Tuesday, July 30, 2013

A Slice of the Big Apple Comes to OC - CLOSED

Johnny's Real New York Pizza
1320 Bison Avenue
Newport Beach, CA 92660

My first experience in New York City was not a pleasant one. It was the summer of 84, and my parents had taken us on a long three-week trip back east to see family, friends, and historical sites along the way. It was an awesome trip, and probably one of the highlights of my childhood, but it was also a long trip with just the four of us in a car, for what seemed like 6,000 miles. Surprisingly, my parents only included one night in New York City, which was also the last night of our trip. My Dad had no desire to see NYC. Back then it still had the reputation of having a high crime rate, rude people, and was pretty expensive. As I remember, it was my Mom that finally convinced my Dad to take us on a bus from Newark, into the city. We wandered around, went to the Plaza Hotel, and saw Central Park. All memorable moments, but there are two things that I remember most about this time in New York. One was my sister almost getting hit by a cab, and the other was a pizza that we had.

That was my first taste of a great New York pizza. Not soon to be forgotten. I do not recall the name of the place, but I do remember my Dad ordering a large, and the strange look on the guys face when he did it. My Dad had no idea that a large New York pizza could easily feed eight people, let alone our little family of four. We ate at a newspaper rack, and I can still remember how great that pizza tasted. I like to think that pizza helped change my Dad's mind about the city of New York. He has since been back maybe three other times. We could not finish off that pizza and left it on a trash can in the lobby of the Plaza Hotel. I still regret that to this day.

Okay, sorry for that trip down memory lane, but those are the thoughts I had when we were invited to try Johnny's Real New York Pizza. Now I know what you are thinking, real NYC pizza in Orange County? Yes, I was skeptical too, as I am whenever a place has New York or any other locale in its name. Most of the time these places fall well short of the mark of being truly authentic. So yes, I was cautiously optimistic.

I was even a little more optimistic after talking to the man behind Johnny's, Johnny Younesi, a native of Queens New York. He has a real passion for bringing a little piece of his home cuisine to OC. He opened his first Johnny's location in Corona Del Mar two years ago. Just like that location, this bigger Newport store is adorned in red, white, and green in homage to Sicily, and of course New York. Another reason for my hopefulness about this place is the use of a water purification system that filters out the hard water chemicals that are in California water. A lot of people believe that what makes NYC pizza so great is the water, so Johnny's uses this filtered water to make their dough every day. I had skipped lunch in anticipation of this event, so I was famished when the first food came through the kitchen door. I was polite and let people take their pictures, but man was I hungry. Let's take a look at what Johnny's considers to be the best pizza in California.

The first thing to hit the tables for us were these Big C's Best Eva Garlic Knots ($5.99). I wish this blog was equipped with a smell feature because the garlic aroma was intoxicating with these. I really liked the manageable size of these garlic knots. They were just a little smaller than a golf ball, and had a crunchy exterior, while the inside was soft. The marinara served with these was good, but I almost always prefer ranch dressing with garlic knots. I knew a lot of food was on its way, so I let everyone else fill up on these.

Naturally, a pizza place that prides itself on its New York roots has to have good wings, and these Johnny's Wings ($9.95) were definitely good. I really liked the sauce used on these. It had a very nice kick to it, without being too over the top. These came out scalding hot, but as they cooled down they became more manageable to eat. I wish they had a little more meat on them, but I made up for that by eating about ten of them.

With the mild heat from the wings, a beer was definitely in order. I was in luck, Johnny's has my favorite Italian beer, Peroni, on tap and also in the bottle. For wine drinkers out there, they offer Chianti, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Pinot Grigio.

When Johnny was giving his speech welcoming us, and telling us about his restaurant and food, he made a point of mentioning the house salad served here. He wanted a house salad, that went above and beyond what people would expect from a typical house salad. Hence, Johnny's Famous House Salad ($7.95/$11.95/ $15.95). Not only did this salad photograph well, but it was also chock full of goodness. This salad was made up of romaine lettuce, hearts of palm, artichoke hearts, sun-dried tomatoes, mozzarella cheese, salami, mortadella, Kalamata olives, baby corn, and pepperoncini's. How's that for a house salad? This was simply dressed in Italian dressing. The dressing added a touch of flavor, while still allowing the produce to be the star of the show. This is a must get item when coming to Johnny's.

Kind of unusual for a pizza place to serve fries, but at Johnny's they serve two kinds of fries. The New York Fries ($3.95) is your run of the mill fries, served with ketchup. The Sicilian ($4.50) are the same fries, but with garlic and Parmesan poured on top of them, and then served with their Caesar salad dressing, which resembled a garlic aioli. The fries came out crisp and hot and were great dipped in the dressing.

