Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Will This Place Cut the Mustard?

Mustard Cafe
41 Auto Center Drive
Foothill Ranch, CA 92610

I admit it, I like using coupons to save on food. I mean, I eat out about 150 times a year, so any savings I can get I am all for. To increase my coupon collection I buy the Entertainment Book every year. I know the restaurants in the Entertainment Book are usually not the best, but there are some coupons and offers that I make sure to use every year. Mr. Stox, Five Crowns, and La Cave come to mind. I even use the Entertainment Book to find new restaurants that we have not yet tried. This was how we arrived at Mustard Cafe.

Mustard Cafe is kind of on its own island in Foothill Ranch. It's located in the desolate remains of the Foothill Ranch Auto Center. Separated from the much more popular Foothill Ranch Towne Center by Bake Parkway, I imagine that foot traffic for this shopping area has diminished with the loss of all the car dealerships in the area. Surprisingly, when we arrived there were about ten people that had stumbled upon this restaurant, or maybe they had sought out this place for the food.

Mustard Cafe is a casual sandwich place. Think upscale sandwich shop. The menu features a variety of sandwiches, panini's, soups and salads. They have also just started serving dinners, which is what Katie took advantage of. There used to be two locations, but the Orange location is no more. Let's see how the food turned out.

I was pretty hungry, and not sure how big my sandwich was going to be, so I started with a Caesar salad. Here the Caesar was kind of plain tasting. The salad definitely needed more dressing, and the asiago was not very flavorful. The salad was not awful, but very average.

I had been thinking about Reuben sandwiches all day at work, so I already knew what I would be getting when I came here. One small problem, they were out of rye bread. The counter lady asked if I would mind having it on another bread, so I went that route. When it came out it was on whole grain bread. I should have gone for a different sandwich. Not only was the bread wrong, but the rest of the sandwich failed to satisfy as well. The corned beef was cut to thin, and they really skimped on the amount of meat, as you can see from the picture. The house made Reuben sauce was good, but the sauerkraut pushed both the meat and cheese to the side, so I did not notice either. I would not get this again.

Katie did not feel like a sandwich, so she tried one of their new dinner options. The Shrimp Fettuccine Alfredo was her choice. She described the Alfredo sauce as, "laid back and light". I would describe it as flavor challenged, but that is just me. The shrimp and pasta were cooked fine, but this dish really did not pop or make us want to order this again. The bread served with this was soggy, with a faint garlic flavor. The one bright spot of the dinner was that it was served with a free glass of wine. Katie went with the white wine, and almost finished the glass. Not a big wine drinker, that girlfriend of mine.

The food here was not awful, but it was not anything we would come back for. They do have a wide variety of sandwiches, so there might be something worth having if you want to explore their menu a little more. A few items I have read say that the Roast Beef and Bleu sandwich is a decent bet. The service was fair, and I felt the value was just okay. My sandwich was $7.95, and Katie's dinner was $13. So, once again the Entertainment Card has led me astray, but at least we did not pay full price.

Out of five game pieces, (because one of my favorite board games, Clue, features the character Colonel Mustard), five being best to zero being worst, Mustard Cafe gets 2 game pieces.

For more information on Mustard Cafe, click here:

Mustard Cafe on Urbanspoon

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Sweet Carolina's?

Carolina's Italian Restaurant
12045 Chapman Ave.
Garden Grove, CA 92840

Sometimes you have to be flexible when you go out to eat. It was Saturday night and we were headed to a restaurant that I have been dying to try. Unfortunately, we got to that restaurant and were faced with an hour and a half wait. Not wanting to wait that long, we scrambled to find somewhere else to eat in the area. Enter Carolina's.

Carolina's is located in a run-down strip mall on Chapman. The outside of this 33-year-old eatery looks a little dodgy. Once inside the cramped restaurant though, you can see that they have tried to transform this restaurant into a nice, local joint. Thanks to a very loud birthday party, the place was very noisy. We arrived at six and were seated right away by a very hurried waiter. After we were given a few minutes to peruse the menu, this is what we ended up with.

The best way to judge a place that you have never been to before is to go for a sampler platter, so it was natural that we ordered the aptly named, Carolina's Sampler Platter. This platter featured buffalo wings, calamari, fried mozzarella, and fried zucchini. The best of the bunch was the zucchini. The breading was decent, and not overbearing. The fried cheese and buffalo wings were average to good. The outer coating of the calamari was very heavy, and the squid was too thickly cut for our taste.

With our pasta dinners, we were served the Cheese Bread and Dinner Salads above. The cheese bread appeared to be their pizza dough, with cheese on top. Very good bread and we ate two plates of this. The salads were just okay. I was not too big of a fan of the salad dressing. It was very tangy Italian. I will opt for the Ranch dressing next time.

Starting off the entree portion of the show is the Meat Calzone. This featured a plethora of meats; sausage, meatballs, and ham, then topped with meat sauce and cheese. The picture of this does not do this calzone justice, because it was huge. Anthony loved the sausage and portion size of this, but he wished there was more cheese served with this calzone.

Sabrina could not make up her mind after looking at the huge menu, so she deferred to the waiter for his choice. She ended up with the Chicken Pesto. The chicken pesto here combines the chicken with a creamy pesto sauce, virgin olive oil, basil, garlic, and pine nuts. The result was a delicious plate. Sabrina was very enthusiastic about this meal. She felt the pasta was cooked well, the pine nuts were a great addition, and the sauce tied everything together. She exclaimed that she would definitely get this again.

If you are a devoted reader to the blog, you will not be surprised that Katie ordered a shrimp dish here. True to form she went with the Scampi Griglia. This dish consisted of bell peppers, mushrooms, tomatoes and onions in a butter, garlic, and white wine sauce. She loved the flavorful shrimp and felt the veggies were cooked to perfection. I tried this dish and would have liked a thicker sauce, but that is just my taste.

Much like my reasoning about ordering a sampler platter for an appetizer, I went with the same thinking when choosing my dinner. Above is the Taste of Italy. This sampling of three different pasta dishes is supposed to resemble the Italian flag. Chicken Penne Pesto, Shrimp Fettuccini Alfredo, and Spaghetti and Meatballs make up the three colors of the flag. Like Sabrina, my favorite part of this meal was the Chicken Pesto. The sauce was very good, and the chicken was very tender. I liked the spaghetti next but would have liked another meatball here. The marinara sauce was pretty good though. The shrimp alfredo was not bad, but the sauce needed to be thickened. Overall, this mound of food really satisfied me.

I am not usually a big fan of Tiramisu, but Carolina's claims to have a good one that is homemade. This tiramisu is very light, and not heavy like others I have had. It is also less damp than others. I might even get this again next time.

We were all full from dinner, but of course, we could not resist another dessert. The Chocolate Mousse Cake was another one of our choices. The mousse was very light, but the crust could have been richer. A chocolate mousse is never a bad option for me though.

Okay, this is the last dessert, I promise. All dinners come with Spumoni Ice Cream for dessert. Spumoni, if you have never had it, is an Italian ice cream consisting usually of three different flavors with candied fruit and nuts added. Very refreshing and light to contrast heavy Italian meals. The spumoni here was refreshing and cool. A great way to end an Italian meal.

Going to Carolina's was a very happy accident. We had not meant to come here, but it was a very pleasant surprise. The menu is varied, so you will definitely find something to satisfy you. The prices are a little on the high side, for the area that they are in, but the portions are huge. In fact, I have a big appetite, and even I had leftovers for the next two days for lunch. The service was a little on the gruff side, but that might have been because they were so busy with that large party. We would definitely make a return visit to Carolina's.

So out of five palmettos, (The state tree of South Carolina, and the reason that state is nicknamed the Palmetto state. See, you do not have to watch Jeopardy to learn things!), five being best to zero being worst, Carolina's gets 3 solid palmettos.

