Friday, November 29, 2013

Getting a Second Chance to Make a First Impression at Carmelita's

Carmelita's Kitchen de Mexico
217 Broadway St. 
Laguna Beach, CA 92651

There has been a lot of pressure on me to give certain restaurants another shot if they have gotten an average to below-average rating. I am aware that restaurants can have an off night, but with a growing list of restaurants that we want to visit, and a limited food budget, it is hard for us to get back to try restaurants we have already visited.

One restaurant that has received a lot of press as of late is Carmelita's. I read a glowing review about them in Orange Coast Magazine, they have a near 90 percent approval rating on Urbanspoon, and when my friend at work, Chad the expert meat guy, mentioned how delicious his recent dinner was at Carmelita's, I decided to make a return visit to their new location in Laguna Beach.

We had been to their location on the lake in Rancho Santa Margarita three years ago when our blog was just in its infancy. That location is very picturesque and always crowded. The service during that visit was great, but their food was another story. The chicken flautas were bone dry, my dinner looked like it was just plopped on the plate, and nothing really wowed us flavor wise when it came to our entrees. You can check out that review for yourself if you would like

Back to the present though. I was meeting my good friend Matt down in Laguna, and he suggested that we give Carmelita's a try. Now that it has turned to autumn, getting in and out of Laguna is a breeze since all the tourists have left. We got to Carmelita's pretty close to 6PM on a recent Thursday. Even with only the locals remaining in town, we still had to wait about five minutes for a table. No worries though, we never have a shortage of things to talk about.

This location of Carmelita's is smaller than their RSM outpost. The tables are pretty close together, as we had to squeeze by to get to our table. The decor is dominated by dark woods, with windows facing the busy street. The menu is what I would call upscale Mexican. Entrees range from between $15 to $25 each, and the menu has enough diversity so that almost everyone will be able to find something to eat here. Let's see if this visit to Carmelita's was better than our last one.

One of the few highlights that I remember from our last trip to Carmelita's was their Chips, Salsa, and Bean Dip. This time the salsa was a little less spicy than last time, but the bean dip was as good as always. I like that they change it up by offering bean dip as well as salsa. The chips tasted pretty fresh as well. A very good start.

You may think it is odd to order a Caesar Salad ($6) at a Mexican restaurant, but a little known fact is that this salad was invented in Tijuana, at a restaurant owned by Caesar Cardini. The story goes that Caesar had a busy weekend, ran out of a lot of things, then he slapped together this salad using what he had left in his kitchen. I'm sure there are others that claim that they invented the Caesar, but this is the most well-known version of the history of the Caesar salad. This version at Carmelita's was just okay. I liked the size of this salad, and the inclusion of the pumpkin seeds, but this salad definitely needed more dressing. I was also not a big fan of the cotija cheese used in this. The cotija was a little too bland for this salad, and I definitely prefer the standard Parmesan that goes on a Caesar. My last complaint about this salad was the supposed large crouton placed on top of this salad. I'd rather have smaller croutons, which are easier to incorporate into this salad.

When I asked the waiter what he would recommend off of the menu, his immediate response was that the Tampiquena ($23) was the way to go. I took him at his word and ordered it. I could not find a good translation as to what tampiquena means, but this plate came with two cheese enchiladas, topped with skirt steak, onions and guacamole. I really liked the presentation of this plate, which can best be described as vibrant. The skirt steak was cooked to wonderful medium rare, just as I had requested. Very tender meat, with the natural flavor of the steak coming through. The cheese enchiladas were just okay. The cheese enchilada portion of the plate was fine, but I am not a big fan of their enchilada sauce they use here. It is a little too sweet for my taste. A much better plate than what I had the last time I was at Carmelita's/.

Nice hand modeling Matt. For his dinner, Matt went with the Fajitas ($19). I could tell that these fajitas were different from others, as soon as they hit the table. There was no cast-iron skillet, no steam coming off of them, and not an overabundance of onions and peppers. I kind of liked this change of pace for fajitas. Carmelita's lets the steak be the star of the show, instead of relying on the sizzle and vegetables. Matt was pleased with his choice on this night. This was a pretty good serving size, the steak was cooked as he requested, and the tortillas came out nice and warm. Matt made very quick work of his dinner.

I had forgotten that the Beans and Rice at Carmelita's are served family-style, instead of individual servings on the plates. I like this, but they kind of get relegated to second class status. I liked the refried beans here. They are smoother than other restaurants versions. The rice was pretty good as well.

Okay, so I liked this trip to Carmelita's a lot better than my first experience. I still did have some issues with some of the items we had, namely the Caesar and the enchiladas, but for the most part, this was an enjoyable experience. When I got back to work and told my buddy Chad that I went, he told me I have to try the short rib enchiladas on my next visit. I still feel that Carmelita's is a notch below the other upscale Mexican restaurants we have been to on this blog. Sol Cocina, Gabbi's, and Cha Cha's have all been great, and this visit to Carmelita's can not match what we have experienced at those places, but we will not be so opposed to going back in the future. Service was definitely not an issue during this visit. Our waiter made sure we had everything that we needed during our stay here. Glad we could finally make it back to Carmelita's to find out what all the buzz was about.