Now the main star of the evening made its way out of the kitchen, the pizzas. For as many pizzas as they had come through the door, I thought they were going to have to replace the door. We had all kinds of pizza, but the one thing they had in common was that these were some large pies. At Johnny's, they have 12 inch, 16 inch, and the massive 20-inch pizzas that are pictured above. The slices were so huge they almost did not fit on the standard size paper plate. The first thing I noticed about these pizzas was the freshness of the cheeses, along with the flavorful meats used liberally to top them. The sauce took me by surprise a bit because it was a sweeter sauce than I am used to, but I quickly learned to like it a lot. Johnny was right about the crust. It had a good chew to it while being light enough to let the toppings be the highlight of the pizzas. My two favorite pizzas were the Andolini, which came with a lot of meat on top of it. House-made meatballs, which come from an over 100-year-old recipe, Genoa salami, sweet Italian sausage, and of course mozzarella and tomato sauce made this pizza a meat lovers' dream. The other pizza I was excited about was nicknamed The Big Bambino and came out with pepperoni, thick-cut onion, and green peppers. I am not much for green peppers, but in this combo, they really worked.

Almost overshadowing the pizza, but not quite, was this Penne Bolognese ($12.95). The Bolognese meat sauce is truly legit here. This meat sauce comes to us from Johnny's family recipe. We have even heard rumblings that they are in talks to bottle and sell this sauce in markets across the country. We will be first in line when that happens for sure. The pasta was cooked fine, but to be honest, this sauce could have been served over my shoes, and I still would have eaten it. If you're not in the mood for pizza, this is what you should get.

I am not sure why this appetizer came out so much later than the other ones, but these Authentic Mozzarella Sticks ($6.50) were well worth the wait. These could have been one of the best-fried mozzarella sticks I have had at a pizza place. The breading was very good, you could taste some herbs in it, and the cheese on the inside was creamy smooth. The cheese paired wonderfully with the marinara sauce.

By this time of the night, I had thrown in the towel, and could not eat anymore. Of course, the guys at Johnny's were not done and brought out three of their four sandwiches. I snapped some quick pictures of the Johnny's Authentic New York Sloppy Joe ($8.95), and the Eggplant Parmesan ($8.25). Both looked really good, but I took the Meatball Parmesan ($8.95) with me to lunch the next day. The meatballs were great on this sandwich. Very flavorful, and you could tell that they took great care getting the seasoning just right in these. I would have liked a little more mozzarella cheese in this sandwich, but the sandwich was still a winner and was the envy of everyone at my work the next day.

By the time we left, both Katie and I needed to be wheeled out of Johnny's on a dolly. We did not even get the chance to try their O's Famous Cinnamon Knots, which are served with a glaze dip. I guess this means we will have to come back soon to give those a try, along with other things we were too stuffed to eat. We really did enjoy Johnny's a lot. There is not anything really like it around OC, and after eating the food here, you can see why Johnny and his partners are so passionate about their restaurant. They really have brought the basic concept of an NYC pizzeria and enhanced it with some good quality ingredients and extra special attention to detail. I still regret when my Dad left that first NYC pizza on the trash can in the Plaza Hotel, but it's good to know that we only have to go as far as Newport to experience good New York pizza.

Both Katie and I would like to thank everyone at Johnny's Pizza for making us feel so welcome. Johnny, Angie, Corey, and Jan have assembled a great staff, who know what they are doing and welcomed us into their restaurant like family. You all should be very proud of what you have created here. We would also like to thank the public relations powerhouse, Jane Gillespie for thinking of us, and inviting us to this great event. It is always good catching up with you Jane. Lastly, I would like to thank all of my fellow bloggers and media friends that were in attendance this night. Usually blogging is a very solitary thing, so when I get the chance to interact with all of you, whose blogs I read religiously, it makes it an even better night. Looking forward to seeing you all again real soon.

For more information on Johnny's Real New York Pizza, go to their web site here: http://www.johnnysrealnypizza.com/

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Meeting Up With a Nice Crab in Corona

El Cangrejo Nice
510 Hidden Valley Parkway #101
Corona, CA 92879

It was time to come out to Corona again to see Sabrina and Anthony. It had been a while, and true to form, I was left in charge of picking the restaurant. Before we had left home, I had two places in mind. One was a run-down shack restaurant, that Yelp promised had good food. The other was a sit-down restaurant, that would prove to be a little more comfortable, especially with the stifling heat that Corona was experiencing. I gave Sabrina and Anthony the options, and just like I had predicted in my mind, they went with the more upscale of the two choices. That Sabrina is always so high maintenance. So it was off to El Cangrejo we would go.

