salad and a slice of Skillet Cornbread. Both were pretty tasty, but didn't distract us too long from finishing the fried chicken.

Also from the boys at Playground is this hamburger concept, Wagyu Chuck. I've heard great things about the off the menu burger at Playground, and if it's the same as this one, those raves are well deserved. I'd describe this Double Burger ($9) as being a very clean and simple burger. Kind of like In-N-Out, but higher quality ingredients and better flavor. The bun was really good here, with a nice toasted touch to it. We all were a fan of the Fried Baked Potatoes ($2) as well. These kind of tasted like they would fit right in at the OC Fair, but were not as greasy, and with a very nice crunch to them. A very impressive side item for the burgers here.

By this time of the night, I can admit that I was pretty much done, but I knew that other people in our group wanted to try dessert. There are a number of options for dessert at 4th Street Market; like Front Porch Pops, Torch S'More Company, and the place we eventually ended up, Chunk-N-Chip. Ice cream cookie sandwiches seem to be a hot trend right now, and these were solid, even though I was already pretty stuffed. They make all of their cookies here, and the ice cream is also made by them. They had some very interesting flavors, and were very generous with the samples. I settled on a Half Sandwich, which was a dark chocolate chip cookie with banana ice cream on top of it. Rebekah had a scoop of peach ice cream sandwiched between two macadamia nut with white chocolate and pineapple cookies. She was in total bliss having this, which made up for the fact that she was going home with our friend Angel. Not the easiest pill to swallow. Anyways, this was a great end to our night at 4th Street Market.

When I saw my good friend Angel again the next week at our regular poker game, we both remarked that we did not think there was anything that we had on this night that we would not want to have again. Everything really impressed us, and we look forward to coming back again soon to try more. I'm not guaranteeing that you will like everything that you encounter at 4th Street Market, but you will definitely find something you will be telling your friends that they must try when coming here. I'm just glad that for a few hours at least, I felt like one of those hip, food bloggers while eating at 4th Street Market. Well worth the trip just for that.

For more information about 4th Street Market, head over to their website here: http://4thstreetmarket.com/

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Feeling Like Family at Mama D's

Mama D's 
3012 Newport Blvd. 
Newport Beach, CA 92663

There's some restaurants that I have to look up to make sure that we haven't been to yet. After eating in 531 different restaurants up to this point, it's easy to forget if I ate at a place before or after starting this blog. This is one of those joints. After a quick glance at the restaurant list that can be found on the right hand side of this page, I now know that we have not visited Mama D's while doing this blog.

I have eaten here when I lived in Newport though. It was one of my buddies favorite places to eat. He would rave about the pink sauce, and we would come here before a great night out in the bars on the peninsula. Pasta is a great way to avoid a hangover. My friend Jimmy was not the only one to rave about Mama D's, it seems like everyone I know, always tells me about a great experience they had at Mama D's on Newport Boulevard.

Before Mam D's took over this spot it was cursed. I swear it was about five restaurants within the span of ten years. Mama D's has definitely broken the curse, since they have been here at least nine years, and have been named one of Yelp's top 100 places in the country to eat at in 2015, coming in at number 59 on the list. They also have a four and a half star rating, with over 2,800 reviews and counting. With all of this praise, I had a feeling we would be having a great night here with our good friends Daniele and Tom.

We arrived here a little before 6pm on a Saturday night, and put our name in. The wait would be about 45 minutes, but they asked us if we wanted a drink, while we waited outside. Katie took them up on an iced tea, while Tom and Daniele ordered a bottle of wine. The staff was also kind enough to bring some bread around about 10 times while we were waiting out in front of the restaurant. They also brought us some meatballs, with a little less frequency. With the combination of the bread, and the wonderful company we were keeping, it seemed like our table was ready in no time.

The inside of the restaurant is definitely beach casual. The dining area is loud, and a little cramped. The menu is pretty basic. There's a build your own pasta section, baked pasta dishes, and entrees that featured veal, chicken or seafood. Our waitress greeted us promptly, and answered all of our questions about the menu. I was pretty hungry, and lucky for us, the food did not take too long to come out. Let's see how everything turned out for us on this night.

Before we get to the quickly arriving entrees, here's a quick shot of the bread that came to the table. Plenty of garlic and seasoning on this, but after having so much outside, almost all of us kind of ignored this bread basket. Still good though.

