Thursday, April 16, 2015

Will This Be Hello or Goodbye to Ciao Pasta?

Ciao Pasta 
31661 Camino Capistrano 
San Juan Capistrano, CA 92675

The city of San Juan Capistrano is not usually a city you would think of when you want Italian food, but a quick Yelp search yields the same amount of Italian restaurants, as Mexican joints. Not something I would have expected.

We have been craving Italian for awhile now, so we checked out Ciao Pasta, which is across the street from the Mission on Camino Capistrano. We walked in on a recent Saturday night, and were seated right away. Their website suggests having a reservation on weekend nights, but our experience would seem to indicate that it's not needed. Most patrons opt to eat on the much more lively patio in the front of the restaurant. We chose to sit inside, and were placed with a good view of the kitchen, which I always kind of enjoy.

The dining room at Ciao Pasta is very comfortable and spacious. Tables are not right on top of each other, and the lack of other customers really lead to a private dining encounter. Tiled floor, soft rock, and muted lighting really added to the relaxed atmosphere here too. The menu is Southern Italian focused, and reads like almost every Italian menu across the county. Starters, salads, meat and seafood dishes, a few pizzas, and pasta dishes are all well represented here. We made our selections, settled back, and enjoyed each others company while I watched the inner workings of the kitchen area. Let's see what came out of there for us.

As is the usual routine in Italian restaurants, we were started off with a bread basket. The bread here is pretty standard focaccia. It was soft, and freshly baked. It was served alongside an olive dip, which really would appeal to olive lovers. Unfortunately, I'm not a big fan of olives, so I only had a little bit of this. Katie enjoyed it though.

One of my favorite things about dining in Italian restaurants is that for the most part, salads are included with the meal. That was the case here at Ciao Pasta as well. This Dinner Salad was made up of romaine lettuce, red cabbage, shredded carrots, a generous dusting of parmesan cheese, and an Italian vinaigrette. A very basic salad, which had plenty of dressing on it, which I like. The grated parm was a nice touch here too.

Let's start with Katie's meal first, the Halibut Mediterraneo ($29.95). This oven baked halibut came crusted with olives, capers, and parmesan, and was then topped with olive oil, garlic, cherry tomatoes, and served over spinach. Katie really enjoyed this plate. The breading was not overly heavy, the halibut was fresh and flaky, and the sauce really added some subtle flavor here. She'd definitely get this again.

I had mixed feelings about my selection, the Paccherri Porro E Salsiccia ($17.95). The first few bites of this wide tuned pasta, with leeks, spicy ground sausage, and a cream sauce were pretty good, but then it became kind of boring. I'm not really a big fan of the wide tube pasta, as it does not allow the sauce to cling to it. The sausage here was not spicy at all. This plate was only saved when I ordered a Side of Meatballs ($3.95), and used the red sauce to doctor up my own kind of pink sauce. The added meat helped make my dinner way more enjoyable. Good, tender meatballs here.

Dessert was still an option for me, since I was not quite at capacity food-wise. I gave their Chocolate Souffle ($8.50) a try. They topped their souffle with vanilla ice cream, which can never be a bad thing. I liked this, but was not in love with it. I really think the ice cream was there to distract from the below average souffle. Not that it was awful, but we've had much better.

From reading above, I think you know the way I am leaning towards Ciao Pasta. Nothing we had was totally awful, but this is a very average Italian restaurant in my opinion. Yes, it could have just been our choices that we made on this night, but the prices were also a little out of whack here. The serving size of Katie's fish did not warrant a thirty dollar price tag, and mine should have been a few dollars less than the $24 I had to pay for the meal and the meatballs to make it a more interesting dish. I'm sure the prices are a result of this high traffic area right across from the mission, but I'm not going to help pay their rent by eating average cuisine. Service was good though, and since this restaurant has such a nice patio out front, this might be more of a spot to grab a drink and some appetizers, rather than getting a full meal.