El Cangrejo was a short trip up the 15 Freeway from Sabrina and Anthony's house. This is a newer looking shopping center right off of Hidden Valley Parkway. The shopping center features a Stater Bros., a Kohl's and the recently relocated Twisted Gourmet. There was also another restaurant in this center that caught my eye, the Hot Dog Shoppe. We almost got sidetracked by their large hot dog menu, but our resolve was strong. The hot dogs would have to wait for another day. We had Mexican seafood to consume.

El Cangrejo Nice translates to the nice crab in English, so I had a sneaky suspicion that we would be in for some good seafood during our visit. The restaurant is much larger than it appears from the outside. Black and white checkered floors, large TVs, loud, booming music, and a DJ booth dominated the dining room. With all of this going on, it really reminded me of restaurants on the Mexican Riviera that I have been to, without the 80 percent humidity. Kind of a laid back, vacation type vibe going on here. Now that I was relaxed, I was ready for some food. We ordered, and the parade of food just kept on coming. Here's how it came out for us.

As with most Mexican restaurants, we were given chips and salsa to start off with. These tortilla chips were not your standard chips. They were of the lighter variety, maybe using white corn instead of the standard yellow. Also, they were seasoned with a light dusting of chili powder. Not too greasy, and definitely a lighter chip. The salsa could have been a little chunkier, but there was definitely some heat in this. Not a bad start to the meal.

A lot of the Yelp reviews recommended the Shrimp Empanadas ($12), just like our waitress, so that's what we started with. I have never had a shrimp empanada before. The outside of this empanada was also a little foreign to me as well. It was not as doughy as others I have had. It was fried to a very crispy, golden brown, but lacked any residual grease. The inside of the empanada was very basic. It only had lightly seasoned shrimp in there, which was very fresh, and not on the briny side. This came with a sauce that is prepared tableside by your server. She was very coy about what was in these sauces, only telling us that ketchup was one of the ingredients. Whatever was in there made this a wonderful dipping sauce for the empanadas. Mellow, but with a tiny little kick, by the end of the empanadas we had wiped the dish clean of the sauce.

Ceviche is not something I normally order in restaurants. It's not like I do not enjoy it, but I kind of like my shrimp to be on the warm side. This Ceviche de Camaron ($5) might help change my ceviche habits. This thing was loaded with cooked, chilled shrimp. Just like with the empanada before, the shrimp here was very fresh. The onion, tomatoes, avocado and other assorted items heaped together with the shrimp, really combined to make one heck of a ceviche tostada. The only minor complaint about this dish was that the tortilla got a little lost under the mound of shrimp, but that can never be a bad thing.

Now on to the entree portion of the evening for us. Sorry for the poor photo quality of Sabrina's dish. Her dark personality must have affected the camera. Sabrina is not much into seafood, so she stayed within her comfort zone by ordering a very traditional Trio Combination ($12). For her three items, she went with a Cheese Enchilada, a Chicken Flauta, and a Pastor Taco. Sabrina was not too impressed with her meal. She was not too big of a fan of the enchilada sauce that was used here. She felt it was a little too creamy, and really detracted from the cheese and the tortilla. She also thought the flauta was a little over fried, and it was hard to cut through to the chicken inside. She passed the pastor taco onto Anthony, who had it for lunch the next day. Anthony felt it was an average taco. The beans and rice also failed to impress fickle Sabrina. She summed up this dish by calling it middle of the road. She would probably try something else on future visits.

There was so much going on with Anthony's selection for dinner, that it was hard getting it all in one picture. Hence, the four shots above. La Campesina ($17) means the peasant in Spanish, but I do not know too many peasants that eat as well as this. There was a lot of food on this platter. I would characterize this meal as a deconstructed combo fajita plate. Included in this were beef ribs, Asada, grilled chicken, nopal, chorizo, and queso. Anthony seemed very pleased with everything on his plate. I tried some of the chorizo and the Asada and felt both were pretty good. This was also served with a large side of guacamole. Most places skimp on this, but at El Cangrejo they make sure that you get plenty of guacamole.

El Cangrejo is known for their seafood dishes, so both Katie and I got meals that featured our friends from the sea. Katie loves fish tacos, so it was no surprise that she selected the Ensenada Style Fish Tacos ($12) for her meal. Katie said something complimentary about each layer of these tacos. Starting with the fish, she was excited by the light breading that really showcased the fresh fish underneath. The cabbage added a nice texture, while the sauce that was drizzled over the fish added a pleasing flavor to the taco. Lastly, Katie was pretty impressed with the two tortillas that encased the contents of the tacos, which she determined to be made on the premises. Not sure about that, but I thought these were some pretty good fish tacos as well.