Since Tom was wearing such a great shirt, and you can see in the background of the first picture, we'll start with his meal. He had the Fatima's Veal Picatta ($23) on this night. This classic veal dish was sauteed in olive oil, then served with capers and a white wine butter-lemon sauce. No complaints from Tom about this meal. He liked the tenderness of the veal, the flavors were spot on, and the vegetables and side of pasta with their famous pink sauce were a great accompaniment.

Tom's much better half, Daniele was a little indecisive when looking at the menu, but finally settled on the Chicken Mama D's ($22). This dish features boneless chicken, red and green peppers, and mushrooms, all in the same white wine, garlic, and butter sauce that came with the chicken picatta. The similarities with Tom's meal did not end there. She also had the side of pasta with the pink sauce, just like Tom, but opted for gnocchi to make a real splash. She loved her dish, and was very pleased that they did not charge extra for the gnocchi. Eating this kept her from obsessing over her Fitbit for ten minutes or so, which we all enjoyed.

Katie had a more unconventional meal here at Mama D's, starting off with this Antipasto Salad ($12). This salad had a whole supermarket produce section in it. Iceberg and romaine lettuce, tomato, carrots, garbanzo beans, cucumbers, olives, pepperoncinis, and plenty of grated Parmesan cheese top this salad, along with more cheese and sliced cold cuts. Katie loved the freshness of the salad, and was surprised at the amount of, and the quality of the meats on here. For some reason she mentioned that she felt this salad would have been bigger for the price, but I thought it was a good enough size for what we paid.

Part two of Katie's meal ended up being these Stuffed Mushrooms ($10). These six mushroom caps were filled with seasoned bread crumbs, herbs, and tiny mushroom pieces. The mushrooms themselves were very tender, with a very good flavor to them. They kind of had a wine taste to them, which was very pleasing. They were pretty good sized, and definitely filled us up. We'd get these again for sure.

Like Daniele, I also had a hard time making my entree choice at Mama D's. I don't have an ultimate, go to meal when eating in an Italian restaurant, so I decided to try one of their two specialty dishes that are listed on the menu. This Sausage and Chicken Capri Fra Diavolo ($22) may not be as photogenic as the other meals, but it was just as tasty. The fra diavolo sauce was good, but not as spicy as I would have liked. The chicken and sausage were both plentiful and tasty. The pasta was fresh, and definitely made in house. I'm not a big fan of hunks of tomato, but my dislike for that was canceled out by the well made sauce. The menu claims that this had buffalo mozzarella in it, but I did not detect too much of it. I should have gotten some extra Parmesan cheese to bring up the cheese quotient. Still a good and filling plate of pasta.

As is the custom at Mama D's, every meal ends with complimentary Chocolate Chips Cookies. These were pretty good. Plenty of chocolate chips, but a little on the heavier side of the cookie spectrum. I like my cookies a little lighter. Still, they were free, and a nice way to end our meal.

We all walked out of Mama D's with a very satisfied feeling. I'm not going to lie to you and tell you that the food here is going to blow you away, but it's good, solid, made from scratch Italian food that will leave you feeling happy that you ate here. To tell you the truth, even though our meals were good, their service might have eclipsed it. From the time we put our name on the list to be seated, to the time that we left, (after closing time), they treated us great, and really made us feel welcomed. This is probably the secret to their success, and the reason for all the praise they get from Yelp. Prices might be a tad too high for the amount of food that you get, but it's quality stuff here, and it is the beach, so rent is higher. Looking forward to coming back again soon, and happy we finally visited Mama D's while doing this blog.

Out of five Seahawks koozies, (because this restaurant will always remind me of my good friend Jimmy, and he was never too far away from his Seattle Seahawks koozie, which almost always had a beer in it), five being best to zero being worst, Mama D's gets 3.5 Seahawks koozies.