Out of five peppers, (because the largest California pepper tree in the US, once resided at the mission across the street until 2005), five being best to zero being worst, Ciao Pasta gets 2.5 peppers. Maybe they can use these peppers to bring some life to some of their dishes.

For more information about Ciao Pasta, go to their website here:

Ciao Pasta on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Hanging at Hollingshead's Before Hockey

368 Main Street
Orange, CA 92868

Around this time every year I get more and more excited. The dreaded holidays are long past, I'd usually say that the weather is getting warmer, but it never gets cold here, and the hockey season is ending, and then the real games begin, playoff games. A great time of year.

We split our season tickets three ways, so that's 15 different dinner options before games. Most of the time we are running a little behind, because Katie gets out of work late, or there's traffic. On those game days we usually just drive through somewhere and eat in the parking lot. On this afternoon however, Katie was off of work, and we decided to try a new place, Hollingshead's.

Hollingshead's is definitely not new though. They have been in this spot for a long while, and before that they were on Tustin Avenue, also in the city of Orange. All together they have been in business since 1963. That's a long time. They were well ahead of the curve when it came to serving a wide variety of beers, like a lot of places these days. They offer up 500 different bottled beers, along with 22 beers on tap. They specialize in hard to find German, Belgian, and American micro-beers.

What has brought us here tonight though is their sandwich counter. I believe it was in one of their Best of OC issues, that the OC Weekly had one of Hollingshead's sandwiches listed as best in OC, and I jotted it down.  We arrived here to a packed house on a recent Friday night at 5. We were greeted by the very personable owner and proprietor, Ken. After some small talk about his beloved Packers and the Ducks, we got down to the business of ordering sandwiches.

Their sandwich menu is divided into four tiers, going from basic sandwiches, to more complex ones. Single sandwiches start at $5.99 and go up to $8.99, while they also offer double versions from $10.99 to $16.99. Since I was going to be having two sandwiches, I would be staying away from their doubles. We grabbed a seat out front and waited for our sandwiches to be ready. After about a ten minute wait, this is what came out to our table.

Katie was immediately captivated by this Demon Sandwich ($5.99) which was near the top of the menu, so I don't even believe that she took a look at the other sandwiches on there. This one came with pastrami, turkey, Swiss, mayo, mustard, lettuce, and tomato. It usually comes on a roll, but Katie requested that it come on rye. She liked this sandwich, but kind of felt she needed to order a double the next time she comes here. She called this a working man's kind of sandwich. Not a fancy sandwich, but still solid. She also tried out the Deviled Eggs ($1.49), which she was very pleased with. She really enjoyed the touch of mustard that elevated these above regular deviled eggs.

I started things off with the first sandwich that I had written down on my list, the Beef and Blue ($7.99). I heard about this sandwich long ago from my very good friend Ryan, who listed this as one of the best sandwiches he has had. It came on sourdough, with roast beef, blue cheese, mayo, and lettuce. This was a very good sandwich, but the blue cheese really overpowered near the end. Big time flavor though. It might have been made better with a little extra mayo, but at least this way the roast beef stood out a little more. I also got a Half Pint of Potato Salad ($2.49) to go along with my two sandwiches. Ken told me that this was his mothers recipe, and they did her proud with this one. Very creamy, the potatoes were fork tender, and they limited the amount of mustard in this version, which combined to make this a great potato salad. A throwback to the potato salad of yesteryear, where they don't try to do too much with it.

The other sandwich I had written down was the Great Scott ($8.99). This is the one that made the OC Weekly. It came with smoked turkey, Swiss cheese, bacon, avocado, mayo, honey mustard, lettuce, and onion, on squaw bread. This different take on a turkey club was pretty good as well, but was a little on the bland side compared to the beef and blue. The meats here are sliced fresh, but I'd like a little heavier hand when adding the condiments. Looking at the bread, I did not think it would be able to handle the contents of the sandwich, but it did an admirable job.

Even though I had two sandwiches, and the potato salad, I could not resist one of their Double Fudge Brownies ($1.19) that was sitting by the register. I'm glad I followed my gut by getting one of these. This brownie was very good. Great texture, very fresh, and a chocolate lovers dream. I almost went back in to get another one, but we were already running a little late to the Duck's game, so that will have to wait for next time.