Much like Anthony's meal, my dinner plate had a lot going on with it as well. The La Mariscada ($16) is a seafood lovers delight. Bacon-Wrapped Shrimp, along with Breaded Shrimp, a Tilapia Fish Filet, Langostino, and an Octopus Rice made up this large tray of food. I am usually not much for tilapia, but this filet was seasoned well and cooked just right. The bacon-wrapped shrimp were a little on the salty side, but that was to be expected. The breaded shrimp were large and went well with the cocktail like sauce that came with this plate. This sauce had a nice little kick to it, and really enhanced a lot of the seafood on this plate. The one and only time I have had langostino, I thought it was too much work for such a small amount of meat. El Cangrejo split these miniature lobsters for me, and there was more meat in them than the smaller ones I had eaten at the other restaurant I had them at. The octopus rice was hidden under the tilapia, and it was full of flavor. I had thought it was going to be too fishy, but they got the right balance here. Even seafood novice Sabrina did not think the octopus rice was too bad.

Even though all of us were full to the rafters with food, the owner, Jorge, brought us out a sampler of two of their desserts. The Flan de la Casa ($3) was not very heavy with caramel-like a lot of other restaurant flans are. Here the caramel was drizzled on the plate, along with a strawberry sauce. The flan was good, not drenched, but still moist enough. The Churros ($6) are the dessert to get here. The outside of these looked like any churro you could get at the ballpark or amusement park, but they were served warm, which made them softer than normal. The real surprise was inside, there was a cream waiting to be bitten into. Not overly sweet, this was a great way to end our meal at El Cangrejo.

I was very pleased leaving El Cangrejo Nice. I left the restaurant very full and satisfied, and because of the tropical atmosphere inside, I left feeling like I was on vacation while I was here. I'm not going to lie and tell you this restaurant is for everyone. If you just want regular Mexican food, you might want to head somewhere else, but if you want Mexican seafood that is fresh, spiced well, and if you are an eater with an adventurous streak, this could be the place for you. I really liked the uniqueness of it. The menu was a little overwhelming for us, but if you listen to what the servers recommend, you will more than likely enjoy your dining experience. We met one of the owners of El Cangrejo, and he let us know that they are headed to OC soon, with details to soon be announced. We definitely will be headed back when they open in OC, if not sooner to this Corona location.

Out of five mermaids, (not only because of the nautical theme here but because the nicest crab I have ever seen was Sebastian, from The Little Mermaid) five being best to zero being worst, El Cangrejo Nice gets 3 solid mermaids

For more information on El Cangrejo Nice, click here to go to their website: http://cangrejonice.com/

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Adding a Little Something Extra at Hapa Cupcakes

Hapa Cupcakes
1210 Jefferson St. Suite Q
Anaheim, CA 92807

One of the fringe benefits of writing this blog is going to some great food events. For a good majority of these food events, maybe about 90 percent of them, I bring my partner in crime, and in life, Katie with me. There are sometimes that she can not make an event because of her eight to five job, and that is when I get to ask someone else to be my plus one. I have really tried to spread it around, so no one gets their feelings hurt. I always ask someone that will like the kind of event we are going to. When I heard this event was all about cupcakes and not only that but alcohol-infused cupcakes at that, there was only one person I had in mind to be my sidekick at this event, my sister Kristin.

My sister has been known to enjoy a cocktail or two in her time. She's also a pretty good baker herself, making some of the best chocolate chip cookies out of anyone that I know. This event worked out even more perfect because it was on her way home from work, and because it was summer, there were no kids to pick up from school. It all kind of fell into place perfectly.

We met at the Hapa Cupcake's place just after 4PM on a recent Friday. Hapa Cupcakes for the time being shares space with Bedazzled Deli and Catering. Bedazzled works out of the space for the first part of the day, and then Hapa takes over at 4PM. Most of their ordering is done on-line. You order on-line the day before you want your cupcakes, with their very easy to navigate website. Then you have the option of picking up the cupcakes or having them delivered to you. Cupcakes run between $29 to $34 a dozen, depending on if they are the alcohol-infused ones or not.

The masterminds behind Hapa Cupcakes are life long friends, Akemi and Hanayo. These local OC girls started this business about a year and a half ago. Akemi is more on the business side of things, while Hanayo is the culinary force behind Hapa Cupcakes. She used her friends and family as a guinea pig to help perfect her recipes, and try out new flavors that pop into her head. Lucky them. Her latest creations are Hot Cupcake Sundaes, which can be tried at their storefront. We were lucky enough to get to try these for ourselves.