Out of five werewolves, (because Warren Zevon sang a song called Carmelita in 1976, but his most famous song is, of course, Werewolves of London), five being best to zero being worst, Carmelita's Kitchen de Mexico gets 3 werewolves.

For more information about Carmelita's Kitchen de Mexico, go their web site here:

Carmelita's "Kitchen de Mexico" on Urbanspoon

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Big Changes Going on at the Hyatt Regency Huntington Beach - CLOSED

The Californian at the Hyatt Regency Huntington Beach
21500 E. Pacific Coast Highway
Huntington Beach, CA 92648

It's very rare that we get invited to a closing party for a restaurant. In fact, I believe this is the first time during the four year run of our blog that we have been invited to a restaurant on one of the last nights of service. Most of the time the closing of a restaurant is a somber affair, a decision that has been long in the making, and with great contemplation. The good folks at The Californian were down right giddy about the closing of their restaurant.

Okay, they were excited because they are re-branding their dining space at the Hyatt Regency Huntington Beach. As of the 18th of November, the Californian would be no more. On that date they started a big time renovation that they hope will only last 100 days. This ambitious concept is the brainchild of John Benson, Director of Food and Beverage for Hyatt. He told us he has been working up to this moment for the better part of two years now. A lot of planning goes into these undertakings.

This is not just a slap some paint on the walls and change the names of menu items. The people at Hyatt are coming up with a new concept for hotel dining. Everything about the Californian will be gone. They are getting new furniture, a new layout that will feature communal tables, private dining areas, and open kitchens that will be used as buffet staging in the morning hours to being used as chef tables in the evening hours. Even the wait staff's uniforms will not be spared, as they will have new uniforms when the unnamed as of yet restaurant opens in the spring.

Some of the highlights we got to experience involved the bar area of the restaurant. They are introducing bar jars, which will be filled with numerous items, ranging from almonds, dips, and a variety of pickled things. We also got to try a Pumpkin Martini, which was topped off with cinnamon, and really captured the essence of the Fall season.

Not only will bar jars be a focus, but they are planning on having a very ambitious charcuterie program here as well. If the samples that we had are an indication, this will be a smashing success. Another hit with the media in attendance was the Pull Apart Bread that will be baked fresh, and offered to guests. When we tried this it was warm, right out of the oven, and so addicting. The Potato and Corn Empanada is also worth noting here. When paired with the aji sauce, these packed a great amount of flavor into them, and I did not even miss the absence of meat. A rare thing for me to say.

Not only is the Hyatt Regency Huntington Beach going to have a new restaurant, but they also have a new chef. Executive Chef Manfred Lassahn might be new to this Hyatt location, but he is definitely not new to the Hyatt Corporation. He has been with them for 27 years, with his last stint being at the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza. He and his team wowed us with some great items that might be on the new menu. Highlights for me included one of the best Scalloped Potato dishes I have had. So creamy, with a real homey vibe to it. The Deep Fried Brussels Sprouts with Walnuts and Capers, gave me a great new appreciation for what can be done with Brussels sprouts. Delicious. The carving stations were not to be missed. The oven roasted pork loin was paired nicely with an autumn chutney. Very tender. I usually shy away from salmon, but this Cedar Plank Skunna Bay Salmon was very pleasant, and cooked fabulously. The Avocado Gazpacho with Dungeness Crab and Smoked Olive Oil was as delicious as it sounds. Lastly, the Inside Out Grilled Cheese was a little light on the cheese factor, but I enjoyed the prosciutto it was wrapped in.

There were three desserts for us to try as well. The Coppa Raspberry and Cream and the Espresso Creme Brulee were good, but could not hold a candle to the Six Degrees of Chocolate. I ate two of these desserts, and had to be held back from eating a third. So good, without being as rich as I expected it to be. If this is on the new menu, it better come in an extra large slice for me.

Leaving my first farewell party for a restaurant, I was as excited as the Hyatt people about what was coming next for this space at the Hyatt Regency Huntington Beach. If this little sneak peek is any indication, they are going to have something special on their hands. I am going to be interested to see how closely they stick to this new concept when the restaurant opens in the Spring. We would like to thank everyone involved in this project for inviting us to this great event, and sharing with us their vision of what was is to come. Looking forward to seeing how it all turns out early next year.

To keep up to date with the opening, and all the rest of what is going on at the Hyatt Regency Huntington Beach, go to their website here:

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Football Frenzy #12 at Clancy's American Grill - CLOSED

Clancy's American Grill
2191 S. Harbor Blvd.
Anaheim, CA 92802

I have been pretty lax about trying to find the best spots to watch football this year. It is not that I do not love the sport, but it is hard to get motivated when you know that your team is going to lose every week. My beloved Jaguars started off the season miserable, and as the year has gone on, they have become even worse than that. Before our recent one-game winning streak, we had lost eight games in a row, and thirteen overall games through the last two seasons. Not enough to get me motivated to roll out of bed on Sunday mornings.