For more information on Carolina's, click here:

Carolina's Italian on Urbanspoon

Sunday, August 21, 2011

The Heat Is On at Thai Spice

Thai Spice
15455 Jeffery Rd.
Irvine, CA 92618

My friend David had a great plan to take us out for Indonesian food on a recent Sunday. What he did not tell us was the restaurant was all the way up in West Covina. Not wanting to drive an hour each way, I asked him for another one of his favorite joints in this area code. After some deliberation he came up with Thai Spice.

I have just been introduced to Thai food this year. This will be our third Thai restaurant review, and I can say that I have really liked it so far. The spice has been good, lots of vegetables and meats, so it appears to be healthier, so I can eat more. Let's hope this Thai place can keep things rolling.

We arrived at Thai Spice at six on a Sunday night. The restaurant is located in a sleepy little strip mall. I say it was sleepy, except for of course Thai Spice. Throughout our visit, they were kept busy by the customers flooding the place. This is a fast food style Thai place. Ordering is done at the counter and brought to your table. After perusing the large menu, this is what we came up with.

My good friend, David opted to try the Chicken Fried Rice. He felt that this had plenty of chicken, and was cooked well. He also liked that the plate was served steaming hot and fresh. I did not get to try this dish because he slurped this up faster than I have ever seen anyone eat. Next time I will have to be quicker on the draw.

Katie went with her old standby, the Shrimp Pad Thai. According to the menu here, this is their most popular dish. Rice noodles, shrimp, green onions, bean sprouts, spices and ground peanuts combined to make this dish that Katie called, "flavorful". She ordered this with mild spice, but it still popped with flavor. She felt they were very generous with the amount of shrimp on this, and like David's plate, this came out scalding hot.

Scalding hot will not even begin to describe my Beef Curry. It was more like volcanic hot. First, the temperature of this was close to boiling. I ordered this green curry beef spicy. I will not make that mistake again. I can usually handle spicy food, but this really made me sweat. The first few bites were good, then the heat started to hit me. My tongue was numbed instantly. The flavor of this was good for the first few bites, then it all went dark for my taste buds. I tried finishing this, and making it look like the heat was not getting to me. I do not think I fooled anyone.

Not only did I have the beef curry, but I ordered the Garlic Shrimp Plate as well. This time I was smart and ordered it with medium spice, which was just the right amount of spice for me. The shrimp was served with garlic sauce, green and white onions, carrots and cabbage. I was very happy with the amount of shrimp here, and the flavor was pretty good. The veggies were fresh and crisp. All of the plate dishes come with rice and salad. Both of these were just average.

Just in case we did not have enough food, we also had the Chicken Fried Wontons above. These were average wontons, but what made these better was the Thai honey sauce. It really added another dimension here. Not overly sweet, and they complimented the wontons greatly.

Another pleasant surprise was the Thai Iced Tea. This orange colored tea had a smooth, sweet flavor, which would have gone well with my very spicy beef curry dish. Unfortunately, David kept this drink all to himself.  He acted like he did not see me sweating bullets, but I think he took some pleasure in seeing me suffer a little bit. Thanks a lot big guy.

At the end of the night I came out of Thai Spice really liking it. All of the food was fresh, it came out hot, and the flavor was really popping. The prices, as you would expect from a fast food place, were very reasonable. Nothing on the menu is over $10. The menu is also very broad, so there are lots of items to choose from. When we are back in the area we would definitely eat here again.

So out of five monsoons, (because these wet weather systems dominate Thailand, and I could have used a monsoon to put out the fire in my mouth), five being best to zero being worst, Thai Spice gets 3 monsoons.

For more information on Thai Spice, click here:

Thai Spice on Urbanspoon

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Dropping Into the Shwack

The Shwack Beach Grill
24502 Del Prado
Dana Point, CA 92629

My boss has been talking almost non-stop about The Shwack. He has told me his wife had been and really liked it, so he wanted to know my take on it. I think he just really likes saying the name of this restaurant. It kind of rolls off of the tongue. Shwack.