Yes, there will be a next time that we come back to Hollingshead's. I'm interested to see the double versions of these sandwiches on upcoming visits here, but for this trip the singles were fine. Having the single versions enabled me to try two sandwiches on this night. With a menu of 30 plus sandwiches on it, I look forward to finding my favorite ones here. We were greeted right away by Ken, who made us feel like long time customers in this cozy spot behind the Duke's, at Main and Culver. Sometimes these kind of places tend to be a little cliquey, but that was not the case at Hollingshead's. We really appreciate the warm welcome Ken. Now on to the best time of the year for us, the hockey playoffs.

Out of five drive-in theaters, (because the drive-in was invented by Richard Hollingshead in Camden, New Jersey in 1933), five being best to zero being worst, Hollingshead's gets 3 drive-in theaters.

For more information about Hollingshead's, go to their website here:

Hollingshead's Delicatessen on Urbanspoon

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Going Greek in Fullerton

Kentro Greek Kitchen
100 S. Harbor Blvd. 
Fullerton, CA 92832

I promise this will be the last of my wedding preparation posts. I have reread our reviews since the start of this year, and I have mentioned our upcoming wedding so much that it's even driving me crazy. Yes, I know, that's a short drive.

Anyways, the one way Katie can get me involved with these wedding meetings is by enticing me with dinners near where the meetings are taking place. This was the case on this particular night as well. We were going to be meeting with our florist, the very personable Jenny B. I was actually pretty impressed with what she's going to be doing for us, but I'm not much of a flower guy, so I kind of let Katie do all the talking. Luckily, we were only here for about a half hour or so, and then we walked across the street to Kentro Greek Kitchen.

Kentro came across our radar when we visited their sister restaurant, El Amerikano for a media party. With so many restaurants in Fullerton, it's easy to miss a few, but Katie took notice of the menu at Kentro, and made me promise to take her back here to try their take on Greek food.

The restaurant does not really have the feel of an order at the register, and have the food delivered to your table vibe to it, but that's how things are done here. Also, if you are entering from the door off of Commonwealth, make sure to follow the signs that point you in the direction of the registers. We saw a few confused looks while we were here, so be advised of that.

Chef Konstantine Marougas has put together quite the menu. Not your typical Greek style menu. A lot of the items have a modern twist to them, and to be totally honest, I was not in the mood for Greek, but I knew Katie was up for it. See, not even married, and already sacrificing what I want. I guess I have this marriage thing down already. Let's check out the food we had on this night.

We started our night off with two appetizers, the first of which was Katie's selection, the Keftedes ($7). These beefy meatballs were bathed in a red tomato sauce, and sprinkled with kefalotiri cheese, which I learned is made from sheep or goats milk. Not sure which version we had, but these were a good start to our meal. The meatballs were dense, but still with a tenderness to the meat. The sauce had a nice kick to it. Not overly spicy, but it did awaken your taste buds. The bread went well with the extra sauce.

The week we were here at Kentro was the same week that our good friend, Anne Marie profiled Chef Konstantine in her On the Line column for the OC Weekly, (a story that you can see by clicking here). Anyways, in that piece she asked what his choices would be for first timers at his restaurant, so I decided to take his advice and have what he suggested, the first of which was Octopus ($9). This charbroiled octopus came with pickled vegetables and latholemono, a Greek sauce made of lemon and oil. The octopus was done very well. Good, slightly chewy texture to it, without being fishy. Very fresh octopus here. The lemon in the sauce kind of overpowered, but the pickled veggies helped to cut the sourness a bit. The best bites were when you combined all elements together. The bread was not needed for this plate, because the sauce was way too sour on its own.