For more information about Mama D's, go to their website here: http://www.mamadsnewport.com/Home.html

Mama D's Italy Kitchen on Urbanspoon

Sunday, March 15, 2015

A Golden Anniversary for an OC Restaurant Treasure

Five Crowns
3801 East Coast Highway
Corona Del Mar, CA 92625

A lot of the time when you get an email it's not a good thing. It could be your boss asking for that report you were supposed to have done already, or it's your phone company politely asking you to pay your overdue bill, or it may even be your great aunt Lydia asking you to come out to Arkansas for a family reunion. I'm probably averaging about one email that I actually want, out of about thirty that I receive. One email that automatically caught my eye was an invite to come try out the new menu offerings from Five Crowns in Corona Del Mar. I couldn't reply that I would be there quickly enough.

Five Crowns is truly an OC institution. They are celebrating their 50th year in 2015, and not one to rest on their laurels, they have many great things planned for this year. First and foremost, they have expanded their menu. Yes, they are still going to have everyone's favorite prime rib and accompaniments, but they have also added three times the selections to their old menu. They are luring new diners into their restaurant by really focusing on much more than their prime rib. They also want you to think of Five Crowns as a restaurant where you can not only get great beef, but there are other options for people that want something else.

On their menu now are many new starters, plenty of seafood options, and a variety of small plates for people that are not big eaters. It's not all new on the menu though. Five Crowns has brought back what they call Crown Classics, which are items from the past that they have put back on the menu, but with a modern twist. So if you remember having the Horseradish Crusted Salmon or the Colorado Lamb Chop before, get back in here and have the updated version.

Not to be outdone by the food, there's also a new beverage program at Five Crowns. Their wine list has expanded to three times its original size, with a new curated section of the list, which is inspired by customer requests. If you favor a certain wine, and give them a heads up, you might just see your wine featured here at Five Crowns. The cocktail list is evolving here as well. There are some real noteworthy hand crafted cocktails that will get everyone's curiosity piqued. There's also a secret cocktail menu, which is in a secret space, which we will get to later. Now it was time to try some of the new food items from the new Five Crowns menu.  

Tray passed appetizers were up first, as the assembled food media were mingling, and I was just trying not to make a fool out of myself in such esteemed company. Off of the Fruits Del Mar section of the menu, this Crab and Avocado Mash ($13) started things off nicely. Crisp pita chips are topped with fresh crab, avocado, and a light lime dressing, which gave this a little zing in the flavor department. A very simple item, but done very nicely.

The next appetizer we had was from the small plates portion of the menu, the Duck Rillette ($15). To be honest, I really did not know what a rillette was at the time of eating this, but I now know it's kind of like a pate. Sliced meat, or duck in this case, is cooked slowly in its own fat, then shredded and cooked until it forms a paste. This version also involved brandy, and was then spread across a toasted crostini. A delicious result. The wonderful smoky duck flavor came through, and the crunch of the bread added a nice texture. The brandy flavor was very subtle, but allowed for the natural flavor of the duck to shine.

Nothing got us to our seats quicker than them bringing out these Fruits Del Mar Grand Platters ($55) to each table. On this night the platter featured Clams Casino, a Daily Selection of Oysters, Grilled Shrimp, and Smoked Trout Dip. This was a pretty impressive seafood platter that would please any lover of things from the ocean. The shrimp were large and briny, the oysters were very fresh, and even Katie enjoyed one of them, (a major feat for this non-loving oyster girl). The clams were done in a classic casino style, with lighter than normal bread crumbs and bacon, as not to interfere completely with the clam underneath. The highlight of this platter for me was the Smoked Trout Dip. One of the best I have had. I had visions of stashing this in Katie's purse, and making a trout dip sandwich with it the next day. Decorum reigned though, as I was gracious enough to share with my fellow table mates. Even a week later, I still think about this trout dip, it was that good.

Salads were out next, and Katie and I each had a different one, but decided to share them. This Beet and Strawberry Salad ($12) was set in front of me first. I'm usually not one for mixing fruit into my salad, but this was pretty good. Joining the beets and the strawberries here were sunflower seeds, arugula, and a very well made fromage blanc. The freshness was definitely evident here, but I liked the slight sweetness from the strawberry, and how it interacted with the subtle peppery nature of the arugula. This salad hasn't changed my views about fruits in salad, but it has opened my mind up to the fact that this could be a good thing sometimes.

I also got to try this Winter Citrus Salad ($12), which I was a little less a fan of. This one came with greens, watercress, tomato, fennel, ruby red and oro blanco grapefruit. I'd attribute my feelings about this salad to the fact that I'm not really a big fan of grapefruit. Never really liked it, but Katie found this salad to be right in her wheelhouse. She loved the tangy nature of this salad, and the use of fennel and watercress, which she feel doesn't get used enough.