The Shwack is a brand new burger spot in Dana Point. Opened this summer, they feature burgers, chicken sandwiches, and salads. The vibe here is definitely beach casual, with a very heavy surfer influence. Owner Max Fisher, a local surfer has opened his first restaurant in a building that formerly housed a Starbucks. The coffee is all gone, and in its place are surfboards hanging on the walls and Bob Marley wailing over the speakers. Let's see if the food is going to make us hang ten, or wipe out.

After ordering at the counter, we sat down at the wooden tables inside. They have about ten tables inside, and more out on the patio in front. Just in case you missed the numerous surfing items here, they have a copy of various surfing magazines on each table.

I had looked at the menu before coming here, so I was all set to order the Big Al's Bacon Burger. This bacon cheese burger comes with crispy onions and BBQ sauce. I liked the bun and it stood up to the burger, but it was a little too bready for me. The patty was seasoned well, but I would have liked a little more barbecue sauce on this. For some reason the bacon did not really stand out for me here. I would equate this to a decent backyard burger.

As I was eating my burger, Katie could not stop going on about her Good Vibes Veggie Burger. Calling it, "the best veggie burger I have ever had". Even now, two weeks later she tells me that she still thinks about this burger. The veggie burger here is made with mushrooms, onion, zucchini, potato, and quinoa. Then it is topped with Shwack sauce, tomato, arugula, and Swiss cheese. Just in case she did not get enough vegetables, she also added avocado to this burger. We were told that this burger takes 7 hours to make from start to table. Katie did not feel this was trying to be meat, but could stand on its own.  I tried this and thought it was okay, but I am more a fan of beef.

Instead of fries, they offer Shwack Spuds here. The half moon potatoes are baked, and then fried in a canola oil. You can definitely tell that these are freshly made, but I would have liked these a little more crisp. Also, the seasoning was a little bland for my taste. What did help these out a bit was the Jalapeno Bacon Ranch dressing that was served with these. Good consistency and a decent flavor. Very good ranch dressing.

I can say I am not in love with The Shwack, but it does have a lot of good things going for it. The energetic, good looking staff really brought the place to life. The prices here are very good as well. No hamburger goes for more than $6. The menu is limited, but I have heard good things about the Ahi Tuna Burger, as well as the breakfast that has started being served last week. Not in the mood for a hamburger? They also offer four different salads.

I hope they will expand their side items to include some onion rings, or zucchini. I will definitely ask for more BBQ sauce next time I am here, and maybe a side of the Shwack sauce to make the burger pop with more flavor. I would definitely come by the Shwack again. The burger was good enough, and I know that Katie will want to have the veggie burger again soon. Anything to keep her happy.

So out of five kook's, (in surfing lingo a kook is a surfer of limited skill, and I definitely qualify as that), five being best to zero being worst,  The Shwack Beach Grill gets 2.5 kooks.

For more information on The Shwack, click here:

The Shwack Beach Grill on Urbanspoon

Monday, August 15, 2011

Silver Trumpet Full of Hot Air?

Silver Trumpet Restaurant and Bar
3350 Avenue of the Arts
Costa Mesa, CA 92626

A lot of people ask me how we pick the restaurants we go to. Some restaurants we know we need to go to because they are really popular, and we want to see what all the fuss is about. Some places just really appeal to us, those are usually hit or miss. Some restaurants are close to home, when we do not want to drive too far. We get tips from readers and friends, those places are usually the best. Then sometimes, like this place, we are asked to do a review by a PR person.

After reading the press release I put it on our list of places to try. The Silver Trumpet is located in the Wyndham Hotel, right near the Performing Arts Center. It must be challenging for a hotel restaurant to draw locals to dine there. I imagine that a high percentage of guests at hotel restaurants are also guest of the hotel. I very rarely eat at hotel restaurants. Not sure why that is. They just do not stick out in my mind.