We were offered two versions of their Hot Cupcake Sundaes ($4.95). I am more of a chocolate guy, so I went with the Chocolate Jameson Sundae. The base of this sundae was their Valrhona Chocolate Jameson cupcake, which was warmed just enough to melt the vanilla ice cream on top of it. The sundae is then topped with a vanilla bean whipped cream and Oreo cookie crumbs. I made quick work of this sundae. The cupcake part was very moist, and the chocolate flavor was very good. I did detect a hint of the Irish whiskey used in this, but it definitely did not overpower the sundae. Kristin went with the Banana Sundae. I think we both liked this one out of the two that we had. Here the banana cupcake is infused with Meyer's dark rum, then topped with vanilla ice cream, vanilla bean whipped cream, and sprinkled with brown sugar and cinnamon. The banana was very pronounced here, and the rum was more evident in this sundae. This will be my choice on future visits back to Hapa Cupcakes.

After we devoured our sundaes, the girls from Hapa Cupcakes gave both my sister and me a four-pack of cupcakes to take with us. I was very excited to try their cupcakes. Hapa Cupcakes was recently featured on the Food Network TV show, Cupcake Wars. I have never seen an episode of the show, but I'm looking forward to catching it on repeats, so I can see the Hapa girls in action. Spoiler alert: They told me that they did not win, but they seemed happy with their performance. I always like eating at places that have been featured on TV, so this added to my anticipation for these cupcakes.

Since I was headed over to my parent's house after this anyways, we decided this would be the perfect opportunity to have a cupcake sampling party. My Mom did all of the work of cutting the eight cupcakes into quarters, so we all got to sample each one. Let's see which one of the four would come out on top in our own version of Cupcake Wars.

First up is the Will You Remember Me in the Morning Cupcake. The batter used in this cupcake is a mix of Madagascar vanilla and Kahlua, then topped with their signature cream cheese frosting, and cinnamon streusel. We all really liked the cream cheese frosting on this one, even my Dad, who is no fan of cream cheese frosting. The vanilla batter was good, but we needed a little more of the Kahlua flavor coming through.

I have never understood why red velvet cupcakes have gotten so popular. It is basically just a chocolate cake with red food coloring. I mean, don't get me wrong, I think it is good, but this seems to be everyone's favorite cupcake flavor of the moment. The red velvet version of this at Hapa Cupcakes is called the Red Velvet Stiletto. This was our third favorite of the four that we tried. The cake portion was very moist, and again the cream cheese frosting was not heavy on the cream cheese, and not sickeningly sweet like others have been known to be. A very solid cupcake.

Our second favorite of the night was a secret cupcake, off of the secret menu at Hapa Cupcakes. The Vanilla Raspberry Cupcake is not to be missed here. It is a vanilla cupcake with a dollop of raspberry sauce on top of it. This cupcake really reminded me of the Hostess O's that I had as a kid. They were a powdered sugar donut with raspberry jelly on the inside. I miss those donuts, but this cupcake brought back some of those old memories for me. A little more raspberry used on this, and I would have been transported back in my mind to Saturday mornings watching cartoons in my PJs.

No surprise to me, but our favorite cupcake of the night was this Jameson Chocolate Peanut Butter Cupcake. We really liked everything about this cupcake. The base of this was a Valrhona chocolate Jameson batter, which had a great richness to it, while not being too sweet. The peanut butter cream cheese frosting was spot on. Really good peanut flavor that played well with the chocolate cake. It was really hard for me to not eat more than my fair share of what was allocated to me of this cupcake. A week later, and this is the cupcake that I keep coming back to in my mind.

So my thoughts on Hapa Cupcakes? I really liked them. Some of the bright spots for me were that the frosting was not too over the top, like at other gourmet cupcake places. I was also happy that these are a more manageable size than their cupcake competitors. If I want a huge cupcake, I'll just go have a piece of cake. I really just liked the whole vibe at Hapa Cupcakes. Being a guy, some of the cupcake places are just so girly and prissy. That is not the case with Hapa Cupcakes. They are a little on the naughty side, with the names of their cupcakes, the flavors they are coming up with, or the inclusion of alcohol into their cupcakes. Just talking to Hanayo and Akemi, you can tell that they really love what they are doing, and it shows in a great product. These cupcakes were a hit with not only me but with my sister and parents as well. Glad I could share this experience with my family.

If you would like to experience Hapa Cupcakes for yourself, go to their website here: http://www.hapacupcakes.com/