Katie has really been feeling fish lately, and she kept her maritime mood in full effect by ordering this Psari Sti Skara ($16). Now my Greek is really rusty, but this translates to charbroiled sea bass. Okay, I had to go to Google for that, but still. The fish was very flaky and moist, but Kate felt it could have been seasoned a tad more. It was served alongside quinoa, which is definitely not my favorite thing in the world. Katie thought this version was good, but felt the olives really needed to be toned down a bit in this version. Even with these minor quibbles about her plate, she still would get this again on future visits.

The other item Chef Konstantine suggested newcomers try at his restaurant is the Paithakia ($18). These lamb chops came 5 to an order, and there was plenty of meat on these. The lamb here was some of the best I have had recently. Tender, and seasoned real well, I could not help myself from picking these chops clean. This came with some very good fries, which came out hot and crunchy. My only complaint from this meal was that they only gave you a dollop of their good tzatziki sauce, and I could have used a whole lot more of it. Still a great suggestion for lamb lovers.

For me not really feeling like eating here when we walked in, I really left enjoying my meal. I'd probably not get the octopus again, but everything else was pretty darn good. The food here is prepared simply, with just enough spices to avoid trying to do too much with it. A very delicate balance to achieve. The prices were not too crazy for the amount of food that you get. My plate was the most expensive thing on the menu, and it did not even set us back twenty dollars. In the end, I kind of liked the ordering system here. It probably keeps costs down, and the food runners were definitely quick with refills and making sure everything was good with us. It was well worth sitting through that 30 minute flower meeting to get the chance to eat here.

Out of five doctors, (because the country of Greece ranks number one in the world with the most doctors per capita), five being best to zero being worst, Kentro Greek Kitchen gets 3.5 doctors.

For more information about Kentro  Greek Kitchen, go to their website here:

Kentro Greek Kitchen on Urbanspoon

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Romantic Date Night at Juliette

Juliette Kitchen and Bar
1000 N. Bristol St. #11
Newport Beach, CA. 92660

It has been some time since we have gone out on a true date night. You know the kind of night. The night where it's just you two, you get dressed up a little bit more than you usually do, and you even splash a little extra cologne on yourself. The kind of night that you look at yourself in the mirror and think, not half bad. It was one of those nights.

One other ritual that I have on date night is to go to the computer, and check out my list of restaurants that we need go to. There are lots of places on this list, but some are easily eliminated as not date night worthy places. I don't think the 20 places I have listed for breakfast burritos would make Katie feel so great about dressing up. About halfway down my list, there it was, Juliette Kitchen and Bar. My notation next to this restaurant, was that they had a really good burger. Not sure I was going to get it, but I did have it in the back of my mind.

Juliette comes to us from the former owners of the Filling Station in Old Town Orange. Run by a husband and wife team, and now they have incorporated their daughter into the mix as the pastry chef. Housed in the former Tradition by Pascal spot, right behind the Coco's and next door to the much buzzed about Moulin Bistro, this kitchen is headed up by Executive Chef Daniel Hyatt, who had a previous stint at Nesai, which is also on our must try list. Chef Hyatt's menu is divided into three main categories, small, share, and large plates. The menu is changed frequently, so their offerings may be a little different based on what's available.

We arrived with reservations at 8pm on a recent Saturday night, and were seated promptly. The restaurant is a little on the loud side, but we could still hear each other, much to Katie's chagrin I'm sure. The decor here is very woodsy. Dark woods are everywhere, and the muted lighting does nothing to brighten things up. This space kind of reminded us of some of the wine bars we have been to recently, like Sealegs, Calivino, and the Twisted Vine. I was pretty hungry, so let's see how the dining portion of our meal turned out for us.

Katie always manages to get her phone in at least one shot, and that was the case with the first thing we tried, these Roasted Brussels Sprouts ($8). These fancy Brussels sprouts came with fried pork belly, shallots, parsley, and a pomegranate-molasses sweet and sour sauce. This was a great way to serve the much maligned Brussels sprout, but it did have some flaws. The pork belly was overdone here, and could have played a much more prominent role in this dish. I understand the sprouts are supposed to be the star of the show here though, but I love pork belly so much. The sauce was pretty good, and the sprouts themselves were tasty.

