Thursday, August 29, 2013

Southern Cooking in OC's Most Southern City

Iva Lee's 
555 N. El Camino Real 
San Clemente, CA 92672

If there could be one kind of food genre that I think is missing from the OC restaurant scene, it would be Southern/Cajun. Yes, I know there are already a small smattering of these kinds of restaurants here. Memphis, Jack Shrimp and Ralph Brennan's Jazz Kitchen come to mind immediately. I want a place where you can get the real thing, an etouffee, a great gumbo, and a jambalaya that will blow the roof off when I eat it. I have never been to New Orleans, but I have seen lots of TV shows showcasing the food from there. It all looks amazing, and I hope that someday we will have Cajun places like that here. I had some hope when I heard about a place in San Clemente, called Iva Lee's.

Iva Lee's has been around since 2002, and comes to us from the husband and wife duo, Lisa and Eric Wagoner. Lisa has quite the resume. She worked at Splashes at the Surf and Sand Resort, then opened her own restaurant at the age of 24, the critically acclaimed, Ramos House Cafe in San Juan Capistrano. During her time at Ramos House, they won numerous awards, and were even named best Orange County restaurant. Of course all this leads to the question of who is Iva Lee? Iva Lee was Lisa's grandmother, a woman from the south, who fed her family southern meals and classic dishes from New Orleans. This restaurant is a homage to Iva Lee. Let's see if they do her proud.

We got to Iva Lee's at about 7PM on a recent Saturday night. We luckily had reservations, as this place was packed. They even had a wedding reception going on in the backroom of the restaurant. The restaurant is a little on the dark side, and each place setting is decorated with a string of red beads draped across a napkin. I liked this subtle nod towards New Orleans, and even saw a couple of customers wearing their beads proudly. They did not even have to flash anyone to get their beads. The waitress's outfits were described by Katie as being "a southern Gothic look, with their lace red corsets. I would describe these as some of the best waitress outfits, outside of the Tilted Kilt. They have music most nights here, starting at about 7 to 7:30 depending on the day. The night we were here they had a band preforming zydeco music, which helped lend to the ambiance of the restaurant. All of this ambiance was great, but lets see if they have the food to back it up.

Before we get to our order, we were presented with this bread basket. This one included two types of bread, a sourdough mini loaf, and the not to be missed cornbread muffins. I am not too much of a cornbread guy, because most of the time cornbread is too dry and crumbly. This was not the case here. The cornbread was moist and sweet, while the outer shell of it had a nice crunch. I'm a little ashamed to say that we ate three baskets of this bread, but we would probably do it again on future visits to Iva Lee's.

The menu at Iva Lee's had a 3 For 30 promotion on it, so we took full advantage of this offer. Three course meal for $30. For her first pick, Katie selected the Bourbon French Onion Soup ($7 on the regular menu). Katie was pretty pleased with this soup, calling it, "one of the best I have had".  It came out of the kitchen scalding hot. Once it cooled down, we could see that the cheese was plentiful, but did not overpower the sweetness of the onions. It was also not as salty as other french onion soups tend to be. I was grateful when she offered me a few bites of this, what a giver.

Since Katie went with the soup, I tried the Pear Salad ($7). I usually call salads with fruit in them, "Mom salads", because every Mom I know, including mine, love salads with fruit included in them. Along with the pear, this salad also contained crumbled blue cheese, Creole pecans, mixed greens, and a maple vinaigrette. I really liked the different flavors and textures that were thrown together in this salad. Even though the dressing had maple in it, it was tangy. The pecans were candied, while the blue cheese added a pungent, but pleasant flavor. The greens were very fresh, and the pear added sweetness and crunch. You might as well get me a Mother's Day card in May, because I really liked this Mom salad.

I was a little surprised by Katie's selection on the 3 for 30 menu, when she went with the fish option, the Cajun Seared Red Snapper ($19.50). This snapper was served over some summer vegetables, and whipped potatoes. The menu said they were supposed to be sweet potatoes, but they did not taste like them, and definitely did not look like sweet potatoes. Nonetheless, Katie was pretty happy with her dinner. The fish was cooked perfectly, tender and flaky, while the seasoning used here added a little bite to the fish, but in a nice way. The veggies were good, and paired nicely with the fish.

Nothing really says New Orleans more to me than Jambalaya ($19.50). This version contained Andouille sausage, rock shrimp, bay scallops, summer vegetables, and rice. I always like my jambalaya's with rice over noodles. The shrimp and scallops were really on the small side in this dish. The rice was very moist, and the sausage was a highlight for me here. I cranked up the heat by adding some of the hot sauce that was provided on the table, and it made this jambalaya come alive a bit. I know they have to make this for the masses, so they do not get docked by having this come out mellower than I like. When this came out, I thought the serving size was a little on the puny side, but this really filled me up quick.

Dessert time, and I bet from the picture above, you can tell that this was Katie's choice. The Strawberry Shortcake ($7) came with a nice toasted marshmallow meringue on top of it. The strawberries were fresh, but not overly sweet. Katie also made no mention of the shortcake underneath this, so I can assume it got a little lost here.

Now this is more my speed, chocolate is a much more suitable dessert in my book. This Flourless Chocolate Cake ($7) was joined on the plate with Tahitian vanilla ice cream and port soaked cherries. This take on a black forest cake was actually better than I had expected. The chocolate portion of this was very rich, but the tartness of the cherries helped to cut it a bit. I love ice cream, and am never going to say no to it, but it kind of seemed unnecessary with this dessert. Yes, I still ate it though, I am not that crazy to pass up ice cream.

I left Iva Lee's pretty happy. I really thought most of the items we tried were very good. They really had what I imagined the New Orleans/Southern vibe to be. I kind of wished that their menu was even more Cajun or Southern than it is now. I mean they do not even have pecan pie on their dessert menu, and the regular menu is devoid of hush puppies, fried chicken, and okra. What is on the menu was all very solid, and worthy of a return trip. On those return trips I would like to try one of their Hurricanes or maybe even a Mint Julep. The service on this particular Saturday night was very good. Our server Allison did a great job getting us everything we had ordered, making sure we were fine, and keeping things moving along at a relaxed clip. I hope other restaurateurs will come to Iva Lee's, and see how busy they are, and feel the need to open up Southern/Creole style restaurants in OC. For now though, I am happy that we have Iva Lee's.

Out of five stars, (not because I am getting lazy, but because in 1977 Orange County had a team in the International Volleyball Association, also known as the IVA, and they were called the Orange County Stars), five being best to zero being worst, Iva Lee's gets 3.5 stars.

For more information on Iva Lee's, go to their website here:

Iva Lee's on Urbanspoon

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Checking Out Cha Cha's Happy Hour

Cha Cha's Tacos and Tequila
110 W. Birch St.
Brea, CA 92821

Happy hour is something that I do not do nearly enough. There are probably a few good reasons for this. My first excuse is that Katie does not get off of work until six, and that is when most happy hours are winding down. I could go with some of my coworkers, but to be truthful, I am not too fond of most of them, and spending more than the eight hours I have already spent with them, makes me a little queasy. Probably the biggest reason I do not get to as many happy hours as I would like to, is because I have not found too many good ones around. That was all about to change when we were recently invited to experience the happy hour at Cha Cha's in Brea.

For those of you that have not been to Brea Downtown, it is a dining, shopping, and entertainment district located at Birch and Brea Boulevard. There are numerous shops, theaters, and some pretty good restaurants located within this three square block area. Some of the standouts around here for me are Bruxie, Merely Sweets. Yard House, and of course Cha Cha's. I had been to Cha Cha's one time before, when I went with my Mom for lunch. You can see that review here.

Cha Cha's comes from a guy that knows a thing or two about the restaurant business, Don Myers. Don opened the El Torito Grill at Fashion Island, he was a Joint Venture Partner at Roy's Hawaiian Fusion Cuisine, and he was a Managing Partner at The Catch in Anaheim. A very impressive resume, and now he also owns Bruno's Trattoria a few doors down from Cha Cha's. I have not been to this Italian restaurant yet, but it is now on my list after seeing how busy they were on this Wednesday night when we walked by.

Now a little bit about why the happy hour at Cha Cha's has got me a little excited. They have happy hour all day and night Sunday through Thursday, so there is no need to rush here after work to try to make it by a certain time. They even feature happy hour on Friday and Saturdays, from 11:30 til 7:30. What are some of the happy hour specials? Glad you asked. They have drink specials starting at $5, appetizer specials, and special pricing on all signature cocktails, selected wines, and draft beers. All of this has gotten the attention of a lot of people. Cha Cha's was voted best happy hour and best margarita by the Orange County Register. With this high praise, I was very excited to see what they had in store for my friend George and I.

When we sat down, the Chips and Salsa were already on the table. Don was positively beaming with pride over the tortilla chips they serve at Cha Cha's. They make them everyday, early in the morning. They were a very solid tortilla chip. I am almost always a red salsa kind of guy, but the green salsa gets my vote on this night. It really popped with flavor. The red was good, but a little more mellow for my taste.

We had been sitting down for less than two minutes, and we already had our first round of drinks sitting in front of us. My good friend George selected the Mango Habanero Margarita. This would have been the drink that I would have ordered, but George was my plus one for this event, so I let him choose first. This cocktail started with Pueblo Viejo 100 percent blue agave, mango, fresh lime juice, and a habanero chili infusion. Not only a good looking beverage, but one that kept my taste buds on their toes. Sweet, and then mildly spicy, this was a very unique drink, and one I would order on my next visit here. My drink of choice was the Cha Cha's Margarita. This refreshing beverage contained Siete Leguas blue agave, Elderflower liqueur, fresh lime, and ruby red grapefruit juice. While writing this, I learned that Eldenfower liqueur comes from Europe, and is actually made with flowers. What I liked about this drink was that it was not crazy sweet, and still had a nice pleasant flavor. Very refreshing.

I'm a real sucker for guacamole, and the Fresh Guacamole ($5.95) at Cha Cha's is not to be missed. Of course they start with fresh Haas avocados, then they add Serrano chile, and fresh lime juice. A simple, but effective guacamole. Too many restaurants complicate their guacamole, and sometimes less is more. I had a hard time sharing this with my companions at my table. Sorry if I took too much guys.

I have been on a real ceviche kick lately, so I was excited to see that Cha Cha's has Shrimp Ceviche ($8.95) on their happy hour menu. The shrimp here is marinated in orange and lime juice, Serrano chile, red onion, and is topped with cubed Haas avocados. I really enjoyed the flavor of this ceviche. The citrus flavors gave this ceviche a real boost. The shrimp was very plentiful in this dish, and you can never go wrong with the avocado that was on top of this. The only thing George and I thought was missing, was the tostada shells, but the chips did a pretty good job of filling in for them.

George made pretty quick work of his mango habanero margarita, and was onto the Fresh Watermelon Margarita before I had even finished half of my first drink. In this margarita they used El Jimador Tequila, fresh watermelon, hibiscus juice, lime, and agave nectar. With all of these ingredients I thought this was going to be overly sweet, but it was mellower than I had expected. Very refreshing.

While George was busy downing drinks, I was getting excited for all of the food that was coming out of the kitchen for us. Up next were the Chicken Flautas ($6.95). No kidding, these were probably some of the best flautas I have had. They were fried perfectly, without being greasy, but what made them great was the fillings inside of them. The were filled with tender chicken, guajillo chile, and Oaxacan cheese. The cheese is what made this for me. The flautas were then topped with a mango habanero salsa, which added some sweetness. Very good appetizer here.

Another very good appetizer were the Nachos Cha Cha's ($8.95). Not a big mound of chips, where most of the chips miss a lot of the toppings, these were individual nachos that really impressed our table. The crisp tortilla chips were topped with chicken, black beans, and melted cheese, then served with pico de gallo, sour cream and jalapeno escabeche, which are pickled jalapenos. I really liked these a lot. Very easy to eat, each bite contained all the elements you would want in a nacho, and the flavor was right on point.

Oh, the Cha Cha Fries ($4.95) bring back some horrible memories for me on this night. It has nothing to do with the fries really. Even though I am partial to smaller fries, these larger steak style fries were fried nicely. Crunchy on the outside, soft on the inside, these Yukon Gold potatoes were then tossed with garlic and herbs, and served with a nice smoked chipotle aioli. Why the bad memory of an appetizer I actually liked? Tom, from Tom's Foodie Blog dared me to a chili eating contest. We each had to eat the pepper that was on top of the fires, and the first person to drink, would be declared the loser. I was feeling pretty good, so I took the challenge. The initial heat was not too bad, but after a minute or so, it really started burning my mouth. I knew Tom was not going to give in, so in order to end the agony, I drank about half of my next margarita in about three seconds. You may have won this battle Tom, but I will get you back someday buddy.

If you happened to catch my first review about Cha Cha's, you know that I am completely enamored with the Wood Fired Queso Fundido ($6.95). This traditional dish is baked cheese, served over roasted potatoes, poblano peppers, and chorizo. This is a very rich dish, that is served with corn or flour tortillas. I learned my lesson last time, and only had two tortillas filled with this. It was hard limiting myself, but I still had five more items to try. This is a must get when coming to Cha Cha's though.

I do not often get to have calamari when I am out, because Katie is not fond of it at all. So when this Crisp Calamari ($7.95) hit the table, I made sure to get my fair share of it. This squid was breaded with Mexican spices, and served with a lime-cilantro aioli. The calamari was a little thicker than I am used to, but it was cooked very well, not rubbery, and the breading had a nice flavor. The breading did break away from the calamari a little too easily though. The lime aioli was a very nice dip for this appetizer.

Sorry for the poor picture here, quesadillas are not exactly known for being photogenic. What the Marinated Grilled Skirt Steak Quesadilla ($8.95) lacked in beauty, more than made up for in taste. It was stuffed with Mexican cheeses, poblano chile, white corn, pickled jalapeno, and of course skirt steak. This quesadilla had a wonderful balance. The cheese was evident, but the steak was easily the star of this show. The meat was tender, and the poblano chile gave off just enough heat. A very solid quesadilla, and more than enough for two people to share.

I was not expecting to see clams on the happy hour menu, but these Fresh Manila Clams ($7.95) were a pleasant surprise. They are sauteed in garlic, chorizo, herbs, white wine, and a little bit of butter. Not exactly the largest clams I have ever had, but the sauce went very well with them. I would have liked some bread to sop up the rest of the sauce, but we still had more food on its way out for us.

Fittingly, we ended our night of wonderful food with two kinds of Cha Cha's famous tacos. My favorite of the two was the Mahi Mahi Tacos. These were filled with chipotle cabbage and pico de gallo, and encased by a soft organic corn tortilla. The fish was very fresh and flaky. The taco was dressed very plainly, which allowed each flavor to shine through. The Shrimp Taco was a little more flashy. There were plenty of pretty good sized shrimp in here, along with mango habanero salsa and chipotle cabbage. This taco was just a tad too sweet for me, but my buddy George really liked this taco best.

Needless to say, we were really full after this happy hour event at Cha Cha's in Brea. I walked in here already knowing that I was going to enjoy the food, just based on my first experience here. I was really wondering what George was going to think of the food and drinks at Cha Cha's. He was pretty impressed, and is already planning to take one of his many girlfriends here on a date night. I was pretty impressed with the freshness of all the food here. This is definitely one of my favorite upscale Mexican restaurants, not that the prices are upscale during happy hour. After eating at Cha Cha's, I may have to make more of a point of making it to more happy hours.

I would like to thank everyone at Cha Cha's for their warm hospitality and wonderful service on this night. All of the wait staff seemed very excited to show off their food and drinks. Thanks also to Don Myers, for taking the time to share more about the food that they make here, and it was a real pleasure meeting him. I would also like to thank all of my fellow food bloggers that were here on this night. You guys make these events even better with your great camaraderie. Lastly, I would like to thank one of the best PR people in the business, Jennifer Morris from Ajenda PR. Thanks so much for thinking of us, and we look forward to seeing you again Jennifer.

For more information about Cha Cha's happy hour, or anything else Cha Cha's related, click here:

Monday, August 19, 2013

A Little Bird Told Us to Eat at the Little Sparrow

Little Sparrow
300 North Main St.
Santa Ana, CA 92701

We get some culture every once in awhile. Yes, it is true. We leave our DVR unattended for a night, I get out from behind my computer keyboard, and Katie gets a rare night off from household chores, (okay she does this on a regular basis, but I was trying to make her feel better). We had a friend of ours who was going to be in the play, Damn Yankees at the Mysterium Theater. As usual I was in charge of making dinner reservations. I was not aware that the theater had moved from Downtown Santa Ana to over by Foothill High School. The problem was I made reservations in DTSA, at a place that has been on our list of restaurants to try forever. We decided to chance being late to the play, in order to try the food at the Little Sparrow.

The Little Sparrow is located right on the corner of 3rd and Main. It is in the same place where the old Santa Ana Cafe was, but that was gone long ago, and this address sat vacant for the last fifteen years. The Little Sparrow has been opened for just three months now. In that time they have been reviewed by the tough OC Register critic Brad A. Johnson, and been called one of the ten best restaurants of the summer. Gustavo Arellano from OC Weekly called the breakfast here, "one of the better breakfasts of his year". High praise from a guy that I respect his opinion on food immensely. So now you see why we took the chance to miss the opening act of the play we were going to see, just to try the food here.

We got here at about 6PM on a recent Saturday night. The parking situation can always be a challenge in Santa Ana, but the Little Sparrow is very close to the public parking structure that we always seem to have good luck parking in. When we got here, they were not exactly busy. They had maybe eight customers in a restaurant that can easily seat fifty. As the night went on the place filled up, as it was almost all filled when we left. The dining room here is dominated by the color white, from the tiled floors to the white walls and white linens. I really liked the relaxed, bright look of the place. Katie called this a, "Pinterest restaurant". Not sure what that means, but she did seem pleased by the aesthetics here.

The menu at the Little Sparrow is not going to blow you away with its diversity. They offered eight starters, seven entrees, and four desserts on their menu, that appears to change monthly. They also have a few small plates on their bar menu as well. They do offer one each of the major proteins on their menu; beef, lamb, chicken, fish, and pasta are featured. I was ready to tackle this menu, so we made our dinner selections, and this is what came out for us.

We were not really feeling any of the starters off of the dinner menu, (okay I wanted to try the Bone Marrow, but I know Katie is not into it, and I could not eat it all by myself.), so we selected two things off of the bar menu, the first of which were these Onion Rings ($4). The onion rings are coated with a panko breading that was good, but was kind of boring. The breading also broke away from the onion way too easily, one of my biggest pet peeves when it comes to onion rings. On the positive side, these lacked any sort of greasiness, they were crunchy, and the thick onion inside was full of flavor. These were served with a house ketchup that was a little on the sweet side, but went well with these. I have definitely had worse house ketchup's, which I generally do not like.

The other bar menu item we tried was the Lamb Merguez Meatballs with Harissa Pomme Puree ($7). While writing this review I learned that merguez is a spicy lamb, which is often featured in Northern African cuisine. Katie is a lot more sensitive to spices, so she noticed the spiciness a lot more than myself. The meatball was not smooth in texture, but rather kind of chunky, which I did not mind at all. It did have a nice bold flavor, and the brown sauce used here was very well made. The puree was very smooth, and added a nice accompaniment to the meatballs. I would definitely get this again, but I probably would not share it with anybody. Sorry Katie.

Now onto the entrees, and let's do the lady first. Katie got the Ricotta Agnolotti ($20). This pasta dish was topped with a roasted tomato sauce and an asparagus salad. This pasta dish was a contradiction for Katie, as she described it as both light, but with a hearty sauce. The homemade pasta was soft and well crafted. The sauce was sweet, but the garlic was very evident. The shaved asparagus used here was different, but it definitely worked for Katie, as she summed up this dinner as being, "excellent".

I really enjoyed photographing the food at the Little Sparrow. The food was very bright and came across that way in the pictures. This beautiful dish is the Grilled Heritage Pork Chop ($29). I was never really a fan of pork chops growing up, but this one makes two that I have had just recently that really knocked my socks off, (the other was at 370 Common). This good sized pork chop came with beluga lentils, rapini, and kumquat. I'm not usually a fan of orange, but the orange zest used on this chop really enhanced the flavor big time. This pork chop had just enough fat on it to provide even more flavor. The meat was juicy and tender, so I knew it was cooked perfectly. The hefty serving of lentils with this dish really helped to round out this entree. I could not help but pick up the bone and make sure that I got every speck of meat that could be gotten from it. I would not hesitate to get this on future visits here.

Even though we were pressed for time with the upcoming play, we still made time for dessert. Katie tried the Crepe Cake ($8). This cake was created by using lots of pastry sheets, then the top was caramelized like the top of a creme brulee and garnished with blackberries. Katie liked the muted sweetness of this dessert, and it let the very juicy blackberries steal the show. The caramelized top was a very nice touch.

It's probably no shock that I did not get a fruit dessert, but instead got the Chocolate Tart ($8). This tart was garnished with hazelnuts. This dessert was very rich, but still had a muted sweetness to it. The hazelnuts probably helped to soften the sweet blow, but I would liked to have had them incorporated inside the dessert. The crust was solid, but did not wow me when I tasted it on its own. This was a good sized dessert, and a nice finish to our meal.

After eating at the Little Sparrow, it is safe to say that they deserve all of the praise that has come their way in the short time that they have been open. A lot of people may not want to trek down to Santa Ana, but this restaurant is worth the trip. Even with the limited menu, if you just place your hands in the chef's, you are almost definitely guaranteed a great meal. The staff on the night we were here were all very helpful. Our waitress knew the restaurant very well, and aided us in making some decisions. The owners were also very visible, and were really excited to hear that we had enjoyed their restaurant so much. We had the play to catch, but I did have time to glimpse inside the backroom, where the cocktail lounge is located. This looks like a place that we will have to hit sometime in the future. The cocktail menu looks very promising as well. As for this trip, we payed our bill hastily and ran out the door, hoping not to miss a lot of the play as we made our way across town. Luckily, we made it just in time for the first number, and I still had the memory of a great meal dancing around in my head.

Out of five pirate ships, (because of Jack Sparrow of course), five being best to zero being worst, The Little Sparrow gets 3.5 pirate ships.

For more information on the Little Sparrow, click here to go to their website:

Little Sparrow on Urbanspoon