We had made reservations for 6:30 on a Friday night. As you can see from the picture, they were unnecessary. The restaurant was deserted. From the time we got here to the time we left, we were the only two people in the dining room. There were two parties of two out on the patio throughout our stay. It is usually not a good sign when the waitstaff of a restaurant outnumbers the guest in the dining room, but we kept an open mind, and ordered. Here is how it all came out.

Starting of course with the obligatory bread basket shot. This was some of my favorite bread that we have had recently. Good flavor and the butter was rich and creamy. The only drawback with this bread was the tough crust.

For a starter, Katie went with the House Pulled Mozzarella. This cheese was served with marinated peppers, toasted almonds, and sherry. Katie remarked that this dish was very fresh. She was also a fan of the peppers and nuts here, feeling that they added different layers of texture to this appetizer.

To be honest, none of the traditional appetizers appealed to me, so I went with an old standby, the Romaine Lettuce. This Caesar wanna be had Parmesan cheese, a garlic crouton, and Parmesan dressing. This was a decent salad, but I would have liked more dressing on this. The lettuce featured a few bitter parts. The cheese here was good and plentiful.

No shocker here, Katie had a shrimp entree. This is the Roasted Shrimp. Here the shrimp are accompanied by a roasted polenta cake, a paprika sauce and a roasted pepper stew. This spicy sounding dish made Katie pretty happy. The flavor hit her in waves, but was not overwhelming. She was pleased with the polenta cake, but would have liked more shrimp served with this.

My first choice for dinner, the Short Rib, they were out of, so I deferred to my second option, the Flat Iron Steak. This steak was cooked just the way I wanted it, medium rare. Good flavor, although I would have liked more of the red wine sauce that this was served with. More tender than other flat iron steaks I have had recently. The vegetables this was served with were average, but the roasted potatoes really stood out here. Crispy on the outside, and fluffy on the inside, these were some spectacular spuds. I love alliteration.

I guess you can say that I am in search of a great Creamed Spinach , so I had to order it here. I liked the sauce, but it was a little too watery. I would have liked the sauce to be able to stick to the spinach a little bit. The spinach was cooked well, but I am still in search of great creamed spinach.

Caramelized Banana Chocolate Tart, with peanut butter ice cream sounded so good on the dessert menu, but sadly this was a big let down. The main downfall of this was the crust. Very plain tasting. I think a chocolate crust on this would have been better. The peanut butter ice cream needed more peanut butter flavor also. The caramelized bananas were the one bright spot here.

The service at the Silver Trumpet was of course good. How could it not be good, with only three tables out of forty being in use. The trick for a waiter when it is so slow is not to become intrusive, that was the case here. Our waiter did not seem bored and really did not crowd us. The decor was nice and relaxed, with of course trumpet music piped in. According to our waiter they have been through renovations recently, and they have one more to go through in the bar area, and they are also going to create an entrance from the street.

Overall, we liked the food here. The dinners that we had were really good, maybe a little over-priced, but that might be due to the fact that this was in a hotel. People on vacations tend not to worry about prices while they are on vacations, and then when they get home they wonder why they paid $31 for a steak. It was also a little eerie being the only people in this restaurant. Hopefully this was out of the norm for this restaurant. I am not sure how a hotel restaurant can become a destination restaurant for locals, but this one might have a shot at it.

So out of five Satchmo's, (famous trumpeter, Louis Armstrong's nickname), five being best to zero being worst, the Silver Trumpet gets three Satchmo's.

For more information on the Silver Trumpet, click here:

Silver Trumpet Restaurant and Bar on Urbanspoon

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Remembering El Ranchito

Avila's El Ranchito
27941 La Paz Road
Laguna Niguel, CA 92677

Avila's El Ranchito always seems to get lost in the shuffle for me. I never think about going there, and I really have no good reason why that is. I have never had a bad experience there. I have always liked their food. So when Emily asked me if I was going to blog about our dinner here, I had to rethink if I had already reviewed El Ranchito. After going back through my mind I realized I hadn't yet, so this would be a perfect opportunity.