Over and over again in the reviews for Juliette Kitchen, you read about the praise for this Farro Risotto ($14), so we of course had to give it a try. This had a lot of layers to it. Butternut squash was cubed, then joined by squash blossoms, trumpet mushrooms, beet greens, pecorino cheese, sherry vinegar, olive oil, and finished off with some parsley. This was a little lighter than I had imagined. It was unique using the farro here, and the flavors came through in bursts. Very nice dish.

Katie took one look at the menu, and made her selection straight away. She did not deviate from ordering the Striped Bass ($30) at Juliette. This beautifully presented fish was served atop braised Swiss chard, roasted sunchoke, mushrooms, fried tofu, scallions, and finished off with a black garlic mushroom broth. Kind of an Asian influence with this plate. Katie really enjoyed the flakiness of the fish, but had wished that the skin was taken off. Still she enjoyed the preparation here, and liked the way the components of this dish interacted.

After I had read that the OC Register's Food Critic, Brad Johnson had called this Juliette Burger ($17) one of the best burgers in OC, I knew I had to give it a try. After finishing this, I could see why this burger gets a lot of praise. I'd describe this burger as one that does not need a lot of flash to make it good. Sure there's a tomato jam, aged cheddar, pancetta, grilled balsamic onions, and a mustard aioli on this, but these items sit in the background and allow the very good beef to be the star of the show. The burger was a manageable size, and very juicy. The bun held its own here by keeping everything together. This burger came with some very nicely done house made potato chips, which had a BBQ seasoning on them reminiscent of the old Laura Scudder's potato chips of my youth.

These days Katie has not been into dessert very much, so I knew that I would be having the majority of the dessert when I ordered this Salted Caramel Pot de Creme ($9). This was a very good version of this suddenly very trendy dessert flavor. I see salted caramel everything all over the place, and this one was good, even though it included a good many sultanas, which is a white raisin like creature. This dessert also included a milk crumble, whipped mascarpone, and very addictive brown butter shortbread cookies, which I could imagine being very popular with the staff here. Very tasty, and the perfect size for a solo dessert eater.  

I left Juliette in a quandary, not exactly knowing what rating I would give this place. I liked everything that I had, but was not over the moon about anything. I'd say this is a very solid restaurant that we would like to come back to again. The burger was very good, and really was made with quality ingredients. Katie would try something else, and the sides that we had before our meals were tasty and well made, but I'd like to try their mushrooms and pork cheeks on our next visit. Service was pretty solid, although the food was a little slow making its way out of the kitchen for us on this busy Saturday night. Still we had a very nice date night experience here, and feel you might as well.

Out of five postmarks, (because every Valentine's day, the city of Juliette, Georgia, offers a dual postmark with the city of Romeo, Michigan in a nod to the famous Shakespeare play), five being best to zero being worst, Juliette Kitchen and Bar gets 3 postmarks.

For more information about Juliette Kitchen and Bar, go to their website here: 

Juliette Kitchen & Bar on Urbanspoon

Thursday, April 2, 2015

The Saga of the Five Pound Burrito

Manuel's Original El Tepeyac Cafe
812 North Evergreen Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90033

There's a lot to do when preparing for a wedding. Call me naive, but I had no idea the amount of time, effort, and money that went into these things. It seems that as our big day moves closer, there's more and more to do. Our nights revolve around seating charts, flower arrangements, and the dreaded wedding timeline that I'm not too fond of.

It's another wedding task that brings us up the 5 Freeway on this recent Sunday afternoon. We are meeting up with the officiant of our wedding. We're going over what we would like him to say, what we want him to wear, and he's trying to get a handle of our history. This turns out to be a two hour meeting, and I knew where I wanted to eat on the way home. I had not eaten anything more than Ritz Crackers and peanut butter all day, so I was pretty famished when we arrived at Manuel's Original El Tepeyac.