With all the food we have had up until this point, we were pretty relieved to know that we were not getting full servings of the entrees, although I would have been up to the challenge. Maybe next time. They started us off with two fish entrees, Seared Scottish Salmon ($30) and one of their Crown Classic dishes, the Potato Horseradish Crusted Salmon ($34). Both of these salmon dishes were phenomenal. The Scottish version was served on a bed of lentils and asparagus, with a dill butter. Cooked wonderfully, I could have used a little more dill butter on here, but the salmon was moist enough without it. The crusted salmon was not as heavy as I would have imagined. It was served alongside some sauteed haricot verts, (green beans), and a light mustard sauce. For those of you that are not too keen on horseradish, it is really mild on this, and the potato went well with the fish, which I was not expecting. Not sure which one of these I liked more, so I may have to try them again very soon.

You'd probably expect Five Crowns to do beef the right way, right? Yeah, you would win that bet. Just like the salmon plate before, they treated us to two versions of beef on this night. The Grilled Ribeye ($42/$55) came with a cipollini onion and baby squash perched on top of it, and drizzled with a cognac demi-glace. This simple presentation really let the flavor of the meat shine here. Very tender steak, in all its glory. The Beef Steak Neptune ($48) is again off of their Crown Classic section of the menu, and is one of my favorite ways to have steak prepared. The eight ounce filet is situated on top of mashed potatoes, then topped with asparagus, crab, and Bearnaise sauce. This classic Oscar presentation was right on. The Bearnaise sauce had the right consistency, the crab was fresh, and the steak very tender. They definitely do this surf and turf dish well, and I look forward to having this one again.

By this time of the night, I was starting to reach my limit with the food, but there's always room for dessert. To be honest I did not quite catch what these were called, but they were delicious. The chocolate one kind of reminded me of a Hostess Ding Dong in its appearance, but of course it was so much better. Nice and moist chocolate cake, with a very good icing. This will hit the spot for any chocolate lover that walks through the door. The other dessert was a sponge cake, served with mixed berries and whipped cream sitting on top of the cake. This one was all Katie, as I'm much more into chocolate, rather than fruit desserts. There are two other desserts on the menu here at Five Crowns that should also be tried. The C.C. Browns Hot Fudge Sundae is a classic, and the Dark Chocolate Souffle takes 40 minutes to prepare, but you'll be glad you waited after having your first bite. Make sure to save room for dessert when dining here.

Earlier in this post I mentioned a secret spot, which not too many people know about, and I've been given the go ahead to let you in on the little secret. There's a hidden speakeasy on the second floor of Five Crowns. Not too many people know about it, and since only me and mom read this blog, it'll probably stay that way. The speakeasy is called the Poppy Club, which is named for the street that Five Crowns is located on. To see about getting reservations, you can email them at 352Poppy@gmail.com  Don't let them know that I was the one to tell you about this though.

Anyways, the vibe upstairs was pretty cool. Piped in, upbeat French music was playing, and every table had an absinthe fountain. The cocktail menu here featured about 5 varieties of absinthe, four bottled beers, some classic cocktails, and signature cocktails. The drink above was from that part of the menu. The Cocktail Named Elvis is a play on what was the King's favorite sandwich. Scotch is combined with peanut butter, banana, some honey, and a bacon garnish. Not sure how, but this concoction really worked. It was delicious, while not being overly sweet. Each of the flavors made its way through in little spurts. Quite a good beverage, and a wonderful way to end our night at the ever evolving Five Crowns.

We would like to thank everyone that made this visit to experience the new Five Crowns menu possible. It was a pleasure meeting General Manager Jim Colombo, Corporate Executive Chef Ryan O'Melveny Wilson, and Steven Kling, Executive Chef at Five Crowns. It was great getting to see their excitement for this new menu first hand. They all seem real passionate about what the future holds for Five Crowns, which in turn got us all excited as well. With this team behind the restaurant, I have no doubt that they have another 50 years in them, at least.

For more information about Five Crowns, and all of the new goings on with their 50th anniversary plans, go to their website here: http://www.lawrysonline.com/five-crowns
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