El Ranchito is a mini chain that is a family affair. They have 11 locations, all but two of them are in OC. Started in 1966, in Huntington Park, each location is run by a member of the family. They are now into their third generation of family members running restaurants. Each El Ranchito is distinctive because they all have different house specialties. Let's take a look at our trip to this El Ranchito.

Our party of six arrived at 6 on a Thursday night. The restaurant was very busy inside, and also where we were sat, the patio. The young, good looking staff really had things running smooth. We were greeted quickly and our orders taken in a timely manner. Here is how the food came out.

We started with a side of Guacamole Fresco. Here they added onions, tomato, garlic and lime to the avocados. The result was a very fresh guacamole, just like when my Mom makes it. The chips were okay, not bad, nothing great.

We will start with everyone's favorite person in the family, Emily. She is a very simple food eater, and it showed when she ordered the Chicken Taco, with a side of rice. She felt that the chicken taco was average. She was not really a fan of the rice either, calling it dry.

Next up we have Lynn's choice for dinner, a Two Item Combo featuring a cheese enchilada and a chicken soft taco. This is Lynn's go to choice every time she is here. She loves the enchilada sauce because it is so mild, without giving up flavor. She called the chicken moist and delicious.

Well we might as well get all of the chicken tacos out of the way right now. Our last chicken taco review comes from Rachel. She was the third person to order this very popular taco. C'mon guys we need more variety here. Anyways, she ordered this with beans and rice as well. She felt the chicken taco was dry, until she added guacamole to it. She did not comment on the beans and rice, so I will assume they were to her liking.

We might be done with chicken tacos, but we are not done with chicken. Jimmy had the Chicken Flautas. He called this meal filling and rich. He added that, "the chicken was cooked perfectly." So if you are keeping track, that is two votes that the chicken here was dry and two votes that the chicken was moist. Unfortunately, or maybe not for the sake of variety, there is no more chicken reviewed on this night, so we will have to call the battle of the chicken a draw.

Katie headed to the sea for her meal. She ordered the Two Item Combo with a Shrimp Taco and a Lobster Taco. Adding shrimp or lobster to a combo meal adds $2.49 an item, making this dish a $16 two item combo plate. Yikes! Anyways, Katie could not tell the difference, without looking between the lobster and the shrimp. I actually had the same thing happen with my dish, which you will hear about in a moment. Katie liked this dish, but was not overly impressed with it. She did mention that the Fresco Beans were definitely worth getting.

Last but not least was my meal, the Enchiladas Camarones Ranchera. These enchiladas supposedly had shrimp in them, but I think the kitchen messed up and put lobster in them instead. They did not have a shrimp taste at all, and did not look like shrimp. I asked the waiter about it, but he said it was shrimp. Either way I was fine with these enchiladas. They had plenty of the mystery seafood in them, and the sauce was decent as well. The beans and rice were okay, not among my favorites that we have had recently.

I understand why I never think about El Ranchito now. It is not awful food, but it is not great food either. It is smack dab in the middle, average food. I have never had anything here that I really crave. It is safe Mexican food. Not popping with big flavor, it is more like Mexican food for the masses. Which would explain why a lot of people like this place, and why they always seem to be so busy. I am not dissing this place, because there is definitely a market for this kind of restaurant. They have good service and keep everyone comfortable. Which is part of what people really want when they go out to eat.

So out of five triangles, (because like Avila's El Ranchito, Tex Winter is from Huntington Park, and he helped perfect the triangle offense in basketball), five being best to zero being worst, Avila's El Ranchito gets 2.5 triangles.

For more information on Avila's El Ranchito click here:

Avila's El Ranchito on Urbanspoon