El Tepeyac has been at this location in the Boyle Heights section of Los Angeles since 1952. Run by the Rojas family, they started their restaurant business in downtown LA in 1942, then moved their restaurant to Lincoln Heights for a brief time after that, and finally ended up here. They also have another location in the City of Industry. Up until two years ago, El Tepeyac was run by the charismatic Manuel Rojas, who at the age of 77 got up everyday to get the kitchen going, and passed out shots, hugs, and kisses to customers of his beloved restaurant.

I heard about El Tepeyac when they were featured on Travel Channel's "Man vs. Food" in 2009. Their five pound burritos really caught my attention, and I made note of them again when they were named number 23 of chow down places to eat in all of the US. Pretty good for a restaurant that's a lot smaller on the inside than I imagined, with a friendly staff, and a pretty good sized menu. The combo plates that were coming out of the kitchen looked good sized, and I knew I had a tough battle on my hands trying to finish one of their burritos. Let's see if I could finish one of their massive burritos.

After we were seated we were presented with their freshly made Tortilla Chips and Salsa. You could tell that these were freshly fried by the glistening grease coming off of the chips. Served warm, these were one of the better tortilla chips we have had in a restaurant. The smooth, verde salsa had a good kick to it. I tried to abstain from having too many chips, because I had a big meal coming for me.

Before we get to my massive meal, let's take a look at Katie's selection on this evening, the Chicken Salad ($10.75). This was a pretty big salad in its own right. It featured lettuce, tomato, bacon, jack cheese, tortilla strips, and of course chicken. As is her custom when eating Mexican, Katie also ordered a Small Side of Guacamole ($2.25), as if she did not have enough food. Although this salad was good sized, they kind of skimped out on the chicken. We thought it was kind of weird that there was no dressing on this salad, so Katie added some salsa to it, and then ordered some Tortillas ($.75) to make some tacos out of this mound of produce. She easily made three tacos, and still had some salad left to take to work the next day. She'd probably try something else on her next visit to El Tepeyac.

The pictures of this Manuel's Special Pork Burrito ($24.99) do not really capture how enormous this thing actually was. Five and a half pounds of burrito on this plate, and it was really intimidating when it came out of the kitchen and was placed before me. Inside the burrito was rice, beans, guacamole, and red tomato based chile verde pork, and then it's topped with jack and cheddar cheese and even more pork chunks. I immediately went to work on this burrito, since I had pretty much starved myself all day to challenge this burrito. I had no chance. The burrito was really good though. The chunks of pork were tender, and really tasty. The inside of the burrito was good as well. Lots of guacamole, beans and pork, with it all spread out nicely, so each bite had a little bit of everything. I always hate when you have a section of a burrito where its all beans, and another where its all cheese. This was a very well balanced burrito. Did I end up eating the whole thing? Keep reading to see if I conquered this Manuel's special burrito.

Not even close. When I saw it with my own eyes, I kind of knew there was no chance I would be walking out of here finishing this. I probably had close to three pounds of it, and had the rest the next day for dinner. It was just as good the next day. I walked into El Tepeyac very hungry, but couldn't do it. Still a good burrito, but next time I'd probably get one of the smaller versions.

Needless to say, I left El Tepeyac stuffed. It was a pretty uncomfortable ride down the 5 Freeway back home, but the food here was worth the mild discomfort. Looking around the dining room, I think I might try their nachos, combination plates, or breakfast items on future visits here. All looked to be real good, and big portions. Even though the 5 pound burrito challenge is kind of a novelty thing, it still tasted great, and I have no reason to believe that the rest of the menu would be anything but great as well. We experienced really good service on this evening. Mary, our waitress, took real good care of us, and made sure we had iced teas to go for our trip back home. For the amount of food that we had, I do not think the prices were too out of control. Eating this burrito will give me the energy I need to continue on with the wedding planning. Well, after a nap at least.

Out of five hills, (because tepeyac translates to this, and this restaurant is in the very hilly area of Boyle Heights), five being best to zero being worst, Manuel's Original El Tepeyac Cafe gets 3.5 hills.

For more information about Manuel's Original El Tepeyac Cafe, go to their website here:

El Tepeyac Café on Urbanspoon