There is, of course, fantasy football, which is my saving grace this year. For the first time in recent memory, all three of my teams are pretty competitive, and one of my teams is actually in the lead this late into the season. Very rare for me, as I usually do not even have to check my teams past October because they are usually decimated by injuries. So we headed to a sports bar that we have wanted to try for some time now. I went to Clancy's knowing that my Jaguars would lose, but I was just hoping my fantasy players would put up some good numbers.

Clancy's American Grill is located in the middle of the Anaheim resort district, just a couple blocks away from Disneyland. Some might think this is an odd place for a sports bar, but after dealing with the long lines, horrible food, and all those tourists at Disneyland, park-goers might just want to unwind from the happiest place on earth by having a few cocktails and watching some sports. I know I'd rather avoid Disneyland, even if I had to watch my horrible Jaguars play.

We got to Clancy's right around 9:45 on a recent Sunday. One problem, they don't open until 10. This is a pet peeve of mine because we like to watch the pregame shows, and scout out the best seats to view the games. Luckily when they did open the doors, we had our pick of places in the dining room, as most people headed straight to the bar. We grabbed a seat in the middle of the room, which had a good view of about seven TVs. Clancy's was never more than half full during our three-hour stay here, and they were very accommodating about switching games on for people, including the one guy that wanted to watch NASCAR. The atmosphere was pretty quiet, which can probably be attributed to the restaurant is only half full. About halfway through the first quarter of the games, we ordered food. I was hoping that Clancy's food could be a distraction from watching my team throw another interception. Let's see how it all worked out for us.

Katie wanted to start out with something light, so she had the Hot Pretzel ($5), which she shared with Richard. This pretzel was served with a cheese sauce for dipping. I'm not into pretzels, but both Richard and Katie liked this pretzel enough that it was gone in a matter of seconds. Katie actually thought this tasted pretty fresh, and it was baked recently.

If there's one thing I have learned while taking pictures for this blog, it's very hard to get a great shot of a burrito. This was the case at Clancy's as well, but at least they cut it in half, so I could photograph what everyone always cares about while eating a burrito, the insides. Both Katie and Richard ordered this Breakfast Burrito ($10) which starts with a base of eggs, potato and cheese, then you choose between bacon, sausage, or chorizo. They both went for bacon. Is there something I should know about you two? They both thought this was a pretty average burrito, which was filling but did not knock their socks off. Richard felt it was kind of boring, which is funny since he loves flavorless Chipotle burritos so much. You would think he would be used to boring burritos by now. Sorry big guy, could not resist taking a shot at your Chipotle fanaticism.

Not content with the breakfast burrito, Richard attempted to awaken his taste buds with the Half Pound Clubhouse Wings ($5). At Clancy's, they offer eight styles of wings, and Richard tried the Mango Habanero version. He seemed pretty pleased with his choice. These started out sweet, but then the habanero kicked in to provide some heat. Not overwhelming, but just enough to make its presence felt. The wings were pretty good-sized, and the fact that these are sold by the weight, you get about four wings per half a pound. Keep that in mind when ordering these wings at Clancy's.

You probably thought I was too disgusted watching my Jaguars to eat, but you would be wrong. I used this Farmhouse Burger ($12) to distract me from the onslaught that the Colts were giving us. This burger came with a lot of my favorites on it; fried egg, bacon, tomato, and mayo. I ended up really liking this burger. The fried egg had a good amount of yolk, which always makes every burger better. The bacon was nice and crisp, the meat was seasoned well, and the bun was pretty soft while maintaining its structural integrity. I would have liked some cheddar incorporated on his burger, but it was a pretty good hamburger. The fries were your average run of the mill style fast-food fries. Nothing too great.

So how does Clancy's rate when it comes to becoming our ultimate Sunday football hangout? If you remember from our other football-related posts, we have three criteria that we look at when judging places for the Sunday football experience; ambiance, service, and food. Clancy's did a great job with service. Our waitress was right on top of everything, and even though she left midway through the games, her replacement filled in admirably for the remainder of our visit. The food was pretty good, but nothing that really rocked our world. My burger was above average, but the breakfast burrito needed help here. They do have a pretty extensive menu, so it might be worth exploring it in depth on future visits. The atmosphere was just okay here as well.  The restaurant was half full, but no one was really making a sound, other than what appeared to be the regulars at the bar. I'm not saying that I want other bar patrons yelling in my ear, but I'd like to have more of a stadium vibe going on. This was almost like watching the game at home. So it's off to another sports bar to see if they can become our ultimate Sunday football hangout. First, though, I need some time to recover from watching my woeful Jaguars.

Out of five police badges, (because of the Simpson's, Chief Wiggum's first name is Clancy), five being best to zero being worst, Clancy's American Grill gets 2.5 police badges.

For more information about Clancy's American Grill, go to their web site here: